Three years ago, near the start of the pandemic, my photography ground to a halt. There’s still a gap in my Lightroom catalog where May and June 2020 should be. I’m glad that my break was temporary, but it crystalized to me that there’s more to being a good photographer than just pressing the shutter button at the right time.
Everyone knows that you can improve your photography by working on things like camera settings, composition, post-processing, and so on. But there are lots of paths to taking better photos. Some of them are even (seemingly) unrelated to photography. Today, I’ll go through four different areas that matter if you’re trying to take better photos, starting with the most obvious and working my way down.
Table of Contents
1. Taking the Photo
The moment that you take a photo, you’re locking in crucial decisions – namely, your choice of camera settings, subject, lighting, composition, and timing. These are some of the pillars of photography that need to be solid in order to get good results.
If you constantly regret your decisions in any of these areas, at least you know what to work on! The concepts later in this article are important, but you have to solidify the foundations first. And of course, even the best photographers have room to improve in terms of composition, timing, and so on.
I won’t really go into this side of photography today. I’ve already covered things like camera settings and composition hundreds of times before, and for this article, I want to broaden the scope a bit more.
This section is the furthest that you’ll see most photography tutorials go. It’s all the things that are related to taking the photo, but not usually done the moment that the shutter button is pressed.
For example, in the field, this includes scouting for subjects and visualizing the photos that you’d like to take. Once you return home, it starts to encompass things like culling your photos, post-processing the best ones, and printing the results.
I’d also put practice under this umbrella. It’s important to familiarize yourself with your camera equipment (you should know how to use it with your eyes closed!) and setting the right camera settings quickly. Likewise, spend as much time in the field as possible. You’ll pick up on subtleties like weather patterns, lighting conditions, hidden subjects, etc., that you simply can’t learn from home.
None of this is as immediate as pressing the shutter button, but it impacts the quality of your photos all the same. Yes, the previous section – “taking the photo” – is the nucleus of photography. But lots of other things are swirling around it.
I could have called this section logistics, because it involves some unsexy parts of photography that, nonetheless, make good photography possible in the first place.
One part of logistics is simply reaching the location with the right gear on-hand. As a landscape photographer and backpacker, I probably spend more time on this “side of photography” than anything else. Before I even step out the door, I’ve figured out the weather, weighed my bag, downloaded the relevant trail maps, checked for gas stations along my drive, planned my meals, and so on. This is all very particular to my type of photography (you probably don’t need to check for gas stations if you’re a street photographer in NYC) but every genre of photography has an equivalent list.
Then there’s the even more boring, yet even more essential side of things: organizing and backing up your hard drives. Again, you could argue that it’s not directly related to taking photos – and of course anyone, photographer or otherwise, should back up their computer. But for photographers in particular, you simply can’t allow your important photos to teeter on the edge of a hard drive malfunction, or to be so disorganized that you can’t find the one you’re looking for.
Finally, the logistics side of photography includes making sure you’re “there” when good things start happening. Showing up early and staying late are under-appreciated skills in photography. I constantly see landscape photographers leave before sunset if it’s an overcast day, only for the sky to turn beautiful 30 minutes later. The call of comfortable pleasures – sleeping in, leaving early for dinner, packing up when it starts to rain – gets me, too. But when I stick with it anyway, I’ve taken some of my best photos.
All the points above are important, but this section is my real reason for writing this article. The more time that I spend as a photographer, the more I realize that my results depend heavily upon my life outside photography.
The clearest example is what I mentioned earlier – how I didn’t take any photos for a couple of months in early 2020. That was a crazy time for almost everyone around the world, and I had so much on my mind that photography wasn’t a priority. Even if I had taken the time to pull out my camera and drive to a landscape somewhere, I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten good photos. My head just wasn’t in the right place.
It wasn’t just mental – it’s also about physical health. In the years since that period of time, I’ve found that going to the gym, taking walks, eating better, and simply staying in shape has had direct and obvious consequences for my landscape photography. You wouldn’t think there’s a relationship between walking on the treadmill and taking better landscape photos, but there absolutely is. I find that I’m more energized to go out often, and I can hike for longer distances when I do. It’s even helped my mental clarity. No wonder that a lot of professional chess players will go for a run or kick a football the day before important games!
Finally, the most important thing to take away from this article is that you can get better at photography by getting better at other hobbies. One thing I’ve really taken up recently is cooking, and it’s wild how often I find myself making connections between that and taking pictures. Skills like planning ahead, attention to detail, time management, visualization, and more – when I improved them in one area of my life, they transferred to photography.
This is the side of taking better pictures that you’ll rarely hear about. But if you’re not satisfied with your photos, maybe the area you need to work on isn’t related to composition or camera settings at all. It could be that you need to jump on a bike or read a novel instead! Maybe that doesn’t sound like it’s connected to photography, but in the end, it’s all related.