How to Get Better at Photography or Filmmaking Without Spending Any More Money.

hand holding a bulb, thought ideas concept Introduction
Once we’re bitten by that photography or filmmaking bug we get all excited and overtaken by an urge to make stuff which is great as that motivation gets us out there, doing. It is though, quite natural to be disappointed with our early work. It happened to me and I’ve no doubt to anyone else who had big ambitions. Whilst the act of taking a picture or shooting video is quite natural to most of us, what doesn’t always come naturally is the act of reflection and review. After making something new, if we take a step back and compare our work with that of others, then we’re probably going to feel that some improvement is required because it actually isn’t up to the standard to which we aspire. It’s at this point we begin our climb up the creative ladder because we’ve realised that our work isn’t the ‘bees knees’ after all and really can be better. Much better. This is a good thing because from here we’re more likely to start the great journey towards what we consider to be our vision of greatness. These first steps are important as without them we’ll never grow creatively.

What is ‘Better’?
It’s probably a good idea to define what we think of as ‘better’. It’s going to be different for each of us but it’s likely to be along the lines of ‘hmm, I look at X’s work and I love that then I look at my work and it’s just not as good’. So we’ve defined there that our ‘better’ is to make something that compares favourably with the work of X who we admire. If we don’t have our personal definition of better we’re missing a target to aim at.

Better doesn’t have to be one thing either. In fact it really should be many things. Just one thing isn’t going to get us there. Becoming good at something usually means a hundred little things that improve slowly until the combination of improvement across a range of skills leads to better work. Let’s take photography as an example. There are the technical skills such as understanding the shutter, aperture and ISO triangle, how they work together and the effect they have on the image. Editing images is a skill that’s made up of mastering many little tasks like exposure adjustment or colour balance. There’s many more little things that go in to the production of a great photograph and each one offers an opportunity to get better at using it.

With so many important components, an improvement isn’t going to be an overnight thing. Being prepared to get into this for the long haul is important. That means having patience with our journey. Frustration at our lack of ‘better’ is to be expected but we can use that as a motivator to crack on and get busy learning. Things is, if we’re really committed to wanting to be the best creative we can, then that motivation will be a help to keeping up with this. If, really, we’re not that interested then the urge to get better will quickly fade. Nothing worthwhile ever came easy.

Money, Money, Money
It’s tempting to think that money is the answer to everything. If we spend enough of it we can create the greatest piece of work ever. Lets face it, if your dream is to make a feature-length movie then yes, you need bags of cash. So lets imagine here that you have slightly more humble goals for your work. You might be thinking that buying some new gear or piece of software will bring your abilities up to speed and again to a certain extent that is of course true. There will always be new ways to be found with a new bit of kit however in my opinion the growth potential from ever more ’stuff’ alone is small, there are other ways to get better without spending a penny.

Being inspired
If like me you were inspired to pick up a camera because of some image or film you saw that made you say to yourself ‘wow, I want to make work like that’. Then you have the perfect starting point to become a better creative. As we mentioned earlier, our first efforts are almost always going to be disappointing and comparing it with the work of what inspired us in the first place can be a painful realisation of how much we don’t know and how much we have to learn.

If that doesn’t put you off though, having a cold hard look, in detail, at that inspiring piece of work can offer a huge learning opportunity. Asking ourselves what drew us to it in the first place, what caught our eye, what do we see, why do we like it, what is that, why is it this way and not that way? So many questions and if we can find answers to just some of them then we learn a lot.

Don’t stop with that one picture, look at many and not just in the genre that you like. Look at successful images from many different genres and photographers and ask those same questions. Look at how you think the image was shot technically, that is, what camera settings were used, how was it lit, why was the camera where it was, why did the photographer press the shutter at this point? How was it edited? Why is it portrait or landscape? When you see some feature of an image or film that you like, consider how that came about. Was it in-camera or did some clever editing make it? Don’t stop at digital media. Look at the work of painters. Consider how the great masters of the past used light or surrealists composed a scene. Inspiration can be found all around.

"Learning is a never ending journey. You’ll never know enough and every day is a school day." Experiment
So you’ve spent some time examining those inspiring images, now the time has come to test that new found knowledge. There’s no two ways about it, you have to get out there and do it. Make new work. Test what you think you’ve learnt. Then when you’ve tried those new techniques take a step back to examine that imagery and ask yourself what has worked and what hasn’t. Try to understand why some things failed and some hopefully worked. Have you managed to identify the things that you liked and replicate those in your image? Did your improvements come from your use of the camera or the editing? Maybe it came from how you interacted with your scene. Are you working with models? Did you do something differently that worked or maybe didn’t this time?

It is very important when we’re being inspired by the work of others not to copy those original pieces. For one you’re just making a facsimile of that and you’ll never grow if you aren’t using your own vision. Copying may also be illegal but this depends upon where you are in the world. Regardless, be inspired but be inspired to make new.

Be inquisitive
Inquisitive, curious, call it what you will but this more than anything is at the heart of improving our skill set. Wanting to know why something is better than something else will naturally lead to identifying what needs to be done to reach our personal definition of better. If we aren’t curious then we’ll only ever achieve within our existing ability, only when we venture out to learn beyond our comfort zone do we get better. Curiosity leads to experimentation which leads to new experiences and new skills. This is all valuable learning that piles on to existing knowledge.

Spend time not money
We have to say that yes you need to invest something to at least get your first camera but even our phones feature great cameras to shoot photography or video so most of have the minimum kit required to get up and running. We don’t need the latest all-singing-all-dancing gizmo. Your phone can take the same picture as a £2,000 mirrorless wonder. It can take the same bad picture too. Money isn’t the answer; time and curiosity are the answer. Investing your time in your passion to learn about the many aspects of creating a still or moving image will lead to better work. With any luck you’ll outgrow your original equipment because you’ve learnt you need more features to achieve the types of image you aspire to. Importantly you’ll know why you need them.

Learn, shoot, review, repeat
Learning is a never ending journey. You’ll never know enough and every day is a school day but by continually reviewing and experimenting we give ourselves the best chance of becoming better creatives.

All images © Peter Hatter
Article Date - January 2019
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