5 Tips To Become A Better Photographer in 2020

Fujifilm X-E1

It’s almost the new year! 2020 is at the doorstep. This year is nearly over. You might be wondering how to improve your photography in 2020. Perhaps you feel that your pictures aren’t “good enough” and you wish you could make pictures like what you see others creating. Maybe you are in a rut and don’t know how to move forward. Or it could be that you always keep your camera in auto because you are intimidated by all of the different settings and you don’t really understand all of the technical stuff. Perhaps you just received your first “real” camera for Christmas and don’t know where to start. Whatever the reason, you want to become a better photographer in 2020. Well, this article is for you!

If you are not moving forward, you are moving backwards. No matter what your skill level is, you should always be striving to improve. You should be pushing yourself to be more technically proficient or to learn a new technique or to be more creative or to have a stronger vision. Throughout your life, and not just in 2020, you should be trying to become a better photographer. Keep working towards improvement. Don’t stand still, because you can’t.

Really, I’m in the same boat as you. I’m trying to become a better photographer in 2020. I’m pushing myself to improve my camera skills. My advice is aimed at myself just as much as you. We’re all in this together. I hope that you find the five tips below helpful in your quest to become a better photographer in 2020!

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UP 4014 & UP 844 Racing West – Richardson Draw, WY – Fujifilm X-T20

Tip #1 – Know Your Gear, Part 1: Read The Manual

This might sound silly and obvious, but it’s important to know your camera and other photography gear inside and out. You need to know what all of the different settings do. You need to know how to make adjustments. You need to know how it all works. Most people thumb through the manual when they first get a new camera or other gear, and never look at it again. It’s a very good idea to take a careful look at it during unboxing, but it’s also a good idea to revisit the manual every so often. Pull the booklet back out after owning the camera for three months, and again at the one-year mark. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find! If you are like me, you’ll learn new things each time that you do this. Knowing your gear is the necessary foundation for improving your photography.

Tip #2 – Know Your Gear, Part 2: Understand How It Works

Knowing how to change the aperture is one thing, but knowing how it will affect the picture is another. Those who have been doing photography for awhile likely have a good grasp on what all of the different settings do to a picture, but those who are inexperienced might have no idea. Even if you have a good grasp, it’s always beneficial to investigate more deeply, understand more precisely, and try new techniques. There are tons of people who don’t understand even the basics, and things like the exposure triangle are completely foreign to them. If you rely on the camera to guess what the right settings should be, you are basically crossing your fingers and wishing on a star that your picture will turn out well. If you intimately understand how your camera works and how different settings affect the image, you can ensure that your pictures turn out just as you want them to.

There are tons of great resources for learning different aspects of camera settings. Nowadays, with the internet, everything is right at your fingertips. Oftentimes the best way to learn is by doing, which means that you take your camera out of auto and play around with it. Spend some time experimenting with different apertures, different shutter speeds, different ISOs, etc.,etc., and compare the results. This is a learning process, so don’t worry that your pictures aren’t good yet. It takes a lot of time, but the time investment is well worth it. Whatever you are trying to learn, read up on it, then go out and do it, not being afraid to fail, but trying again and again until it’s second nature.

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Onaqui Wild Horses – Dugway, UT – Fujifilm X-T30

Tip #3 – Invest In Experiences

Camera companies want you to think that you need the latest and greatest gear to become a better photographer. If only you had more resolution, better auto-focus, a larger sensor, a faster lens, etc., your pictures would look amazing, and they don’t because you didn’t buy it. My advice is to use what you already have to the best of your ability, and spend the money on experiences instead of new gear. Travel! Go someplace amazing. It doesn’t have to be far. Even if you were only going to spend $500, that money could get you somewhere. Take your camera with you and use it. Take lots of pictures! It’s better to keep the gear that you own and really use it, than to buy new gear and not use it as much. Eventually it will make sense to “upgrade” to something new, and you’ll know when that time is, but for now spend your money on experiences and not gear.

Tip #4 – Find The Light

Photography requires light, so it should come as no surprise that great photography requires great light. “Great light” is a little difficult to define, and it varies greatly depending on the subject, but oftentimes you know it when you see it. You can find great light anytime of the day or night if you look hard enough, and most of the time you have to seek it to find it. You can sometimes even create your own great light if it does not naturally exist. The most obvious great light is found near sunrise and sunset, and that’s a great starting point for those searching for it. With practice and experience, you’ll more easily spot great light, recognizing how to best utilize it for stronger pictures. The key is to always actively look for great light, but it takes a lot of clicks of the shutter to be proficient at finding it.

Tip #5 – Be The Man Who Came Back

There was an article in the September 1955 issue of Arizona Highways magazine by photographer Chuck Abbott entitled You Have To Go Back To Get The Good Ones. In the article he addresses the very question of this blog post: how does one become a better photographer? His answer: be the man who came back. Return again and again to the same subject. Try the picture at a different time of day, in a different season, under different light, from a different angle, etc. Keep coming back to it over and over, and don’t stop, even if you are satisfied with the results. Press yourself to make a more interesting picture of something that you’ve photographed before. Be a better storyteller than the last time. Make a stronger composition than your previous attempts. This is the best piece of advice that I can give you: if you want to become a better photographer in 2020, be the person who came back.

Photography Investments

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Cameras are terrible financial investments. In a way they’re like cars: as soon as you own it, the value drops, because it’s now used and not brand-new. And the more it’s used and the older it gets, the more the value drops. That’s not 100% true all of the time–there are exceptions–but it’s pretty true. You don’t buy cars as a financial investment, unless it’s a rare antique car, and you don’t buy camera gear as a financial investment, unless there’s something that makes it collectible. Most of your photography gear, if not all of it, is worth a little less now than when you purchased it.

About a year-and-a-half ago I did something really crazy: I distressed a Fujifilm X-E1 to look old and worn. It was a gutsy thing to do, and I had mixed thoughts as I did it. I mean, who takes sandpaper to their cameras? Once finished, I sold the distressed camera for more than I had paid for it. I turned the camera from an appliance into art, and that increased the value of it, at least a little. That’s an unusual situation. Most of the time, the photography gear that I buy decreases in value, not increases.

Cameras are a lousy investment, but you can make money with them if you want. You can do family portraits or weddings or sell prints. People make money with cameras all of the time. Not necessarily lots of money. In the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the medium salary of a photographer is about $35,000 annually, which is an average wage. You can use your gear as a tool to make money, even if down the road you sell your camera for far less than you paid for it.

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The photography business world is extraordinarily crowded. Everyone’s a photographer nowadays. Not only are there a ton more photographers than there used to be, but the number of great photographs being created has skyrocketed. What used to be considered “good” is now “average” and what used to be “great” is now “good”–yet “amazing” photographs are still amazing. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd, and there’s very little being created that’s unique. Starting a photography business has never been easier, but creating a successful photography business is still just as tough as it has always been, if not more difficult because there are fewer photography consumers (from a business standpoint) than there used to be, yet with stiffer competition.

There is a way in which photography gear is a worthwhile investment, and that’s experiences. Because I own a camera, I want to photograph with it, and because of that I go places, see things, meet people, and otherwise live differently than if I didn’t have a camera. The camera opens up a life of experiences that would be completely foreign to me if I wasn’t a photographer. You cannot put a dollar figure on these experiences because they’re priceless. Their value transcends money. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for any amount of money.

Besides, I love creating photographs. There’s something deep inside of me that yearns to be creative, and photography is my preferred artistic outlet. I feel that photography is just as necessary for me as eating, sleeping and breathing. An investment in photography gear is an investment in experiences if I allow it to be. Even though the camera I spent $1,000 on might only be worth $500 next year, it was still money well spent, just as long as I create photographs with it. If gaining wealth isn’t the goal, investing in photography is a great decision because my life is richer for it. In my opinion, it’s better to live a rich life than to live a life devoted to being rich. My photography gear allows me to live a richer life, not because of the gear itself, but because of what I do with it.

The 5 C’s of Photographic Vision

Fujifilm X-E1

Photographic vision is essential to successful photography. Many people will tell you that you need it, but very few will explain what it is. You can search the web endlessly, but you won’t find a whole lot that lays out photographic vision simply and coherently. It took me a long time to learn it, mostly from experience, and mostly from failures. And, really, I’m still learning it. In this post I will briefly explain this important concept.

“In order to be a successful photographer, you must possess both vision and focus, neither of which have anything to do with your eyes.” –Kevin Russo

“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” –Ansel Adams

My definition of photographic vision is “a vivid and imaginative conception.” There are five essential elements of photographic vision, all beginning with the letter C, and three of those essential elements are found within that definition: Clarity, Creativity and Conception. Capturing and Composing are the fourth and fifth elements. Let’s take a look at each.

1. Clarity

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Passerby – Great Sand Dunes NP, CO – Fujifilm X-Pro2

In order to have photographic vision, you must have vivid clarity. You must see in your mind’s eye what it is that you want to create before opening the shutter, which means that you must pre-visualize the finished photograph. This might be a brief moment before the shutter opens or this might be something that you’ve thought about for days, weeks or even years in advance. It doesn’t necessarily matter how long that you pre-visualized, it just matters that you saw the finished picture prior to capturing it.

Great photographs are very rarely happy accidents. Almost all worthwhile pictures took some thought and planning to create, even if just for a moment before the shutter clicked open. The more clearly you can see in your mind what it is that you want to capture, the more likely you are to accomplish it. Clarity means vividly seeing the end while still at the beginning, which is the first key to capturing great pictures.

2. Creativity

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Ethos – Riverdale, UT – Fujifilm X100F

In addition to having clarity, you must be creative. Some people seem to be naturally creative. If that’s not you, don’t fret! I believe that creativity is something that can be learned and fostered. The more you allow yourself to think outside the box and look at things from different angles, the more creative you’ll become. Creativity takes practice.

You have to relax. You have to keep an open mind. You have to use your imagination. Try to channel your inner child. This all might sound cliché, but the only barrier to creativity is yourself–your rigid self–the self that says words like “no” and “can’t” and “shouldn’t” and other negative things. Think positive and throw all the so-called rules out the window. Take a deep breath; let yourself go.

3. Conception

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Barn By The Tetons – Grand Teton NP, WY – Fujifilm X-E1

Your photograph begins as a concept. You have an idea. You begin to see that idea vividly in your mind’s eye. As the thought forms, you begin to consider other ways to look at it. Your creativeness takes the concept to new places. This is a vivid and imaginative conception.

Speak some message through your picture. Show your unique perspective. You have something important to say, so say it! Photographs are a form of nonverbal communication, and they all say something. The stronger the communication, the stronger the image. Use your strongest communication in your photos. Make your concept as clear as practical so the viewer isn’t left wondering what the point of the picture is.

4. Capturing

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Jacob’s Ladder – Taos, NM – Fujifilm X-Pro2

The next step in photographic vision is to capture the image on film or digital sensor. You’ve come up with a creative concept that you can clearly see in your mind. You’ve made a vivid and imaginative conception, so now is the time to make it a photographic reality. This is when you take what you saw in your head and make it happen photographically.

There is a lot to this, of course. You must consider gear and settings and lighting and composition and everything else. You have to know how to put what’s in your mind into something tangible. If you don’t know how, then perhaps you should learn. There are so many resources available on the internet and at the library–it’s all at your fingertips if you put in a little effort to learn. And oftentimes learning-by-doing is a good approach because, after all, practice makes perfect. The more you do, the better you’ll be. Because this step might be the most difficult, I cannot overemphasize the importance of understanding how your camera works at a deep level, and knowing fundamental photographic concepts. Capturing what’s in your mind is much easier said than done, but it can be done.

5. Composing

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Brush Strokes Over The Great Salt Lake – Antelope Island SP, UT – Fujifilm X-T20

Composing probably reminds you of composition, but that’s not what I mean, as composition can be found in the previous principals. Instead, think of a symphony composer, putting everything together, placing consideration on even the smallest details. In the case of photographic vision, composing means taking account of all the little details, including editing. Especially editing.

Editing might mean post-processing your files if they require manipulation to fulfill your vision, knowing how much manipulation is enough, and knowing when no manipulation is better. Editing also means editing out the lesser exposures, deleting the bad ones and not including the mediocre ones with a body of work. Consider composing to be a synonym for curating. Additionally, it’s knowing when the vision or execution of the vision wasn’t good enough. Composing means knowing when to take it from the top and try again. It means being responsible for the finished image.

Conclusion

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Twisted Tree – Keystone, SD – Fujifilm X-Pro2

It takes a lot of work, mostly mental work but also physical work, to create worthwhile pictures. You are creating pictures, not merely taking them. Your art requires your best craft. Understanding what photographic vision is goes a long ways towards this, but more important than understanding it is practicing it. Grab your camera and head out with a vivid and imaginative concept in your mind so that you will more successfully create great photographs.

Arizona Highways & Vintage Kodachrome

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Last night when I checked the mail, waiting inside the metal box was the September issue of Arizona Highways. For those who may not know, this magazine has a long history of  publishing great photographs, and many renown artists have been found in its pages throughout the decades. The newest issue of Arizona Highways features many pictures from the 1950’s and 1960’s, including the cover photograph by Allen Reed, so I found it especially interesting.

As I was flipping through the pages of the magazine this morning while sipping coffee, I was drawn to the Kodachromes, which can be seen many times in this issue. I was impressed with how well my Vintage Kodachrome film simulation recipe mimics the aesthetics of these pictures. It shouldn’t be too surprising since I consulted (among other things) some old Arizona Highways magazines when I created it, but it is a bit surprising that it’s possible to get this look right out of camera. Studying this issue was good confirmation that I got those settings right, and it made me want to shoot with it more. Perhaps later this week I’ll use Vintage Kodachrome for my Film Simulation Challenge.

If you can, pick up a copy of the latest issue of Arizona Highways so you can view these pictures for yourself. Look carefully at the vintage photographs captured by Ansel Adams, Ray Manley, Chuck Abbot and others. Esther Henderson’s pictures were especially impressive, and this was my introduction to her work. It was great inspiration for me, and perhaps it will be for you, too.