What Has Improved Your Photography the Most?

With more information available to us than we could consume in a thousand lifetimes, we're forced to do what humanity has always had to do: look at what has been successful for others and emulate it.

In a recent conversation, I mentioned that the act which has had the most profound impact on my business is reading business books. It's obvious when you condense the idea down to a sentence, but before I had started, I couldn't imagine it being much use for a photographer. There were few books on the business of photography and how to run one successfully, and I suspected (incorrectly, might I add) that generalized books about business and entrepreneurship wouldn't be applicable. Fortunately, I gave it a go, saw the value in it, and reading became a staple of my working life. This got me wondering: what was a profound and impactful change I made in my photography that propelled me forward the most?

It certainly wasn't as obvious as reading was to business skills, but that might be because it wasn't as recent. I tried to trace back to the earlier days when I would chat with photographers on a sub-forum of a car website, through to somewhere in the middle before I decided to turn it in to a career. It seemed a linear gradient, but in actuality, it was made of peaks and troughs of improvement. The first few examples of improvement were from challenges, and they definitely had more value than I appreciated at the time. The one I regularly undertook was a monthly competition to shoot a certain theme like "nature" or "dark." There was enough diversity in these monthly challenges that I would have to put a lot of thought into what I was going to shoot and how.

I was obsessed with macro from the get-go as a photographer and relentlessly stalking insects to create images of taught me a lot that I use today in commercial work of smaller products.

The other challenges that improved me — albeit to a lesser degree than the competitions — were ones of consistency with shooting. Much like the familiar 365 challenges where you have to take a picture every day, I completed shorte- term examples like 10 images shot and edited to present all in one day and so on. Practice is always valuable, but how much value it holds is contingent on a number of influential factors. In the book Grit, by Angela Duckworth, Duckworth studies what it takes to get to the top of an area, particularly a sport or an instrument. One fundamental truth that all successful people exhibited was consistent and deliberate practice. It's the "deliberate practice" that is relevant to this question. That is, the act of practicing is not enough in isolation and instead should be directed and thoughtful; practice with goals for specific improvements.

These were all minor peaks, however, and none of them felt like dramatic catalysts of positive change in my photographic ability. I wondered about other areas that have helped me to some degree or another, like having a network of talented photographers as friends and colleagues, writing about photography regularly, and immersing myself in the industry. Suddenly though, it dawned on me. "Oh dear," thought I, "I know what it is." There was certainly a tipping point where the quality of my images and my command of the tools at my disposal started snowballing quickly and I'd finally figured it out. But it was disappointing.

500px. Yes, the photo-sharing website. You see, I joined it very early on, before it was particularly successful. What started as a replacement for Flickr, which had become tacky, messy, and dull, became something else; it became a focus for my photography. You see, every day, I would browse the Popular pages for each genre, and most importantly, the Editor's Choice section. I would look at the handful of photographers who were featuring regularly at the highest level and the bar was set; I wanted to — no, I had to get to that standard. Looking back now, I can see what I was probably aware of back then too: my work both technically and creatively wasn't good enough. So, I started getting ridiculous. I went from taking pictures of attractive people I knew against walls with little to no posing instruction to staging elaborate scenes of chaos. My first real attempt at such chaos made the front page on all genres, got selected for Editor's Choice, and was subsequently featured in several galleries in major cities.

I realized then that although plaudits and praise were nice, the feeling of pushing myself to see what I could create was much better. Sometimes that comes in the form of eye-catching shoots, hopefully creating memorable imagery. But more often for me now, it comes in the form of creating commercial imagery that is excellent at its job: showing off a product. My most recent example of pushing myself was a 50-frame macro stack where every constituent image that made up the final file was also a long exposure to capture the green glow of a watch's powerful lume. I knew doing a long-exposure macro stack would be time consuming, awkward, would require complete control of surroundings and light so not to affect the reflection, and would be tricky in post. There were a plethora of considerations to avoid common pitfalls with this type of commercial photography, and my life would have been easier just taking a shot and cropping in. But I wanted to push my boundaries whenever possible.

So, my answer to the question is 500px in the widest scope, but more specifically, it's the desire to push boundaries and challenge myself where ever possible. It's something most people talk about doing, but few actually follow through with. Even today, I have to check whether I'm coasting and force myself out of my comfort zone or set myself a difficult task.

Now ,I want to pass the question over to you. You're welcome to name anything from a lens to a complete philosophy, just comment what it is, and how it improved you.

Lead image courtesy of Kaboompics.com on Pexels

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Mark Davidson's picture

For me it was practice with focus. For many years I shot aimlessly with poor results. When I set myself a goal the results were much better.
Looking back, I see the wasted efforts of aimless shooting.
Today my clients set the projects and I get to enjoy the process of surprising them in a good way.

michaeljin's picture

The day that I started to devote actual energy into working on a single skill at a time rather than changing everything from shoot to shoot.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

For me, it was digital photography. I could immediately see what my settings did, adjust the settings, watch again.
In this way, I learnt quite a bit more in 3 years than in the 30 years before.
And Youtube, because of all the instructional videos.

Ken Flanagan's picture

Wearing crazy short shorts. Allows freedom of movement and flexibility. Lol.
All joking aside, it was just learning everyday. Fstoppers has a lot to do with that as I read this blog almost daily. You guys do a great job. I am devoted to learning the craft, exploring the possibilities, and stretching myself to make what felt was impossible become real in a physical print.

Robert Altman's picture

Learning how to see-find-and finally craft light and shadow. 'Available' light can be great - but learning how to use strobes gave me the freedom to create my vision no matter what the existing conditions... Producing images efficiently and consistently rather than hoping and waiting until I could possibly find what I required naturally.

David Pavlich's picture

Reading/watching serious critiques by accomplished photographers, especially when my shots were the subject. It's the little nuanced stuff that gets a shot to the next level and having another set of eyes or three can find those hidden gems.

Michael Comeau's picture

The Dean Collins DVD set changed photography for me forever. I use the lighting principles I learned from him on every single shoot.

Deleted Account's picture

Doing less of it has.
By that I mean, make less images. Think more about the ones I make.

John Fore III's picture


Timothy Gasper's picture

What has improved my photography the most? The inspiration of other photographers via the hard work and images they create. That inculdes everyone here. Like you...Michael Jin...and you...David Pavlic...and you..Mark Davidson and everyone else. I have looked at your images and just love them. Your love of and for photography is embedded in the souls of the images you create.

Tomas Atiles's picture

The best thing for me was shutting down social media so I could focus on my own vision and creativity and really hone my own style. To take it a bit further, not paying attention to social media has helped me go further inward and develop my own style organically. The results have been photos that I'm more proud of.

Gary Eyring's picture

Thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become technically efficient and effective allows me to focus on the creative and artistic aspects of the craft.

Gerald Bertram's picture

Learning off camera flash

Blake Aghili's picture

Tutorials and then internet to connect me to people way better than me out of my circle in the little village I currently live in

Dennis Galloway's picture

Nice legs and a crotch shot has done wonders for my photography.

C Fisher's picture

Do they sell those at Walmart? 😁

Pradipto WP's picture

Realizing the importance of light in photography (and stop worrying to much about gears)

Deleted Account's picture

With time my photography disimprove more and more…

Jan Holler's picture

To find the self-confidence to be able to appreciate one's own work.

Keith Meinhold's picture

The Digital Darkroom (IE: RAW +Lightroom). The ability to actually produce the shot I intended without in camera JPEG mucking it up. In camera processing is the digital equivalent of dropping off film at the pharmacy.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

For me it was when I started to ignore advice from "experts" and went my own way

Andre Goulet's picture

Shooting lots (and lots!) in tough conditions, thinking like a craftsman instead of just being a shooter and honing, honing, honing the genres that I care about.

Eric Peterson's picture

Sitting with a friend and savagely critiquing each other’s photos.

Rhonald Rose's picture

Photography books about composition & exposure, vlogs narrating composing pictures.

Timothy Turner's picture

For me shooting lpeg has allowed me to use the rules I learned when using film, I can get the results I want in camera. Also the moment I quit caring what other people think.

Daniel Medley's picture

For me, personally, working with off camera flash has helped improve my photography more than anything else. The skills I've learned (still learning) for flash have translated directly across everything photographic, even when flash isn't used. I think about light in a way that I did not before.

Kimberly Manning's picture

It’s been two things for me- watching photo critiques. Not just here but Scott Kelby’s and when I can find any by Joe McNally. Showing me what is wrong in an image or what could have been done better has taken my photography up several notches. I will literally sit behind the computer and say out loud “oh!” Or “wow I see that now”. I know I still have quite a ways to go but I look back at images I took two years ago and wonder how on earth I thought those were any good. The other thing that has changed things for me is I have stopped “following” other local photographers. Since we all have access to the same locations I was finding that I would seek out the places they had photographed and I was ending up taking the same images they were taking. It was totally closing me off to using my own resources and creativity. Now I am forced to find locations I’ve never seen photographed and come up with compositions and posing all on my own.

Jerome Brill's picture

I think general research. If I see an image I really like I try to figure out what it took to take that photo. I've been taking photos since I can remember but it wasn't until 2012 is when I got my first DSLR. All I wanted to do was create an epic landscape shot and make it a wallpaper on my computer. That was the main reason I wanted a "better camera". What I soon realized is that you kind of have to be there in the first place to take a photo of it. That was just one thing I learned. Now I know more about what it takes to take certain shots. It all depends if I want to invest time and money into those kinds of photos. Photography is not a full time career for me so I try to invest in what I can. In the meantime, it doesn't cost much to do research and learn. This is what has improved for me the most.

Patrick Smith's picture

For me it's showing up, not just to paid jobs, but showing up to new venues and calling ahead to get credentialed. I mean trying out new things and then showing up, like recently I started shooting my local Minor League Teams and more breaking news. I am an Getty Images Staffer so I usually get assignments, but its never enough and although its fun to shoot NBA, NFL and MLB...it's kind of routine by now. So now I am applying my photojournalism skills and know how in my off time shooting similar things but on my own and the selling those organizations images and or prints. I realized that even under contract that there was nothing holding me back from making images and money in my free time. Also I feel its more rewarding and less stressful when not under pressure with deadlines, etc.

Don Risi's picture

Two things -- belonging to a photography club which has regular competitions and critiques, and working for a local magazine on every kind of assignment imaginable. Those two things have made me a much better photographer, especially the critiques.

Daniel L Miller's picture

Smart Phone Photography!

A couple years back I took the time to collect all my iPhone photos into an informal gallery and was stunned how fresh they felt in comparison to my DSLR shots and client work.

The spontaneous images I had taken with my phone when nobody was watching, or cared, were "found images" that had simply inspired me enough to stop and shoot. I didn't overthink it.

Taking that mind-set into my regular work may not be as simple as it should.

Chris Sampson's picture

Great comments, so far!
For me, it was slowing down and finding that sweet spot to take a better shot, observing what I liked most about other's photos and techniques (mental included) and being more thorough and patient with my editing. Finally, spending more time prepping shots instead of "we'll just do it in photoshop" was a must.

Don Althaus's picture

It was that point - and it wasn't too long ago in retrospect - when I FINALLY realized that I wasn't about "pictures" or "images" but rather I am telling the story of the subject and that the photography and the words are the vehicles that work together to tell that story.

Don Althaus's picture

For me, it was that point - and it wasn't too long ago in retrospect - when I FINALLY realized that my work isn't about "pictures" or "images" but rather I am telling the story of the subject and that the photography and the words used are the vehicles that work together to tell that story.

peter duke's picture

Without a doubt, for me it has been the act of taking photos, for years and years. For around a decade i took shots of anything and everything that i could. I would shoot landscapes, street, product, studio, macro, ICM and every other method i could try . After looking through my photos from those years, i could see how my photography techniques and styles progressed and changed (some for the better and some not!) . This also helped me decide what styles of photography i was most interested in and i followed that path . It also gave me vital information such as what focal length i preferred to shoot with, the orientation of my preferred shots and favourite colours/compositions . This eventually led to my "style" of photography . Also getting inspiration from not just other photographers but from art as well . I tend to shoot contrasty images and got a lot of inspiration from the artist Edward Hopper .

C Fisher's picture

I too am obsessed with macro lol. Did you use a rail for the watch focus stack or just manually adjust?

David Anstey's picture

I preface by saying I'm a hobby photographer. For me, the answer is I've come to the understanding that a photograph must be printed to exist. From there I set myself an annual goal of making one print to hang on a wall within my home. I spend many weekends driving around looking for subject matter, I pick out some potential locations and come back to them at various seasons and take DSLR/Cellphone sketches all before attempting a film capture with either my RB67 or a Spotmatic.