There are many resources available to us in this day and age of photography to expand our visual horizons and deepen our understanding of the equipment we use to take the photographs we love. Schools like the Brooks Institute in California are devoted to providing a vast archive and staff full of photographic knowledge and expertise. The world-renowned University of Texas and Austin Community College's ever-expanding Photography Departments are there for those ready to garner a degree in photography. Online resources and a wealth of knowledge are just waiting for our perusal from every corner of the globe. There is something for everyone on any subject or matter available everywhere, the question is now: Where to start?
Photography degrees are not for everyone, and some people have already gained a level of professional experience that far outweighs any degree. Sometimes you just want to be able to shoot family photos a little better or even know how to use the point and shoot camera you got this last Christmas. Wherever you are in photography, there is always a need to get more out of yourself and your equipment.
Here are a few things to think about and possibly pursue in the name of becoming a more well-rounded photographer:
This is why "read your camera manual" is one of the first pieces of advice any professor, knowledgeable friend, or trustworthy salesperson will give you. Now, it is a given that manuals are generally boring tomes of stock information. It is also a given that they are more of a pain to read through than they are to never pick up. I myself am a person who doesn't fully get anything until I get my hands dirty with it, so I regularly skip manuals in favor of more time spent figuring it out first hand. This always proves to be the quickest way to get myself in trouble. Without knowing the functions and abilities of my camera, I tend to make assumptions about how the camera should operate instead of finding out how it really is made to work, which always leads to me missing the shot or blowing it because I assumed something rather than intimately knew how to respond properly with my camera gear. We regularly offer classes here at Precision Camera & Video to help people garner a more basic and foundational knowledge of their equipment.
Compositional techniques are a dime a dozen, but they are out there for a reason. The Rule of Thirds is an evolution of the Golden Ratio, and both rely on the concept that people have a natural tendency towards defined aesthetics. We won't get into the heavy math and philosophies here, but people have been proven to better respond towards certain organizations (compositional rules) of visual data (photos).
On the right, you see a Rule of Thirds Illustration. Each red dot (and the intersecting lines as areas of composition) represents a interesting placement point for a subject, shown here with the subject's smile resting within the point.
However, everyone's eye is unique to their identity, that is why there are "masters" of photography. People who rise head and shoulders above the rest of the us have discovered and educated themselves about how they take can creatively capture pictures and what suits their personal style the best. Henri Cartier-Bresson discovered that his best chances at capturing his renowned "Decisive Moment" were with a certain style of camera and a certain lens and a certain method of framing his images (a rangefinder Leica, a single 50mm lens, and the willpower to wait in one spot for "the Moment"). Others have also made their name with a multitude of distinctive styles - from ManRay to Annie Leibovitz - but the underlying point remains: learn the ropes, but don't forget to forget the rules and make it yours!
One of the most useful concepts that I walked away from my studio lighting class in college with was this. It changed the way I viewed my street photography, how I related to the subject in architectural images, and even with my macro shots. Just having a image evenly lit every time for a broad exposure and deep range of colors was not always the best; technically it might be perfect, but rarely is it the most effective shot. Learn to play with the light, like we do in the Lighting Workshop with Jerry Hughes as well as at the Precision Camera University retreat, and you will be able to draw out the deeper meaning in all of your photographs.
One of the most important things now with digital photography is learning how to store your photos in a way that you can keep them in order and be able to recall them later on down the road. With so many images swirling around on your hard drive it can be difficult to find that one great photo of you and the kids at the beach if they all have some random placement in your computer's internals. It's not that fun to root around for hours looking for one photograph with them all named "DSC-00012309," and that frustration can easily be avoided with the proper techniques for cataloging. Programs like Lightroom with proper training can be amazing tools for the new photographer. Learn to use them effectively and you will find them indispensable in very short order.
Another thing that Lightroom and proper training can do is allow you to step beyond straight "Out-of-Camera" images and into something even more appealing. Everyone has seen the certain photographer's work that they just love, and while most of the skill comes before the shot is taken, there is almost always a little magic added at the end: this is what's called "post-production." In this day and age, one other way to separate your images from the pack is putting in that extra work after the image is captured, and you do not need to be a Photoshop wunderkind in order to make that happen. Programs like Lightroom and Photoshop have streamlined the process specifically for photographers, and allow for a broad range of simplified post-production tools to be efficiently used. Coming up with particular methods of making the images your own in post production is just one more way of highlighting your body of work for the world to be captured by.
Not everyone is going to have the time to go through all of these routes to improving their photography and output, but if you can at least focus yourself on one, I can guarantee that you will like what you see happen in your photography. If you do have the time and energy for all of these, you are going to be blown away by how much your photographic work will improve. Any which way your go, just remember that none of us ever arrive at the top, we all must continue to strive for it.
All images © Christian Rudman