10 tips to help you improve your photography
By Master Sgt. Michel Sauret
Having made the rank of master sergeant in the U.S. Army, I wish I could say I’ve also become a master in the art of photography. However, I am far from that title. When I look at the work published by National Geographic, Getty, AP or Reuters, I’ve barely reached the rank of specialist in comparison.
But even in my own journey, I love mentoring others. My simple hope with this piece is to share tips and ideas that may help my fellow public affairs professionals grow in this craft.
Before we go any further, I need to emphasize something: It’s the small stuff that become big, and it can make all the difference. I’m not going to pretend that this list will blow anyone’s mind, but my hope is that it will help you refine your process. Much like rifle marksmanship, photography requires work. There are no shortcuts, no secrets to improve. It is all about putting in the effort, and the time to improve.
1. Embrace the suck
Before I tell you what you should do with your hands, your eyes or your camera, I want to help you understand something: You may and probably will suck especially in the beginning.
I’m with you in that pain. It will be incredibly frustrating to have that beautiful image unfold right in front of your eyes only to realize you missed the moment after taking your picture. For whatever reason, the shot didn’t come out the way it was meant to be. Either you fired too late, your settings were off, or you abandoned the image too soon.
There will be growing pains but learn from them. You will improve with time, and trust me one day you will take one great picture. It will give you joy, hope and satisfaction. It will motivate you to continue working on your skill sets, and eventually your images will get better and better.
Like anything else in life, the journey to becoming a great photographer is not easy. Learn and grow from your mistakes.
2. Double barrel shooting
If possible, try using two cameras while covering events. When I cover Army assignments in the field or in fast-paced environments, I shoot with two cameras. I like to strap a wide angle lens on one camera body (usually a 24mm prime, but sometimes a 24–70mm, or even a 16–28mm), and a telephoto on the other (70–200mm, sometimes with a 2x converter).
Too often many photographers go out with a lens that can “do it all” (such as a 24–105mm) only to come back from covering an event with hundreds of images that all look the same.
I urge my fellow senior public affairs NCOs and Officers reading this to try, and send their Soldiers out with two cameras during their next photo assignment. I would also urge Soldiers to try and take two cameras out during a shoot if your unit has the equipment on hand. Having two bodies with two very different lenses will help you see images that you never considered before.
3. Shoot stories, not pictures
Stories carry a narrative. They carry depth. When on assignment, think of the greater narrative unfolding around you. Don’t cover just the action, but the before and after as well. The quieter moments can hold a lot of emotion.
Sometimes even a single photo can make a photo story compelling. However, I caution you to not just shoot and publish 15 images that all convey the same part of the story. Think of every photo assignment like a writing assignment. If each image were a paragraph in that story, would they all tell the same thing?
Get in close and capture that intimate, difficult or powerful detail. Then back away and give us a sense of place and scene. It’s entirely too easy to shoot images cropping people at the belly button or chest. Get closer. Give me eyes and teeth. Document both action and reaction. Photograph images that reveal character and people’s personalities, not just what they do as their job.
4. Feed your camera RAW meat
Stop shooting in JPEG format. No matter what camera model you are using, the camera (most likely) can shoot in a RAW format. Always shoot in RAW.
RAW files allow you more control when color correcting, adjusting exposure or even salvaging images that were blown out or under exposed.
Whenever you edit from a RAW file, you will produce a much “richer” image in return.
Yes, RAW files take up more space. A ton more space. Invest in memory cards and hard drives. You should go out with a minimum of two 32GB memory cards on every assignment. That doesn’t mean you have to fill both of the cards up, but have that memory space available just in case.
5. Framing is caring
We have all heard of the rule of thirds in framing, but more importantly, I follow a three-step rule to framing my shots: Fill the frame, Control the background, and Capture the moment.
Fill the frame: When I shoot images, I typically frame the shots about 15 to 20 percent wider than they need to be. When I edit, I crop the image down to include only what’s essential. Play with the cropping tool a lot! Sometimes playing with a single image when cropping can open up options you never considered. Cropping down an image can have a huge impact on your imagery.
Control the background: Sometimes moving a foot to the left or right, or crouching down a little, can significantly improve the shot. Be intentional. Think about each frame. Look at what’s in front of you, and what’s behind the subject. Take control of the shoot!
Capture the moment: Now that you’re in place, that’s when you want to burst through that moment. I’ve seen so many photographers (myself included) abandon a shot too early. They’ll shoot two or three frames and then move on to something else. Sometimes that spot you picked could have been perfect if only you had shot four or five more frames! Wait for that perfect moment to come, and burst through it.
6. Anticipate and be patient
For many years, I was impatient, and I would jump around nonstop trying to chase everything in sight because I was afraid I might miss something.
There are times when you can anticipate the action before it fully unfolds. Make a decision. Pick the best spot and wait.
When the moment is right, shoot that image. Sometimes you will have to move because there’s a better spot somewhere else, but once you make your decision, stay in place. Now it may feel like you’re missing everything else around you. Sometimes that may be true. You might just miss an even better shot elsewhere, but you have to learn to make decisions on what’s important to document and what’s not important.
If you chase every flying object, you will not grow in your decision making. Yes, there will be times when you have to chase and run after a shot, but there will times when the best thing you can do is pick one spot, sit and anticipate.
7. Earn their trust
Nobody likes a public affairs Soldier who shows up dead-smack in the middle of a training event, takes a bunch of pictures, asks questions, disrupts everyone, and then disappears. You need to show up early. You need to be there when Soldiers are planning and preparing for missions or training events.
This is good for several reasons: You will get better information. You may capture images you didn’t consider. You will earn the trust of those Soldiers you are covering, and that trust will result in better, deeper stories.
8. Submit for awards
Awards are nice, but notice I didn’t say, “Win awards.” I said, “Submit.” You don’t get better by winning awards. But you do get better by submitting. Why? It’s not just because it drives your competitive spirit or fuels your desires or passions. It’s more important than that.
Submitting your work in competitions, such as the Keith L. Ware awards, will force you to look back at your work. You will have to revisit 12 months worth of photos and assess your strengths and weaknesses.
Submitting for awards will also help you realize where you need to improve. Since many award competitions have several categories, this will help you think of ideas or themes that you might not have considered before.
I urge you to look at past years’ winners. Study them. Learn from their talent. But most importantly, if the judging is “open” or has a live stream, watch it, listen carefully to the judges’ comments and take notes!
9. Accept criticism
Not all criticism is created equal. Some is more helpful than others. However, whatever you do, don’t try to defend your work against the criticism of others. Accept it. Take it all in. Be humble.
Make the effort to learn from their critiques. Take time to truly digest what they’re saying. Try out some of their recommendations. If those ideas work, put them in your toolbox. If they don’t work, keep exploring and keep seeking feedback. Join online groups, but stay away from toxic “communities.” Seek out communities that really want to invest in improving others.
10. Find a mentor
This is probably the most important thing you can do. Mentorship is important in every area of life, not just photography. Seek out an individual in your community or organization who you respect and admire. Ask them to take time to review your portfolio, and help you grow.
Feel free to reach out to me. I’m always happy to give you an honest review of your work, photo website or portfolio.
Then, I hope to hear back from you in 12 months, when, hopefully, your work (and my work) will suck a little less.
Master Sgt. Michel Sauret is among one of the most respected and published photojournalists in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is currently serving as a public affairs professional for the 200th Military Police Command, responsible for covering the training, deployment and missions of approximately 14,000 Military Police Soldiers across 36 states and deployed abroad. Sauret is a 2016 “graduate” of the Eddie Adams Workshop, and an independent photography business owner of One Way Street Production since 2010. In 2009, he was named the Army Journalist of the Year Award for his stories and coverage while deployed to Iraq (2008–2009). His stories and photography have won several awards, serving to promote the military, and the Army life to nationwide and international audiences. His work has been published both in print and online by the National Geographic, USA Today, Military Times, Army Times, Stars and Stripes, along with multiple independent military websites, civilian newspapers and dozens of DoD publications. Sauret was born in Rome, Italy, and originally moved to Pittsburgh with his parents and siblings at the age of 10, knowing only a handful of words in English.
He has published three books of fiction, to include “Amidst Traffic” which won the International Book Awards, and the Indie Excellence Book Awards for Short Stories in 2013. His latest novel, “Jump” was released in May 2016. Sauret reached the grade of E-8 in less than 13 years of service, starting basic combat training as a PV2. He joined the U.S. Army Reserve in September 2002 as a track vehicle mechanic (63Y), but transferred into the public affairs field in 2005, and graduated from the Defense Information School as a 46Q in March 2006. Sauret is married to his wife, Heather, of nine years. Together they have three children: Phoenix, 5; and Asher, 3; and Anakai, 3 months. Follow him on Twitter here