Real Reasons Why You Are Not Improving In Photography

Progression in photography is not always linear. It is a steady growth that requires us to take baby steps and improve gradually over a long period of time. I have observed some photographer friends being stuck in a place and not sure what to do to get out and move forward. Some of them ran out of ideas and inspiration to shoot, or worse, the desire to pick up the camera and use it. Some have burned out, or got tired of the hobby and decided photography is not really what they wanted to do. If you want to continue to play this game called photography and you want to move on to the next level, here are some tips that I can share on why you are not improving in your photography game. 

We live in the era of digital media dominance, we are blasted with buffet of images served right in front of our eyes. Whether you browse the internet forum discussions on photography, reading camera reviews on websites, or scrolling through the endless feed on Instagram and Facebook, there are too many images that we see day in and out. It is great to explore photography work published online out there, be inspired and learn what good photography is. Here is a more important question we have to ask ourselves - what is the ratio of time between consuming images and making images? Do you spend as much time shooting as viewing images? Is it 50/50? I think in reality, generalising most modern camera users these days, the number is closer to 90/10 - 90% consuming and 10% producing. That is a generous estimate. 

My point is, knowing good photography, seeing what others are doing is not sufficient, you have to do the work, you have to clock in the hours. I always use pornography as an analogy. Just because you have watched countless hours of porn does not make you any better in bed, if you do not have adequate real life experience. Similarly in driving a car, you can read the driving manual 100 times over and watch videos on YouTube on how to drive a car but if you have not had enough practical experience actually driving a real car, you won't improve any further. I am not saying stop consuming images, or viewing so many images is a bad habit, far from it. I am merely suggesting tipping the ratio a little heavier to the producing side. Spend more time shooting, and you will have no choice but to get better. 

Photography is not too different from sports. Any competitive sports, say tennis requires the athletes to condition themselves regularly and sharpen their skills in the game as frequently as possible. Champions such as Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer did not just happen suddenly, they did not just decide to pick up the racket one day, play tennis for a few months and win a Grand Slam. They picked up the racket and played the game even before they hit puberty, and won their first huge title 10 years or more later. You have got to put in the work, the hours, you need to sweat, eat and breathe photography to go far in the game. 

If you are a professional photography then this article is probably not for you. For hobbyists and enthusiasts, here is another important question - how many hours of shooting do you do in a week? Are you a weekend warrior? Say, a shooting session with your buddies on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps 2-3 hours a week? How is that sufficient to grow your photography skills? Growth can only happen after a long period of time, through repetition of doing similar task, over and over again. You start by making sure you are able to get certain things right with the photograph. Then you keep practising until you don't get it wrong ever again. 

How good is your muscle memory with the camera? If you are blindfolded, are you able to operate the camera? I am not asking you to compose or frame an image, but can you turn on the camera, adjust the shutter speed, ISO or any other important settings without looking at the camera? You need to have quick reflexes, the camera control should be second nature and you can change the settings on the fly to accomplish your photography objectives when you shoot. Your mind should not be worrying about camera settings - you should focus your energy and thought process on the story-telling of your photography. There are a lot of other aspects that make great photographs - lighting, composition and moment to name a few. Train yourself to be faster and more efficient in operating the camera. Then you can focus on your artistic growth in photography. 

One critical mistake I have observed many people doing (even myself, I must admit) is not curating your own work. Curating process is not simplistic, but it starts by not showing too many photographs, and only displaying your best work. Great photographers may shoot great images, but more importantly, they know how to hide bad ones. You don't see their bad ones because of their curation. Learning how to curate our own work, being brutally strict on showing only the best of the best will push ourselves further and help us be a better critique on photography. 

One good way to learn about curation is to go to a photography exhibition. Visit an Art Gallery (may not necessarily be just photography, any art gallery is fine), and spend time observing and absorbing the art on display - the starting image, the ending image, the images in between, how the images flow from one to another, the consistency and how everything came together nicely to form a large body of work. I am not an expert in curation, it is a work in progress but to have a successful exhibition, the curation process can make or break it completely. 

Try to limit your series of images. Set a number - say 10 or 15 images. You may have hundreds of images to begin with, but slowly cut out the bad ones (you know you have bad photos, everyone does, even the greatest of us) and narrow them down to a few dozens. From the smaller pile, ask yourself which are the best ones. If you have a hard time deciding for yourself, as you are emotionally attached to your own images (they are your babies after all), then it may help if you get an extra pair of eyes to help your curation process. Bring a friend or someone whom you respect in the photography universe you belong to. 

For many newcomers to photography, the hunger for knowledge is insatiable. You want to learn everything and anything you can get your hands on. The camera basics, the composition, lighting, post-processing, secret techniques, etc. You attend workshops after workshops, you buy many photography books and you watch endless tutorials online. Can you really absorb everything all at once?

The learning cup has a limit, once you pour too much knowledge into the cup too quickly, it is filled to the brim and any additional knowledge you try to pour in will be overflowed and you won't be able to contain or keep those new knowledge. I am not saying you should stop learning or limit your learning, in fact quite the opposite. Instead of learning everything that you can find, why not start to be more focused in what you are picking up, and slowly shape your learning to the direction of the photographer you want to be?

Say you want to be a street photographer, then pick up skills that are related to journalism or street shooting, attend relevant workshops and go on actual photowalks with other street photographers, instead of spending an afternoon learning how to style a plate of hipster food or attend a workshop on getting better at OOTD posing and fashion tips. Similarly, if you aim to be a successful wedding photographer, what are you doing spending so many ungodly hours shooting the Milky Way? Do not get me wrong, you are free to do anything you want to with your camera and spare time, photography is open for everyone to enjoy. However, if you truly are serious about your game, you will have a better focus and more directed approach in learning. 

We only have limited time in a week to spend on photography, to work on our own personal goals. Minus the hours spent on work (including professional photographers who to work on shoots), sleep, and other necessary activities like self-care and socialising, we are left with limited time for photography. Time is not infinite. Spend it wisely!

That's all my tips on how to overcome the plateau and continue to grow in your photography journey. Everyone is different and not all these tips may apply to you, but if you do have some useful advice I would love to hear from you, do share with everyone!

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1 comment:

  1. All these points are full of common sense. And I write my thoughts based on my own experience: a passion like photography, painting or even mathematics must really burn you from inside. I have big doubts you can be, for example, a very good doctor and also a very good photographer in the same time. You can, of course, but you must be at a Leonardo da Vinci level to perform in this way. So the passion must come from the interior and never ends...