What a year it has been.
I’ve travelled more kilometres over the past 365 days than I have over the last 3,650. Over the past year I’ve taken over 100,000 photos. I’ve spent more money on technology than I have in my last 5 years combined 😂. I won a fancy award. I wore a suit. I made myself uncomfortable. I networked. It was weird.
Photography has been a godsend for me. It helped me get over my last relationship. It got me out and about, experiencing the world and developing a taste for wonder. It’s an amazing hobby. One I’d love to take full time if I could.
In reality, though, I’m still a beginner. I’ve only been at this for a year.
I’ve been a designer for over 8 years, so you might say that I’ve had a head start, but just like everyone else, I had to learn photography from the ground up – we all start from the same beginnings.
Over the past year, I’ve learnt a few lessons. Lessons I reflect on often. Some life lessons, some photography lessons, some social media lessons.
I’d like to share them with you, accompanied with 10 of my favourite shots in no particular order. Hopefully you find them as valuable as I do.
1. The immersion method
This is a language technique I use for learning pretty much anything. You can Google for specific usage of the method but it’s pretty self explanatory. Immerse yourself fully into what you’re learning. Culture, behaviour, everything . I mean really commit to it. I mean late nights, lots of sacrifice, doing things on your own, being uncomfortable, being hungry. Spending every waking minute dedicated to learning – real life be damned.
The faster you learn a skill, the more ingrained it becomes.
When I first started, the first 4 months looked like this:
- Wake up
- Read about photography before work
- Go to work, thinking about photography
- Finish work
- Roam the streets for hours by myself, setting myself goals, assignments and challenges
- Get tired many hours later
- Go home
- Edit photos for hours
- Fall asleep
It wasn’t glamourous. Nothing worth pursuing ever is. But make your life all about the goal and there will be no other result but success.
2. Focus on one thing at a time
Because different styles require different techniques, and you can’t learn any of them if you’re trying to learn all of them.
It’s kinda like shooting too wide. When everything is in focus, nothing is in focus. Zone in on learning a particular form or style, immerse yourself to master it, then move on and use that understanding to help you on the next thing.
For me, I started with street photography. Then I learned about landscapes, then cityscapes, architecture, aerials, portraits.
Skills take time to build. The fastest way to build them is to focus.
3. Don’t worry about finding your ‘style’
It will come.
It will come through a lot of hard work and a lot of shutter clicks. Hell, I still don’t think I’ve found it. But what I do know is that after exploring all these different categories, I go through phases of liking scapes over urban, or scapes over aerials or what have you. For me, categories change all the time. I like shooting everything. I like being a generalist. I think photography would be boring if I just shot the one category all the time. That’s just me, though. YMMV.
But for all the exploration into other categories, there’s always one constant in all of it.
I always come back to colour.
I tried desat once. I hated it. I tried a single colour range once. I hated that too. What I do love, if I had to call that my ‘style’, is using colour – the entire spectrum – to its full advantage. I love colour theory. I love boldness and vibrancy. It’s the complete opposite to how I dress (all black everything everyday) 😂.
4. Rules are made to be tweaked
But the best photos rarely break them.
Luckily, there’s lots of different ‘rules’. Use these as guidelines to a stronger image. For me, I mostly obey two rules, ‘X’ factor and thirds.
For me, every single photo I post has to have an ‘X’ factor. Something interesting that sets it apart from all the others. It could be anything: how you use colour, focus, attention. It could be the story you tell, or the emotion it brings out. Whatever it is, even if it’s a ‘classic’ (see point 6), it has to have an ‘X’. Your mark. Your difference. Something special.
The other rule I obey by is thirds. I know, I know. People say thirds is lame and bla bla bla. But for me, straying too far from this concept reduces the strength of the image, even if it was ‘cool’ that you managed to break the rule. When you stick to spirals, diagonals, lines or thirds, simply put, you have a stronger image.
5. A good photograph is more than just what an image means to you
This is kind of a hard pill to swallow for most people.
Everyone can take a photograph. Sometimes, photographs you take have a level of emotion and sentiment to you.
But does that sentiment mean that photo is good?
No, it doesn’t.
I mean, it might be if it’s effective at conveying a story, or if it’s shot technically well. A well composed photo can still have sentiment, but an image with high sentiment and little of anything else is not a good photograph.
I love the shit out of my dogs 🐶, but if I show you a photograph of them that is out of focus, poorly composed and blurry, that story is gone; regardless of how much I like it.
Be objective with your photographs. I typically never edit anything right after a shoot because I still have emotional ties to them. The memory of the moment still belongs in those frames. Usually I wait at least a day or two before editing so I can see the images without rose-tinted glasses.
Also, get a feedback group. Get them to be brutal to you (but not dicks). Make sure they’re honest, but they’re all striving to make the work better. You want constructive feedback, not praise.
6. The classics are stories in time that always have something different to say
…so don’t be afraid to shoot and post them. Although I’d always advise trying to be unique and finding your own perspectives on things, don’t be put off shooting the classics, too. After all, the classics are classic for a reason. They’re good.
It’s more useful to shoot those classic shots and understand why they’re good and then put your own mark on it, your own version of it, and make it even better.
Don’t be contrarian for the sake of wanting to be cool and different. That’s lame and obvious . As with all learning and insight; take what is useful, discard the rest.
7. Understand how your gear serves you
It’s not all about the gear, but it is. But it isn’t, but it is.
Remember that your gear is just a tool. The tool you carry with you is simply a measure of how many options you have.
I can’t shoot a fast motion shot in almost dark at 1/1000 and ISO 12800 if I don’t have my A7RII with me. I can’t shoot an architecture shot that looks different to everyone else who has come before if I don’t have my Voigtlander 10mm on me.
I use these tools because they allow me more options to be unique and express myself in a different way, but any of my cameras can still yield an optically amazing result.
As always, it’s the photographer that takes the shot. The more you empower the photographer with the right skills and the right gear, the better those two things work together, and the better shots you get.
8. Worry about the right numbers
Social media-related here. If your objective is to get better at photography, then you’ve got to select the right numbers to worry about.
This might sound contrarian, but using ‘likes’ as a measure of how successful your image is, is actually useful – provided you don’t poison yourself.
There’s a fine line between being commercial and being artistic, but when you first start out, your engagement is a great gauge to understanding the success of your image. If your image is performing better than your average, then you know that image is successful. Stop there though, and don’t compare yourself to others.
Now that you know it’s successful, you need to break down exactly why that is. Was it your composition? Was it your edit? Was it your location? Learn the combinations that go together to create a successful image, and if you don’t agree with what I just said, read point 5 again.
9. Understand the game
Every platform has it’s own pros, cons and plays.
Instagram is a game of engagement and reach. EyeEm is not. A successful image on 500px might not be a successful image on Flickr. Understand why that is and decide what you want to do with it.
For Instagram, use all the tactics at your disposal. Hashtags, post timing, geo, engaging in other people’s content, story well, reply back to comments etc. Understand the signals of the platform that incite growth and do that.
It’s far less useful to complain about shitty engagement than it is to find out the causes for great engagement and working towards that. Nothing comes for free.
10. Make friends that inspire you
I saved most important till last.
I think of all the things that I value the most about this journey, it’s got to be the great friends I’ve made along the way. Friends I’ve travelled with, laughed with, been moody at. Friends I can count on, friends that inspire you with the great things they’re doing. Friends that feel they could last a lifetime.
It’s so much better shooting with your squad. Although I occasionally like the solo shoot, there’s nothing better than discovering something new with someone familiar. Those are the experiences and memories I live for.
Keep inspiring me, friends! You’re are all amazing.
And if you’re still reading this, thanks. I hope this was useful to you, and I can’t wait for the next year we’ll have together until I check in again.