How Do You Learn And Improve Your Photography?

Point Montara Light Station - Montara - 2012

Tonight’s edition of Trey’s Variety Hour (Episode #34) is hosted by my friend Doug Kaye. The topic of the show – totally unrelated to gear for a change! – is “How do you learn and improve your photography?” A great topic – and one I’m sure I can learn from.

As I think about the topic before watching the show, it’s caused me to do a little reflecting back on what has been important to me as I’ve been learning and exploring photography over the last five years or so. I happened to get back into photography in a big way about that time when my first granddaughter was born. That gave me a great excuse (!) to go out and buy a decent digital SLR. Since then, it’s been mostly about practice – but sometimes new inputs are very helpful in lifting you from plateau to a new level!

So, unlike the show topic, let me first talk about my experience with gear – because that’s been an important part of my learning of photography…

Gear

How did I decide which DSLR to buy? Well, I happened to come across a blog post by Doc Searles – he had taken a memory card into a camera store and shot a bunch of images using both a Canon and Nikon body. After looking at his results, he decided to buy the Canon EOS 30D DSLR. It took me about three minutes to read Doc’s review – which caused me to then pull the trigger on Amazon.com and order my own 30D! Amazing how social recommendations can be so powerful! As any DSLR photographer knows, that first camera body decision effectively locks you in – since once you start adding “glass” (lenses), you’re committed to that manufacturers system.

My 30D was a great DSLR to get me back into photography. When I bought it, I didn’t even know what a crop (APC) sensor was – I learned that after the fact when I bought an additional lens. I’ve got many images on Flickr shot with that 30D – see some of them here. Mostly snapshots of family and local environs.

About a year later, Canon introduced the 40D – and for no good reason I decided to upgrade to it – selling my 30D to help pay for the new camera. About this time, I became acquainted with HDR – High Dynamic Range photography – and some of my images from this period have that “over the top” amateur HDR look. I remember one of my first attempts at handheld HDR at Stanford – the rapid fire bracketing of the 40D was just right for my early experiments. Heck, I didn’t even own a tripod then!

Then, in January 2009, I upgraded again to the Canon 5D Mark II – again selling my 40D. I listed the 40D for sale used on Amazon.com – and the buyer ended up being another local Menlo Park resident. We met at my office to give him the camera – small world sometimes!

The 5D Mark II has been my main camera for serious work over the last three years. Along the way, I’ve added some additional lenses – including the Canon 70-200MM f/2.8 L and the Canon 24-105 f/4 L lenses – both of which have been my workhorse lenses. I’ve also got a few primes – 28mm, 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.8 which see less frequent usage.

Along the way, I had a serious rotator cuff injury in my right shoulder such that I couldn’t even lift the 5D for shooting. That’s all been fixed – but, along the way, I bought a Canon PowerShot S90 to allow me to continue to shoot pre-surgery. Since then, I’ve upgraded my tiny camera twice – to a Canon PowerShot S95 and am now using a Canon PowerShot S100. These are great tiny cameras! On most of my serious photo sessions, I’ll have my 5D Mark II over my shoulder (thank you Black Rapid!) with the PowerShot in my jacket pocket. I’ll always also have along my iPhone which, now with the iPhone 4S, also takes some amazingly great images! So, I’ve got three cameras with me in the field! Go figure!

Learning

On to learning. So what’s been my learning process? Of course, since I’m an avid online reader, I’ve soaked up a bunch of articles, etc. that have taught me new things. My early infatuation with HDR was fueled by Trey’s own Stuck in Customs blog – and his tutorials. Trey also taught me about the use of textures to enhance images – and I’ve had fun with that for a few of my shots.

I’ve taken several photo workshops along the way including one with Ken Rockwell and Dave Wyman that was a lot of fun out in the field. Perhaps the most valuable workshops for me have been the two I’ve taken with Derrick Story at his studio in Santa Rosa. Derrick’s a great teacher and these workshops with seven other colleagues were very helpful to me – highly recommend what Derrick does.

But I think, as is so often the case, the real learning takes place by just doing it – trying new things, experimenting, and pushing myself. The best approach for me is a combination of regular solo shooting – photography really is mostly a solitary pursuit – along with regular venue shoots that Doug and I have been doing over the last couple of years – here’s a list of my posts about our adventures.

I find a two person photo walk with a good friend to be very rewarding – we see through each others eyes in new ways, things we might otherwise have missed. We slow down, we work a venue – and things just open up for us in the process. After the shoot, we each go home and independently work on our images – and then slowly share them. It’s so much fun to see what we each pick to work on first, how we approach post-processing, and then sharing our comments back and forth. My son and I also did a one day workshop in Yosemite with Michael Frye – a very similar experience. These sessions have definitely been the most valuable learning opportunities for me.

More

As I’m finishing up an already too long post, I realize that I’ve skipped over the post-processing learnings that have also had a big impact on me (including an amazing 2 hour 1:1 Skype workshop last year with Jaime Ibarra). I’ve also unfortunately overlooked the learnings from the late Chris Gulker – my good friend and walking partner who taught me so much about the power of black and white photography in the short time that I knew him. I’ll have to share more on those later. One final learning – in 2011 – was the begin curating what I thought were my best images – you can find them in my gallery here: http://photos.sjl.us – I’d love to hear your feedback on them! Click on the Contact link in the nab bar above to email me your thoughts.

Note: see also my 2011 wrap up post: What I’ve Learned about Photography in 2011!

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