After years of teaching, I’ve had the privilege of reviewing the work of all types of photographers. And technical mistakes aside (of which there are many), I think there are a few major conceptual mistakes that I see over and over, which I think are much more important to focus on.
Of course, these ‘mistakes’ are generalities and there are many exceptions to every rule. But these are important ideas to keep in the back of your head when you photograph.
1. Not photographing close to home, and only photographing when you travel
I notice that photographers tend to be a part of two different camps: The ones that prefer to only photograph when they travel, and the ones that feel more comfortable photographing around home.
Neither is better than the other, but if you are one of the photographers who only takes their camera out on trips, I suggest switching things up a bit. Travel photography is wonderful, but unless you are spending a lot of time in an area, it is very tough to understand the area enough and to have enough time to get beyond the superficial photographs. It takes time and effort to get intimate with an area.
Similarly, I get a common complaint that people feel their skills get rusty between trips. Photographing close to home is a way to keep photography as a part of your everyday life and it will keep your eyes and your camera skills sharp. And I know everyone is busy, but daily or weekly photography — even in 15 minutes stretches — is excellent for your mental and physical health.
But most importantly, it will do wonders for your photography. Work on a project capturing your neighborhood or an area close to you consistently. This will give you time to get intimate with an area that you already know well and your photographs will show that. And it will give you time to consistently come across photogenic moments to create a full body of work that is interesting, which is tough to do with limited travel time.
The quieter or more ‘boring’ the area, the better. Often you can create such interesting photographs in areas like this, and many photographers have created wonderful projects, but it seems counterintuitive. There are fascinating moments everywhere and the idea of a quiet neighborhood is fascinating in its own right. I promise, if you search, you will find great photographs.
2. Not embracing imperfection
Life isn’t perfect and photography shouldn’t be either. What’s important is that the photograph is interesting and that it looks pleasing. Everything else should be forgotten about if those two points are met.
I notice that photographers can get too obsessed with the simple mistakes and forget about the larger issues such as a photograph just not being interesting enough. Often mistakes will ruin a photograph, but just as often they will not be detrimental and will instead make the moment feel real and unplanned.
It’s OK for a photograph to have some blur, blown-out highlights, cut off feet, a skewed composition or even objects getting in the way. It doesn’t have to ruin the photograph or even hurt it in any way.
3. No subject
Capturing light, color and beauty is incredibly important, but that is only part of the battle. Some photographers are so focused on this that they forget about content. Photographs need some content and substance to them. When you mix the two, that’s when the magic occurs.
Think about ideas, showing emotion and feeling, capturing a photograph that hints or tells a story of some sort. Create a project. Think about your voice and your own feelings and try to express them through your work. This is what will make your photography stand out, and good light, color, and beauty will only enhance that.
4. Not being consistent enough
It’s wonderful to capture different subjects and to shoot in different ways, such as with different cameras, lenses or in both black and white or color. It’s fantastic to experiment and try new things.
But it’s also important to work on the consistency within your work. Group your photographs into consistent themes and ideas and work to make the look of those photographs feel consistent as well, per idea or project.
When viewers look at this body of work, the consistency will help to keep their focus and allow them to get into the story or idea that you are sharing better. There are exceptions of course, but consider keeping projects in either black and white or color, keep the crop the same and keep the editing consistent. It will help to make your final project feel like a cohesive body of work.
5. Not becoming part of the scene
Part of creating strong and intimate photographs is to get close and to be a part of what you are photographing. It’s much easier to skirt on the edges with a telephoto lens, or not interact with your subjects at all, but this shows in the work.
Build up your confidence and get closer to your subjects. Learn more about what you are photographing and the area that you are photographing. Interact with people and add some portraits to your project.
This can be tough at first, and it can make you nervous, but over time it will become second nature. Doing this hard work is what will allow your photography and your projects to shine.