Feeling like your photography skills have plateaued? It happens to the best of us. One minute, you’re cruising along, picking up new techniques and elevating your sense of composition and light like a boss – and the next, you’ve hit a creative wall.
But don’t worry! While there’s no single magic bullet for improving your photography, I do have plenty of techniques and exercises that are designed to help you level up your skills, and that’s what I share in this article.
Note that different techniques will work better for different shooters, so if you don’t like a method, just skip it and move on. With any luck, you’ll find an approach that works for you, and you’ll be able to develop that creative eye once again.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Visit an art museum
I can’t overstress the importance of art appreciation for photographers. Many shooters tend to separate more traditional art mediums (e.g., painting) from photography, but they’re intimately related – and if you want to get better at photography, then become an admirer and student of the art world.
So visit a museum and spend the day studying the work of great artists. Better yet, take a pen and paper with you. When a painting or work of art grabs your attention, jot down why. Write down everything you love about it and the reasoning behind it. If you find a piece that you don’t like, write that down, too.
Art museums are present in most big cities. In fact, lots of cities have more than one! If you don’t think you have an art museum nearby, I encourage you to do a bit of googling. (Also, consider checking out any local college campuses.)
Additionally, many museums are free (or free on certain days). And if your local museum isn’t free to the public, you may still be able to get in without paying; for example, if you have a debit or credit card through Bank of America, you can get in free at over 100 museums nationwide.
2. Try new perspectives
Take a day and focus on improving your sense of perspective. Really hone in on different camera angles and think about why they work. If there are any angles that you haven’t tried before – and I bet there are! – test them out. This exercise is only limited by how far you are willing to get out of your comfort zone.
If you are shooting a portrait session, bring a ladder with you. If you don’t have a ladder, climb a tree or find a perspective above your subject’s head. Not only will this give you a totally unique look, but also shooting from above is almost always flattering to your subject’s features.
If you are photographing flowers, consider shooting them from underneath. While this may feel a bit dirty, I promise that it’ll be rewarding. Play with the angle of the sun and capture the translucency of the flower petals as the sunlight shines down.
A fresh perspective can almost always give you that creative boost you are looking for, and by exploring new camera angles, you’ll add some cool effects to your photographic toolbox.
3. Take a trip to your local zoo
Visiting a zoo is one of my favorite things to do as a photographer – mainly because I’m doing it for myself. I feel no sense of pressure, and I don’t have a client that’s after a certain type of image. I don’t feel the need to create a certain look or feel in my photos. It’s just me, my camera, and hundreds of exotic animals, which is a recipe for lots of creative fun.
Plus, many zoos are cheap, and most of them have a day per week where you can get in for half-price.
Here’s a challenge: When you take zoo photos, try and conceal the fact that the animals are inside enclosures. In other words, try to get creative when framing your shots to exclude cages, bars, and glass.
This can be challenging at times, but it’s very rewarding. If you encounter a fence, a fake-looking rock, or a toy, change your perspective until you get a better composition (or, if necessary, don’t take the picture). This mindset will help you improve your framing skills, and I promise that you will have a blast!
4. Use a tiny memory card
It might seem tough, but if you’re serious about improving your photos, I encourage you to minimize your possibilities. That’s right, minimize. While being able to shoot thousands of images is nice, it can also dull your creative thought process. Since you can capture near-unlimited images, it’s easy to start firing off shots left and right all day long – and while you may end up with some keepers, you won’t really develop your skills.
Consider this instead: The next time you’re out taking pictures – not for a client, of course! – try taking the smallest memory card you own. Choose one that will allow you to capture a very limited number of shots, and don’t take any other cards.
(If you only have large-capacity cards, you might consider setting a limit in your head of 25-50 photos for the day, though be sure to identify your limit before heading out, and whatever you do, stick to it!)
As soon as you limit yourself, you’ll be forced to carefully consider each shot you take. You’ll start paying extreme attention to composition, light, and camera settings, and you’ll really think about how great images are created.
5. Take your camera everywhere
In his book Visual Poetry, Chris Orwig writes, “Even without taking pictures, carrying a camera enhances life.”
I couldn’t agree more. Carrying a camera is an instantaneous way to put your senses on high alert. It causes you to look at the world as if your camera is pressed to your eye. It gives you a reason to slow down, to take everything in, no matter where you are.
Commit to carrying your camera with you everywhere for a certain period of time. Take pictures knowing full well that the world may never see them. Create photographs of everyday things, moments in time that normally wouldn’t require a photograph. The trick is to see these subtle events in a new light and to find a way to make them interesting. Even if you just use your camera phone, this tip is a solid way to improve your creative eye.
6. Always be a beginner
The moment you start thinking that you’re the best at something (or even the best in your circle), you become unteachable. Instead, believe that you have much to learn. Make sure you always have the mindset of a beginner!
I’ve met my share of people who think they know it all. You try and tell them something that you’ve learned, and they say that they knew it already. Or they refuse to accept anything new because they think their way is the best. That is a death sentence to your creativity.
No matter your skill level, set aside your pride and be willing to learn from others. Join a local camera club. Take part in an online forum. Maybe you are at the top of your game, but I bet that you still have more you can learn, even from less experienced shooters.
7. Pick a color
Here’s a fun creative exercise:
Pick a color. Then create a portfolio that uses your chosen color as a motif. (If you have time, do this with several colors!)
For instance, if you choose blue, seek out subjects that feature plenty of blue hues. Shoot near the water, or point your camera up into the sky. Stay out past sunset until the sky turns a wonderfully melancholy blue color. Find textured walls that are painted in different blue shades and colors.
If you choose yellow, find a field of sunflowers or spend some time arranging a banana-and-pineapple still life. Shoot straight into the sun, bathing the frame in golden sunlight.
The goal is to get you really thinking about the power of color in your images. Working with color is a skill that many photographers don’t have, but it can make a huge difference to your shots.
Note: You can make the color even more obvious in post-processing by selectively saturating it!
8. Shadow a photographer you admire
For the most part, photographers are nice, generous, and giving people. Sure, there are some who won’t give the time of day to a photographer who is looking for a mentor, but there are others who will be extremely supportive.
So find a photographer that inspires you and form a relationship with them. Offer to take them out to lunch. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to learn from that person and maybe even shadow them.
Invite them out for a photo walk and offer to buy dinner or drinks afterward. Becoming a great photographer is a tough road to take by yourself, and having a mentor can make the difference between success and failure.
If you want to take things a step further, ask to hold lights for them during their photoshoots or even to carry around their gear. You will learn a lot just by observing how they interact with their clients. If they shoot landscapes, the same applies; offer to carry their gear as they scout the places they photograph. Pay careful attention to what they do, and make sure you take mental notes!
9. Read about (and practice using) the golden ratio
Also known as the golden mean, the divine proportion, and the rule of phi, the golden ratio was discovered by Fibonacci and is found in nature, architecture, and art. It’s a ratio that makes things appealing to the human eye, and you can use it to enhance your compositions.
The golden ratio is basically the rule of thirds on steroids. There are a few different handy overlays you can use to start composing with the golden ratio in mind; I’d encourage you to spend some time studying the golden spiral and the phi grid.
Then head out with your camera and practice. See if you can create some golden-ratio compositions, then consider how the images would change if you used a different composition technique – such as the rule of thirds – instead. In my experience, becoming knowledgeable on topics like the golden ratio can drastically increase your chances of creating photos that attract the attention of viewers.
10. Find an unfamiliar setting and stick with it
If there is a setting on your camera you are unfamiliar with, grab your camera and switch over to that setting. Then promise yourself that you won’t stop using that setting until you’re fully comfortable with it.
You can use this approach to master a variety of different camera features – such as in-camera focus-stacking, AF tracking, or your depth of field preview button – but I find it especially useful if you’re still working with your camera’s Auto mode.
I don’t mean to sound negative, but automatic settings can seriously hinder your creativity and photographic skills. These settings take away your ability to determine how the image will look, short of composing the frame and pressing the shutter.
So if you are stuck on Auto, try switching your camera to its Aperture Priority mode, Shutter Priority mode, or Program mode. Then dedicate an entire day to shooting with only that setting. Pretty soon, you’ll be an absolute expert!
By the way, if you’ve never read your camera manual, I highly recommend it. Most photographers don’t realize how much they can learn simply by thumbing on through. I’ve been known to even read my manual on plane rides! (What better time than when you have nothing else to do?) Once you become accustomed to using one setting, move on to the next one, and work your way up!
11. Consider the difference between inspiration and creativity
There are a number of articles on the web similar to this one, all providing a list of ways to get better at photography. But almost all of those lists will tell you to go online and look to the work of other photographers for inspiration.
While this may be a good idea in moderation, it’s not my favorite approach.
How are you going to develop your own style by mimicking the work of others? How are you going to enhance your creativity when you get all your ideas from other artists? Owen Shifflett wrote an incredibly interesting (and popular) blog post called “Consumption: How Inspiration Killed, Then Ate, Creativity,” and I think every photographer, new or seasoned, should read it.
Bottom line: When preparing for your next photoshoot, avoid hopping online to look for posing ideas and post-processing looks. Where is the uniqueness in that? When we immerse ourselves in the work of other photographers, we end up stifling our own creativity.
Instead, sit down with a pencil and paper and start brainstorming. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to take some time, but what if you come up with something completely unique? Something completely yours?
12. Find something you’re not comfortable shooting
Improving a skill often involves getting out of your comfort zone, and that’s certainly true of photography. If you always photograph the same subject, you may find yourself using the same camera, compositional, and lighting techniques over and over again – but by forcing yourself to photograph subjects that intimidate you, you’ll develop new skills that you can then apply to your usual subjects.
If all you do is photograph families and seniors, go out and shoot landscapes one weekend. All of a sudden, your images will require completely new camera settings. No longer will you need to pose people; no longer will you need to use a flash, a backdrop, or props; no longer will you need to use a shallow depth of field or a faster shutter speed. Instead, you’ll need to think about your subject in a completely new way. A landscape won’t listen to you – you can’t tell it to move to the left or right, nor can you use a flash to reveal a bit more detail in a certain area. Landscape photography generally requires a deep depth of field, a slower shutter speed, a tripod, and a whole new eye for composition and lighting.
If you spend time photographing unfamiliar subjects, I promise that you will come away with new ideas and techniques that you can apply to the subjects you are comfortable shooting!
13. Use a tripod
Most photographers, especially hobbyist photographers, shoot handheld. Personally, I know very few photographers who carry a tripod at all times (and you almost never see a tripod in the hands of beginners).
But something interesting happens when you attach your camera to a tripod. Suddenly, everything slows down. You can no longer snap photos left and right; instead, when you use a tripod, you really have to take the time to compose each image. A tripod will force you to think more deeply about composition, and it will also force you to think about your photos more generally – about what makes a good image and whether it’s really worth pressing the shutter button.
If you’re reluctant to work with a tripod, try this: Go out and take 10 handheld images, then take 10 more photos using a tripod. See which set comes out better!
14. Meet other photographers
One of the best things you can do as a photographer? Network with other photographers! And while networking online is great, having face-to-face interactions with like-minded people is so much better. You might even find some buddies to shoot with, which is a great way to learn new techniques and improve your craft.
If you’re not sure how to find other photographers, start by googling photography clubs in your area. Another option is to join the local PPA division in your city, or you can look for groups on Meetup.com. If you’re lucky, there will be a group in your area that does regular photo walks, studio events, and more – and in my experience, they’re a blast to be a part of!
How to improve your photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
The 14 easiest ways to improve your photography skills, fast! Of course, you shouldn’t do all of these at once; instead, go through the list, identify a method or two that speaks to you, and see what you can get out of it.
Also, any time you need a boost or you feel like your skills are plateauing again, be sure to check back here.
Good luck, and go enhance your skills!
Now over to you:
Do you have any suggestions for improving your images? What has worked for you in the past? Share your thoughts in the comments below!