Improve Your Photography by Ignoring These 10 Rules

“If you asked me how to improve your photography, I would tell you to buy a real professional camera with more than 20MP, moron.”

This is from a real photography FaceBook group in which I post. The technology has gotten to a point where everyone thinks that they are an expert in the field if they know the tech specs. The problem with this talk is that an artist is more than just their tools. If you focus on gear-fetishism, then you can miss the underlying methods of the craft.

I have been a student of photography for over a decade. In that time, many photographers have given me all sorts of advice on how to improve my photography. In this article I will go over some of the most common pieces of advice I have heard, and why you should take these with a grain of salt.

1. “Never Center Your Subject”

centered photography - flower
Photo by Alex Blăjan on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

Those who study landscape photographers like Ansel Adams and Sebastião Salgado will say this a lot. Their subjects are large environments, and so they believe that centering one subject unbalances the shot. The reason that centering your subject can unbalance your shot is because it can end the feeling of movement in the scene. The eye will be drawn into the center and then stop, leaving the rest of your composition unexplored.

Why can it be bad advice?

Isolating your subject by sticking it in the center of your shot is strong when it is a purposeful decision. It is a method of saying to the viewer “this is the most important thing in this whole scene.” Photojournalists usually break this rule the most, because they often don’t have a lot of time to compose a shot. If you want to improve your photography, learn to highlight a subject no matter where it is in the frame.

2. “Study Other Photographers”

Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and artists especially. Studying the old masters in any artistic field is always a good idea. You might already have influences that you may not be aware of – from childhood or from cinema for example. Learning any medium through the inspiration of another artist is often a good way to get the ball rolling.

Why can it be bad advice?

Mimicry. There is a fine line between paying homage to and copying other artists’ work. If you focus too much on trying to recreate the style of other photographers, you will never develop your own artistic voice. Michael Muller is known for saying that he never looks to other photographers for inspiration for his incredible portraits. The best way to improve your photography is to find your own style.

3. “Focus on the Eyes”

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič – @specialdaddy on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

Many portrait photographers focus on the eyes of the people the photograph, most likely because of the old adage “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” When you are learning to shoot portraits, a crisp photo focused on the eyes with a little eye light can be very intense, and feel powerful.

Why can it be bad advice?

Anyone can do this. It is just a technical skill, and often will not show any of the personality of the subject. A portrait is shot to capture the essence of the person, not just the visage. Once you can capture the spirit in the eyes, you need to be able to capture the spirit in the environment. Sally Mann is the best example I can think of someone who does this combination perfectly.

4. “Shoot Every Day”

Photo by Thomas Schweighofer on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

Because practice. Obviously, all skills take practice. People say this all the time because the more time you spend behind the lens of your camera, the more comfortable you will be with it as a tool. Also the more time you spend looking through the actual viewfinder itself, the better you will be at recognizing the relationship of field-of-view of your own eyes to the lenses you use.

Why can it be bad advice?

Shooting every day is tiresome. Any artist who must work in their field to pay the rent can relate to feeling burnt-out on their own medium. Shooting every day is like telling a musician to write a song every day. It is good to practice, but it is better to write when you feel inspired. Trying to shoot uninspired every day will not necessarily improve your photography, and in many cases can hurt it.

5. “Don’t Use High-Key Flash Indoors”

Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

The above photo is shot with in on-camera flash pointed directly at the subject. This type of direct light creating unrealistic highlights, shadows, and contrast is often called shooting High-Key. This style is constantly going in and out of vogue with the photography community. Many photographers consider it to have a “cheap” or “low-budget” look.

Why can it be bad advice?

If you are at all in-touch with pop-culture you’ll know that instant-photography has made a huge comeback recently. And almost all instant photography evokes a historic aesthetic made popular by Polaroid. That aesthetic is high-key photography. So really this isn’t bad advice so much as pointless advice: it call comes down to style.

6. “Use a Wider Aperture to Make Your Subject Pop”

Photo by Bhargava Srivari on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

This is a gear-head thing. Thanks to macro-photography and Instagram and bunch of other influences, the method of isolating a subject by DOF (depth-of-field) has become the frontrunner style by a long shot. The truth is, it is not a bad method, it is just a simple method.

Why can it be bad advice?

Because of the gear-fetishism of current digital photography, bokeh and shallow depth-of-field is becoming incredibly widespread. The problem with this is that it’s only one way of isolating a subject, and it’s the cheap way. The expensive way is to isolate your subject through thoughtful composition. Take the above photo of a lion for instance. The isolation is being done with color, contrast, and content. Being able to isolate a subject with these methods will vastly improve your photography.

7. “Shoot Women From Above and Men From Below”

Photo by eva chatzipavlou on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

This one is simple. Shooting up makes things look bigger, shooting down makes things look smaller. Portrait photographers have used this knowledge to set a standard of shooting down on women to make their shapes look more petite and feminine. They shoot up on men to make their shapes look more dominant and masculine.

Why can it be bad advice?

Using blanket techniques is the stupidest thing you can do in portrait photography. Portraits are unique to the subject. In each and every portrait session you should find what style evokes the personality or feeling of the subject. If you have a dominant, imposing woman and you shoot her like she’s a doll, you are just projecting your own image of the subject onto them. That makes you the definition of a bad portrait photographer.

8. “Photograph Pretty Things”

Photo by Max Lakutin on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

Cool things make cool pictures. This one is obvious. A photograph of the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado is going to be a pretty photo no matter how good of a photographer you are.

Why can it be bad advice?

This will not improve your photography. This will only improve your subject matter. Subjects do make a large impact on your photography, but at the end of the day they are just things. A great photographer can find the beauty in any subject.

9. “Get Closer to Your Subject”

Photo by Semih Aydın on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

This is very similar to the method of using a shallow depth of field. The reason people stress this is because many early photographers leave space in their photos with no purpose. They will have a single subject and they will only take up 1/3 of the frame with nothing else that draws the eyes in.

Why can it be bad advice?

Because it is another shortcut. Making your subject the majority of your frame will help with the movement of the photograph in most cases. But if you rely on being close to a subject to compose well, you will never develop the ability to use your environment for composition. If you want to improve your photography, you need to practice using your subject’s environment, not just cutting it out.

10. “Shoot at Golden Hour”

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Why do people say this?

Photographers and videographers alike are obsessed with Golden Hour and I get it. Golden Hour is the time right before sunset and right after sunrise. Skin tones look amazing at this time and so does slanted light through trees, or any environment that has a lot of particulates in the air. It is one of the best times to utilize natural warm tones in nature.

Why can it be bad advice?

It is simply overdone. There are more than just warm tones to photograph. It will not improve your photography to focus only on shooting at a specific time of day. Personally, I prefer shooting at Blue Hour anyway, like the above photo. There are beautiful photos to shoot at all times of day, and focusing on one specific type of light can become an artistic crutch in the long run.

Thanks for reading.

I hope you learned some basic tips on how to improve your photography, and how to not rely on them to the point of hurting your photography. If you have any photography questions you can always tweet at me @allbriandoes.

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