Worry less about your gear and focus more on the image you want to create. Good photographs are not taken; they are created.
Yes, the technique is important but it is also the easiest part to learn by applying some elbow grease, researching, and practicing. But growing as a photographer means learning the part of the craft that is the least concrete, and that’s the artistic end. So here are the six top things that will make you a better artist.
In order to see, you have to be able to look at what’s in front of you.
The first limit to set for yourself is your framework, and this is not a technical issue. As Henri Cartier-Bresson puts it, it is a matter of photographing with your heart and your mind. Photography is not about pointing and shooting at everything that moves and hoping you get lucky. You need to decide what your vision is. Photography is about being selective and determining which reality, or which part of your reality you want to highlight with your photo.
Years ago on a photo trip, I found myself in a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar. Dawn had just broken and I had been lucky enough to get to the monastery just before the sun broke the horizon. There I was, in this exotic dream setting, surrounded by these monks just starting their day, the sun in the perfect position – I got so over eager and nervous that I took the worst photos of my life. I was taking pictures like a man possessed, pointing and shooting and pointing and shooting until finally a nun came up to me, pointed her index finger at my eyes and made a gesture of closing them and breathed in through her nose.
So I tried it. And at that moment I discovered the subtle scent of mangos wafting over the patio, the stillness of the warm air around me, the peaceful sound of swishing fabric as the monks went about their day. The only agitated thing on site was me.
Look at every photograph within your reach.
Find the best photographs if possible.
Composers listen to music, writers read everything they can find. So it follows suit that photographers should spend a good amount of their time viewing other photographs. And good photographs.
Try to see them through good web sources. With competent curators. Leading websites if possible. There are a bunch of exceptional ones such as Lensculture.
It’s easy in today’s world to get access to the best photography in the world, and the best photographers. With a little bit of time invested on the internet and an established set of criteria to guide you, you can find a plethora of quality images to critically analyze.
But just like with any other art form, that criteria should be properly directed when it comes to the aesthetics, the form, the composition, the technique. So look for masters who know these criteria well. Investigate their expositions, and try to analyze their photographs not only for technical quality but as pieces of art.
The more you look at and dissect, the more you’ll start critically analyzing your own shots as you’re setting them up.
Limit yourself to a prime lens for a while.
My best advice is that you spend the next three months working with a prime. There’s no better way to learn about composition than to practice getting close when you start out far away and backing up when you start out close. You need to learn how to move within your own frame.
If you are using a zoom my advice is to use tape and fix the zoom in a certain position, that is to say, use a single focal length. I would say that out of all possibilities a good compromise is 35mm (full frame).
I understand that if you have spent a small fortune on a great camera with a 70-200mm lens, it might seem painful to you to leave it at home. But believe me, it will possibly be the best decision of your life as a photographer.
This is not a stump speech singing the praises of primes versus zoom. This is about learning to see things critically before shooting without direction or sense of composition. This will force you to be more careful, plan more.
When you have only one choice of setting with your lens you become more sensitive to how things settle within your frame, where you want to place your characters, exactly what part of the background you want to show, and how you can move and position yourself to maximize the effect you want. And, after using a prime, you begin to feel how this specific lens “sees”. You see in 35mm or you see in 24 mm.