They say that ‘if you aim at nothing, you’ll usually hit it.’ So … set some specific goals. Here’s some tasty tips to inspire you – one for each month of the year.
01 Print your images
Are your photographs destined to remain hidden on a hard drive forever, unseen by the world? Remember the buzz you once had in the pre-digital days, when you saw your photographs the first time in print?
Why not peruse your recent holiday snaps, and select your best work to be immortalised with ink on paper. Frame them; hang them in your home; give them away as gifts.
02 Update your camera gear
There comes a time when your digital camera doesn’t do your skills justice. While point-and-shoot cameras are convenient and cheaper, they are restricted by their simplicity and their smaller sensor size.
Unfortunately, the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is still the truth. Even an entry-level DSLR and kit lens will produce sharper and bigger images, and allow you to play with a wider aperture range, from at least f/4 to f/22.
If you’re into landscape photography, a sturdy tripod is a must, as is a polarising filter to darken blue skies. A cable release will prevent camera shake during longer exposures. A decent kit bag will protect your expensive gear, and enable more efficient access to it.
03 Subscribe to a photography magazine
The racks of most bookshops are stacked with numerous photography magazines. My favourite is Digital SLR Photography, which boasts a higher standard of writing than found in other titles from the UK. Of course, these days you can subscribe to the digital version of magazines, and download them to your mobile device of choice.
04 Start a personal project
A popular pastime is to shoot a photo every day for 365 days. The idea is to force yourself into the habit of getting your camera out regularly, not just for holidays, or special occasions. Shoot ordinary events or items.
Dedicated 365 websites give tips and ideas. You could photograph a ‘selfie’ in the mirror to record your beard growth for 12 months, and then create a time lapse.
Another worthwhile project is to choose a numeral (e.g. 8) or a colour (e.g. red). Walk around town for a day, only shooting this topic. You will be amazed at how such a focussed assignment will hone your observation skills.
05 Enter a photography competition
Success in a local, national or even international competition is not only a huge boost to your confidence, and reputation – you may collect some fantastic prizes too. Competitions range from promotional gimmicks at local events (think A&P shows or radio stations), non-profit organisations (think camera clubs) to magazines which run these on an annual basis.
This is a great way to expose your work to a wider audience, and broaden your skill set. The more prestigious competitions will charge entry fees, particularly the umbrella organisations for professionals (e.g. NZIPP), where winners are highly acclaimed.
06 Get your work published
If you love to photograph in a narrow niche (e.g. animals, gardens, fashion, children, or sports), and believe your images will withstand an editor’s scrutiny, why not send a sample CD off to your favourite publication? Magazine editors are forever on the lookout for fresh takes on old topics. Follow up with a phone call, or better, a personal visit.
If you’re a competent wordsmith, even better, as you’ll get paid more for quality writing than for a handful of photos. However, be warned: editors are notorious for not replying, so you will need to be tenacious. Don’t give up.
07 Learn how to post-process your pics
This is what often separates amateurish photos from professional-looking images: taking a few minutes in Photoshop, adjusting a few basic things. Stuff like colour correction, sharpness, and exposure curves are easily done. So is straightening a wonky horizon, or cropping your picture into a more pleasing frame.
Photoshop Elements or Lightroom are popular with hobbyists as they are cheaper, stripped-down versions of Adobe’s flagship software. Beginners may find Faststone Image Viewer a simple yet powerful program – and best of all, it’s free.
08 Push yourself
Very rarely do great images come easy. Persistence pays off, and sometimes it’s just a matter of staying around longer on location, waiting for the right light. Or getting out of bed earlier for that stunning sunrise shot.
Go the extra mile this year. Don’t settle for second best, even if it means embarking on solo missions when the family is sleeping or watching TV. The sacrifice will be worth it.
09 Make money from your hobby
There are numerous ways to earn a living from photography – it all depends on your skill level, personality type, and passions. While the market for more landscape calendars or greeting cards is saturated, there’s still room for tasteful stock images, particularly shots of people.
On-line micro-stock libraries such as iStockphoto.com will no longer provide a decent full-time income, but you could make some pocket money. Fortunately, local stock libraries (e.g. mychillybin.co.nz in New Zealand) value their contributor’s images more highly. If your images are accepted and sell regularly, you can expect to earn several thousand dollars every year, once you have built up a considerable body of quality work.
Of course, if you have the people skills and can think on your feet, wedding photography is where the real money is. As this competitive genre is seasonal, it can be supplemented by studio shoots, or baby portraiture.
10 Join the club
Photo albums have now been replaced with on-line galleries. Host sites include Google Photos or Yahoo’s Flickr, but if you’re serious, why not build your own personal website? This is no longer such a daunting task, as it was a few years ago. Cloud-based hosts include clikpic.com and wix.com where beautiful templates make DIY web design a breeze.
However, if you and computers don’t mix, you can always find a like-minded community of real humans in a local camera club. These not-for-profits offer advice, training, competitions, trips, conventions and printed publications. (In New Zealand, join PSNZ – the umbrella organisation of regional photography clubs).
11 Take a photography course
Most folks will benefit from attending at least one photography course, especially when they’re starting out. This needn’t be a 4-year university degree. Check out your local high school – many offer night classes for adults, and are great value for money.
Alternatively, many pro photographers run seasonal workshops on portraiture, wildlife or landscapes. Learn the lost art of composition on my Udemy course. If you’re visiting Nelson, New Zealand, I can also provide 1-2-1 training to meet your specific goals. For the rest of you, I offer coaching via Skype calls over the Internet. The first session is free.
12 Go on tour
To really improve your photography, you need to grab your camera, and practise, practise, practise. Perhaps the best way to fast-track your camera skills is on an intense weekend shooting on location under the watchful eye of an experienced guide?
He will transport you to the best spots at the best time of day, in the best light. This will ensure you capture great images.