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.