Everyone has a limiting factor. Everyone has some reason why they aren’t taking exactly the photos they want, 100% of the time. The best photographers in history didn’t capture a perfect result (or even something good) each time they clicked the shutter, and neither will you. But your ordinary or bad work is perhaps the biggest gold mine of information you have at your disposal, and it would be absurd to overlook it if you’re trying to improve your work in the future. By evaluating your throwaway photos, you’ll be able to see the limiting factor as clearly as possible – the aspect of your photography that, more than any other, holds back your images from reaching their full potential.
So, what is it about your work that you’d like to improve more than anything else? Try to pin down your limiting factor as specifically as possible. It’s not enough to say that “composition” is where you’re struggling, since that’s too broad of a topic. Instead, analyze your throwaway photos in detail, and focus on the specific elements of composition – balance, simplicity, breathing space, and so on – that you need to improve the most.
One limiting factor for me is annoyingly simple, but I’m still trying to get past it: I have a deciding-whether-this-is-worth-photographing problem. On a hike, I’ll routinely walk past a landscape and take a quick phone photo, then kick myself later for not spending the time to pull out my full kit. Or, the opposite problem – I unpack everything just to capture a few dozen photos of an uninspiring scene even though I already know they won’t be good enough to publish. My hope is that improving these issues will make my keeper rate improve significantly, but it’s a hurdle I haven’t been able to jump quite yet.
That’s not to say this is the only area where I need to improve my photography, either. There are plenty of other examples, ranging from my tendency to publish newly-captured photos too early, to my staggering inability to predict sunset conditions later in the day. There’s a lot I can do better.
Every photographer has a main limiting factor that stands above the rest, though, and it’s your job to figure out what it is for you. By pinpointing the problem, you’ll be able to think of ways to improve it. How are your exposures, for example? Do you frequently lose detail in the highlights because you are overexposing, or capture excess image noise because your photos are too dark? If either of those is the case, proper exposure could be your limiting factor.
Or, do you often take photos that aren’t sharp enough to meet your standards? Sharpness depends upon a lot of different factors, as well as the genre of photography you’re practicing. A lot of this is simply about knowing how to take sharp photos in the first place, but that isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
The most common limiting factor of all, though, particularly for advanced photographers, isn’t anything on the technical side – it’s all about creativity. Did you visualize your final result while in the field? Did you compose the photo as carefully as possible? Does your post-processing pull as much quality as possible out of the image, without appearing overcooked or fake?
All of these questions are important to ask, because no photographer is perfect, and there is always room to grow. On one hand, the technical issues are comparatively easy to solve, since all you need is to learn and practice a bit more. But if you’re stuck in a cycle where many of your photos simply don’t have that “special something,” that’s also worth knowing. The path to improve those photos may not be as obvious, but it is important to note nonetheless.
So, ask yourself this question: What’s the limiting factor? Pinpoint it as succinctly as you can. In fact, you might consider writing a few sentences as a note in your phone, so you can refer back to it in the future. If you could improve one thing about your photography to capture the images you have in mind, what would it be?
After that, practice. And practice. And keep practicing. If your limiting factor is something technical, read as many articles about it as possible (here’s a good place to start). If your limiting factor is something creative, look for amazing photos (yours or someone else’s) and evaluate why they succeed where others don’t.
The goal is to transition away from a vague, “Wow, what a nice photo,” and turn it into, “This composition attracts a viewer’s attention immediately, since it looks so deliberate and precise, with a very clear emotional message – something my other photos tend to lack.” This is not be an easy gap to bridge, but it’s worth the effort.
Next time you’re out shooting, and you don’t bring back the best possible photos, think long and hard about the reasons why. Ordinary photos are the best tools to help you capture outstanding ones. And, by pinpointing your areas of improvement more and more specifically, you’ll find that it becomes progressively easier to fix them in the future.
Although there isn’t a one-stop, quick fix to capturing world-class images, this is the first step in that direction. The more attention you pay to your weakest points, the stronger and stronger they’ll get.
Thanks, Spencer. I don’t know if the comment forum for this article is still open.
My more recent limiting factor is that I often doubt if there is any sense to take a picture. Is there enough significance, not yet taken a thousand times? I don’t like to take too many pictures just to choose later which one is worth to keep. I like to compose carefully and to minimize digital post-processing. Despite my digital cameras I’m still more or less an analog photographer with some special cameras I wouldn’t like to miss. So my motivation is probably a bit reduced by the financial and technical limits (processing films) – and the fact that I live in a developing country where a (really) huge amount of photos are taken with smartphones by locals and tourists (most locals have never seen an analog camera before and I’m escorted by a big crowd every time when I change a film…). But as you write: work on it and practice. And re-activate the self-motivation every day!
My limiting factor is my pictures, don’t say enough. My limiting factor is my pictures, don’t say anything.
This is a great, thoughtful article Spencer.
I always try to learn from every photograph that I delete.
What didn’t I like about it? How could I have made it better? Why doesn’t it make me feel anything? Should I have taken it all?
I keep coming back to a couple of basic tenets:
One, does the photograph tell a story, or make you think?
Two, does it evoke a feeling? If a photo doesn’t make me feel anything, it’s not going to hold my interest
And lastly, believing in myself and my work. If I have a photo that tells a story, and that evokes a feeling, I stick with it. I try to remember the number of photographers who spent years unrecognized, or who’s work was not widely known until after they were gone. For me, believing in ones work doesn’t mean I can’t become better, it just means what it says, to believe in yourself.
1. Taking pictures of people. Strangers as well as friends. Friends say they find the size of the camera and its lense intimidating. It is a 6d with a 24-70 lens. In my job I speak with a lot of strangers and in some difficult situations. May be it is because at work I am in my comfort zone and in the street I am not. Friends joke that I strike up conversations with strangers in the street and shops with in a blink, but it is moving from that to taking pictures that is very difficult.
2. Biggest. I take to many pictures of the same scene with minor differences. For example I was waiting for a sunset. Had spent ages finding the ‘right place’ (hour drive) and then had to wait for a few weeks for the right conditions. Over an hour I and a half I took about 60 pictures with slightly different settings (same time) and at different times (some very close). My feeling is that I want to get it right and will the scene get better. The first cull was easy. Then whittling down to the final shot from the last 10 was very difficult and too yonks. In the end I kept 2. The first one was just as the set the other one was about 20 minutes after sun set. The pictures are a very similar composition, but are very different because of the changing light. The advantage of this was that I had to do very little post processing.
Limitations? That’s easy.
Ever since i upgraded to a full frame DSLR last December, until now I’ve not had even one single chance of shooting astrophotography. Every time you see a new moon and good astro predictions on apps like PhotoPills, weather will mess with me. Humidity over 70 percent, cloud cover of 99 percent, and so on. I live in a hot tropical country where the weather is certainly to screw you over every 8 or 9 times out of 10 times you’ve planned things in advance. Some of the local photographers have shot astro but when i saw their portfolio they are rather… Average. Or outright bad. Mainly because of clouds blocking parts of the milky way or light pollution ruined the foreground as well as making the stars less than ideal.
And then there’s the fact we don’t have 4 seasons, which means no snow covered mountains, no beautiful springs with cherry blossoms, no fall season with golden yellow maple leaves, nothing. We only have beaches (in which some are polluted). I remember spending several days just to photoshop and remove the trash in the beach photos i took. There are no clean bluish and clear sea water here, only murky greenish water. To get to places with those kind of beaches, there’s a need to drive 10 hours plus a boat ride to get there, or deal with expensive flight tickets. Meanwhile, some of the nicest beaches already had their photos shot by many other photographers that in the end what i came up with is almost the same as everyone else’s. They are decent photos, but i don’t like the fact that it’s not unique enough to call it my own.
I live in a city you can describe as ugly. To travel far out into more picturesque areas it’s a lot of travelling costs, and with all this expenditure you only bring back substandard photos because of factors you can’t control. It’s really discouraging. Being someone from a third world/developing country, our salaries aren’t high even though you have a degree in a medical field. One single domestic travel trip can cost as much as a quarter to half a month’s worth of pay. A trip overseas requires at least 2 to 3 months worth of salary. In short, we do not have the spending power.
So far I’m more of a studio photographer for the past 3 or 4 years, i manipulate lighting on my own and shoot photos of miniatures and models, and actually quite good at it. I wanted to diversify my works and go outdoors but quite often the weather is not cooperative. The difference here is i can predict the outcome of my works in indoor settings. For outdoors, I’ve already done my homework scouting locations in advance, but i just couldn’t see myself spending on travelling when odds are against me that i won’t bring any good photos back.
You have summed very well. Having a studio-like setup at home helps take picture after coming back from work.
I think it depends on your likely photography output. If your aim is to produce good quality pictures of family and friends and life experiences, which will typically be viewed on a PC or tablet, then time available to travel, review and post-process your work is a common challenge.
If your aim is to produce high quality images for magazine publication / gallery printing or competition entry, your likely limitation is not having access to a professional photographer who can review and offer advice on your work. When you have learnt to apply the techniques correctly, and have time to produce good work, finding a local well respected professional, art teacher or undertaking a serious photography course like RPS, SPEOS, A-Level etc is the best way to take your photos to the next level.
I know I’m repeating it but I think that time is my biggest limiting factor.
I certainly suffer from all other limiting factors – creativity being a big one – but I think if you spend enough time doing something over and over again, you inevitably become better at it.
If you are able to go out and shoot something only once or twice a month, for an hour or two at a time, it’s a very slow progress (if any).
Your article made me stop and think, Spencer. Thank you. Your own experience resonates for me too, thank you for adding that in your discussion. After years of reading articles on this subject, yours is the one that effects change.
I think my limiting factor in photography is the large amounts of money traveling requires. I live in a pretty tourist town on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The problem is the fact that living here for years I’ve shot everything so many times , including macro shots in my back yard and rose garden. I don’t even shoot every week anymore but when I go to Cuba once a year or my hiking in the Adirondack Mountains, NY, I’ll be coming home with 30GB/week. Look at the people on this site and others and you’ll see what I mean. They are mostly photos they shot away from home. Face it, if you want to have great gear + locals that really inspire you then you need to be quite well off so you can travel to do so.
That is true, especially of the enthusiast photographer. A working pro doing PJ, weddings, or portraits wouldn’t be as concerned about the things this article focuses on. The audience that this kind of article hits would be somewhat limited by available/disposable funds.
I agree with you guys. I wrote an article about how I enjoy every day family photography on a budget but it would not be published here. While my article might have not be good enough I wish other article like that was published. Afterall not everyone can spend huge money and time on gear and travel but we all want to enjoy photography.
Hey Lukasz, don’t count yourself out too soon! We’re still sorting through the entries and figuring out when to publish which ones. My understanding is that yours will run later this week.
Great to hear that Spencer!
Your article is up, and it is a good one! Thank you for sharing it with us.
No, I have to disagree with this, in a friendly way. If you want to produce high quality photos effortlessly, you should be aiming to achieve that no matter what the circumstances and budget. When I was studying photography 100 years ago, we were often tasked with shooting in locations that would normally be considered boring like rubbish dumps, shopping centres etc. When you are forced to use your creativity you really learn what is possible, rather than just thinking photography is about spending lots of money to go to a typical tourist hot-spot. Think about a pro product photographer – they have to achieve great shots of ridiculous things like shampoo bottles and lawnmowers. But, even they can be taken in a high quality and novel manner, if you have developed creativity.
Fully agreed! One can always find excuses if he chooses to. I’d read this article with a modified title (modified in my mind that is): “What Is the Limiting Factor in Your Photography, Not Counting Budget and Time Constraints”
I believe a guest poster just published something of the sort.