Day 9: Getting Better: Secrets to Improving Your Craft

I sat in front of my computer, staring at the results of my first session. All the photos were dark and I didn’t know why. Later I would learn that it was because I didn’t adjust my shutter because I forgot I was on manual mode. A stupid mistake because when I took my camera out of the box, in an effort to make the moment meaningful, I swore to put my camera on manual and never take it off. But there I was, faced with an terrible photo of a baby, sitting in front of a garage door crying, her mother next to her wearing sunglasses and holding a balloon. It was as awkward as you are imagining right now.

“What the heck?!” I thought. “I’m supposed to be creative! A creative professional! I had a balloon, a baby and natural light. What more did I need?!” You can tell that my eagerness to launch a nine-figure business within the first three minutes was taking away my ability to calm the hell down and keep it real. Little did I know, within a year I would be making literally dozens of dollars per month at photography.

In the middle of my panic attack, my mom came into my office and told me about an exercise she did in college in her creative writing class. She said:

“They told us to write a poem in the style of Robert Frost. We did. They told us to write a prose in the style of Hemingway and we did. They told us to write a soliloquy in the style of Shakespeare, and we did. Then they said, ‘Now write something in your own style.'”

And so I did. I took photographs trying to emulate Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, and Annie Leibovitz. I did the same for wedding photographers I admired like Jessica Claire and Jose Villa. I studied their work closely. There were no babies in front of garage doors. There were no families in harsh sun, no freeways behind them. I compared my work objectively to theirs. What made theirs better? I wrote it out…
1. Clean even lighting
2. Straight horizon lines
3. S curves and leading lines
4. Rule of thirds

Beyond that, they made me feel like I was looking into a window of something beautiful rather than that I was seeing a posed image. The more I did this, the easier it became for me to carry that knowledge with me on a shoot. I’d look through my camera and instantly see the cars in the background, the lint on her dress, the EXIT signs (God help me, the Exit signs); the distractions that would take away from the thing I was trying to create. The more I intentionally moved away from the things I didn’t want in my images and stuck to the things I did want, the better my images became.

When you get your camera, you hope that the hand of God will reach into your kitchen and bless the two of you. You make vows to the universe to always shoot on manual, you wait until New Year’s Day to open your camera. You close your eyes and try to feel a spiritual connection between you and your Canon Rebel… but what you don’t realize is, you’re not gifted creativity. You earn it. You seek it, you make a habit of it. It’s not romantic. It’s being objective, being critical of your own work, leaving feelings behind so that you can bring them in later.

If you’re up for a creative exercise, here it is!

  1. Pick a photographer you love.
  2. Spend 15 minutes just looking at their work.
  3. Write a list of what you like about their work. Be as descriptive as possible. How does it make you feel? What recurring color pallets do they use? How are their subjects in the photos? Are they focused on the camera or on something else? What kind of backgrounds do they use? Where is the light source in their images coming from?
  4. Take your camera outside and try to shoot in their style. Use their rules on color, light, composition, and exposure. This might take a while. Be patient with yourself. When you hit a snag, ask yourself what and why and answer it before moving on.
  5. Go back home and compare side by side. How is yours different from theirs? What could you tweak to make yours closer?

Do this a few times with different photographers. The point isn’t to be able to copy them, it’s to build a box so you can later think outside of it. In one of my favorite books (Spoiler alert, a whole post about this book is coming soon), choreographer Twyla Tharp says, “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts down below. How did you get better when you first started? Are you just starting now and you’re stuck in a rut of feeling like your work is falling short? Talk to me about your journey and I’ll see you for tomorrow (day ten!): Finding a Mentor.

Day 98 is currently reserved for any questions you have throughout the next 100 days. To submit a question, please click here!  If you’re interested in supporting this project, please share, PIN and comment! Any other questions, comments or ideas, please feel free to email me at denise(at)denisekaris(dot)com

Denise Karis is an Arizona photographer who enjoys musicals, Doctor Who and breakfast burritos. IG @denisekaris

denise karis photography blog 100 posts in 100 days for photographers