Yeah, it's that time, the time for resolutions and self-promises and all manner of other stuff that generally develops a best before date of February 3rd. My proposal to you. Build a plan to become a better photographer.
Sounds simple huh? Really it is. And like many ideas, it has been influenced by a number of sources and reinforced by the opinions of others that I will listen to from time to time. So here goes.
1. Repetition is the mother of skill. That's why you practice the same kata a thousand times in martial arts. Even if you aren't making a photo, practice changing the key settings on your camera without taking the camera from your eye. You'll be surprised what a huge difference this will make for you. Repeat daily. Test yourself. Change the ISO without taking your eye from the viewfinder. If you cannot do it, then you had best do some practicing.
2. Shoot everything. We're in this for fun and joy, not necessarily to earn revenue. If you are really attracted to an idea shoot it a lot. If you aren't, give it a try to find out if you might like it. I'm not a fan of watching sports. When I was first offered the opportunity to photograph Polo, I wondered why the heck anyone would want to photograph this, let alone watch it. Turns out, I love shooting Polo. Many of the people I can live without, but the athletes and riders impress me.
3. Becoming a good photographer requires generalization, you should be able to competently shoot a variety of topics and styles. Experiment! The cost is pretty darn low. Try new things, but expect that one shoot does not an expert make.
4. Becoming great will require specialization. Figure out what kinds of photography you really enjoy and invest time in that. It doesn't matter what it is, but it's very hard to really push the envelope of learning if you are trying to do everything well. It's easier than you think. Ask yourself questions about the kinds of things you like and you don't like. I can shoot weddings. I don't. I don't enjoy the process so I don't spend time becoming a great wedding photographer. I love wildlife. I buy books, learn biology, look at great wildlife photographers and try to copy what they do, and shoot lots. Sometimes I even get images I want to keep.
5. Don't fall into the "daily dose" claptrap. This is the time of year where people sign up for 365 projects. Don't do it. While you may be able to make a decent photograph each and every day, odds are against you so why end up with hundreds of barely passable images. Make images that matter, not images that fulfill a quota. Think, plan and shoot. 365s are the equivalent of Fire, Ready, Aim
6. Look at the great works of photographers in your areas of specialization. If you are committed to street, look at Cartier-Bresson, if sports, look at Dave Black, if portraiture, look at Yousef Karsh. Don't know where to look for inspiration? Go to 500px.com and search your topic of interest. Be prepared to be amazed and perhaps even a bit discouraged. Seeing great work is challenging and we get to rise to the challenge.
7. Seek critiques from photographers you trust. Non-photographers don't see like photographers and won't be able to help you. Flickr is not the place to seek help, because all you get is "great photo" suckups. You can post an out of focus picture of a toilet bowl on Flickr and someone will tell you its great art. I would not recommend sending images in to Scott Kelby's web show The Grid either unless you want your self-esteem eviscerated. Mr. Kelby is an incredible instructor and I think he's a very talented and funny guy, but I don't care for his critique style. The hosts take too much pleasure in being nasty when they don't see something that they like. However, I'd pay Joe McNally for a critique because his approach is so developmental. I'd also shy away from the pay by the hour booth style crap such as I've seen at the Imaging show. I saw and heard a lot of really horrible guidance from alleged professionals there. A good critique is about you, not about the person offering the critique. Massive egos make lousy coaches.
8. Learn to edit viciously. Just because you went out for four hours to make images doesn't mean you will come back with greatness. I have spent hundreds of hours shooting, and upon review on the computer, determined that I might be better off taking up wallpapering. I am constantly frustrated by my own work. The X key in Lightroom is your friend. Don't lie to yourself about whether the image is good or not. If you feel it's not, it's not.
9. Take classes, workshops, One on Ones, video trainings, shoot days, field trips. Get books by the photographers you admire, if not to learn their technique, to have something to emulate. Focus on the things you want to learn. Basics are fine, but they aren't enough. Be able to articulate what you want to learn and go learn those things. Don't do a basic field trip if you want to get better at macro photography of wildflowers, unless that's the curriculum. If you focus on portraits, make it complete and learn portrait retouching. If you focus on landscapes, learn about the zone system and how to expose in camera and post-process effectively. If you want to really learn about HDR, take a class, get a book and here's your first tip. Clouds are NOT black. If you want to work with studio flash, learn to use a light meter.
10. Create constriction. Go out with only one lens, or only one focal length on the zoom. Pretend your memory card can only hold 12 images and make each one count. Shoot only from a tripod. Shoot only from one knee. Shoot only in portrait mode. Shoot only at ISO100. Require motion blur in every image. Not only think outside the box, smash the box to bits.
So that's it. Your mission, should you choose to accept it.
Happy New Year!