Getting Better at Photography

Not a lot, just a little bit.

Last week, my friend Paulo reached out about some tips on getting better at photography. He broke his issues down into four points and I tackled them one by one. My response ended up being rather lengthy — lengthy enough that I figured I should share it elsewhere. That’s what Medium is for, right?Below are his questions along with my answers.

I’d love to carry my camera with me more often — it’s not that big. But when I carry, I’m always wondering if I’m gonna smash it into something (I have a shoulder strap). But if I carry a case with it, when I want to take a picture I have to unpack it (and my case is not very practical), take the lens cover off, and then finally turn it on. By then, sometimes the scene that I wanted to shoot is gone because people or vehicles or something else moved. How do I make this more frictionless and turn it into a habit?

Your camera sounds perfect for getting better at photography. No need to replace it.

The best way to get better at photography is start by taking your camera everywhere. If you leave your house, your camera leaves with you. The only exception is if you’re planning for a weekend bender — then probably leave it at home. Other than that, always have it slung over your shoulder. It would probably help to get an extra battery to carry in your pocket. I’ve got three batteries. One in my camera, one in my pocket, one in the charger. When it dies, swap them all.

I’ve got a Fujifilm X100s. It runs about $1300. It’s easily the best camera I’ve ever owned. I take care of it as best as I can, but I don’t let taking care of it impact the photography. Let me elaborate on that a bit better.

If I can’t bring the camera to my eye and take the photo as quick as I can, I’m doing it wrong. I carry my camera around my neck or shoulder at all times. If it’s raining, it’s in my rain jacket pocket. I don’t have a case for it, because I find that makes photography a decision instead of an extension of what I’m doing. Along with that, I don’t use the lens cover. I do have a cheap filter over the lens for protection, but protects it as much as a lens cover would without adding a step to actually taking the photo. You can probably get one for about $10.

When you carry it, carry it around your neck or over your shoulder like a messenger bag with it right under your arm. That way it’s as close to as you possible and you don’t have to worry about it bumping into something.

Your camera is a tool. Tools that are used and weathered are always better than a clean, untouched tool.

Most importantly, my photos aren’t that great. Most are pretty uninteresting, as I don’t really know how to properly frame a shot. Besides the usual “shoot a lot of photos”, how do I get better at composing a shot?

As for actually taking the picture, that’s a little more complicated. The secret to great photography is to take a hell of a lot of pictures. That really is it. The problem people mess up on is thinking that it’s a numbers game, but it’s a habit game. It’s about discovering your style as a photographer and finding out the types of photos you want to take.

If you took a single photo every day for 100 days, you’ll be a better photographer at the end of it than if you took ten photos over ten days or 100 photos in one day.

With regards to composition, there are the basics to follow.

The rule of thirds is incredibly important. Lean on it like a crutch until you don’t have to anymore. Then start using it as a guideline. Frame the photo you’d take inside the rule of thirds, then change it a little bit.

Center your subject. That’s super popular right now, looks lovely, and in five years, we’ll all hate those photos. That’s okay. Take them anyway.

The rule of thumb for composition that has helped me the most? Get closer or further away. I use this with every photo I take. Frame a photo like you usually would and then either take one step forward or take two steps back. Fuck getting everything in the frame. Don’t show me, let my imagination fill in the rest.

Study other photographers. Look at their work. Look at their photos and try to figure out why you like what they look like. Then wholesale steal that style. Copy other photographers until you start figuring out how to take photos that are distinctly you. Then keep copying other photographers.

Some of my favorites that you can start with: Megan McIsaac, Lane Collins, Liz Kuball, Lauren Lemon, Liz Devine, John Cranford, Thomas Homolya, Kevin Russ, Cory Staudacher, Keegan Jones, Helena Price, Chrissie White, Ben Blood.

I like taking pictures of people, but I worry that I’m intruding, or that people might get pissed. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because I have a 40mm lens and need to get somewhat close to people. How do I avoid/get over this?

Are the people you’re taking pictures of strangers on the street or friends?

If you’re out with a group of friends, just take their pictures. Ask them to pose for you if you want a specific shot. Friends really don’t mind. They’re your friends, they’ll help you get better.

In fact, go out and take photo walks with your friends. Everyone likes spending a leisurely afternoon photographing a city they love.

If they’re strangers on the street, do one of two things. Either kindly ask their permission or don’t worry about them. 9 times out of 10, you’ll get a yes when you ask. Or don’t ask and just take the photo. No one really cares. They’re too worried about everything else.

The guy who takes the series Humans of New York just posted a video a few weeks ago of how he approaches people to ask them for photos. It’s definitely worth a watch.
Even when I take a bunch of photos, I have a hard time post-processing them. Part of it is that I shoot too many photos and then can’t really tell which of the variations is better, part of it is that I get to see all the crap I take and get frustrated with myself, part of it is that, even when I go ahead with processing a photo, I don’t really know what I’m doing. How do I improve post-procesing?

The most freeing thing I ever did with my post-processing is stop caring about it. I used to spend 15-30 minutes on each image in Photoshop. Fuck that. If you need to do something to your image that Lightroom can’t handle, you took the wrong photo.

That was my really long way of saying, “You should probably check out Lightroom, it’s great.”

The other thing I did was I paid for VSCO Film presets. I’ve got all five, I think? But I only use #4.

I sort photos using Lightroom’s rating system. One Star = like enough to edit. Be quick with your decisions. Don’t look at a photo for long to decide if you like it. Just click through quickly, rating what you like.

Once you rate the series for that day, then find a VSCO Film preset that works well for the photos. Apply it to all of them. Sort through those again, starring any photo you still really like with a 2. Now go through and tweak each individual photo. VSCO Film also comes with a set of tweaking tools. I usually Save Highlights, a little Save Shadows, up the Contrast, Sharpen ++, and then I’m done.

It takes less than 30 minutes to sort and edit an entire series. For example, I took 100 photos the other morning. From downloading the card to finishing all the edits, it took me about 25 minutes start to finish.

You’ll get better at each section of what we talked about slowly. And while you do, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it all is and how the habit forms.

For me, the most important part of improving at photography has been sharing it. Sign up for an Exposure account, or post regularly to Tumblr, or both. Tell people you’re trying to get better at photography. Talk about it. When you talk about it, other people get excited about it. They’ll come on photo walks with you. They’ll pose for portraits. They’ll buy your prints, zines, whatever.

Photography is better shared.