The best way to increase your skill level in photography is to continue to learn it every day. Never assume you know everything and challenge yourself to look at the medium in new ways. I’ve been shooting since 1980 and today I get hired to do professional shoots regularly, but I still continually seek out new techniques and new ways of thinking about the medium. It keeps it all fresh and interesting to me and gets me out of my comfort zone.
My favorite photography advice is the kind that runs counter to the normal way people suggest doing things. Here’s a short list of techniques you might try that they won’t tell you about in the manual…
Ditch Your Auto Focus
Out on the street, things are moving fast and you have to be ready to get that moment quickly. To make it even harder, you not only have to get the action at exactly the right time, you have to compose. In that split second, you’re better off focusing in manual. Why? Because you can set it and largely forget it, whereas auto focus is an attention hog, constantly needling you to deal with it. This takes a teeny bit of attention off of composition and that can make all the difference in a shot. Also, auto focus just isn’t all-powerful.
For example, take a look at this image I took a few years back of a child in a public fountain. Auto focus has no way to deal with this situation. There’s foreground elements constantly in flux and messing with the camera’s AI. You might be able to lock down on the boy here, but you have to remember he’s moving, too. No, the only way to really nail this shot consistently is on manual. Find the plane the kid is on, focus and then spend the rest of the time just thinking about composition, not how to tell your camera what to shoot here.
There are other situations where auto focus really struggles: reflections are difficult, as are low contrast scenes and anything where your main focus falls outside your camera’s focus point area or within too small a space for your focus point to find it. Even in Sonys, where the focus area covers over 90% of the sensor, it can often take too long to get your focus point to the right spot when trying to shoot quickly.
In this shot below, taken of Mexico as seen from the United States, the small space the boy was playing in would have been near-impossible for an auto focus reticle to track consistently. Using manual focus here allowed me to not have to think about it at all. Focus and then forget about focusing and simply try to position and time correctly.
And the truth is, manual focus is not nearly as old school as it sounds. Today, most cameras have multiple tools to help you do manual focus easily, including focus peaking (which puts a bright color right on the edges that are in focus) and focus aid (where moving the focus ring zooms into your subject, so you can quickly focus on small areas). It might sound weird, but going manual is actually one of the most advanced techniques in photography. Use it specifically to open up more time for compositional thinking — the best way to create powerful, purposeful imagery.
People have the wrong impression about how “filters” make photos look better. It’s often thought of in terms like Warmth, Saturation, Shadow Brightness, Shadow and Highlight Colors, Dynamic Range or things like “fade” or “brilliance.” As if one could find a recipe where all those things mix together to make any photo great. It doesn’t really work that way, as all photos are different and no one filter can truly make any photo look good in and of itself (and this is why companies like VSCO can forever pump out recipes — different scenes will look better with different developing).
But I have another way of thinking about coloring, not within the context of apps or individual controls, but within the context of what you’re looking at. And specifically, the color. I call it “color matching.”
In the before/after here, yes, I’ve worked nearly every control available to get the look on the right, but I had one goal — make the image blue. Why blue? Because there’s a sky.
See, the real trick here is to pick the predominant color of your photo and no matter which color that is, use the controls to try to compliment and enhance that one color. This is as true for the yellow and golds of sunset as they are for the deep greens of lush mountain areas.
In many ways you are falsely coloring your photos, but the reason the eye doesn’t see it as false is because it feels correct to a good portion of it. Your mind assumes the image is correct here, because the sky is correct (kind of), and that cues the mind that the photo is “real.”
Here’s what that building looks like against white— you can really see just how oddly colored it is. The highlight have a purplish hue and those window shades are impossibly blue. But when paired with the blue sky, you believe it all.
When you see someone with a consistent color palette to all their photos, this is how they are doing it. They are likely shooting scenes that have a consistent primary color throughout them , then coloring everything else to largely compliment those one or two colors.
Go Full Bleed
This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to fully understand — a lot of what makes an image look good is not how you shot it, but how you display it. If you want to see an immediate increase in the drama and impact of your image, simply have it take up as much of the real estate as possible on whatever screen or page you’re displaying it on. In print, we call this a “full bleed” image — one that reaches all the way to the edge of the page — and it’s part of the reason images in magazines always seem so special. Emotionally, you become enveloped in them. But this rule can be applied anywhere you are displaying your work.
Here’s an example on Instagram:
As most people look at their phones vertically, a 4x5 portrait crop is going to take up the most room on the screen and have more impact. There’s nothing too different about these two shots, but the one that takes up more space just feels more like you’re there — and that creates a larger sense of engagement with the image.
The full bleed effect works everywhere, even on websites:
Adrien Sauvage (whose site is on the left) has impeccable taste, but it’s easy to see the difference in impact when comparing the imagery of his site with a master photographer, like Peter Lindbergh, going full edge-to-edge with an image.
This next piece of advice goes completely against the grain of contemporary photography, which is geared toward sharper, more detailed images with better and better optics and glass. And sure, there are times when shooting with that kind of detail is exactly what the client ordered — especially if you’re shooting for a company who needs everything sharp, like Getty Images. But when just shooting around or doing lifestyle imagery, many of the top pros out there are shooting 35mm film, old glass and slower shutter speeds — all of which creates a far-less detailed look than what those fancy new Sonys will yield you.
In a recent shoot for some friends, I busted out an old Olympus OM-1 and some Tri-X black and white film for some street stuff that I just wanted to look a little more filmic. You can see in this shot that it has none of the crisp detail of a digital camera and that’s okay. In fact, I might be front focused here by even a foot — who knows, it’s film!!!
But here’s what’s interesting — with all the new technology available to everyone, it turns out that getting a sharp image with tons of detail is no longer much of an art. However, in an ironic twist, finding a moody place for your images that feels human and interesting and not like everything else out there — that actually really is an art.
This doesn’t mean you have to get a film camera if you don’t want to. You can get similar type images just by slowing your shutter speed down and switching to manual focus so that not everything is always so perfect.
Here’s a shot I took during a portrait session with an actress where, for at least a few minutes, I slowed the shutter down, went shallow with the depth of field and loosened up the whole thing a bit.
(Settings: 50mm, ISO 1000, f/2.8, 1/90th of second)
There’s no point on this photo that is as sharp as a digital file would get, or where most professors or product-oriented brands would want you to have your image. No catch light in the eye, it’s not even that well-composed. But it has MOOD. And that is something that I find lacking in the throngs of images that pass by my eyeballs everyday, from all these better and better cameras.
Old lenses can also help achieve this look. It’s something that a lot of photographers will say is a detriment to old glass, but in the right setting, I think of it as an asset. At a recent birthday party, I put the Canon “dream lens” on my rangefinder and created some images that, while hardly a pixel peepers idea of a good photo, do create a look that is just a bit different than your typical run-of-the-mill birthday photos:
Be Someone Else For A Day
This is a piece of advice I give every student of photography. It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to establish your look that it feels like unless you’re doing something wholly original, it’s not any good. This can send photographers into a hole, doing crazy things to their images in order to try to look different than other people.
Get outside your head and try shooting like someone else for a change. Find a photographer who you truly admire and just go get shots like that for a day. In fact, what you’ll find is that you can’t really get it exactly like them anyway, and no matter what you do, you’ll still somehow make it your own.
Here’s an image I took recently, out somewhere on the road near Michigan. As you can see, it’s nowhere near my usual high-contrast black and white look, but I’d been looking at a few artists who were doing interesting things with minimalism and color and thought I’d take a shot at it. Not quite as good as theirs, but it was a fun exercise and I learned from it.
More than anything, this kind of thing expands my love and appreciation for photography and makes me a more versatile shooter. I have a deep admiration for any photographer who has been able to break out and do something interesting. Trying their hat on for a day only helps me understand the medium better and gets me out of my usual processes.
And old teacher once told me, “your talent is your weakness.” To me, this is the greatest piece of advice to continually remind yourself of. The thing you become talented at is the thing you naturally start to rely on and settle into. But being an artist means sometimes rejecting that thing you’re good at and putting yourself into a place that forces you to try something new. And that’s a sure-fired way to take your photos to a new level.