10 ways to improve your photography without buying gear

This post was inspired by a post on the subject by Scott Bourne of Photofocus.com, after the pair of e-books by David duChemin.

Here's my take on the subject.

Take a second look at your gear, it's probably more capable than you think. Lenses are pretty straightforward (though most photographers aren’t as aware of the optimal aperture for their lenses as they should be), and too few photographers know how to really take control of their speedlights, which are extraordinarily capable examples of technology and engineering buried in pages of manualspeak. Try something new with your flash unit after getting it off the camera with a cable or wireless trigger. See what dialing up and down the output does to your photos.

Read the manual that came with your camera. Your camera is also more capable than you think. Shoot in manual mode if the only thing you’ve ever done is to use automatic exposure. I have to confess that I’m nowhere as confident with automation in exposure as I should be, having spent most of my 32-year career shooting with cameras that had no auto modes at all. So that’s a weak spot I have that demands some practice.

Look at what you're shooting. Look at the work you admire. Think about how to close the gaps. In most cases, it's a matter of perspective, attitude and approach and in trying to do it, you’ll probably release some unexpected potential in your work. Dissecting great photography teaches you more about how a photographer thinks than it does about what he bought to equip his camera bag and studio.

Steal from the best. Don't worry, you won't succeed. But if you investigate a photographer's work thoroughly and try to apply their principles to your photography, you'll create something that isn't quite what you were doing before and is quite what they are doing. If you do succeed at completely cloning another creative person’s work, well, you aren’t putting enough of yourself into it, are you?

Never make a final edit right after you transfer your images and review them for the first time. In the good old days of film, we had no choice. There were just too many steps between shooting, processing and printing for impulsive decisions. Sleep on your images. If you can't, walk away, get some sun, lick an ice cream cone.
I always find something new when I take a second look after putting some distance between the first and second times I look at a group of images.

Photography isn't as hard as it used to be, but it isn't easy. Don't underestimate the work you need to do to be an above-average photographer in 2009. I started out with a mad passion for the work of Annie Liebovitz, but no matter how hard I tried, I could never quite make a photo that looked like hers and that was back when she shot with minimal equipment. I did learn a lot about location portrait photography, environmental portraiture and the transformative power of the photographer-subject engagement that is still part of the way I work today.

Take another look around before wrapping up the shoot. Even if you’ve fulfilled the client’s brief and your initial hopes for the photography, have you fully exploited the opportunities of the location and the talent? Is there something you could be shooting with the remainder of the time that hasn’t been asked for, wasn’t planned and might well prove to be delightful?

Whatever you thought you would be doing when you began taking photographs probably isn’t where you’re going to end up. Be ready to change your ambitions when your aptitude and passion reveals itself.

Love the work. Don’t like it, don’t feel good about it, don’t be proud of it. Love it like a family member. That means you have to be prepared to “speak harshly” to it when it’s necessary and to be willing to accept it when it doesn’t turn out the way you expected. Then, of course, you’ll need to spend more time with it than you have in the past.

Nobody wants you to become a photographer. Your parents probably still want you to be a doctor or lawyer, maybe even an accountant, so if you want to be a photographer, then you are already involved in a self-directed exercise and you’ll need to both understand and embrace that. The most illuminating comment I’ve ever heard on the subject is to be found in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, when Rorschach, the poster boy for defiant commitment, says, “We do not do this thing because we are allowed. We do it because we are compelled.”
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