Woody Allen is alleged to have said ‘Eighty percent of success is showing up‘, which is fine if you are talking about a movie set, but what about if you are studying photography by open learning? In the video above, my colleague Simon Barber talks about the way student Stephanie d’Hubert has very successfully researched what she wanted to create and the way it might look before picking up the camera. Fabulous work from a student now well into her degree studies. Stephanie has the skills to capture what she envisages, she is using research to broaden and test her creative ideas.
But supposing you are on your first course, how do you actually improve your photographic skills? We have all seen various articles in magazines full of top tips to improve your photography. They often cite the same list of compositional devices – use of leading lines, rule of thirds etc, that we read over and over again. If only it was that easy. Nevertheless there are things you can and should do.
Photography is a skill; don’t use your visual skills and you can see a slippage in the quality of images that you take. Just as a musician can lose their edge when playing an instrument if they leave it too long, a photographer can loose that ability to shoot ‘that’ moment. However where musicians will often play the same piece of music over and over again until they get the performance they are happy with, photographers rarely retake their images.
Think how many times you revisit the same location or use the same subject with the sole idea of improving an image you have already taken. You may take lots of images of the same thing at the same time, from varying angles and experimenting with different exposures or lenses. But this is not the same thing as revisiting and doing a new shoot with the sole premise on improving on images from a previous shoot.
One of my most often given pieces of advice to students is to review their shoots and to allow for a reshoot (or two, or three or even more). Too often a one off event such as a festival, race or fundraising day is selected to use as the subject. Although these events can provide ample opportunities for photographs they have a huge downside in that it is hard to review, revisit and revise your shots. If you are also trying to combine family activities with doing a shoot, the day becomes a juggling act between getting the shots and knowing that family members are getting bored, restless or into trouble!
So in order to get the very best from your images, choose subjects that can be revisited. Work close to home (or within the home), use areas that are easily accessible and can be visited at different times of day. There have been amazing assignment submissions from the most unlikely of locations – excellent photographs don’t have to be taken in glamorous places – in recent years I have seen car parks, local shopping arcades, an allotment and an abandoned car all used to take creative, imaginative and striking images.
One of the bonuses of being a student is that you can take the opportunity to rework any section of a course, prior to final submission. This is rarely taken advantage of. Too often the assignment or project is completed and ticked off the list as done. However reviewing your work and reshooting can prove a valuable learning process as well as improving the final selection of images that you submit.
So how to review, firstly don’t delete images off your camera (unless there is no other option to free up space on the memory card).
Sometimes images are obvious mistakes – camera pointing at the ground or lens cap on. Other ‘mistakes’ may be worthy of more careful consideration. Maybe the composition is excellent but it is the focus that is not quite right. It could be the lighting is good but the framing is a little off.
These are the images that you can often learn the most from – the almost ran’s. Produce contact sheets of thumbnail images. Then use these sheets to review your shoots. This doesn’t have to be lots of writing. Some arrows and bullet points next to the image will be perfectly adequate. However think about what is wrong with the image – why doesn’t it work? Is the reason technical and caused by a problem with focus, exposure, focal length, or lighting? Or is the issue more artistic and relating to framing, composition or angle of view?
This review process can seem a bit negative, but what it does do is highlight areas that you can work on. Take some time to reflect on your work. It can be that you are making similar mistakes time and time again but not noticing it.
The results of this review process seem to magically filter through the brain and the next time you shoot these mistakes don’t appear. Images that weren’t working before can now happen. (Unfortunately you then find that new mistakes are happening as you further experiment so the review becomes ongoing!)
So, that’s my advice , but I would be interested in knowing what you have found works for you.