Challenging Yourself to Improve

I believe it was Cartier-Bresson who said that your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. For many hobbyist photographers, myself included, it may be much more than that, as improving our craft means constantly shooting, experimenting, reassessing, and continually culling our very best from our best.

London #1

See more photos from the series here.

Many photographers will subscribe to online challenges of capturing a particular subject each week or month, and yet they largely fall into a trap of capturing a subject simply because it is there and then uploading it to the benefit of the site that set the challenge. Rather than improve their own skills, they have merely added to the inventory of someone else’s site. It has been said that a good photographer captures, while a great photographer reveals. However, it is only a few that truly reveal something original or creative.

London #2

It does often seem as though many of the amateur photographers today have more of a gadget fetish than a desire to improve their photography, preferring to know more about such things as pixel density and corner sharpness than composition or lighting. Indeed, despite deliberately not preaching any technical nor photographic expertise, I have been sometimes been attacked by people who have little to show for their vitriol other than pictures of their gear!

London #3

I write this with all the humility of a hobbyist, and with only the intention of someone trying to help. My blog is a catalogue of my attempts to improve my own skill. Because I accept that I myself capture more than I reveal, I am always challenging myself to improve my ability to see, the foremost skill I think any photographer should have.

London #4

Our images will never improve by simply upgrading our equipment and hoping they deliver results for us. We need to think about our composition, framing, timing and light. Deconstructing our subject into its constituent shapes, colours or shades and understanding how they juxtapose and relate to each other will yield stronger and bolder images, whether they belong to building or cars or nature. Even portraits can make creative use of light and form to highlight features or anatomy, or to enhance beauty or tell a story.

London #5

One of the ways in which I attempt to improve is by setting myself (along with friends and fellow photographers who join me) real challenges. We will often limit ourselves to taking only a few shots, say 20-30, and perhaps with only one focal length (prime lens). This kind of restriction forces us to slow down and see the world differently, and to look for compositions in ways and places that we may not have considered before. It encourages us to properly frame a scene or subject, leaving out anything superfluous. With only one focal length, our feet do the zooming rather than the lens. This can train us to get into better positions and have better spatial awareness.

London #6

Being limited in how many times we can press the shutter forces us to consider whether an image is really worth taking. The luxury of digital is that we can spray and pray but by limiting the number of shots, as in the days of film, we have to take our time to really look for something interesting to shoot. The result is hopefully fewer, but stronger, images. Have the courage to limit the number of images you decide to shoot on your next excursion or vacation, and you are sure to return with a smaller batch of more impressive photos.

London #7

You might argue that we could restrict ourselves even more in this regard, to perhaps only 10 or 5 images. And this is perfectly valid. But I believe one of the skills a photographer also needs to develop is the ability to select their best images from a batch, i.e. to continually edit their portfolio. Taking more images affords one the scope to exercise this process, until with time one is confident enough to take fewer images in the first place.

London #8

Often on our photo challenges, we decide that our images must be black and white, either at the point of capture (if using a B+W filter on the camera) or later in the editing process. This makes us imagine the scene without the distraction of colour, reduced to its basic elements or shapes, and then consider its merit as a photograph. Does it offer something abstract with its shape or lighting? Or is the scene telling a story that would hold interest even without its colour?

London #9

All of these limitations serve to improve our visual radar for an interesting shot, hopefully revealing something new to us. While it is true that our photo challenges have mostly been street photography or cityscapes, the improved skills can surely be applied to any subject. Indeed, when photographing animals, either in the wild or captivity, I will take my time and patiently wait for an engaging moment. It is not enough to simply photograph the animal because it is there. I try to engage the viewer with the animal in a more intimate way.

London #10

I have shot around London countless times, and each time it becomes harder to reveal something new and original, especially when shooting somewhere I have shot many times before. But perhaps this is also part of the challenge. A good friend in New York, to whom I regularly send my photos and who has visited London many times himself, observed that I often make the ‘familiar unfamiliar.’

London #11

And perhaps this perfectly sums up the challenge we should all set ourselves. With the billions of images taken everyday of so many familiar places and things, we should all aspire to reveal something different about them, rather than simply capture them because they are there. And I am afraid that this is ultimately a skill only we ourselves can develop, regardless of our gear.

London #12

London #13

London #14

London #15

London #16

London #17

If you would like to see more photos of London, check out the below links:

  1. London Architecture
  2. Photo Challenge at Canary Wharf
  3. London Photo Challenge
  4. Photo Walk in London
  5. A Dry Night in London
  6. Another London Shoot

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Lori
    June 19, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    I love this article, have bookmarked it for future reference. You verbalize thoughts that I, a fellow photo hobbyist, often think about. Though I only take photos of food to supplement my work as a food writer, you’ve proposed considerations that I’m glad to be made aware of.

  2. 2
    ) Jeff johnson
    June 20, 2014 at 12:06 am

    Beautifully written. Hits close to home as I’m prepping for a wedding this weekend (my 5th one of those). My mother was our family’s historian. I’m a trained musician by trade, I teach music in public school and spend time behind the lens always. I love the quote: It has been said that a good photographer captures, while a great photographer reveals.

  3. 5
    ) Tom F.
    June 20, 2014 at 12:58 am

    I live in London and often find myself taking the same photos all over again. Reading your article I can easily relate to what you say about people putting gear first rather than educating themselves about the basics of composition. I must say that your photos are excellent and I am astonished by the creativity that went into finding different angles on shot to death landmarks. Quality post that makes a good point.

  4. 6
    ) Eurion
    June 20, 2014 at 1:24 am

    A great article. I’ve found that in the 3,5 years I’m now actively photographing I’ve really started to take less and less photos and concentrate more on quality. As most of my shots were revolving around wildlife I always found that I took a lot of shots because it was the first time I saw something even though I knew the photo basically wasn’t really worth keeping. But today, I’ll wait for the right moment, which on some days doesn’t come. Thankfully this also means that I can go through my editing a lot quicker!

    My suggestion to any enthusiasts is to take these comments to hart and challenge yourself! You’ll start enjoying yourself a lot more as well :)

    PS. Perhaps a nice reference is to Craft & Vision who have some great pdfs on challenging yourself. The ebooks are called Ten and Ten More (available for free!) and I’ve found them very helpful as they provide specific exercises to train yourself. Thought it might be worth a mention.

  5. 7
    ) tony t
    June 20, 2014 at 1:29 am

    Excellent article! Thank you for sharing.

  6. 9
    ) Mark
    June 20, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Superb article and superb photography. Will be posting this to my camera club and FB pages and begin weeding out the rubbish from my own collection!

    • June 20, 2014 at 2:51 am

      Thanks Mark! :)

      • 28
        ) Steve Sanders
        June 20, 2014 at 8:43 am

        Great article! Spot on. Would you allow our club to include it in an upcoming newsletter?
        Steve
        http://www.orencophotoclub.com
        (A 40-member non-profit club )

        • June 20, 2014 at 9:04 am

          Sure, Steve! It’s all part of learning! (Perhaps sneak in a link or credit to me in there somewhere? :))

          I wish your club every success, and hope the article can help your members :)

          Warm Regards,
          Sharif. :)

  7. 11
    ) Thomas Stirr
    June 20, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Hi Alpha Whiskey,

    I really enjoyed your article as it does a great job focusing on the importance of perspective, creativity and interpretation….and why these factors are far more important than the gear that a person happens to own.

    Tom

  8. 12
    ) Len Foster
    June 20, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Great article, and wonderful & very creative photographs.

    Until about a year ago, I was still shooting film. Believe me, when you load that 36 exposure, very expensive roll of Fuji Velvia 50 into your camera, you become very selective on what you shoot. Too, I shoot from a Tripod 90% of the time, and that helped improve my composition greatly. I am now shooting digital, and have cut my lens collection down to only three. On a recent 7-day trip to Alaska, I shot a total of 283 images, a good number of which were bracketed images of the same subject. After a good edit, then an even tougher one, I finally posted 57 images to my web site. Joining us on vacation were our two mid-20 year old nephews, one of which was a photography major at college. He shot over 1,800 images on that same 7-day trip.

    I have found that simplifying improved final images greatly.

  9. 13
    ) Deb M
    June 20, 2014 at 3:13 am

    Hi, Alpha Whiskey,

    Your article is so thought-provoking, and I really appreciate the challenges you pose here for us. Your article helps me to focus and hone my skills, andI appreciate that. :)
    Thanks for your articles!

    • 14
      ) Deb M
      June 20, 2014 at 3:14 am

      and I forgot to add, WOW, those are great shots you’ve taken!

      • June 20, 2014 at 3:47 am

        Thanks so much Deb! I appreciate your kind words :)
        Really hope my article helps :)

        Regards,
        Sharif.

  10. 20
    ) Martin
    June 20, 2014 at 4:30 am

    Sharif

    I very much enjoyed this eloquent posting, some great images and the links further photos of a London that I do not immediately recognise. You do have a great eye and are able to make the ‘familiar unfamiliar.’ There is lots of food for thought here. I confess that I have become gear obsessed, but this will stop; I must get back to thinking more, shooting less and pre-visualising.

    Regards

    Martin

    • June 20, 2014 at 4:32 am

      Thanks Martin! It’s you that will make the great images, not your gear :)

      Regards,
      Sharif.

  11. 22
    ) craig
    June 20, 2014 at 6:08 am

    I see you take quite a few angled shots. I find it hard to break the horizontal but it does make for a more interesting shot.

    • June 20, 2014 at 7:06 am

      Quite often I will deconstruct a scene into what I think are its constituent shapes and lines. So rather than focus on the subject or landmark, which can lead to a bias in one’s perception, I try to compose around the shapes and lines, to lead the viewer into the scene. Hopefully, it makes the landmark or scene more interesting to look at, irrespective of where it is :)

  12. 23
    ) Peggy Heard
    June 20, 2014 at 6:59 am

    I enjoyed reading this so much, yes I am a hobbies and take lots of action shots of my daughter playing softball, getting those shots that no one else see or understands how I got them. I also love taking photos of things that I think are different. Your post does inspires one to do more then the everyday shots, and I do thank you for that. I am one those that are always reading on things to make one a better photographer, but yet feel she not there yet, but one can always keep trying and enjoying it as one grows and learns.

    It good to look at another photography and be inspire bye it, Thank you so much for what you write and the photos that you share.

  13. 26
    ) Dumeril Seven
    June 20, 2014 at 8:19 am

    I agree with everything you wrote. But what I really want to say is that your photography drives home the points and are very inspiring. The unique perspective and composition really knocked me out. I’m reconsidering the way I’m doing things.

  14. Profile photo of rajesh
    29
    ) rajesh
    June 20, 2014 at 8:49 am

    excellent article and great pictures

  15. 30
    ) sceptical1
    June 20, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Great article and images! A couple of observations.
    1. One of the things that gets in the way of taking the best pictures is the need to get enough pictures. Most of my income comes from shooting pet pictures. I need to produce 30+ “good” shots for my customers. This need flat out competes with the desire to take the most creative pictures. I try to balance this, but finding myself frequently getting a lot of competent shots and few creative shots. I will aim to do better.
    2. I think it is very important for pro / semi-pro photographers to spend some of their limited free time following some of the suggestions from this article – especially the one limiting the number of photos they take. I learned on film and processing was expensive. It absolutely made you focus on taking the best images or when practicing, being very focused and making absolutely sure you understood your results.
    Thanks again for the good reminder(s) about what it takes to really improve your photography.

  16. 34
    ) Edward Liu
    June 20, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Wonderful article and wonderful photos! Your first comment reminds me of something in animator Chuck Jones’ autobiography “Chuck Amuck.” One of his first art teachers told his class that all of them had 10,000 bad drawings in them, and the sooner they got them out of their system, the better. I find that an interesting way to view a lot of things — you have 10,000 bad cooking experiments, 10,000 bad front kicks, 10,000 bad lines of code, 10,000 bad photos; and the sooner you get them out of you, the better. It’s also a way to say that just because you got a good one or even several good ones doesn’t mean you’re done getting all the bad ones out.

    And I think sceptical1’s comment above digs into the challenge of constantly moving targets. My camera is often deployed at birthday parties for my son and his friends. Trying to get a good shot among a horde of moving 5-year olds, I often feel like I barely have time for more than making sure the shot is in focus. But even so, I think the concept of presenting yourself with challenges is still valid — just not necessarily the ones you articulate in this article.

  17. 35
    ) Neil
    June 20, 2014 at 9:52 am

    Challenging myself to improve…. Yep, want to do that. Unfortunately I’m not a professional nor am I retired nor do I have lots of free time. One article I’d like to see is how to find a way to challenge and stay engaged with photography (and presumably get better) from the point of view of someone who is a workaday professional with a family (and actually spends time with them). Nothing more frustrating than knowing you can see how to do stuff but not having the time to practice it.

    Time to win the lottery!

  18. 36
    ) Debbie
    June 20, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Awesome article and photos! I picked up a camera after my son was born because I wanted to capture all of the memories to come, as he grows up. I had an idea that I would use the pictures to tell a story of his growth. Imagine how much better and stronger my story will be if I can “reveal” rather than “capture” those special moments! I am not a professional photographer, just a person that likes to take pictures of anything that interests me. Your article and photos have opened my eyes to ways that I can challenge myself to become better and take better composed pictures. Thank you very much for this article. The reminder that composition, framing, timing and light is essential to any great photo, regardless of equipment or situation is one that we should remember always before pressing that button to take the shot!

    All the best,
    Debbie

    • June 20, 2014 at 1:38 pm

      Thank you Debbie, and thank you for taking the time to write such great feedback. Hope the article helps :)

      Warm Regards,
      Sharif.

  19. Profile photo of Daniel Michael
    37
    ) Daniel Michael
    June 20, 2014 at 11:16 am

    Stunned….

    The article is a brilliant read and the photos are what I’ve come to expect of you, Sharif!

    Seriously, you should give up your day job! (not saying you’re no good at your day job!)

    Keep it up!

    Daniel

  20. 40
    ) Robert
    June 20, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    In Cartiers-Bresson’s times 10,000 photos meant years and you’d be giving up broke if nothing improves by then. Today it is 10 studio shoots and yeah, you need more than that to improve. ;-)

  21. 41
    ) David Cann
    June 20, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Simply one of the finest articles I’ve read on photography and brilliant photos to back it up. Many thanks for sharing your philosophy and your stunning images. A lesson for us all.

    David Cann
    Admin Facebook Group “Nikon Df”

  22. 43
    ) Sharif
    June 20, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Just my thoughts..photography for me has evolved from the obvious images to capturing the moments..i am based in Delhi, and go through the same problem of shooting the same places several times…now it is more about stories…and yes, i do return with lesser number of images, satisfying images…:)

    • June 21, 2014 at 12:54 am

      Exactly right, Sharif. The story is an important factor. Nice to meet a namesake! :)

    • 50
      ) Martin
      June 22, 2014 at 1:25 am

      Hi Sharif

      Now I am not Nasim, who was like the Pied Piper when he recently organised a photo walk in London, but will be in Dehli, coming from London en route for Bhutan in October 2014 and wonder if it would be at all possible to meet up on the afternoon of Thurday 30th October? I am still uncertain about my itinerary.
      It would be great if Sharif or system administrator could forward my email address to you so that we could talk outside of the forum.
      It is always interesting to meet up with fellow photographers when travelling, especially when in big cities. Does anybody else do this?

      Kind regards

      Martin

  23. 44
    ) ZEESHAN MITRA
    June 20, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    Sharif

    Once again thank you for a wonderful article. Photography is something is something that has to come from within and thus if you are passionate about that hobby then you will improve because that is what we love to do and practice makes perfect. Photography is all about looking at the world a little differently than what we perceive ordinarily, and yes it not about capturing but revealing, some of the most common and ordinary things have something special about it and to reveal that is what photography is all about. One must not get caught in the rules though the rules are important, but still one should frame the shot in their mind first then use the camera to capture it. Rightly pointed by you that many photographers nowadays are all about the gear and gadgets and less about shooting. I do not restrict myself by gear limitation, I took up photography at a very young age then I used to take pictures with my mother’s Kodak film point and shoot camera, then started shooting with my phone, then got a budget point and shoot camera and recently moved to DSLR and I must say all the years of shooting with point and shoots and mobile phone has taught me a lot and am now learning more with a DSLR and have also taken some images with my maternal Grandfather’d Agfa Isoly film camera which is still amazing. I still for general shooting use the kit lens which came with the DSLR and I must say it is a good lens, thus it is the photographer who is important and not the gear as the camera is only a tool to capture what the photographer has visualised in mind. Thus photography is all about learning and improving and to improve one needs to practice. Today we have the luxury to take as many shots as possible due to digital thus we can practice a lot which was not available to people who used to shoot with film, but still we can limit our shots and get good images in this age of digital by thinking of it in this way that the shutter that we have in our DSLR has a life of a certain number of shutter releases thus making it a limiting factor and not reducing the life of the shutter as replacing a shutter is costly. Thank you for the article.

  24. 47
    ) Muhammad Omer
    June 21, 2014 at 4:59 am

    Sharif,
    Have you ever tried to capture lightning in the clouds at night time? When the lightening is strong you can see it spreading out in the sky, but mostly it stays within clouds. So white clouds emanate a wonderful array of colours when a lightening jolt makes them glow, especially at night. I saw such a scene last night and was equipped with a d5100 and a 35mm lens but night time exposures are tough, the camera does not autofocus mostly. maybe with a tripod and a long exposure, itcan be done?

    • June 21, 2014 at 6:26 am

      Hi Muhammad. No, I have not yet tried to photograph lightning, although I would love to give it a try. It’s on my list! :)
      If you’re far enough away from the storm then I guess manually focusing to infinity or just before it would be fine. And yes, a long exposure would probably be your best bet to capture the lightning strikes as they are impossible to predict :)
      Cheers,
      Sharif.

  25. 49
    ) Matias Bravo
    June 21, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    Great article and those photos that you used not only are very good, but helps to drive home the idea behind the text.

    As an aside, I have found that for me is experimentation through multiple approach angles rather than limiting myself to a low amount of shots that really works, but I believe that is because I take the time to analyse the hundreds or even thousands pictures I can get away, studying what did make or break each shot. And this process is usually that tedious only on my firsts attempts at each subject, and with time I’m shooting less and less, but consistently producing better shots.

    But I agree that for most people thinking before the fact may be a better idea.

  26. 51
    ) Guest
    June 22, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    An excellent article, Mr. Alpha Whiskey. Thank you.

    I wonder where all of the pixel pushers, test chart shooters, and arm chair photographers who’ve been ranting and raving on PL about microcontrast, resolution, sensors, noise, corner-to-corner sharpness, lens sharpness, HDR, focus stacking, and blah blah with nothing to show for it have gone? You guys (and gals) are awfully quiet right now, aren’t you? Let’s hear from you!

  27. 53
    ) Lois Bryan
    June 22, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    well said … and beautifully illustrated!

  28. 55
    ) JR
    June 23, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Why must photography always turn into a right-wrong and this-or-that debate, with absolutists making sweeping, broad stroked statements.

    I don’t know why it’s turned into a contest between light/composition and technology/equipment. I don’t see where any of what you said – “PL about microcontrast, resolution, sensors, noise, corner-to-corner sharpness, lens sharpness, HDR, focus stacking, and blah blah” – cannot co-exist with, and further enhance, traditional and well-proven techniques established by the greats of yesteryear, ie. Cartier-Bresson and others.

    With all due respect to Alpha, who’s work is superb, as King Solomon once wrote: “…there’s nothing new under the sun…” Alpha hasn’t invented fire or the wheel and he’ll be the first to admit it. Hence, there’s not much to beat our chests about.

    This is the first time I’ve been back to this site in months, and nothing’s changed “under the sun”. It’s more of the same type of discussions where it’s either ONE OR THE OTHER but hardly ever BOTH. First, the sweeping statement made a few months back that full-frame would kill off smaller formats, followed by the pronouncement of the certain death of the DLSR at the hands of mirrorless.

    Yet, Canon just spent a fortune pimping their DSLR line through the Wold Cup’s bottomless advertising outlets; and this very site has taken the driver seat of the micro 4/3 bandwagon and the bloggers have recognized the merits of smaller formats.

    Do you think that we can ever get to the point where it’s ALL GOOD and ALL OF IT can co-exist in the photography world without us having to set limits of right/wrong, better/worse?

    • June 23, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      Hi JR,

      Let me indeed be the first to admit that I haven’t said anything new or invented the wheel :)
      And I, like yourself, do not like or take absolutist positions on these things. I hope I have simply articulated thoughts that many people may already have. I believe you make a valid point, and I have stated in my previous article that how we capture the images does indeed depend to a large extent on our technology. So yes, the equipment is important. But I also believe that technique and the rules of composition etc, which haven’t really changed since the dawn of time, are probably more essential to the art of photography than temporary iterations of equipment, or the minutiae of their performance. In the right hands and with good technique, perhaps any/most cameras/lenses would produce appealing images. The common denominator is the photographer him/herself. :)

      As a former user or DSLRs and current user of m4/3, I absolutely recognise the value and advantages of both formats. For now, and speaking only for myself, the m4/3 format suits me for most of my photographic endeavours, and in no small part because of its lighter profile. But I’ll categorically state here and now that all formats, DX, FX, m4/3 and others have their respective places. As you correctly pointed out, the economics alone are proof of that. :)

      Warm Regards,
      Sharif.

  29. 57
    ) Eric
    June 25, 2014 at 3:33 am

    Limiting yourself to a few photos is the key. I didn’t realize this until I started shooting medium format film. When you are limited to 10-16 shots on a roll (with the hassle of changing rolls), then you really start to think about how to use each frame. The beauty is that after shooting film for a while, it has transferred over to my digital shots as well。I now shoot far fewer frames in digital and am constantly deleting all but the best. Your article really rung a bell with me. Now I just need to concentrate on ‘revealing’ instead of ‘capturing’.

  30. 59
    ) Csaba Molnar
    June 25, 2014 at 5:10 am

    Great article Alpha Whisky.

    People’s focus on gear and numbers bothers me to no end. Usually, after a shooting people ask me what camera I use. Never what settings and why, it’s always the gear.

    I’m using a d́800 with Nikkor lenses, but looking at the photos I’ve taken in the last 2 years with it, I can say that at least 50% of all photos could have been taken with any DSLR, even with the cheapest entry level APS-C + kit zoom combo (with some care and thought). For the remaining 30-40%, you’d need a broader selection of lenses, but still, could have been taken with any camera. It’s only 10-20% of all the photos I took that having the d800 was clearly an advantage. And the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. For example, I probably get 20% more shots in low-light events than I would with my old d7000, but they are not the top 20% in terms of quality.

    There is just so much more going into a shot than gear, and it’s good to have articles like this. In fact, nowadays I’m having fun using all kinds of cameras (even cheap point & shoot zooms) because they make you think harder, and that’s what matters – the thought, the idea behind the shot.

    Thank you for the wonderful article.

    • June 25, 2014 at 5:24 am

      Thank you Csaba for the positive feedback. I echo everything you say :)

      Warm Regards,
      Sharif.

  31. 61
    ) steve g
    July 29, 2014 at 10:43 pm

    like most new photographers we get use to zooms then we try a prime lens then we have to learn how use a fix focal length. I know that sounds odd but like I was taught frame it and get it right in the camera so instead of standing and zooming now u have to move around and try to capture the photo u wont. so that’s how I challenge my self I stick a prime on and walk around to find things to photo. if u don’t believe me try a 85mm prime as a walk around lens sometime or if you have a Nikon DX a 50mm lens

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