I wanted to improve my photography but I had no idea how. So, I decided to teach myself.
When I bought my first camera (an Olympus C765), it was one of those “aha” moments. I sensed a surge of excitement and energy rush through my body as I ripped it out of its packaging and felt its weight in my hand.
I couldn’t wait to give it a go.
I took my new camera to the beach to try it out.
I pointed it at the ocean, pressed down the shutter button and heard that beautiful sound of the camera clicking, and then...this…
Pretty bad right! I mean, what is this even a photo of?
Clearly I needed some basic photography lessons. So I turned to the internet to try and figure out how to improve my photography photography. There’s lots of information there right?
Turns out, there really is a LOT of information. In fact, there was way too much for me to deal with.
Where was I supposed to begin? There were literally thousands and thousands of pages on how to improve your photography and it was all very difficult to process and sort through.
Not only that, but I began to discover that photography is a very technical skill, so, not only was I trying to learn how to take better pictures, but I was trying to learn a new language of words and phrases that meant very little to me at the time.
Wading through all those technical terms, formulas and equations was overwhelming and exhausting and not exactly what I was interested in. I just wanted a way to take better photos…
But, if there is one thing about me, it’s that I don’t quit. So, I did my best to get through all the technical jargon and figure out what I needed to know in order to learn photography.
I call this learning phase “the dark days.”
It was tiresome and tedious, and I got to the point where if I looked at one more colour chart, exposure table, or focus formula, I was going to throw my camera out of the window.
Luckily I didn’t though.
Because I came to realise one very, very important thing (and if you’re at all interested in improving your own photography, you’re going to want to pay attention to this):
Photography is not a math equation. It’s an art form that needs to be practiced (I've underlined, italicised, and bolded it - that means it’s super important).
Enter my new learning photography phase: “learn-by-doing.”
How to improve your photography by doing photography
I discovered that, far more than sifting through information on the internet, improving my photography by doing photography was giving me the best results.
I found that the more I started doing photography, the better I got at it.
Not only that, but concepts and techniques I had read about started to make sense. Until you actually point your camera at a target, lock in your focus and press that shutter button, nothing really clicks (there's a little photography pun for you).
So now, my new approach looked something like this.
- Read about a skill or technique.
- Pick a subject that I can shoot to practice the skill.
- Take as many photos, using as many different settings as possible to see all the results.
It was a much better approach as I was able to see concepts in action and demonstrate them for myself. Plus there was a side benefit. The quest to improve my photography meant I needed to spend a lot of time adventuring outdoors...nothing wrong with that!
But I was still lacking one thing...something to tie all of these isolated skills together into a complete package.
And then, one day, I tried something that really changed the game for me...
Start at the end
I was taking a look at some HDR images from one of my favourite photographers, Trey Ratcliff.
I took one photo that I really liked and I thought, "I wonder how he did that?"
So, I decided to try and see if I could replicate his photo. Obviously, I couldn't get the exact same image because I didn't have access to the same location, but I could at least try to recreate the effect that was so striking in his shot.
So I set about trying to reverse-engineer what he had done and retrace his steps.
I studied that image and wrote a few notes on what really stood out to me and why I liked it so much and then I narrowed everything down to one thing that stood out the most. With this I then started to look for information that would help me achieve that one outcome.
I became laser focused on achieving one kind of result and learning the integrated set of skills that would help me take a picture that looked just like Trey’s.
I was able to isolate the exact skills I needed in order to get the desired effect which massively reduced the volume of things I needed to learn.
I was able to practice (there’s that super important word again) the same skill over and over again until I understood how it worked in the real world, and not just in theory.
I was insanely motivated when I finally produced an image that I was proud to show my friends and family.
You want to see the image I came up with?
Now, it’s still no Trey Ratcliff photo, but compare this to the photo I showed you in the beginning.
So, what’s the take away for you?
If you want to improve your photography, reverse engineering photos you like is one of the best paths to improvement I’ve found.
It’s the only thing I’ve ever tried that helps me focus on a specific photographic skill set, practice over and over again, and gets me super pumped and motivated when I see the results - plus, I haven’t felt overwhelmed or exhausted by technical photographic information ever since.
How to improve your photography the right way
This was my journey:
1 - “The dark days”
Hours and hours spent trying to sift through endless reams of technical information while getting no better at taking photos.
2 - “The learn-by-doing phase”
Finding photos I really liked and focusing on only the few skills I needed to know in order to reproduce similar results and practice, practice, practice.
Here’s a graph to show you what these two phases looked like…
Wanna see my exact learning process and how I reverse engineer photos to figure out the few photographic skills I need to focus on?
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Find a photo that you like.
This is completely up to taste, so you’re going to search for something that really interests you.
I’m an outdoors person and I like to take landscape photos. So, the first thing I’ll do is go online and do an image search in Google for something like “best landscape photos ever”
Here’s what I get..
Of course, you could be more specific in your search like, “best photos of mountain landscapes” or, “best seascapes.” It all depends on what you’re interested in.
In this example, I really like this image right here…
This awesome photo was taken by Kath Salier.
This is going to be the result I’ll be aiming for.
Important note: I’m not trying to recreate this exact image, i.e. go to this exact spot and set up my camera in the same position, and try to use the photographer's exact settings. That’s no help at all. Rather, I’m trying to recreate the effect and feeling of this image for myself.
Step 2: Make some notes.
Here’s where you’re going to detail the things you like about the photo as well as some of the effects you’d like to reproduce.
In this example, I’m loving the blurry effect on the water, and the use of a single dominant colour (green). This is what I want to learn to recreate the most.
I also ask myself a few questions about the photo to try to understand how it was taken.
Here are a couple to get me started:
- What part of the image is in focus? (pretty much all of it).
- How is colour used? (one dominant colour).
- Is the camera at a low angle, high angle, or around eye level? (seems lowish)
- What is the main subject of the photo? (the waterfall)
- Where is the subject positioned within the photo frame? (in the top third of the image, just to the left)
- What kind of light is present in the photo (mid day sun, evening, sunrise/sunset, artificial light, etc)
Step 3: Isolate the skills you need to learn to recreate the effect.
In step 2, I isolated 2 things I really wanted to learn:
- The blurry water effect.
- The use of a dominant colour.
So let’s head back to Google and search for: “How to take blurry water pictures?”
I open and read the top 5 results.
From each of these posts, I find a number of things that I need:
- A tripod (or something to hold the camera completely still)
- I need to use a slow shutter speed (if you don’t know what that is, you can look it up too)
- I can use a neutral density filter if it’s too bright (I don’t have one so I’ll skip this part for now)
- I need to make sure my hand isn’t touching the camera when it takes the picture so it doesn’t make the picture look blurry. I either need to use the self-timer on the camera to delay taking the picture until my hand has moved away or I need a remote trigger (I don’t want to buy more things, so self-timer it is - a quick look at my camera manual tells me exactly how to use it
Some of the posts vary a little on extra points, but these seem to the ones they all have in common.
Notice that I’ve just reduced a mountain of information down to a few specific skills that I need to learn about. Not only that, but the image I picked out is going to be a great example to work towards and measure how well I do.
Step 4: Take your version of the shot.
Now it’s time to do the part of the process that will have the biggest impact. Practice, practice, practice.
For this image I know I need to find a stream that is surrounded by largely green foliage. The Fanie Botha Trail is the perfect place to practice this technique, so that's where I'll go.
All I need to do is pack the equipment I need as well as the notes I took in step 2 and I’m ready to go.
Step 5: Review and redo.
The final step is to take your image and compare it to the original to see how you did, and then make changes if necessary.
Here’s my result:
And here's the original:
So did I achieve my goal?
1 - Learn how to take a blurry water picture
Kind of. I’ve got a little water blur going there, but not nearly as pronounced as in the example, so I’m going to have to go back and shoot this again with a slower shutter speed - but at least I’m able to get the effect.
2 - Use a dominant colour
Definitely. This setting was perfect with all the green foliage and I feel I got very close to the original on this one. I even added my own touch by including in a subject wearing a red jacket.
The next step is for me to go back and make the changes I found in the review step and then experiment with this technique in other environments to see how else I can apply these new skills.
Final thoughts on how to improve your photography
My experience with photography has taught me one thing - if you want to improve your photography, you're going to have to do photography.
There are many ways you can do photography, but reverse engineering images that you like is the one way that I've stuck to because it keeps me focused, reduces the information overload and keeps me highly motivated.
Let me know how you improve your photography in the comments below.