Beginning photographers often ask me how best to improve their work. I have a bit of a reputation for doing technical images that require a lot of Photoshop, so I think they expect me to say something about mastering post-processing and how that can take an average photo to the next level. But while post-processing is necessary, it is not the most important thing in my opinion.
Other photographers know that I often spend a lot of time planning out my shoots. I sometimes wait for conditions that might only come once or twice year (e.g. especially in any composition involving a moon alignment). It’s true that I see planning as vital step in my work, and some photos are practically impossible without it, but again, I don’t believe planning is the most important skill either.
The best tip I have, is simply to have a vision. This is more important than mastering any technical skill or being a Photoshop guru. What does it mean to have a vision in photography?
- You have a message you want to communicate
- You take your photos with intent to communicate that message
Your message isn’t something that can be learned. It’s probably something you have to bring in from your interests outside photography. Think about public speaking, while you can learn the mechanics of how to give a speech by joining a Toastmasters club, you still need to have a topic of your own choosing.
When working on your photographic vision, don’t worry about whether your pictures are pretty. I think a lot of us start by taking scenic photos that we want to look nice. After a while though, you realize anybody can take a pretty picture. But what’s the point? Do we really need another sunset picture of Scripps Pier? It’s more important to have a photo that communicates a concept.
You’ll note that I also said to take your photos with intent. While you can make an excellent individual photograph that stands by itself, if you can tie together multiple pictures, you will make your message exponentially stronger.
I originally titled this article “the easiest way to improve your photography” because I think that having a vision will have an enormous impact on your work and doesn’t necessarily require hours of training or skill development. However, I realized that finding a vision can actually be quite hard, especially if one is coming from a landscape bent. Most people don’t know what they want to show, other than they want something that looks beautiful.
That’s ok. Vision is something that takes time to develop. If you want to bootstrap the process here’s a homework item. Pick a topic that you are passionate about and create a photographic essay with 6-12 images over the course of the next year. The topic can be simple and doesn’t have to be complex or abstract. For example, for a landscape or nature photographer I might pick topics like:
- life in the desert
- your neighborhood lake through the seasons
- living in urban spaces
The act of thinking about your photography as an essay will force you to have a message and theme for your work. As a bonus, you will probably gravitate to a consistent visual style for these photos.
What is my vision
In my own work, one message i’m trying to communicate is the idea of opportunities and choices. Growing up, I often thought if I just moved to a new city or place I could experience something fantastic and leave behind a bunch of problems. Of course, there’s always a cost and who knows what the path not taken could have been.
As a result, many of my photos involve a window, doorway, or natural frame where I’m looking through it and there is something beautiful and enticing in the distance. I want the viewer to think, should I go forward and experience this wonderful place? or maybe it’s a mirage and I should just stay safe where I am and watch from a distance.
Here are a few pictures I’ve taken with that vision in mind:
While writing this article, I thought about the quote from Jay Maisel, “If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person”. To grow as a photographer, we need to have something to say, something to communicate beyond here’s a pretty scene. This can’t come from photography, it has to come from our other interests.