The #1 Way to Get Better as a Photographer

Alive After 5 in Roswell, GA. [Fuji X-E3, 10-24mm, ISO 25600, ƒ/10, 1/55]

Keeping yourself fresh is vital if you do this professionally. I do this by taking a small camera with me everywhere. I take a few photos here and there and, in the process, keep myself fresh for my professional jobs where I am getting paid by a client.

Alive After 5 in Roswell, GA. [Fuji X-E3, 10-24mm, ISO 25600, ƒ/13, 1/25]

I have been teaching one-on-one with a person wanting to pursue photography. We started by shooting in full manual mode. The camera is set where the student must pick for each shot the following:

  • ISO
  • Shutter Speed
  • Aperture

As we reviewed some of the photos shot since the last time we met, the images had significantly improved, but these photos of ducks didn’t work.

Cyneria & Sadarius Lucas Wedding [Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm, ISO 3200, ƒ/7.1, 1/50]

What had happened was the excitement of getting photos had them shooting before they had thought through all the settings.

When shooting the ducks, the person hadn’t thought about what of those three settings took priority and why. I explained how birds like shooting sports. It would help if you froze them, or they would be blurred using the settings the camera was set on before seeing the birds.

Tufted titmouse [Fuji X-E3, 55-200mm, ISO 4000, ƒ/5.6, 1/1250]

This is when I stopped and talked to the student about how you must slow down your camera settings just before taking photos. If you don’t do this, none of the images will be usable. “I was trying to get the birds before they flew away.” was the excuse. So not one of the photos was functional, but this became a teachable moment.

My mentor, coach, and friend Don Rutledge – photo by Ken Touchton

There was a teachable moment with my mentor. A few of my friends would also tell me later how this helped them.

In the days of film, you shot 36 shots, and then you had to change your roll of film. So most photographers would reach into their bags and change their roll of the film pretty quickly.

The problem is when you change a roll of the film, you can make a mistake and not get the leader of the film to catch it. If this happened, you would close the back of the camera, and because you are in a hurry, you take more photos, but none of them are recorded on the film because every time you advanced the film, the film wasn’t moving.

I learned what to do from watching Don, not because he told me what he did. Don would turn his back to whatever he was photographing and change the roll of film. He would always turn the rewind lever to tighten the roll before advancing the film to be sure it caught.

Once the film was changed, Don then turned around towards the action.

Cyneria & Sadarius Lucas Wedding [Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm, ISO 800, ƒ/4, 1/500]

When shooting, I often evaluate the scene and realize I need a flash. Taking the time to set that up for the photo here takes time. The image is better because I slowed down long enough to get my moment, put it on a light stand, and then set the flash to work with the scene.

Alive After 5 [Fuji X-E3, 10-24mm, ISO 25600, ƒ/13, 1/150]

#1 Tip: Shoot More

Don Rutledge taught me a great deal. One tip was to shoot stories for yourself. Often these are stories you can return to work on in your hometown. Unfortunately, due to the schedule, you work slower than when traveling and must rush to get photos.

My tip that no one taught me is to ask yourself before taking photos, “Why do I want to take this photo?” What is it you are trying to say with the picture? I am also trying to get in touch with my feelings and not just feel what is happening, but what words describe this feeling?

Then I pause long enough to decide which Aperture captures the scene best. For example, do I need a shallow depth of field where you cannot tell where the person is, but I want you to see the expression, or do I need more context and a greater depth of field?

I am also evaluating what shutter speed will freeze the photo enough to be sharp, or do I need to add motion with a slower shutter speed?

Female Cardinal [Fuji X-E3, 55-200mm, ISO 8000, ƒ/10, 1/280]

A somewhat fast shutter speed with some subjects will still blur like this bird.

You must know your camera and subject to know the proper shutter speed. Over the years, I have learned that faster shutter speeds improve the photo’s sharpness due to camera shake.

The most significant difference in having lots of experience is that when I am in most situations, it is becoming rare that I haven’t shot something like this before.

Don taught me that I need to shoot as much as possible to grow and get the shot.