BECOMING A BETTER PHOTOGRAPHER THIS YEAR
Now that 2018 is finally over, it's time to take a few minutes and focus on what really matters: How will you become a better photographer this year?
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Once again, we've got some great tips to get you started. This is our third annual post on the subject, and the previous two (2017 and 2018) are still relevant, so check those out as well for additional ideas.
Anne in our Philly Home Portrait Tee on top of the Cira Center here in Philly. It was very windy that day, but somehow we still managed to get some good shots. Shot on a Canon 5D II with a 24mm f/1.4L lens.
1) SET A PHOTO CHALLENGE FOR YOURSELF
THINK ABOUT A LONG-TERM CHALLENGE YOU CAN SET FOR YOURSELF THAT WILL REQUIRE DEDICATION BUT IS ACHIEVABLE.
The idea here is to “force” yourself to commit to making photographs for a period of time by creating a framework that will keep you motivated and inspired to achieve your goal.
Examples of types of challenges you can set for yourself:
- Make a new person’s portrait every week
- Shoot a new subject that you’ve never photographed before (for example, sports)
- Shoot only at night for a whole month
The key is to pick a challenge you can stick to and achieve, and one that will help you become a better photographer. If you’re already a wedding photographer, don’t set a challenge of shooting X weddings – that won’t add any new dimension to your photography. Instead, set yourself a challenge of photographing fast-moving action or sports – something very different from what you normally do. If you’re a portrait photographer, try taking photos of cars for a month.
Exploring new photographic disciplines by altering your typical subject matter can make a world of difference in changing your perspective, updating your skillset, and showing you the beauty in new subjects.
And by the way, a challenge will be 10x more effective (and more fun) if you find a friend or fellow photographer to do it with you. There’s nothing like comparing notes and techniques to keep you motivated towards a goal. You’ll both learn a bunch, and you’ll have fun doing it. Give it a shot ;)
2) Take Fewer, Better Photographs
It’s as Simple as Quality vs Quantity
For well over a decade now, the prevailing wisdom of the modern photography industry has been something like this:
“Shoot as many photos as you like. In fact, shoot more than you need to, because after all, the cost to take a digital photograph is zero, so why wouldn’t you?”
Well, the answer to that is simple: More is not better.
Just like putting more salt on a meal that’s already salted might ruin it, and putting too much fertilizer in your flowerbed might kill your flowers, taking more photos won’t necessarily make you take better photos.
Now, look… We’re the first ones to admit that we’re always telling people to take more photos as a way of improving your photography. But we don’t just mean taking more photos. We mean take more (thought-out, considered, and meticulous) photos. And take them as a way to improve your photography, so you can get to the point where you are taking fewer photos, and getting better results.
The problem most amateur photographers starting out right now encounter is that the prevailing propaganda of Take More Photos is everywhere.
From the camera manufacturers who want to sell you gear, to the phone manufacturers that want you to upgrade your phone every year, to the storage industry who want you to buy more hard-drives and memory cards, to the software companies that want you to believe that if you just learn how to use their software, all your photographs will be worthy, to even the cloud storage guys who want you to pay a monthly fee forever to store your masses of digital files on their servers, everyone is pushing the same message. Even Instagram – the top social medium for photographers in our time – doesn’t work if you don’t post new photos to it regularly.
The worst thing to happen to photography in the past 150 years is the superficial facility introduced by the digital image. - TogTees
And this all makes sense in a capitalist system, because if you (and everyone else) stopped taking more photos, then every single one of these industries would suffer, and decline.
But at some point in your path, you have to take a step back and ask yourself, what is best for me, and my development as a photographer? Is it actually best for me to be taking ever-increasing amounts of photographs, most of which will be stored somewhere out of sight and untouched, taking up both digital space and mental space?
Is it best for me to blindly pursue the common wisdom that because the incremental digital photograph is free, I should take infinite amounts of them, and one of them, somewhere in the growing mass, will be the one that’s worthwhile?
Or is there a better way?
What if instead, you actively decide to fundamentally change your approach.
What if instead, you choose to consciously take fewer photographs? To take more considered photographs? To take more meticulous photographs? To take better photographs?
The new TLR Wood Camera we launched a couple of months ago. We only made 10 of these. Why? Because they're a ton of work and it takes George - our master craftsman - over 12 hours to make each one. Quality over quantity.
There is a reason why quantity and quality are automatically opposed in our collective conscience. We inherently know that a restaurant that makes 10,000 burgers a day will make a lower quality burger than one that makes 100. We know that there’s a reason millions of Chryslers are made every year, but only a tiny handful of Lamborghinis. We don’t expect that if we buy a 10-pack of t-shirts on sale, each of those shirts will be as high quality as a single one from a high-quality brand.
Quantity and quality are inherently opposed because they are incompatible. You just can’t make 5 different dishes for your dinner guests as well as you can make 1, given the same amount of time.
You don’t try to go on vacation to 5 different countries at once. So why take 1,000 photographs of an event, and expect that somewhere in there will be some that are as good as if you could only make 10 photographs of the same subject.
So next time you’re photographing something, try limiting yourself to just 10 photographs of it. And see what you can come up with when you don’t have infinite “opportunities” to make a good photo. We guarantee you’ll be more focused on making better photos.
And if that doesn’t convince you, then think of it this way: how many photos have you printed out in the past year or two? Was it more than 20 or 30? Probably not.
That means you haven’t made more than 20 photos worth printing in the past year. Let 2019 be the year you change that.
3) SHOOT A DIFFERENT PRIME
Switch to a new focal length that you’re not familiar with.
Last year we told you to only shoot with prime lenses for a while. This year, we’ve arrived at the next logical step. Whatever prime you settled on last year, stop using it and switch to a completely different focal length that you’re not familiar with.
For example, let’s say you settled on a 50mm as your main prime lens (and let’s be honest, you probably did, given the popularity of that focal length…)
This year, it’s time to switch things up. Sell, trade (or just put away) the 50mm, and go out and find a 24mm or a 135mm that fits your camera. Don’t just get the next widest or next longest lens (35m or 85mm in this case), but go really far afield and find something very different to shoot with.
This exercise is incredibly valuable if you stick to it. If you’ve only ever shot on a medium range lens for example, being forced to only use a long telephoto for every shot will teach you volumes about how different each focal length is and how much you have to change your photography practice to get good shots.
And yes, this includes forcing you to shoot outdoors because your telephoto can’t be used indoors, or vice versa.
You’ll not only learn how to use a completely different tool (think shovel vs rake), you’ll learn how to get great shots in completely different scenarios than you’re used to, with different tools that create very different results.
It’s a bit like being forced to cook a dinner with only vegetables for the first time. Once you do it a few times, you realize that there is a deep, mysterious and satisfying art to making incredible tasting vegetarian dishes. All it takes is a little bit of practice to open that world up to you.
So give a new focal length an (exclusive) shot for a month or two – you’ll be glad you did.
Our new Photography [Since 1827] Pennants. The perfect decoration for your office or studio walls. .
4) SHOOT NEW FILM
TAKE IT A STEP FURTHER AND TRY SOME NEW FILMSTOCKS
By now, we all know that film photography has already come back, and in a big way. If you’re convinced just yet, check out #filmisnotdead – 10 million posts is nothing to sneeze at.
So once you’ve dusted off your old 35mm (or bought one for a song on eBay), it’s time to take the next natural step. After you’ve tried your Portra, and your Tri-X and your HP5, and your Colorplus, the next move is to try some of the newer (or rarer) film stocks that have been (re)-emerging
The depth of character that each different film stock holds is hard to put into words – you really have to see it to understand it. So once you’ve given each of these a shot with a few rolls of film, be sure to make some prints on real photo paper to be able to physically see the grain, tonal range, structure, and all the other great characteristics of each film.
WHY SHOULD YOU SHOOT NEW FILM STOCKS? THE SAME REASON YOU DON'T EAT THE SAME FOOD EVERY DAY. VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE.
Here’s a small (non-exhaustive) selection of lesser-known films you should give a try.
Obviously this is just a small sample of all the dozens of interesting films you should try, but it is a good start. While we won’t review them in-depth here - that’s for another post – they are worth trying out in your camera.
We do recommend ordering 5 rolls of each one that you want to try so you can shoot in a variety of lighting situations and see how each one performs in across the gamut. That will give you a better idea for which one you want to keep shooting in the long term.
5) Shoot the Same Subject in Color, and in Black & White
Make great photos of the same subject both ways
Last year, we told you to shoot only black & white for a month or two. This year, we’re extending this exercise.
Take photos of the same subject in both black and white, and color. No, we don’t mean shoot some RAW images on your DSLR and then convert them to Monochrome later.
What we mean is: carefully select a subject you’re interested in. Then spend a day (or week) photographing it in color. Then spend a different day (or week) photographing it in only black and white.
Our Audiovisual Enamel Pins, photographed on Ilford HP5 film.
What you’ll learn here is a couple things:
First of all, you’ll learn to pick an interesting subject – otherwise you’ll get bored fast and not see this through. (And you’ll realize that selecting a good subject takes a good amount of thought).
But more importantly, you’ll realized just how different black and white photography is from color. When you’re shooting color, you’re looking at factors such as composition, color, light temperature, tonal range, saturation of color, etc.
When you’re shooting exclusively in black and white, almost none of those matter. Instead, you’re looking at texture, shapes, contrast, shadows, and framing, among others.
To be able to make great photographs of the same subject in both color and black and white is a sign of a great photographer. - TogTees
It means you’ve mastered both sides of the coin that is photography. It means that next time, whether its head or tails, you’ll make a great photograph.
Give this exercise a shot (or a few shots), and you’ll be amazed at how much you learn.
6) Go Back and Re-Shoot Something From Long Ago
look back at your photos from 3,5 or even 10 years ago. pick a subject that is still around, and go make new photos of that same subject.
This one is easy, fun, and the closest to time travel you’re likely to get.
It will also teach you a ton about how your photography has evolved, how your skills, techniques, and overall approach have evolved.
Try to pick something that will be easily recognizable when you compare the old and new photos. This doesn’t mean it can’t be a person, or something else that changes over time, but it should be something that you can photograph in a new way. Don’t take the same photo of the same fire hydrant from the same angle – that’s not the point of this.
Also, don’t use a subject that has changed dramatically, such as a child. Because they grow fast, you’ll end up focusing more on the changes in them rather than the changes in the way you photograph them, which is the point.
Pick an adult, a cat, a favorite building in your city, or something similar.
Then try to make photographs in your own way, using your current favorite technique and approach. If you’ve been shooting consistently since the last time you photographed the subject, you’ll be able to notice a distinct different in the kind of photos you take of this same thing.
We all evolve as photographers, as artists, as people with every passing day, and with every passing photograph we make. There are few better ways to witness this than by seeing how your approach to photographing something changes over time.
Some film we had laying around that we decided to photograph one day. Film boxes are pretty, aren't they?
7) Surprise Yourself
Bring a camera along somewhere you normally wouldn’t
Have you ever taken your camera along with you to a ballgame? Or to a house party? Or the grocery store?
A great way to become a better photographer is to force yourself to take photos somewhere that you wouldn’t normally be taking photos. When you bring your camera along with you to a grocery store, you’ll quickly realize that most photos you’re inclined to take are going to be pretty boring and not worth taking, much less showing others.
But if you spend some time wandering the aisles, you’ll realize that with some effort, and by changing your perspective and the way you’re approaching this, you’ll be able to find something interesting to photograph, in a way that is interesting, new and different for you.
The same goes for bringing a camera along to anywhere people go for fun, and to relax. Baseball games, house parties, the beach, shopping, the list goes on. Take your camera out with you to everyday life activities, and see if you can make images you’d be proud to show someone.
You don’t need to become a full-fledged documentary photographer of modern society. Just do it a couple times to show yourself what you can do when you’re pushed to make something photographically interesting out of everyday situations.
Also launched in 2018, our new 35mm Enamel Pins.
8) Photograph a Couple
two is so much more than one.
Obviously this next bit isn’t for all you wedding photographers out there, so if you are one, feel free to skip ahead.
But if you’re not, you deserve to know that portraiture of individuals is completely different from photographing two people together.
Let’s say you followed our advice from last year and started taking photos of people in your life. Let’s say your pursuit of portraiture has come quite a ways, and you’re proud of some of your more recent images.
Now you’re ready for the next step. It’s actually more of a giant leap, but it’s a worthwhile one.
Whereas working with a single subject is sort of like having a quite conversation with someone, photographing 2 people together is more like giving a presentation to an entire room full of people. In photography, there really is a lot more to shooting two people together compared to shooting just one.
Our TogTees x JCH Hoodie, launched late in the year, was an unexpected hit with orders coming in from around the world. A collab design is a lot like shooting a couple - it involves a lot of coordination for a good result.
The main reason is that with two people, you not only have to think about their own individual interactions with the camera, you also have to think (even more) about their interactions with each other. And while some couples are extremely photogenic and naturally pose themselves in a way that makes your work easy, the vast majority do not. In fact, there’s something particularly un-photogenic about the average first-time couple getting their photos taken (think engagement shoot, for example).
And this is for good reason. The vast majority of us are not actors, and are not familiar with how we should behave with our partners in front of the camera. It doesn’t feel natural to be interacting with someone while someone else is taking photos of it.
And this is where a good photographer comes in. The best wedding, engagement, couples, etc photographers are masters at getting both people to relax, have fun, enjoy themselves, and be authentic, while also capturing the best side of them together and individually.
A large part of this is in giving appropriate direction (posing, angles, etc) while not sounding like a drill sergeant, and keeping the positive vibe of the shoot going to keep everyone’s energy up, while still getting great shots of everything.
Needless to say, this kind of skill doesn’t just come overnight, so the best way to learn how to photograph couples is to make sure you get a lot of practice.
So if you’ve reached the point where you’re relatively happy with your portraits of individuals and you want to try moving to the next step, find 4-5 couples to shoot with over the next few months. You won’t be very good at first, but over time you’ll develop a natural instinct for how to keep a shoot fun and lighthearted, while also getting the best photos of your subjects.
There’s something particularly rewarding about giving a couple one of their most treasured photographs, something that they will keep and love for years to come. It’s worth giving it a shot to reach the point where you’re able to do this for anyone that comes to you.
9) Shoot Multiple Formats in One Shoot
Film, digital, instant – it’s all good
In the same way that most martial arts masters have mastered more than one art (jiu-jitsu, kung-fu, taw-kwon-do, judo, etc), many master photographers have mastered more than one photography medium.
Obviously most of the great photographers of the 20th century are known for working with a particular type of camera. But we no longer live in an era where film is the only option.
The Kodak Duaflex II was an interesting little camera. It's what is known as a pseudo-TLR and shot 620 roll film. Learn more about it here.
Right now, there are currently 4 different major types of photographic formats you can shoot with, and we recommend you use more than one, at the same time.
Mobile/cell phone, film, digital and instant are both vastly different and at the same time, contain multitudes of similarities in their technical operation. But when you carry 2, 3 or even 4 of these at the same time, you really learn to recognize the individual strengths of each, and when to use them.
We’re not saying you should walk around with 4 cameras all the time. What we’re saying is, if you’re shooting a wedding or an event or anything really, and you have the time and the ability to bring along more than one type of camera – you should.
We recently shot a wedding in Brooklyn, and brought along a digital Canon 5D II, a film Canon AE-1, and an instant film Polaroid OneStep 2. Some scenes were best suited for the DSLR, some for the film, and some for the instant film.
But it wasn’t really about getting the best “technical” result in each scenario. Rather, it was about what the chosen format said about the situation, and the way the subjects reacted to it, and the message of the final resulting photograph in each situation.
For example, as you might imagine, the Polaroid was great at the reception party after the wedding, as it captured the jubilant atmosphere and in-the-moment excitement of those being photographed.
While we could have used the Polaroid to photograph the bride before the ceremony, it really felt like something that should be immortalized on film. Both because of the classic look and feel of a full bridal gown, but also because of the particular texture and tone of the natural light we were able to shoot with at this point in the day.
In 2018 we also launched our first ever embroidered hoodies. Each one is made to order and individually embroidered here in Philadelphia. This one is the 35mm Hoodie.
And of course, the shots of the happy bridge and groom walking down the aisle leaving the church as a married couple for the first time were caught with the DSLR, because we needed to make sure to get a clean shot of this amongst the motion and commotion of the moment.
But even if you’re not photographing a wedding, you should try to shoot multiple formats of the same subject at the same time no matter what. You’ll learn a ton, have a lot of fun, and the wide variety of results will definitely surprise you.
These are some of our personal tips and ideas to keep you motivated and improving your photography on a daily basis. Above all, keep it fun, keep yourself challenged, keep your mind and creativity stimulated, and you'll enjoy doing this for a very long time.
And of course, you should get yourself some cool gear to keep you inspired.
We hope you enjoyed this list of resolutions. But more importantly, we hope you found them useful and that you commit to at least a few of them.
What do you think - was this article helpful? Which of these are you going to give a shot? Let us know in the comments section below.