I often get messages from people who want to know what they can do to be a better photographer. There are a hundred different answers to this question. Practice more. Learn about the exposure triangle. Stop using the pop-up flash on your camera. Buy a tripod. And on and on.
In my own journey, though, there have been two pieces of advice that have been extremely helpful to me, and which can be useful to absolutely any photographer at any stage.
- Spend a lot time looking at the work of other photographers.
- Look at your photographs with a critical eye.
For a new photographer, those bits of advice can sound a bit impossible. What photographers should I look at? What am I looking for? Shouldn’t I avoid looking at other photographers, so my work is unique? How can I critique my own image? I remember being annoyed with anyone who offered advice along these lines, because I simply couldn’t figure out how to follow it, and it seems like good advice should point you in the direction of something concrete that you can do. I realized recently, though, that I’ve been following both pieces of advice, totally without realizing it, for months now, and it has definitely improved my photography.
One of the biggest mistakes that a photographer can make it to get stuck in the same place, not improving. If you never look at photographs that are better than yours, and if you never try to determine how to make your photographs more like the ones you like, you’ll likely never improve. So, what’s the secret to continuously moving forward? Follow those two bits of advice above. I’ve stumbled across one way of doing that, and I think maybe it will work for you too.
First, make a Flickr account, if you don’t have one already. You could probably use 500px or another photo-sharing site to do this, but I’m familiar with Flickr so that’s what I’ll describe. Go ahead and upload your favorite couple of pictures from the last month or so if you’d like, or maybe your favorite 20-30 from the last year. Then, start looking for groups to join. I’ve joined a number of portrait groups, as well as groups for self-taught photographers, people looking for critique, and pictures taken in zoos, but you could join groups for any type of photography you like.
Your next step is to look through the pictures in a particular group’s photostream. If you like a picture, right click and open that photographer’s photostream (not just the individual picture) in a new tab. Look through the photostream. Do you like most of what this person has posted? Great! Click “Follow.” Do you only like that one picture? Fine! Click “Favorite.”
Go back to the group, and continue to do this until you get bored. Then, maybe try another group. Next week, or tomorrow, whenever you feel like it, do the same thing again. After a short time, if you hover over “Following” and click on “Photos from,” you’ll find pages and pages of photographs by photographers you enjoy. New pictures will appear over time as the people you are following add them to the site. Make sure to click “Favorite” on any that you really love. If you look at your favorites, you’ll have a grouping of your absolute favorite pictures on Flickr. Over time, add to both lists, and if you discover that you don’t like a photographer or a photograph as much as you initially thought, remove them.
Now, not only are you looking at the work of good photographers on a regular basis and gaining inspiration and a desire to improve (because probably at least a few of these folks are making better pictures than you are), but you now have a way to tell what kind of photographs you enjoy looking at. I’ve learned that I like landscapes, portraits that tell a story or show emotion, interesting shots of animals, and pictures that have a matte or desaturated editing style.
Then, I take that information and look at my own pictures. Are they similar to what I enjoy looking at? Are they different? In my case, most of my pictures are either high-contrast black-and-white, or bright, vibrant color. That’s not really the same editing style that I like looking at. This was a very interesting discovery for me, and one that I’m still pondering. I’ve also discovered that I love pictures that tell a story or provoking an emotion in the viewer. Many of my pictures don’t do that, and it’s something that I’m hoping to change as I move forward.
In addition to finding out what you like and what your personal style is, you can use this library of pictures to learn specific techniques. Maybe you notice that a lot of the pictures seem to use off-camera flash, or that they all have shallow depth-of-field. Now you can do some google searching and learn more about how to do those things yourself. If you’re not sure how to describe what it is you like about a picture, send the person a message and ask questions, or post a link to the image in a photo forum and ask there.
I generally glance through my “Following” photostream once or twice a week, and I add new photographers to it once a month or so. I upload one or two of my best pictures every few days or weeks, when I happen to have made an image that I’m especially proud of. That way, I can easily see my progress! Over time, you will learn what you like in a photograph, what kind of photographs you usually make, what kind you want to try making in the future, and what specific skills you need to improve. And the best part is that it’s actually really fun!
Have you tried this, or something similar? Do you have your own process for finding the work of other photographers? Feel free to share! You can also take a look at my photostream, or at my favorites (be warned, though some of those images contain nudity and are NSFW.)