How to Improve Your Photography Without Spending Any Money

There are plenty of ways to get better images, we’ve all seen articles on which new camera to purchase, which new laptop will improve your editing, which courses to purchase, or where in the world you can visit to get stunning images. But what about some truly effective ways to improve your ability to get the shot without spending a penny?

The simple answer is that to get better at something, you need to put the time in to practice that skill. But what should you practice and how?

Practice Makes Perfect?

The phrase “practice makes perfect” is used a lot, and in my experience that’s not entirely correct. Anyone with experience in coaching can confirm that “practice makes permanent” might be a more accurate saying. If you practice an inefficient or incorrect technique, in any field, you risk creating bad habits that can take more effort to break. Therefore, perfect practice makes perfect performance.

10,000 Hours To Become an Expert

Many of us will have also heard of the “10,000 hour rule” which suggests that, to become an expert in any field, you must practice that skill for 10,000 hours. If this were true, and simply doing something for a great number of hours would make you expertly proficient, surely all taxi drivers would be competitive in Formula One? Clearly, this is an oversimplification, but what is really meant by “practice”?

The concept of training for 10,000 hours can be traced back to a 1993 paper written by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. It highlighted the work of a group of psychologists in Berlin, who had studied the practice habits of violin students over a number of years.

It is Malcolm Gladwell’s hugely popular book, Outliers, that is largely responsible for introducing the 10,000 hour rule to a mass audience; it’s even the name of one of the chapters. Anders Ericsson later debunked the 10,000 hour “rule” in a paper where he stated that “Gladwell does not even mention the concept of deliberate practice”. Ericsson then pointed out that 10,000 was an average, and that many of the best musicians in his study had accumulated “substantially fewer” hours of practice. He also stressed that the quality of the practice was important.

What Constitutes High-Quality Practice in Photography?

Surely we should all go out and take more photographs, just take all the photos all the time and you’ll become the next Ansel Adams? Sadly we know that’s not necessarily the case.

What about editing? Many of us, myself included, spend hours reading articles, or watching YouTube while using Lightroom or Photoshop to learn and practicing new techniques to achieve the desired result. I’m certainly aware that the time it takes me to edit an image is far quicker now than when I first used Lightroom because I am now more proficient in using the software. But after years of use, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a master retoucher.

What More Can We Do?

To use a sports analogy: if shooting and editing to produce finished images are like playing a game of football, how can we train ourselves to be better at the game? Sure, playing lots of games at various levels is good for maintaining your skills and occasionally learning new things, but top athletes train for a multitude of situations in meaningful ways between games in order to fully prepare themselves.

Meaningful Practice

A great starting point if you want to practice for the big game, at any time at all, is getting to know your gear. Now just looking through the menu and learning what the dials do, but really learning how to use your gear so that it becomes like second nature. If you don’t have to think about how to change a setting, or you can make any changes without taking the camera away from your eye, you can focus all your attention on taking the shot rather than how to use your camera.

Whenever I get a new camera body I try to learn how to use it as efficiently as possible. I sit on my couch and set myself simple challenges such as letting in 2 stops more light, or closing the aperture by 1 stop without changing the overall exposure of the image and without taking the camera from my eye.

I have also spent hours taking endless images of a coffee cup on my desk to learn just how far I’m willing to push the ISO before an image is unacceptable, or how close I can get to my subject with a variety of lenses and still rely on autofocus. None of these things will result in any images you want to put on your wall, but they will make you more familiar with your camera; that’s meaningful training for the big game.

Once you’re able to use your camera like an extension of your body, changing settings, knowing how your lenses behave in a variety of situations, then you can do the same with other piece of equipment such as on-camera or off-camera flash. Using an action figure and a flashgun can show you how light at a variety of distances and intensities can look on the human form. An old teddy bear or action figure is a lot cheaper to learn with than hiring a model and shooting on location for an afternoon.

Setting challenges is a great way to learn. If you’re comfortable and familiar with your kit, go out and set yourself some challenges. You could try to replicate an image you’ve seen online, or take an old image and edit it in a different way. Read articles, watch tutorials online, try new things. Remember that you don’t always have to play in a big game, sometimes it’s good to just get in some training before the next game.

What About Hiring Models, or Studios to Practice?

Traveling to a great location, hiring a studio, or hiring an experienced model are all great ways to produce pleasing images. I don’t mean to suggest for a moment that these things aren’t a good use of your time. Meaningful practice doesn’t have to be costly or complicated to be effective.

How do you practice your skills? What do you do to improve your ability to take images? Let me know in the comments.

Anita Shire

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