Taking next-level photographs
November 2, 2017 8:07 AM   Subscribe

What are some resources to help experienced/advanced amateur photographer develop craft even further? From an aesthetic perspective, not technical.

I've been shooting photographs consistently for about 15 years now. I want to get better and take better photos. This isn't a technical question, I feel that I take good photographs technically (exposure, equipment, composition, etc). But what are some resources for advanced amateurs that offer good, critical feedback and commentary? Are there any good flickr groups still active? In-person? I live in New York City if that makes a difference.

Feel free to poke around my flickr, this is a batch of walking-around photos I just took in Shanghai that is pretty indicative of my photographs. I prefer documentary-style photographs, minimally "treated", mostly bumping contrast and sharpness a bit.

I'm not interested in shooting professionally, I just want to be as good as I can be, and continue to push myself aesthetically as the years go on. My shots over the last few years are pretty consistent, and I'm feeling like I'm on a bit of a plateau. I work as a graphic designer in a highly critical and intense studio setting (in a good way), and I'm realizing I want this type of environment for my photographs!

Although I don't think this is a technical question, if there is an equipment switch you made that changed things up, I'm open to try. I shoot with a Canon Mark III and switch between a manual focus Zeiss Distagon 35mm f2 and a Canon 50mm f1.4. Any thoughts or suggestions appreciated, thanks!
posted by Sreiny to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a photographer, but I'm a graphic designer and I see lots of photos. Your photos are nice, but maybe a little safe? Most of your subjects seem to be centered. If I were you, I'd play around more with perspective and framing. Work with the rule of thirds, and shift your focus from the center of the frame.
posted by hydra77 at 9:35 AM on November 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

From looking at that small selection of photos, I think what's missing there is the connection. In those shots you're sniping people in the street. There's no personal connection with the subjects. Try picking a project where you spend an in depth amount of time with one or two subjects and develop a relationship and a trust. The best photographs with people have a trust and connection. It could be your niece or your grandma or some friends in a band. Make a project out of it. Work on it off and on for a month or two and see what develops.

Also, join a photography club and have them audit your portfolio. At times it will hurt and you might not agree with it. But, I guarantee you'll take something away from it.

"If your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough" -- Robert Capa
posted by trbrts at 9:35 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Second the comment on framing. At a quick skim of your photos: often it's good, but often it's not so great. Apologies for a simplistic resource, but here are some tips on framing, including rule of thirds, fluid eye path etc.
posted by SaltySalticid at 9:49 AM on November 2, 2017

Yes, framing and composition. Before you press the shutter, look at the composition of the image in the viewfinder - think about the rule of thirds, think about where objects are sitting in relation to each other - where is the "weight" in the image? Consider geometry, too - if there are any clearly vertical/horizontal lines, think about how they sit in the image - do you want them to create a grid, or do you want to subvert that?

Also it looks like you're nearly always taking photos from a standing position, with the camera held roughly at eye level, at about the same distance from your subjects. Switch that up - move your viewpoint around - get closer to the ground, move closer or further away.

In a number of the pictures, you've chopped part of a person or object off - this one for example - when framing your image, check so you get the whole person; in this image, the balance of person to buildings/sky is quite good, and angling the camera down would lose the sense of height, so the thing to do would be to move the camera closer to the ground instead.
posted by parm at 10:17 AM on November 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would second trbrts's suggestion to get closer to your subjects. It's going to be hard though.

I dabbled in photography for a while and I did the exact same thing as you: just shooting with good equipment, never getting close. I would look at new equipment as a fix for my photography. The real fix isn't in the equipment.

To make a good image, you have to put in the work. How can you shoot something that hasn't been shot a 1000 times over? How can you tell a story?

It is not very hard to take a 50mm 1.4 lens, go to an exotic location, and shoot something to look pretty.

When I realized that I would have to make a deep connection with people to improve my photography, I gave photography up. But the people that did that and went for it 100%, they are the ones who are the better photographers.
posted by wolfr at 10:24 AM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Finding a group of people to talk about photography with helps. Seeing other people's work and process goes a long way. Go on one of the many NYC photo walks.

Do you look at other photographer's work? Go to the library and pull down a bunch of random books of photography. Looking at photos in books has a greater impact than just looking at them on the web. Since you mentioned Shanghai, take a peek at Greg Girard's Phantom Shanghai. Have you ever looked through In the American West?

Do you read about other photographers? Ansel Adams Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs is pretty interesting. After you flip through In the American West read Avedon at Work: In the American West.

Do you look at photographs in museums and galleries ? The Met has a bunch of photographs, so does MOMA, etc. Spend a few minutes with each photo you look at. Find something to hate and to love in each photo. (I'm totally jealous of your access to museums)

I would try some exercises to shake yourself up, do each of these for an afternoon:
  • Set your lens on the minimum focus distance; don't change it. Get really close to stuff.
  • Rent/borrow a really short fisheye lens. Maybe the Peleng 8mm or the Canon 15mm.
  • Rent/borrow a long lens. Maybe the Tamron 200-500mm or Canon 100-400mm
  • Put the subject of the photo really close to the edge of the photo.
  • Only take photos with your camera touching the ground.
  • Only take photos with your camera held over your head.
  • Take an afternoon's worth of photos and EDIT THEM LIKE CRAZY in Photoshop/Lightroom.
One small technical suggestion, use the lens profile correction tool in Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom/etc, you're getting some barrel distortion.
posted by gregr at 10:34 AM on November 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Hi all, thank you for the initial feedback on the shots I posted! Y'all are right on the money. It's funny because while I'm looking to improve, my photo impulse is generally the anti-photo, avoiding creative framing, rejecting the rule of thirds, basically disappearing as a creative entity in the photographs I'm taking etc. But that's directly in conflict with my question and I hadn't thought about that until your feedback!

By asking this question though I am more looking for specific resources, communities (online and IRL) that are geared towards someone in my position, not a beginner, understand the equipment, and can provide critical feedback and opportunities to improve my photography, in the way that you all are so helpfully providing here.
posted by Sreiny at 10:35 AM on November 2, 2017

Specific recommendation: Learning to See Creatively is a great primer on composition. Some of the images used are a bit... cheesy. But the advice is solid, and the example images are chosen well to illustrate particular points and techniques.
posted by parm at 12:20 PM on November 2, 2017

I think trying to work without creative framing and removing “yourself” (as much as that’s possible, I don’t think it is) is a worthy restriction. But then you should edit much more heavily. By which I mean, ruthlessly reject the photos that don’t make the cut. You’re ahead of the game as a designer because photos are a 2d medium. Pay attention to the shapes and composition, think of your photos more as compositions and less as a documentary device. I’m not sure what your process is on these, but waiting a while before editing helps to take away your emotional reactions, so you’re judging more purely the photo that’s THERE and not the scene as you remember it.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 12:45 PM on November 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

By asking this question though I am more looking for specific resources, communities (online and IRL) that are geared towards someone in my position, not a beginner, understand the equipment, and can provide critical feedback and opportunities to improve my photography, in the way that you all are so helpfully providing here.

This isn't an easy question to answer, since photography forums tend to be (absurdly) equipment focused. As a male, I think it's a male thing, but whatever. I would look at the photography (not equipment) forums on Luminous Landscape and Fred Miranda. You might also look at the Landscape/Travel/People areas on DPReview, though that site is very equipment-oriented.

I think the best thing for critique is a photo group, where you get in person feedback that can be more honest, at least in the right group, without either the trolling or "It's so great!" you're likely to get online.

I like your photos, and identify with where you are as a photographer. I think I'm in a similar place. A couple of general tips, that I need to take myself:
* For street photography with people, get closer, as others have said. Look at what Bresson and Maier did well with people and how it differs from what you're doing here.
* Develop a personal photo style, at least per shoot, where your photos all have something in common in their look. This might be color toning, or an overexposed look or really warm photos, consistent black and white, shallow depth of field, etc.
* Be extremely selective about what you publish. The lighting in 2017-5 is uneven. 2017-8 doesn't speak to me. 11 and 12 are too similar. On the other hand, 7 is really, really good, and 8 would be outstanding but for the crop mentioned above. I also like 19, but would have liked it more if you had gotten an expression of some type out of the butcher, which is easier said than done! Think about what story the photo tells, or have some sort of visual or aesthetic hook (which is what I tend to go for) or a strong subject, which you sometimes do and sometimes don't.
* Experiment with different shooting and post-processing techniques. I think photo 9 could have been really interesting as a longer exposure, for example.
* Crop out uninteresting stuff. I think 15 might be more interesting with all of its border cropped out, where it's just the vendor and his fruit. On 14, your subject is the man filling the pitcher. The woman on the far right is cut in half and not interesting. Crop her out. Same with the green awning at the top of 9, the two figures on the left of 4, the sky in 3 (I'd try that as a 16x9). I would try cropping the butcher on the right out of 19, making it a 1x1 format.

Hope that helps!
posted by cnc at 2:29 PM on November 2, 2017

I recommend Gary L Friedman's seminars and mailing list:


Eschew candids- talk to someone interesting, ask for them to pose.

No pictures of raw meat.

Best -
posted by ArnoldLayne at 4:22 PM on November 2, 2017

I'm a photographer. Take an art history class - learn to see better. Take a darkroom printing class - learn what a good print looks like. Not that I have any nostalgic love of film, but making prints physically is different than looking at a backlit screens. Both of these things will train your eye in different ways and you will get the critical feedback you want.
posted by bradbane at 7:30 AM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm also seeking good, critical feedback and commentary. It's easy to find feedback on technical flaws, violations of the most basic composition guidelines, and how an image is not like how that sort of image should be. What I want is the sort of feedback offered by Four Letter Nerd in this Flickr group thread.

What I settle for in that group is finding images among those offered for critique where I see a story or it evokes an emotion. Then I read other's critiques. Then I look for what in the image that made the story or emotion that wasn't noticed by those who critiqued. Sometimes I find it, which expands my way of seeing, which helps me get out of my plateau.

Two things have helped me most in getting past a plateau in the last 2 years - or maybe I just widened my plateau. First was using a reminder (a strip of colored tape on my camera strap) to stop in the middle of shooting and ask myself if I'm shooting the way I usually do. I know what that is, so then I force myself to backtrack over what I just shot and approach it differently. The difference can be technical (B&W instead of color, pick a single focal length I don't often use, etc.), light (shade instead of sunlit, fill flash instead of ambient, backlit instead of subject facing the sun, etc), subjects (groups of things instead of individuals, contrasting things instead of related or complimentary, etc.), POVs, etc., etc.

Second was to signup for project365.org (it's free) then follow photographers who have developed a style that is nothing like what I do. I've learned by studying their work and by osmosis. Sometimes when deciding how to shoot a subject I'll think 'What would Person A do with this subject?'. And sometimes it helps me see differently.
posted by Homer42 at 9:49 AM on November 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Everything is a centered item, not a composed frame: you are just shooting your camera at interesting things like using a gun. It's easy to get into this mindset with an SLR. Trying shooting on a phone for a while. The whole picture is laid out before you more.
Use the whole frame and take a step forward if necessary to fill it.
posted by w0mbat at 11:12 AM on November 3, 2017

I would suggest taking a class or two - not an online class, an actual one. I decided to get into film photography and darkroom techniques and it changed my digital photography for the better. classes in digital techniques are good too! The real point is that you meet other photographers, see more work, get exposed to more influences and participate in critiques. It’s really helpful, more helpful, I think, than online groups.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:54 AM on November 4, 2017

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