Taking Your Photography to the Next Level

indianapolis buildingA recent participant in one of my workshops asked me for suggestions on how to take his photography to the next level.

Now, that question could mean different things to different people and I answered him as best as I could according to what I knew about him and my own thoughts on the subject.

My short answer would be – practice and learn every day and trust your instincts.

Below are six more ways to take your photography to the next level.

1. Review your images from the past year. Pick your 10 favourites and decide what makes them work.

Is the subject clear? How does the composition – lines, light, shapes, texture, perspective – contribute to its success? How is the eye drawn around the image? Does it tell a story or evoke an emotion?

Just by identifying these things in your mind, you’re training yourself to see better when out photographing.

2. Know your camera.

The great thing about the Internet is that you can usually find the answer to any technical question you have (and for free). Digital Photography School is a valuable resource I would recommend and they also offer weekly challenges.

3. Photograph daily (or as much as possible) with a contemplative mindset.

This means, don’t photograph with any agenda in mind or subject to photograph. Experience your day, pay attention, and notice what draws you. Then, don’t judge what you see or worry whether anyone else will find it interesting. Trust your instincts. This will help you find your own vision.

A 365-day project is a great way to develop this daily photography habit.

4. Download an e-book from Craft & Vision (or somewhere else).

I have many of the Craft & Vision e-books. They are an incredible value and always teach me something new; especially useful if you actually DO the exercises suggested.

5. Attend a weekend or week-long workshop.

My photography seems to leap forward when I do this and there’s nothing like spending focused time on photography with other photographers. I highly recommend Freeman Patterson’s workshops, as well as Santa Fe workshops.

Of course, I’d love for you to join me for an in-person workshop as well. I have three coming up this year.

6. Study the masters.

Which photographers inspire you the most? Study their work and their lives. I think you’ll find that some of the qualities you admire in them, you also have in you. I’ve written about several of my favourites on this blog – Minor White, Robert Frank, and Tina Modotti, to name three.

Before taking my first photography class, I read about the life of Ansel Adams. I was drawn to his black and white images of wilderness areas – yes – but more importantly, the way he lived his life with passion and integrity. He was a photographer, musician, writer, and activist, but most of all he was a communicator.

How do you take your photography to the next level?


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Photographing Spring

Sign of Spring

Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colours, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night. ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters

Today is Earth Day and I love that it coincides with spring (here in North America), when the earth is coming alive once more. Spring brings colour back to the landscape, as Rilke so beautifully describes. Spring is about birth and renewal, hope and optimism.

After a particularly long, gruelling winter for many of us, spring is slowly and surely rearing its welcomed head. I can already feel my spirits lifting.

blossomsLast year, I experienced spring in a new place, making it fresh and exciting. As I photographed the area, I found myself drawn to blossoms on the ground, in many shapes and colours and variations.

What we’re drawn to often reflects what’s going on inside of us, whether we can identify it at the time or not. I called this theme “blossoms at my feet,” since I felt very lucky to be in this new place in my life, doing work I love.

This year, I feel much more settled in my new home and anticipate some new theme will emerge.

The point is that we can all go out and photograph spring, yet come up with completely different expressions. My hope is that you will find the expression that feels right for you.

Before Photographing Spring

Take a sensory walk, paying attention to what you see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. For example, you might see swollen buds, hear people raking, smell lilacs blooming, touch soft grass.

Afterwards, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Which colours are you most attracted to? How do they make you feel?

I’m drawn to the yellows and greens of spring. They’re energizing and uplifting, even in the rain.

2. Which signs of spring do you anticipate the most?

See if you can associate words with those signs? For example, I love hearing the birds singing in the morning – music to my ears, happiness, abundance, community, greeting the day, nest building.

3. What are your favourite spring activities? What do you love about them?

After a long winter, my favourite thing to do in spring is to get out and walk or run or bike, to be able to move comfortably outside without a heavy coat and boots. I love the feel of the sun on my face and the energy in my body.

Do you see any recurring themes in your answers? For me, the recurring theme is energy.

Take a look at 70 Striking and Surprising Spring Photographs. Which ones are most appealing to you? What is it about the composition or qualities of each that makes them effective?

Master Dogen says in effect that you paint (or photograph) spring by being spring. You are spring. When you’re awake, the same stuff that vibrates chutes and buds in soil and trunks and stems pulses in your own consciousness. ~ via Jeffrey Davis, Tracking Wonder


How are you like spring?

See my Flickr set on spring for more inspiration.

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On Balance in Photography


Poetry by Norah Weir Oulahen, Print available at Imagekind

It’s not until we understand balance and energy that we can wield them well. ~ David duChemin, The Visual Imagination

Photo by Design was the first online workshop I created. It’s based on what I learned about visual design from Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant in their workshops.

The first group went through in Fall of 2011. Last week, the 8th group finished this six-week workshop and I continue to learn from everyone who participates and by repeating the exercises myself.

In our final week, we talk about what makes an image balanced. Balance does not mean symmetrical or serene; it can be asymmetrical or dynamic.

To me, balance is something that is felt and not easily explained.

I often think of that rare fulfilling joy when you are in the presence of some wonderful alignment of events. Where the light, the colour, the shapes, and the balance all interlock so perfectly that I feel truly overwhelmed by the wonder of it. – Charlie Waite

However, in David duChemin’s new e-book, The Visual Imagination (highly recommended for those who like impressionistic or abstract photography), he has a section on balance, and gives us a way of talking about it.

DuChemin suggests examining 10 of your favourite images.

The first step is to circle the element in each image that has the greatest visual weight (or mass) and decide what pulled you there. How is that mass balanced by other elements?

Next, he says to identify how the eye moves through the frame, from where it first lands to where it goes next, and so on, until it ends, gets trapped, or moves out of the frame.

In the image above, my eye first goes to the land (and words) in the lower right. It’s balanced by the water (colour contrast) and the rock in the upper left (size contrast). My eye moves from there to the rock in the upper left. It almost seems to radiate.

The image below was taken recently and felt balanced to me. I’ve shown the visual mass with a black circle and then, where my eye moves, in white. You may experience it differently.


Although, it’s fairly “busy,” the circular theme dominates – from the individual cactus blooms to the edge of the pot, to the spiral shape created within the frame.

The bloom in the lower right third of the frame stands out to me as having the greatest visual weight. While some of the blooms are on the edge of the frame, my eye stays within, taking that spiral shape from its beginning at the bottom left to the bloom at the end.

I share this exercise so that you might try it with one of your images. It’s a good tool to have in your repertoire to be able to know what makes an image work and what doesn’t.

Perhaps the most effective way of learning about balance is by looking at photos that don’t have it… Achieving Balance in shots is something that photographers learn over time. The best way to learn it is to scan through some of your older images, looking for those that could be more balanced. ~ Darren Rowse, Digital Photography School

Learn more about The Visual Imagination by David duChemin.

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