The New Year's Revolution - 14 Tips to Be Better

Revolutionary?  Probably not, but at minimum evolutionary and at best game-changing.  Here are my 14 thoughts to help you make better photos and videos in 2014.

  1. Make only interesting images.  Challenge your eye to see before you press the shutter or start recording.  Ask yourself why you will make this image or clip.  What makes it interesting or special or unique?  Make a note of your rationale.  Treat yourself to a Hemingway-esque Moleskine notebook and write down what you are seeing.  Sound like a lot of work?  Yes, but you will become a better artist because you do so.
  2. Instead of spending money on more gear, go somewhere interesting.  For a day, a weekend, or longer.  Photographers and videographers routinely drop hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on new kit.  Use the money to take yourself somewhere where you will see different things and make interesting images or clips.
  3. Make a portfolio if you do not have one.  Use SmugMug or Squarespace or Wordpress or whatever tool you like but make a portfolio.  Restrict yourself to no more than twenty-four images.  Place only your best work.  You may not have two images of the same subject in your portfolio.  Never post "work in progress" or "just okay" shots on social media.  You lower your personal bar when you do.
  4. If you have a portfolio, it needs cleaning.  If there is anything more than two years old in it, it's housekeeping time.  Keep only your very best work in your portfolio and tighten up your themes.  Some pros advocate separate portfolios for different types of work to maintain continuity for the audience.  If you are selling work, or your own ability, this is very good advice.  If you shoot weddings, your wedding portfolio should be nothing but weddings.  If you also shoot full contact rugby, that's a completely separate portfolio.
  5. Whatever editing tool you use, learn the speed key to delete images.  Import everything since you cannot tell if an image or clip is worth keeping by looking at the LCD on the camera display, but after the import is done, the first job is vicious deletion.  If you went out to shoot the Caledon badlands and came home with 300+ images, you have no reason to keep them all.  In fact if you are keeping many more than 40, you are building the editing rod for your own back.  Most pros plan for a keep ratio of between 6% and 10%.  If you are retaining more than this, you're probably not being honest with yourself.  Shaky footage goes in the can.  So do any pictures of people where the eyes aren't sharp.  Sports images where you cannot see the player's eyes are not keepers.  Bad exposure, bad white balance, bad audio tracks that are critical to the video track are all learning experiences.  You should learn from them and throw them away.  There's no prize for the size of your Lightroom library or Final Cut project bins.  Keep only the really good stuff and you won't end up wasting time on work that's mediocre.  There are plenty of people who are expert at mediocre and they are already posting enough for the rest of us.
  6. Last year, I said that before you specialize you need to become adept at most any kind of photography.  I stand by that statement, but there has to be something you prefer to shoot.  No one actually loves shooting everything.  This doesn't mean you cannot focus on skills development in a new space, but identify the things you love to shoot.  I am capable, and have earned income as a wedding photographer and as an assistant in wedding videos.  That doesn't mean I enjoy doing the work so it will never be a specialty because I don't like it.  As the great philosopher Carlin said, "you got to wanna".  What's your specialty?  I know that Rick Sammon says "I specialize in everything".  Neither you nor I is Rick Sammon.  Pick your shot.
  7. Learn your gear.  I meet lots of really nice people with a good eye who come away unhappy because they didn't get the image that they saw in their mind's eye.  They saw the image but did not know how to use their tools to capture it.  Vendor's produce manuals to be read.  If you haven't read your manual since you got your camera / lens / flash whatever, you're missing something.  Read it again.  Read it until you know the device inside out, and then practice changing settings without looking and without referring to the documentation.  Only then does the tool not get in the way of the work being done.
  8. Get a mentor.  None of us know everything.  I go to classes, take workshops and watch a lot of video training.  I also ask people I respect for guidance.  I've been at this 35+ years.  If photography or videography is still relatively new to you, or if you've hit the creative wall, get yourself a mentor to help you along.  I offer eight week mentoring programs at a very fair price.  For the first time, the programs can be delivered using Google Hangouts, not just live in person.  So do others.  But be demanding.  "I want to get better" is not sufficiently demanding.  Contact me at to learn more about my mentor program.
  9. Get a critique.  Your friends and family, and everyone on Flickr and sadly Google+ will trip over themselves to tell you how great your stuff is.  No offence, but all of it is not  great.  Get a critique from someone who genuinely wants to help you, not just destroy your hopes and dreams like many of the "judges" in photo contests.  A professional critique is not an emotional experience, and you will likely find you learn exactly the undefinable thing you didn't like about the shot.  I do critiques for people.  In the past they were only ever live.  I am now offering critiques using web tools.  A professional critique asks you as many questions as perspectives are shared.  This is how you tell the pros from the amateurs.  Contact me at to learn more about arranging a critique.
  10. Learn composition.  Whether you are shooting a film or stills, composition is all.  Everytime I hear somebody say "rules are made to be broken" it usually ends up meaning that they never learned the rules in the first place.  True 90% of the time.  Learn and apply the rules.  The worst thing that happens from learning composition is that you get better images and better footage.
  11. Learn about lighting.  Photography and videography are 100% about light.  It's not the gear, it's not the model, it's not even the subject.  It's all about light.   Great light can make a staid, boring subject interesting.  Crappy light can make the most incredible subject flat and lifeless.  A great landscape filled with atmospheric haze is a crappy image.  A beautiful dancer filmed in bad light is a bad film.
  12. If you shoot video, become an expert on audio.  Nothing destroys your cinematic masterpiece faster than bad audio.  Good audio is very hard, you have to match the spatial layout of the video footage and still ensure that your actors are heard properly and have proper nuance.  Not everything is a head's up product pitch.  Learn about equalization and filtration, about compressors and dynamic range management.  Great sound keeps great video great.  Lousy sound destroys your video work.
  13. Get out and shoot.  Looking at your kit does nothing.  Until about ten years ago, I was a very serious competitive shooter (the other kind of shooting).  To hold my skills I had to shoot at minimum 200 serious practice rounds a week.  To improve, I had to push to 500 rounds and at least one, sometimes two competitions a week.  It was incredibly demanding and a lot of fun.  There were ladies and gentlemen much better than I.  They made it look easy.  What I learned from everyone I took classes from is that repetition is the mother of skill.  If you aren't making images or clips constantly, you aren't likely to grow.  As Einstein said, "if you aren't failing, you aren't learning".
  14. Print your work or burn your films to media.  For a still photographer, there is nothing like holding a big print of your own work.  It's incredible.  For a filmmaker, putting your work on a Bluray or DVD and showing it to friends and family on the biggest screen you can connect to is absolutely awesome.  It's transformational.  One of our friends in the local club, who is, in my opinion, a brilliant wildlife photographer, only just started printing.  He practiced and learned and moved to large canvas images.  Literally in weeks, he went from being a respected web poster to a seller of his incredible images as prints for people's homes.

Most of all, have fun!  Yes, a person dedicated to his or her craft can turn it into a revenue generating tool.  Not to be harsh, but I have seen too many folks who really loved image or filmmaking pack it in or become jaded after turning it into a "job".  Never forget the magical feeling you had when you first decided to get better.  Cheers!