April 6, 2022

If You Could Do Just One Thing to Improve Your Photography…What Would It Be?

If you wanted to improve your photography and you could do just one thing…what would it be? What, among all of the many possibilities, would help you create better images?
I Googled this question and here are some of the many ideas I found:
  • Buy a better camera
  • Take a Photoshop or Lightroom class
  • Study the work of Photographers that you admire to get some new ideas
  • Join a photo club
  • Take a photo workshop
  • Go to a great location that inspires you
  • Study and better understand the rules of composition
  • Learn more about your camera’s capability
  • Get closer
  • Learn to shoot in manual mode
  • Use a tripod
  • Slow down
  • Learn more about light and the best light to photograph in
  • Purchase prime lenses
  • Develop a unique style
  • Photograph things that no one else has photographed
  • Deconstruct famous photographs to see why they work
  • Experiment with different techniques
  • Create images that are like the most popular ones on social media
  • Have your work critiqued
  • Learn new skills by recreating the photos that you admire
Some of these suggestions may be appropriate if your goal is to take better family and vacation photos. By all means learn more about your camera, Photoshop, and some compositional rules to help keep telephone poles from sticking out of head of your subjects!
But if your goal is to create images, not just take pictures, as a form of self-expression, then my suggestion would be to throw out all of the items on this list. Some are simply time wasters, some send you down the wrong path and others are actually harmful to the creative process.
Yes…you do need to know the basics on how to operate your camera and your post-processing software, but you certainly don’t need to be an expert to get started. Most of what I know about my camera and software, came about as I needed to do something specific.
For example: I have never needed to use layers and so I’ve never spent the time to learn them. But now I have a project that can only be done with layers and so I will learn it with the help of my friend John Barclay (whom I’ve been trying to help become a better photographer for years, but I fear it is hopeless!)
The items above are all red herrings and should be ignored, in my opinion.
Okay, it’s easy to tell people what NOT to do, but what would you recommend someone do to improve their photography?
If you could do just one thing to improve your photography, it would be to find and follow your Vision. That is the driving creative force behind all my images. It’s not the camera, the software, the location, the rules of composition, following photographic fads, or imitating others.
For me, it’s finding my Vision and following it. Knowing what I love and pursuing it. Ignoring what others are doing and creating images that I love, regardless of what anyone else thinks of them.
Nothing can compensate for a lack of Vision!
Shooting with a prime lens at the optimal aperture means nothing if you have a boring, lifeless image. And having the world’s most complicated post-processing routine will not help a poor and uninteresting composition.
I know because that’s the path I followed for so many years! I took that technical path because I didn’t think I had a Vision or any creative ability. I also followed that path because learning your camera and photoshop is not only fun, it’s straightforward and concrete.
And finding your Vision is the exact opposite of straightforward and concrete. First, Vision is such a difficult concept to understand (until you’ve found it, and then it’s so ridiculously simple). Second, there are no instruction manuals on how to go about finding your Vision. And Third, it takes a lot of difficult and sometimes painful introspection to find your Vision.
It took me 35 years to get to a point of even wanting to find out if I had a Vision, and then two long and hard years to do so.
Ceremonial Wash Basin
Now, if I could expand beyond this one suggestion, and offer one more:
Critically analyze your own work. I personally find this recent trend to have one’s work critiqued by an expert disturbing. What you are getting is only an opinion and there are many of those out there. And the critiquer’s opinions are colored by their Vision and their personal preferences.
And so whose opinion should you listen to?
I say listen to your own, it’s the most important one if you’re trying to create work that you love. Experts may be expert in many things, but there’s one subject they can never be an expert in: your Vision.
So how do you improve without hearing suggestions and new ideas? By critically analyzing your own work…that’s what I do.
Study your image and ask what you could do to make it better, and more in keeping with your Vision. What do you like and dislike about your image? Is there something you could change to make it better? If you could do it over, what would you do differently?
Another technique I use to analyze my image is to process it, let it sit for a week and then analyze it again. Sometimes it goes straight in the trash bin at that second viewing. Then I’ll tweak it, let it sit for another week and do it again…and again…and again if necessary.
At the point that I no longer make changes to the image, it is finished.
When you have found your Vision, your opinion is the only one that matters and you have no interest in the opinion of others. Once you have found your Vision, there are no need for critiques.
If you could do just one thing to improve your photography…I hope you’ll consider finding your Vision, because Vision is the single most important tool in your toolbox.
Here is an article which details the steps I took on my Vision journey.

37 thoughts on “If You Could Do Just One Thing to Improve Your Photography…What Would It Be?

    1. Dave, in my original article I was going to add two additional suggestions. The first was to self-critique your images, and the second was to just get out and shoot more!

      A great suggestion.

  1. I have been sorting all of my “better” images in order to make some coffee tables books for my and my guests’ pleasure.

    Going through my images has helped to make my “vision”; my view; my artistic expression visable to me. There is a group show in my small town in June where I will be sharing my 2-3 images which contain my personal “vision”.

    1. I like that exercise Curt! The very first thing I did to find my vision, was to go through my best images, analyze each one, and ask myself: what do I love about this image?

      I did not look for similarities between the images, just what did I love about them.

      Looking back now, I can see that was a hint as to what my vision consisted of.

      This exercise is on my list of topics for a future blog post.

  2. Thanks so much for the photos and your enlightening blog comments. Viewing the photos was like taking a mini escape and a great way to start my day.
    Thank you Cole!

  3. Well said. Personal vision and narrative are crucial elements that make a great photograph.

    You mention living with the print and I totally agree. Over time mistakes and bothersome issues reveal themselves.

    If I may propose considering applying a technique from the darkroom days. Take your favorite images or better yet take your images that you aren’t totally comfortable with and start over with the original digital image. You’ve got the previous recipe from prior edits in your mind, but now try and approach it with todays emotions and vision. The output might be vastly different. The best known case in point was Ansel Adam’s, Moonrise over Hernandez. His older prints are nowhere like the latter prints. Emotionally they are so much more powerful.

    IMO it’s a oversight common in the digital world. Following this might make your work more exciting to your collectors. It worked for Ansel.

    1. I remember the Ansel Adams exhibit that contain only one image: Moonrise, Hernandez. It showed how the image had changed over the years, and in truth, the first images were horrible!

      I’ve often wondered if I were to go back and process an image that I shot in 2008, what I create it the same?

      Interesting idea Bob.

  4. In your newsletter you convey how photography, as a work of art, is the fulfillment of personal taste and expression, composed by intuition and vision rather than by rule. We have the freedom to judge the value of our own images, to let our art remain open and to express our emotions and values as artists, uncluttered by outside critique or prejudice. I always enjoy reading your very thoughtful musings
    on the topic. Thank you.

  5. Great content on your site and always read your email blasts. Really benefit from your expertise, ideas and practical approach. Great idea from Curt above how sorting all his “better” images helped him to see his vision. Also loved his idea of coffee table books of his “better”images to enjoy and share with others.

    1. We often say that the best camera, is the one that you have at the moment. I guess we should also say, the best location is the one that you’re at.

      Be there, or be square!

  6. All good points. I also think it’s important to return to some of one’s older images and examine them to see what originally attracted you. The cropping tool allows for different expressions, at least to me, and we can “reinvent” ourselves at times. I also feel that for some of us who don’t like Wordle or crossword puzzles, that a few of the technical skills that you can employ in PS or LR are actually good for the brain…stop laughing Cole. However, the bottom line is you have to have your camera with you. You need to get out whenever you can. You need to retire as soon as you can as well! J

  7. Merci pour cette analyse. Je ne sais plus qui l’auteur qui avait dit, en transposant à la photographie, “ayez votre propre vision, celles des autres est déjà prise!”

    I think it takes a lifetime to develop your own vision, your own way of being in the world. But it is so exciting

  8. Hello my friend,
    I love your article, as usual, you always serve up golden nugets of wisdom.

    By longevity standards I’ve only been doing “fine art” since 2014. I’ve returned to my edited library since the new year and found myself expressing a different emotional connection to the previous image(s); even a few that won international recognition.

    My mentor and dear friend, Joel Tjintjelaar, are Zooming this very subject.

    Locating my vision, heck I am also wrestling with genre. At times I need to depart from black and white long exposure, architecture and do some still life, landscapes and lately what I call “eclectic artistry” which can be seen on my website.

    So thank you Cole for your timely article!

  9. Pay attention to the light!

    The best camera is the one you have with you…which for me today is a pinhole camera!

    Make the photographs you love to make!

  10. Hi Cole,
    I read your thoughts and would agree with it while adding one or two of my own to yours. I would agree that gear does not stop you from finding your vision, however it might hinder you from executing it to the max. For example, you were kind enough to share some of your tips on processesing your black and white images. A camera with great dynamic range and a lens, which can capture better detail can lead to a better image in the end. I realize you never said it wasn’t important to have proper gear, but I do think it can add to executing a vision. Second, someone above mentioned about possibly taking a look at old images with a fresh look. I have done that with some success, but I think where it helped me more was to realize how many mistakes I made in either my composition or even exposure. I also did a study of the focal length and was very surprised at how many were in a close focal range. I had expected it be all over the board since I carried multiple lenses. Overall, I do appreciated at how open you are to sharing your thoughts. Thanks.

  11. Occam’s Razor” Multiplicity ought not be posited without necessity” = K.I.S.S.=Keep It Simple Stupid… …. .I love to see your news letter come back ……..Old Fool Larry

  12. I would have kept my Pentax k10.
    I never took better photos with anything else – or had as much fun.

    Cameras and women.
    Get a good one and don’t trade up.

    1. Yes! And don’t go asking everyone else what they think and what would they do to the image. It’s your Vision and your image. Figure it out!

  13. Hi Cole,
    Yesterday, I just realized what my Vision is. I was able to photograph wild horses this past February. I probably took over 500 photos. When I got home, I realized that I loved the ones of the close-ups of the horses with just their heads.
    Seeing that I was a macro flower photographer in the past, I thought this makes sense. The flowers were all close-ups too.
    It was then, that I realized what my vision was. Then I read your e-mail today. It was inspiring for me to pursue my vision. We are going to go to Africa in a week and now I know just where my focus will be. Thanks for your support in encouraging me to follow my vision. You are brilliant.

    1. Brilliant? Me? Golly gee, thank you! (I’ll bet John Barclay doesn’t get called brilliant!)

      Okay, seriously now, I’m very happy for you Diane! As John Barclay says, you should create images that make your heart sing.

      Clearly you’ve found that. Have a wonderful time in Africa.

  14. In 2021 I set a goal to take a photograph every day. Then I stepped away, and I’ve just started going through them again and marking the ones that really resonate with me. It’s been very good exercise to discover my vision! Thanks, Cole, forthe inspiration!

    1. That’s a great thing to do John. It also gets you into the habit seeing.

      I recently started creating one image in every hotel room I stay. A very small and typically boring space, so a real challenge at times.

  15. Hello Cole,
    I am a Scottish student studying photography for my higher qualification. I have to create a compilation of 2 photographers works and their influences and I have chosen you. I have been reading up on you and learnt a lot from it. However, I would like to kindly ask if you could contact me with two images: one from before your photographic celibacy and one from after. Also any comments about what influences you would be greatly appreciated.

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