How to improve your photography skills by studying hard.

Today I chatted to Shona, my sister in law, about photography. She has been struggling with lack of inspiration and motivation, lack of good equipment (three broken lenses and no autofocus!), and is recovering from a bad experience photographing a wedding.

She asked me what are the next steps to take in improving her photography. I’m a decent photographer, but not amazing. I’m certainly not an expert at photography, except at some niche subjects like taking photos of jugglers on stage.

But there’s one thing I do know, and that is how much I’ve improved at photography in the last few years. Not only do I know how much I’ve improved, but also how I’ve improved.

And I’ll share a bit about the how here.

First, I’ve got one major advantage over most people who take up a new hobby, or learn a new skill: I have almost unlimited free time! Such is my life as a professional juggler. This allows me to take as many photos as I like, and try experiments, and generally practice.

Second, I’ve learned as much technical stuff about photography as I need to. For now. If you don’t know how to use your camera, read the fucking manual.

Third.

Yeah, this is where it starts getting interesting. If you have the time, and know how to use your equipment, why can’t you take amazing photos like the professionals? It’s what makes people think that taking better photographs is about having a good camera, or a better lens, or having the right software.

“Nice photo! What kind of camera do you use?”

I get this all the time.

So how do you get that ultimate compliment? Study.

Don’t read about photography. Don’t listen to podcasts about photography. Don’t pay to go to expensive workshops. Well, you can do all those things, but I’ve learned all the most important elements of becoming a decent photographer by studying photographs. And, in another way, photographers.

I’ll explain my method using the example of Paul F. Gero. I heard an interview with him on the Candid Frame podcast (the only photography podcast I listen to), and his photo-per-day project sounded interesting. It was called One Camera One Lens One Photo Per Day.

I checked out the blog, and was immediately captivated by the photos of his kids. Almost every photo he took and shared was better than any photo I had ever taken! And he was sharing a photo he took every day, no matter what the weather or the subjects he had at hand.

What was his secret? It wasn’t the equipment, as I had a similar camera, and a similar lens, and the equipment wasn’t changing.

But I had to find out! There was something that he was doing, maybe many things, that I didn’t know about. If it was something he could share, it would be in a book or on a website or in a blog post.

So I just subscribed to his blog, and every day I saw a new photo come in, and they were all good, usually great, and often amazing.

What did his photographs have in common with each other? What did they not have in common with mine?

After a few months, something clicked! I already knew that he used a lot os shallow depth of field with his photography, as you’d expect from a 50mm 1.4 lens. But something else crystalized in my mind:

The parts of the photograph that were out of focus are always just as interesting as a subject matter as the part of the photograph that is in focus!

Now I say it like that, it’s obvious. Right?

Shallow depth of feel is a “look”, but it can be more than that. If things are too out of focus, you can’t see what they are. Sometimes if you can see too much, it looks ugly. It’s a balance you have to strike, and just having something, or anything, out of focus isn’t good enough. It has to be something interesting and engaging.

A few weeks later I visited my sister, and other members of my family, and took some photos of kids. Armed with this new nugget of photography wisdom, I took some photos. I intentionally made sure the out of focus stuff was interesting in its own right.

Like this:

Or this:

My photography had changed. With this one small skill, I’d taken it to another level. Shona just said this on skype about that blog post: “I remember looking at them and wondering when you’d got so good!”

Now I think “Not every photo Paul Gero takes is better than my best photographs, but sometimes, on a good day, I can take a photo as good as he can on an average day when the sun isn’t shining.”

For the last year, this is just one element I keep in mind when I take any photo. It doesn’t impact every photo I take, but way more than I’d ever expect. Judging by responses on Facebook (comments and likes) I can see which photos I take are popular, and it’s telling that many of them feature somebody in focus, and then an interesting scene out of focus.

And it joins many, many, many other nuggets of photography magic like that banging about in my head. The ones that are most important aren’t learnt from reading about photography but by immersing myself in the photography skill of someone else. Someone waaaaay better than I am.

My aim isn’t (as the above photos of my family might suggest) to replicate Paul’s images. It’s to try to lift my skill to the level of someone of whom I think “I’m never going to be that good at photography!” A tautology? Kinda. I’ll take one element, and then apply it to photos of jugglers, or travel photography, or whatever is in front of me at the time.

So here are some other photographers whose blogs I enjoy. The styles of photography vary, but if you look closely you can probably find some elements in common with my own work. Again, I’m not aiming to copy them, just elevate my own photography skill levels to somewhere closer to theirs.

In no particular order:

  • Andy Biggs at The Global Photographer who leads wildlife photography safaris in Afica. One day I’ll join him on a safari, but meanwhile I’m learning a lot from his blog.

  • Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir who takes great self portraits, along with interesting landscape photos of her native Iceland. She often combines the two, and has inspiring views on doing things live rather than in photoshop (though seems to be pretty handy at photoshop too).

  • Nicolesy, or Nicole S. Young. Nicole takes photos of food, among many other subjects, as a professional stock photographer. It’s amazing how much you can learn about “clean” photographs when keeping in mind something like “Could this ever be used in a magazine to draw people into a subject, even if they don’t already know that subject?”

  • Will & Matt Burrard-Lucas. Two wildlife photographers who aren’t adverse to trying out interesting technological solutions to trick photo problems. This includes putting cameras on radio control cars to get close to lions and elephants, dangling cameras on wires to photograph penguins under ledges, and capturing the great migrations of the Serengeti with time lapse techniques.

  • Natalie Dybisz a.k.a. Miss Aniela. Another self portrait specialist who also makes “Urbex” photography worth looking at more than once.

  • Bill Wadman and his blog On Taking Pictures. This is a new blog in my rotation. I like his sense of fun and comedy in his portraits, something I want to work into my own photographs somehow.

  • The j w l photography blog. I’m not sure how this ended up in my blog list, but I like it! It’s full of wedding (and other event and portraiture) photography, specializing in mixing people with architecture and location. I don’t intend to do any wedding photography, but if I did, I hope it would be as good as this.

  • The Boston Globe Big Picture blog. Not a single photographer, but an amazing well edited collection of press photos about a single news topic or theme. If you have a 10mm or 14mm lens for your camera, subscribe to this blog! It’s like a how-to for well composed and interesting wide angle photography.

There are other photographers I enjoy, but maybe not on their blog, and the above list is in no way complete. But all of the above have taught me in some way. Or at least inspired me.

How?

Go look at the photo at the top of this blog post again, and you’ll maybe see some of the thoughts and lessons and inspirations that go into a photo of two glasses of ice drinks.


The Italian Chapel, Orkney.

Years ago I read a book about WWII, and it mentioned Italian prisoners of war building a chapel for themselves somewhere on the Orkney Islands. The photos fascinated me, and I’ve wanted to visit it ever since.

And because every time I sail on the Prinsendam I visit somewhere new, it was only a matter of waiting before I ended up visiting the Orkney Islands. I took a bus to the chapel, and spent about 30 minutes checking the place out. As you can see, 30 minutes is plenty! It’s no Vatican Museum trip.

A nissen hut converted into a chapel by prisoners of war whose main job was casting concrete.
A nissen hut converted into a chapel by prisoners of war whose main job was casting concrete.

So instead of normal building materials for building a chapel, all they had was scrap wood, scrap iron, concrete and paint.
So instead of normal building materials for building a chapel, all they had was scrap wood, scrap iron, concrete and paint.

The first project was a St. George and the Dragon statue.
The first project was a St. George and the Dragon statue.

Interior.
Interior.



It’s like a mini Sistine Chapel, all painted by Domenico Chiocchetti.
It's like a mini Sistine Chapel, all painted by Domenico Chiocchetti.

Here are some other photos of my cruise around the north of Scotland.

Rainbow over Dunoon.
Rainbow over Dunoon.

The Prinsendam by the Isle of Skye.
The Prinsendam by the Isle of Skye.

The Isle of Skye.
The Isle of Skye.

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney.
St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney.





I visited Edinburgh too, but I’ve not looked through the photos yet.


Getting Things Done

I just listened to the most recent Triangulation podcast episode, where Leo and Tom talked to Dave Allen, the guy who developed the productivity system called Getting Things Done. I’ve not read Dave’s books on the matter, but the general idea is this:

– Your brain is a terrible place to keep notes and lists.
– Write down what you need to accomplish.
– Break the goals into various tasks (called “actionable items” in this system).
– If you can do a task in under 2 minutes, do it right away.
– If you can’t do a task now, forget about it.
– If you have open work time, check the list for the next actionable item you have time to complete. Do it.
– Review your list every day.
– Do a more in depth review every week.

I think that’s about it. If you have the system in place, and you can trust it, you no longer have to think and stress about what to do next.

And that’s the key thing I want to touch on here; if you put something in a list, you don’t need to think about it while you get on with other tasks.

Sounds good!

Except. Except if the task is a creative one.

In Bram’s episode of Luke’s Creative Podcast, we talked about writing down show ideas. He writes down everything. I used to write down everything.

The reason I stopped writing down all my juggling show ideas is that once I did so, the idea would be “completed” and I’d no longer think about it. Just as the Getting Things Done system suggests.

But if I DIDN’T write it down, I’d keep thinking about it. And I’d think about it while doing other things, other jobs, even while working on other juggling acts. The idea would grow organically in my head, and gain inspirations from other events and jobs, and get stronger and stronger.

Of course, there are some ideas I didn’t write down, and promptly forgot. This might be a bad thing, or it might not. Maybe I forgot those ideas because they weren’t worth remembering or considering further. Maybe.

I’ve found the same thing happening in my other creative pursuits too. When I have a story idea, I sometimes write it down. When I go back to it, I’ve not been mulling it over, and it seems a bit empty. But if I don’t write the story down, and it’s a good one, I run it over and over in my head, and it can’t help but become more elaborate and complex, and more interesting, and so I think about it more.

Unfortunately this means I have, at any one time, four novels bouncing around in my head, as well as numerous short story ideas.

Thankfully I’m pretty good at getting things done, partly because I’ve developed a way to systemize my goals and tasks myself, and partly because I have waaaaay more free time than most people. Even if I waste hours and hours a day, I still have plenty of time to write blog posts like this.

Apart from my list of Plan and Goals for 2011 (which I didn’t post here on my blog this year, but here’s my list for 2010), I have a running to do list.

At the top are links to blog posts and videos that I find while disconnected from the internet (which is most of the time while working on a cruise ship) and that I’ll check out when I get home.

Next are books I want to add to my to-read list on GoodReads.com.

Below that are “creative” things. For example, here are the blog posts I want to write:

“Blog post about photo shoot.”

I must have added this about 10 months ago, as I did the photo shoot for a front cover of a juggling magazine with my old DSLR camera.

“Post 5 ball routine.”

I have a 10 minute video of a comedy routine I do with 5 balls and an audience volunteer. One day I’ll upload it to YouTube and write a blog post about it here on the blog.

“Blog post about new camera”

Right. A review of the Canon 60D. Which I’ve now had for 10 months or so.

“Kotor”

I visited Kotor, in Montenegro, and have a series of photos already uploaded. But I want to present the photos in an interesting way, which I’ve yet to think about fully. When did I visit Kotor? April 28th. April 28th in 2010.

“Controlling the Frame of Reference
– Modern Christians and their knowledge of the Bible
– The Bible as History”

Two more essays I thought about writing to go along with my Spiritual Experiences and Atheism blog post. You know, the one I wrote a year and a half ago.

And so the list continues.

Are any of these tasks important to me? Yes! I’d love to write all of them.

Yet because I wrote them down in my to do list, I no longer pondered them. I didn’t work out what I wanted to say in each one. Then, when I have some time, I look at my to do list, and these tasks stare back at me. Instead of being able to complete them right away, I’d have to think about them quite a bit first.

But I have my laptop open in front of me. And I have lots of ideas rolling around in my head. Like some photos I want to develop in LightRoom. Or a video I want to edit. Or some song lyric ideas I want to jot down. Or a website I want to read.

Or a blog post about not being able to think about stuff once I’ve written it down.

So the “already thought about task I didn’t write in my to do list” gets done right away, and the “in my to do list task” is put off for almost two years. Maybe I need to make a list of “things to think about next time you don’t know what to think about” but I don’t have that much control over what my brain thinks about.


Mediterranean Cruise with Juliane

I’ve not posted travel photos here on my blog for ages. Juggling convention photos, sure, but not from my cruise ship gigs. And no photos from life in Berlin either. I have been posting them on Facebook though. I hope to post some selected travel photos over the next few months though.

This past cruise was different from others, as I traveled with Juliane, my girlfriend, for the first time. It was also her first cruise. Thankfully she had a good time, as did I.

The cruise was from Rome to Dubrovnik in Croatia; Corfu, Katakolon, Athens and Santorini in Greece; Kusadasi in Turkey; and Messina in Sicily. Enjoy these photos!

A bridge in Dubrovnik.
A bridge in Dubrovnik.

The Noordam.
The Noordam.



In Corfu.
In Corfu.


Sunk boat.
Sunk boat.

Getting ready for formal night.
Getting ready for formal night.

Queuing at the Acropolis.
Queuing at the Acropolis.





Columns.
Columns.





Expensive drinks.
Expensive drinks.







Super dog!
Super dog!



Broken flip-flops.
Broken flip-flops.





Sun set photo session on the bow of the Noordam.
Sun set photo session on the bow of the Noordam.



Ready for a day riding donkeys in Santorini.
Ready for a day riding donkeys in Santorini.






The Art Cafe in Santorini.
The Art Cafe in Santorini.

Knock knock!
Knock knock!



Making my mark.
Making my mark.


Sean leading a random tourist down the hill.
Sean leading a random tourist down the hill.


Messina, Sicily.
Messina, Sicily.




Sunglasses are very useful in the UK.
Sunglasses are very useful in the UK.