Become a Better Photographer


I have been pondering about what it takes to become a real good photographer. I mean everyone can capture a decent photo – particularly with today’s cameras that take care of the basic handling. However, to make your photography stand out requires a bit more than just having a camera. The question is, how can we make that transition happening? Yes, understanding and learning the craft is maybe one springboard, but it can only take you this far. The difference between good photography and photography that stands out is subtle, but at the same time makes a substantial difference. As mentioned, I believe everyone can take a good photograph if they just put a little energy into the process. But the next step, how do we get there?

It’s actually not that difficult, either. Yet, it takes commitment and finding a way to connect with you inner self – and finally make that wisdom be expressed through your photography. I know, it sounds a little phony, but it’s quite how it works. There are no simple tricks, really, but just dedicated steps towards mastering photography at a more profound and more personal level. As with everything else in life, we are talking about making priorities, that is, if you really decide to become an accomplished photographer – and this decision gets ingrained in your backbone, then you can become just that, a photographer who creates captivating and even outstanding photography.

The obstacles, of course, are that it takes time, effort and sometimes even money to make such a commitment. In addition, it follows that you’ll need to downgrade other things in life, often things that you care about, things that you enjoy, or just things that simply is easier and more pleasurable to do. The difference between a photographer who creates outstanding photography and one who merely captures good photos, may be that former is the one that works relentlessly and don’t mind standing in muddy water for hours – figuratively speaking. Nevertheless, we can all make progress, and he are a few steps that can help you on the way:

Look to other photographer. Read photography books, go to exhibitions, watch other photographers’ work and find photography online. Surely, there is going to be a lot you will not like, but the point of this is just to find photos and photographers that inspire you. Bury yourself in what you find inspiring and that which gives you energy, whether it is workshops, photo books, exhibitions or anything else. Whatever it is, see as much photography as you can find in any media or outlet, and immerse yourself in it.

Work on a personal project. Nothing brings your photography so much energy and is pushing yourself more than working on a personal photo project. But keep in mind, complete freedom is not inspiring. Instead, set some limits you will have to stick with. Find yourself a project or even a couple of projects, and work within the limits you have set for yourself. Do not be tempted to expand the boundaries simply because it is easier and more relaxing. For something really good to come out of your photography, it must have a core of authenticity and a nerve that is being expressed in the work. That is something you won’t get through boundless and leisurely respite. A project can be done in a weekend or it can take years to accomplish. The theme is not important – as long as it somehow touches or is relevant to you.

Care for more than the photography itself. Remember, photography is a tool, not an end in itself. A tool must be used for something. Whether your goal is an art expression or to tell a story, that goal must be foremost in your thoughts, not photography as such. Some of the world’s best photographers do not see themselves neither as photographers nor as artists: James Nachtwey is primarily a social reformer, and the same can be said about Nick Ut, W. Eugene Smith, Sebastião Salgado and several other of the world’s foremost documentary photographers. This also applies to many of the world’s greatest art photographers, but in a different way. They often choose to turn to the world and the viewer differently, but the desire to tell, ask questions, provoke thoughts, to make the viewer smile, react and feel alive, remain the same.

Seek cultural experiences. Cultural impulses are important, even more so it’s important not only to seek impulses from the same field you feel familiar with. The Matrix films would never have come into being without the inspiration from cartoons and their idiom, and the same applies to famous and beautiful movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Sin City, just to name a few. Photographers such as David LaChapelle are possible largely inspired by film and music, and others are inspired by literature, sculpture, painting or numerous other artistic expressions and cultural forms. Keep an open mind, take your pick and expose yourself to different concepts, cultures, thoughts and impressions. Somewhere in there, you might just find your brilliant idea, which you would never know exactly how in advance.

Photograph a lot and often. It takes a lot of work to master a discipline such as photography. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect – no less true in photography. What you do a lot, you will excel in, and although 99.9 percent of your shots might end up being trash, in the process you have trained your eyes, brain and finger. Moreover, taking 1000 photos of which 0.1 percent is good, well, then you have gotten at least one good shot. Not bad at all, or?

52 thoughts on “Become a Better Photographer

  1. I’m certainly with you in that last point of photographing a lot and often. It’s only in the volume of photos that I’ve taken over 5 years that I can see how I’ve improved (in general). I still make lousy photos, but more because I’m tired, misjudge the exposure or just…..don’t hold the camera steady enough. For all those bad photos which I’ve had to delete, I’ve found a few gems where I genuinely feel successful in capturing my vision.

    I’ve found it very helpful to follow, or view professional photographer’s work too. I analyse what I like, or dislike, about their images and in doing so, gradually find what I want to capture myself. They really help me to ‘see’.

    It’s still the small details that catch my eye (and that could be something to do with being short-sighted), but still, I love the textures, colours and light more than the actual subject.

    But it’s the really compelling images from people like Steve McCurry that teach me the most. I’ve got his large book The Iconic Photographs on my coffee table and every now and then, when I feel lacking in inspiration, I turn over the pages and feel re-charged to try again.

    1. I’m in Italy at the moment and am off to see a Steve McCurry exhibition here tomorrow. I too love to look at other people’s photos, if only to inspire myself to keep going to try to get that one perfect shot. Good advice as always Otto.

    2. I really love how you describe you photographic process. You have found your way, and know what attracts you in a subject. And, yes, The Iconic Photographs is a great book to seek inspiration. Thank you for sharing your experience,Vicki.

  2. An excellent post, Otto. Even those of us who have been at it a while can always profit from these reminders. I love your line about “Even though 99% of what you take may end up in the trash” — good to know I’m not the only one, but if one takes the camera everywhere and makes some shots in very uninspiring places (such as within a couple of miles of my house), this is what happens. But as you say, it keeps one’s skills (powers of observation) sharp.

  3. The more I shoot, and the more I learn from others, the more confident I become. Right now is a great learning experience for me, because there are several photographers shooting the moose here now. I have become friends with some of them far more experienced than I am, and I feel comfortable asking questions. It’s a great way to learn.

  4. good points all Otto, though I personally post my crap shots (or I’d have nothing to post 🙂 ) when I look back and cringe they remind me how far I’ve come, and how far I’ve got to go!

  5. You’re suggesting circular thinking where you consider much more than the usual approaches–taking a subject and pushing limits. Experiential learning leads to a wider exploration and satisfaction. I agree. It takes a constant awareness of one’s visual environment and seducing all the senses.

  6. Great post for everyone who is interested in photography! I strongly agree with the “Look to Other Photographer”. It gives inspiration as well as serving as lession for what you think you like and not like about pictures you look at.

  7. Otto, I read your post with great interest and couldn’t agree more with what you have said, even in your replies to comments. I had to laugh at your statement that the best photographers only post their best shots 🙂 But here’s the thing – that’s assuming they’ve reached that “best” threshold.

    When I first started photography and posting, I was so pleased with those photos – and, now, as I look back, I cringe, knowing I would never post (and probably not even shoot) them today 🙂 And it’s likely a great many of the photos I’m posting now and consider my “best” work will spark the same level of cringing down the road. So “best” is a momentary thing, as we all strive to up our talents.

    This leads to the question whether we, as developing photographers, should ever remove prior works from our blogs? I suppose a blog is best for tracking our photographic learning journey, while maybe a separate portfolio of our current best (which can be updated) better serves the purpose of showcasing our current level of accomplishment. Hmmm. You’ve given me a lot to ponder that, perhaps, will lead to a project not of shooting but of curating my current images into such a a portfolio 🙂 That will be a learning experience too, especially by setting a limit on the number of photos chosen. It will require really studying the photos for what may make one a “better” choice over another.

    Apologies for getting off the track a bit, but your post has really inspired me. Thanks for that!

    1. Interesting thoughts you bring to the table. I think “best” is always best seen in a relative sense. And hopefully our best will continue to improve with age, and our best photos – or whatever – are still to come. Then, the question arise as you have done here, what do we do with old work that maybe doesn’t stand the test of present times? For me it’s simply a matter of historical development. Even though photos I thought were excellent ten years ago don’t live up to my present standards, I still feel they are a prove for what they represent from that time. And I am proud of being able to show I have developed. I wouldn’t hide them in the closet, so to speak, but let them talk about how I came to do what I do today. As today’s photos will be a clue for tomorrow’s. Hopefully, that is of course, taken I don’t start to stagnate.

      1. Well said, Otto. There is definitely value in historical development, if not for others, then certainly for ourselves. Though delving into past posts of other photographers could very well serve to reinforce the idea that every photographer was a “newbie” at some point. Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

  8. I think that your point about only posting our best effort is an important one. When I am writing a piece, I will work until I come to the point where I know that, at this point in time, it’s as good as it’s going to be. Then,I post, and don’t worry about it. And I never, ever, apologize for what I’ve put up, saying things like, “This couldl have been better, if only I’d done this or that.” Create, share, and move on is a bit of wisdom I picked up from Steve Jarvis, and it’s served me well.

    Of course we progress, and occasionally I have rewritten a piece from several years earlier because of that. When I do, I simply leave a note at the earlier entry that the post has been revised, and provide a link to the new piece. I do keep a copy of the earlier piece for myself, but I want only the best for my readers, and if I can improve things, I do.

    I had to smile at your casual line that it takes time, effort, and sometimes money to become a better photographer. I’ve been aware for some time that my “eye” — my compositional skills — aren’t bad, but often the equipment I have hasn’t been able to do what I wanted it to do. I swallowed hard, and decided to substitute a new camera for this year’s vacation. It arrived today, and the battery is charging. I’m not going to say anything about it on my blog, but I am going to spend as much time as I can getting to know it, and working with it. It will be fun to do a few projects, and see if anyone notices a difference. I’m looking forward to it.

    1. It’s interesting to get a look into your creative process. I think for most of us it similar to what you describe. We try to do our best and put in as much effort as possible until our creation is as good as it gets. Thank you for sharing your experience, Linda. And then; enjoy your new acquisition. I am sure it’s going to be fun. 🙂

  9. ‘Care for more than the photography itself’ was a surprising statement, but after reading it, it makes sense. Terrific read, Otto. I do enjoy these posts that give so much of the ‘why’ of photography.

  10. Thank you Otto for this post–right now, I am in a bit of creative slough, so remembering that this is all a process is an important reminder for me. But I can say doing projects which offer limitations or boundaries–has been so helpful in working through creative problems and with discipline-at least for me-

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