Improve Your Photography 30 Day Challenge

The Lenscraft 30-Day Photo Challenge was originally published as a series of emails designed to help you improve your photography . Each email provided a 1 week mini challenge to help you develop an aspect of your photography. At the end of the 30 days you should see noticeable improvements in your work.

The email challenge has now ended and the individual emails are reproduced below. I hope you enjoy and benefit from the material.

Finding Inspiration (Week 1)

Welcome to week one of the Lenscraft 30-Day Photo Challenge. This week we will look at Inspiration and how it can improve our work.

Inspiration is the elusive quality that drives us to pick up a camera and take photographs. But here’s the thing, not everyone finds the same things inspirational. For some, inspiration may come from seeing the work of another or even from seeing a particular photograph. For others, it may be less tangible, perhaps coming from a feeling or from being in the great outdoors. Whatever the source, you need to learn to recognise and act on your own inspiration when it comes. You also need to cultivate ways of developing or triggering your own inspiration.

To help you achieve this, your exercise for the coming week is:

  1. Consider all the different forms of photography and identify how much inspiration each generates for you. For example, do you feel inspired or excited when shooting portraits, or landscapes? What about weddings or still life or macro? What subjects inspire you to want to take photographs? These are going to be the areas that you will work to develop during the 30-day challenge.
  2. Create a “clippings file” of images that you love from the genera of photography that inspire you. These should be images that you feel are exceptional and not just images that you think are good. These images are the ones that connect with you and that make you want to shoot something similar. The clippings file could be physical images you cut from magazines and placed in a file. Perhaps better still, you can create a document on your computer and copy the images you find on the internet to this. It doesn’t matter which method you adopt providing you collect images you love.
  3. Towards the end of the week review your clippings file. Analyse the images to categorise them images in some way. Does this tells you something about the things you like to photograph or the styles of photography you like?
  4. Now spend some time reviewing each of the images in turn whilst trying to answer the question, “what makes this photograph so special for me?”

Be sure to record the results of the exercise and watch out for the next email in the series. Remember, there will be one email each week.

Developing your Vision (Week 2)

Last week we examined what forms and styles of photography inspire us. This week we will work on developing and improving our vision.

Vision is the vital component that helps set our work apart from the work of others. Vision is what can transform a humble scene into a masterpiece of photography and holds the viewers interest. Vision is something that’s unique to you; it’s how you see the world. I’m sure you may have had the experience of taking a photograph and feeling excited about image. But when you review the image on your computer, you feel disappointed as it looks nothing like you imagined. This is the vision gap. It’s the gap that exists between what the camera captured and how you imagined the photograph would look (your vision).

Have you have ever seen the photograph “Winter Storm Clearing” by Ansel Adams? ( Ansel himself said that it wasn’t until many years after he shot the photograph, that his skills and equipment allowed him to print an image that matched his vision. If you have even seen a straight print from the negative, there is a significant improvement in the printing over time.

Vision can be difficult to tie down but investing effort in trying to do this is essential to your success. It’s often much easier to imagine a finished image than to crystallise this by making any form of notes. When you try to do this, your vision can often fade or even appear to vanish. You need to work very hard on the process of refining your vision and bringing it into focus in order to capture it in your photographs.

Now that you have an appreciation of vision, here is this week’s exercise to help you develop your skills:

  1. Take your camera and shoot a series of 10 images. Any subject so long as it inspires you and the series of images must be as creative and different as possible. As you shoot each image, take a moment to note down your thoughts about how the finished image will look. Answer questions such as is it black and white or colour? What format (portrait, landscape, panoramic, square)? What elements of the scene are you trying to emphasise or de-emphasise with your composition and how? What levels of contrast do you imagine? Are there areas that you imagine being darker or lighter than others? You should also try to work into this some of the ideas you might have developed during the inspiration exercises from last week’s challenge. Are there any techniques that inspire you that you might want to adopt for this challenge?
  2. Back at home, load your images onto your computer and review each in turn. How does the image match your initial vision? Make notes about the areas of difference and how you might change the photograph to bring it closer to your vision.
  3. Now you have compared your images to your vision, would you change anything about the way you used the camera to capture the photograph?
  4. Make a sketch of the image then write notes onto the sketch to show the changes you might need to make.

Be sure to complete the exercise and watch out for next week’s challenge.

Mastering Technical Skills (Week 3)

This week we will take a closer look at how we use our camera and equipment to capture the photograph. This is the area that most photographers tend to concentrate on developing but unless you have a vision for your image it will be difficult to decide about the settings and equipment to use. Be sure to remember the previous weeks work as you progress through this week.

Mastering the technical skills of photography means that you feel confident in being able to take control of the camera settings. Changing the aperture, selecting the right focal length, picking where to focus, choosing which lens to use etc. It also means understanding the limitations of your chosen settings and how you can compensate for these. For example, if you want to use a long shutter speed, you won’t be able to hand hold the camera steady. If you want to avoid the camera shake you will need to use a tripod or other support.

It should go without saying that you will need to know how to use all your equipment, almost without consciously thinking. But you also need to know how to select the right settings to produce the results that match your vision. It’s your vision that should inform your choice of settings and it’s your settings that inform your use of camera accessories.

Let’s take a simple example where you decide to photograph a waterfall. You decide your vision for the photograph is that the motion of the waterfall is recorded so that it becomes a smooth cascade. You also want to achieve full depth of field so that everything in the frame is sharp. To achieve this you realise that you need a long exposure of at least 2 seconds as well as a small aperture for the depth of field. You decide on a small aperture of f/16.0 and your lowest ISO setting of ISO50. The result is a shutter speed of 1/5” which isn’t slow enough to create the look you imagined but the aperture setting of f/16.0 achieves the depth of field. To slow the shutter speed further you realise you need to use accessories (a Neutral Density filter of around 6 stops). You also need to use a tripod and remote camera release to avoid touching the camera (and introducing camera shake) when taking the photograph.

What you should take from the above example is not a formula of how to take such a photograph but an appreciation of how your vision for the photograph drives your choice of camera setting and how this can introduce the need for accessories to further control the camera.

This week’s exercises:

  1. Read your camera manual to be sure you know how to control the shutter, aperture, ISO, point of focus and exposure compensation as a minimum.
  2. Look back to the work you did on vision and inspiration. In order to achieve your vision for the images, how might you need to control the camera? What sort of accessories might this require you to use and do you have these available?
  3. Look back at example images from your clipping file and try to identify how the photographer created the effect you like. What camera settings did they use, what lens did they use, how have they used the characteristics of the lens, what accessories might they have used?

Next time we will look at how to edit and improve your images.

Improve Your Photography in the Lenscraft 30 day challenge
Improve Your Photography in the Lenscraft 30 day challenge
Cannon Beach sunset Oregon USA
Fig 03 Dent Viaduct from a roadside location
Improve Your Photography in the Lenscraft 30 day challenge
Improve Your Photography in the Lenscraft 30 day challenge
RWhalley EM5 2014 12 C290086
RWhalley D800 2014 11 RNW0427

Editing your Images (Week 4)

There is often a gap between what can be achieved in the camera and our vision of the finished photograph. This can lead to frustration if we don’t recognise one simple truth. It’s rarely possible to achieve our vision within the camera alone. In fact, if you find you can achieve the end vision in camera, then your vision probably isn’t sufficiently challenging. What can help us close this gap between the camera capture and our vision is image editing.

The tools you chose to use for your image editing is a personal one and I would be telling you to use Lightroom or Photoshop. Irrespective of choice though, your selected tools must be sufficiently powerful to allow you to achieve your vision for the image. Today, tools still have their limitations but most will require your vision to be quite extreme before you hit them.

In image editing, your role as the photographer is to understand two things:

  1. What changes are required to the image in order to move the image towards (and hopefully achieve) your vision?
  2. Identify how you use your chosen tools to achieve the changes identified?

This week’s exercises address both of these areas:

  1. Select an image with which to work and analyse it. First considering what your vision is for the finished image. Don’t just settle for the first thing that comes into your mind but continue to challenge your vision with questions such as “how could this be improved” and “what would make the image more interesting”. Work on the vision to make it as clear and impressive as possible.
  2. Having clarified your vision, answer the question “what changes need to be made to the image to achieve this vision”? List out the changes and make rough sketches to illustrate these. Don’t be put off if you don’t yet know how to make such changes. If the image needs to change to achieve your vision, it needs to be changed. At the end of this step you should have an outline editing plan, listing the changes needed. Try to then place these in some sort of order. Remember, start with global changes that affect the entire image and then work to more local changes.
  3. Using your chosen editing tools, try to execute the editing plan. If you find there is a step that you don’t know how to achieve or find difficult, make a note and carry on to the next. When your list is complete, evaluate the image against your vision. How much does it differ and how could this be corrected? Have you learned anything that means you need to refine your vision?
  4. In completing the editing did you find any gaps in your knowledge? Use tools such as Google and You Tube to search for ideas to improve your skills in these areas. As you learn, continue to work on your image to build your skills.
  5. Continue to repeat this sequence of exercises using different images.

Next time we will look at an idea to help you improve your work.

Sharing your Results (Week 5)

This week we are going to look at the magic step to improve your work; sharing your results. If you don’t share your work, you will only ever be your own judge and critic. Whilst this can be valuable, it can also limit your progress.

When you share your results with others in a systematic way, you can learn a lot as well as accelerate your results. Unfortunately, many of the avenues for sharing your work have become overused and saturated by photographers who trying to attract attention. They often want people to look at their work not because they value feedback but because they want people to say they are good. When you are truly good at photography you won’t need to seek confirmation of this from others.

What we need to do is share our work with similarly minded photographers who understand the process of feedback and who can provide constructive criticism. What we don’t want is the usual comments you see on photo sharing sites such as “nice image, take a look at mine”. To help with this feedback process I have created a Flickr group called the “Lenscraft 30 Day challenge”. Here’s the link

The idea of this group is that you post images for which you would like to receive considered feedback from others. This will require you to provide a reasonable level of information to help the reviewer and where this week’s exercises come in:

  1. The rules of the forum are:
    • You can post no more than an image a day to the group.
    • When posting an image, you should provide the information set out below. If you don’t do this other members can request you to do so before they provide feedback.
    • Ensure the image is at least 1500 pixels on its longest side.
  2. When providing information with your image think about the following questions. This may seem like a lot but the better the information the more considered the feedback is likely to be:
    • What inspired you to shoot the image?
    • What you were trying to achieve in the finished image?
    • What emotions did you want to convey to the viewer?
    • What decisions did you make about using the camera e.g. shutter speed, aperture and depth of field?
    • What accessories did you use and why?
    • What adjustments did you make when editing the image, using which tools and why?
    • What changes would you have liked to have made but struggled to achieve?
  3. Now post your first image to the forum and continue to post more as you finish them.

In the next email, we will look at giving feedback to others.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

In last week’s exercises, we discussed how to post your images to the “Lenscraft 30 Day Challenge” in a way that would help solicit valuable feedback. This week we will look at how to provide such feedback. There is an old saying that you don’t fully understand a subject until you have tried to teach it. This advice also applies to photography and the act of giving constructive feedback to others will help improve your own work.

To that end I would like to introduce you to the golden rule of the forum. Each time you post an image you need to feedback on another image in the pool. You can feedback on any image for whatever reason but try to select an image that hasn’t received much to date. If you don’t do this the pool won’t work well.

Giving feedback should be relatively easy if the person posting the image has provided good information. Look back to the previous week’s email and the information to be provided:

  • Their inspiration for the photograph – how clearly does this come across in the image?
  • The vision and emotion they are trying to convey – do you feel it? Can you understand it?
  • The camera settings and their use of accessories – is this how you would have shot the image? If not, what would you do differently?
  • The editing plan – would you have made the same changes or would you have done something else? What would you have done differently?
  • Are there changes they struggled to make – can you help or make any suggestions?

This week’s exercise is very simple. Go feedback on others. And when you receive feedback, thank people and try to improve your work using the feedback.

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You have now received all the emails in the 30-Day Photo Challenge. But it’s not enough to just receive the emails. You need to take part, to participate in the challenge and do so on a regular basis. Try to repeat these exercises every few months. And if you have any ideas to improve the challenge I would be very pleased to hear them.

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