30 Ways to Improve Your Photography

Ask a group of photo enthusiasts what they have done recently to improve the quality of their images, and many will likely respond by describing the purchase of some fancy new piece of gear. Others may discuss the technical mastery of a new technique, while a few may credit a visit to an art gallery or museum for their newfound inspiration.

In fact, great photographs are rarely the result of good equipment and technique alone; other important ingredients include creativity, discovery, experimentation, clarity, and passion. Ansel Adams spoke of the art of seeing, or the ability of the trained photographer to visualize a finished picture in his/her mind's eye before the scene is actually captured on film.

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of PHOTOgraphic Magazine, we're offering the following 30 tips for improving your photography. When experimenting with new equipment or unfamiliar techniques, strive to use these tools to reveal a bit of yourself—with images that provide a visual expression of your feelings.

1 Nighttime is the Right Time
For most photographers, the setting sun is a signal to grab a few romantic "postcard shots" and pack up the gear for another day. But if you always stow your camera after the sun goes down, you'll miss out on a whole realm of moods, special effects and creative possibilities. Colorful fountains, floodlit monuments and dimly lit street scenes all offer potential for great nighttime images.

All you'll need to get started is a camera with a "B" setting, a sturdy tripod and a cable release. A lens hood will improve your results by eliminating flare from stray light, and a small flashlight will keep you from fumbling with your camera's controls in the dark. Once you've arrived at your best guess as to a correct exposure, you'll increase your odds of success by bracketing—shooting additional shots in 1/2-stop increments above and below your calculated exposure.

2 Visit an Art Museum
Whether your interest is portraiture, still life, or landscape photography, you'll be surprised at how much you can improve your work by studying fine paintings at a local art museum. Concepts of color, lighting, form, posing and composition are truly universal. In fact, many early photographers used their training as artists to gain acclaim in the new medium of photography.

3 Try Different Films
You wouldn't wear the same clothing every day, so why shoot with the same film as do many photographers? If you usually shoot color, try experimenting with black-and-white. Or push-process some high-speed film to accentuate the grain for an unusual effect. Infrared film—available in both color and black-and-white—enables you to create some very unusual effects without any special techniques. One interesting exercise it to shoot the same subjects with both color and black-and-white film. Then analyze the results to determine why you prefer one choice over the other.

4 Get a Superwide-Angle Lens
More versatile than their "fisheye" brethren, lenses in the 15-20mm range still offer exaggerated perspective for striking effects. Delivering incredible depth of field, these superwide-angle lenses are great for architectural shooting, landscape photography or emphasizing an interesting foreground subject in your scene. Subjects close to the camera will appear huge, while those further away seem to disappear into the horizon. Many digital camera manufacturers now offer superwide-angle lens converters for extending the focal range of the camera's built-in lens.

These lenses are also ideal for "airing out" cluttered compositions in cramped interiors. Be careful to avoid close-ups of people with superwide lenses, unless you have a humorous intent; their unique perspective will give your subjects huge noses, with eyes that recede into the distance.

5 Use Your Tripod
Many discriminating photographers, in their never-ending quest for sharper images, spare no expense when it comes to lenses. Yet, these same shooters will often ignore one of the most common (and easily rectified) sources of "soft" pictures; the failure to properly steady the camera against movement or vibration. An old rule of thumb states that for sharp hand-held images, your shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of the focal length of your lens; i.e. when using a 200mm telephoto, your shutter speed should be 1/200 or faster or your camera should be on a tripod.

Many pros always use a tripod with lenses longer than 300mm, regardless of their shutter speed setting. Tripods are also essential when using macro lenses at high magnifictions.

6 Buy a Hand-Held Light Meter
Many amateur photographers are under the mistaken notion that the hand-held light meter is a complicated and expensive accessory that only belongs in the gadget bag of the professional. The truth is that hand-held meters are relatively affordable, easy to use, and will let you do things that your camera's built-in reflected-light meter cannot do; like taking incident readings of the light falling onto your subject (rather than reflected from it). And if you are willing to spend a little extra money, you can get a multi-purpose model that will measure flash as well as ambient light.

7 Take a Wilderness Trip
When the creative juices stop flowing and you find yourself in the doldrums, the solution may be as simple as packing up your gear and heading for the great outdoors. A wilderness photo excursion is a great way to rekindle your passion for photography, hone your skills, and come back with some outstanding images. Unpredictable weather, rugged terrain, expansive vistas and abundant wildlife all combine to provide a fresh, new perspective.

Be sure to bring plenty of film and batteries, as well as the appropriate clothing, footwear and amenities. If you're not an experienced camper, a local wilderness outfitter can set you up with everything you need for a safe and comfortable trip.

8 Buy a Scanner
Even if you own a good digital camera, it's time to give serious thought to buying a scanner and setting up a "digital darkroom"—especially if you have boxes of old prints and sleeves of slides that need to be organized. A good scanner is the best way to digitize your "image library." Once a photograph has been scanned, you can use an image-editing program to adjust color, contrast, saturation, sharpness and a host of other variables. You can even eliminate scratches and other imperfections with relative ease. For complete details on choosing a scanner and getting it up and running, take a look at the special scanning section beginning on page 59 of our March, 2002 issue.

9 Read the 2002 Big Book of Photography
Our annual Big Book of Photography is a comprehensive instructional resource designed to inspire you take more and better pictures. Geared toward both the film and the digital photographer, the Big Book includes instructional articles on everything from portraiture and aerial photography to tips on shooting clouds, pets, panorama scenes and more.

10 Visit the Zoo
A trip to the zoo is not only fun, but will give you an opportunity to practice photographing "wildlife" and birds in a controlled environment. Animals tend to be more active early in the morning, so try to visit the zoo as soon as it opens. Feeding time also provides a great opportunity to take pictures—especially with the big cats—and it's worth a telephone call to check the feeding schedule for the animals that interest you most.

Be sure to take a long lens and a tripod or monopod. Strive to capture images that appear as though they were taken in the wild; without any tell-tale visitors, fences or other distracting elements in the background.