Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

Setting Goals to Improve Your Photography

It’s a bit early for New Year’s resolutions, but I thought I would write about photography goals and how setting them helped me improve my game.

For many years I focused on travel photography which I practiced in a largely documentary style. I was quite comfortable with it but about two years ago, I decided to shift into landscapes and cityscapes. My initial work was OK, I occasionally had some good images, but more often I found my photos lacking in some respect and I decided I wanted to create better images. To push myself, I gave myself photographic goals to direct my efforts.

In my first year, I started with the goal of making one good photo a week that I would share and put on my website (there’s a big difference between an image that looks good on a cell phone versus one that can be sold as a large print). I can’t remember if I met the goal and it actually doesn’t matter. What’s important was pushing myself every week to come up with a good picture. Along the way I learned a lot about planning my shots, different shooting techniques, and post-processing my images. Coming from travel photography, it was a different mindset and set of skills. Looking back at my work, I can easily see the difference between then and now.

Another goal I’ve been working on is getting better at predicting sunsets (and sunrises). To this end, I check the sky, webcams, and weather reports in the late afternoon and make a prediction regardless of whether I can actually get out and shoot that day. Later I will check to see if I was right or wrong. I’m still not very good at predicting sunset color, but I’m better than before.

Recently I noticed that I’ve been making too many vertical images. In part, I did this because I was good at it but also because it was easy for me. I found an effective formula that I could replicate consistently: set my zoom to 16mm, set my focus to the hyperfocal distance, find a close foreground subject with leading lines, and then wait for a colorful sunset. To break out, I’ve given myself a goal of mastering horizontal images. Now whenever I go out and shoot I’m going to try and find a horizontal composition even if I know there’s a vertical option that would work well. Frankly, I’ve been finding it a bit of a challenge because I have less foreground depth and I also have to watch the edges for unneccessary visual junk.

In addition to broad goals, I think it’s important to set goals that help you learn specific techniques. For example, make it a goal to learn and use the hyperfocal distance. Go out and practice during the middle of the day, not when you’re under pressure during the most gorgeous sunset of the year. Double check your results at 100% on the computer screen when you get home. If you want to learn exposure blending, seek out shots that require it. Start with simple blends such as coastal seascapes with a level horizon and then move on to more complex cases such as those involving irregular transition lines.

Regardless of what genre you practice, find a photographer (or perhaps even a painter) whose work is at level you aspire to reach. Study their processes and break it down into the skills you need to achieve and set yourself a goal of mastering each one.

I think my next goal will be to make landscape images that don’t depend on a colorful sunset. I will still be shooting in the golden hour, but I want to come up with compositions that don’t need a dominant red-orange sky to work. I do love the colors but I think there’s room for other images.

What goals are you working toward? Write them down on a post-it note and put in on your desk, laptop, or somewhere in your workspace. Look at it first thing every morning and ask what can I do today to advance?