5 Great Unexpected Ways To Take Your Photography To The Next Level

Here’s a short list of techniques you might try that they won’t tell you about in the manual.

Learn It Every Day

The best way to increase your skill level in photography is to continue to learn it every day. Never assume you know everything and challenge yourself to look at the medium in new ways. I’ve been shooting since 1980 and today I get hired to do professional shoots regularly, but I still continually seek out new techniques and new ways of thinking about the medium. It keeps it all fresh and interesting to me and gets me out of my comfort zone.

My favorite photography advice is the kind that runs counter to the normal way people suggest doing things. Here’s a short list of techniques you might try that they won’t tell you about in the manual…

Ditch Your Auto Focus

Out on the street, things are moving fast and you have to be ready to get that moment quickly. To make it even harder, you not only have to get the action at exactly the right time, you have to compose. In that split second, you’re better off focusing in manual. Why? Because you can set it and largely forget it, whereas auto focus is an attention hog, constantly needling you to deal with it. This takes a teeny bit of attention off of composition and that can make all the difference in a shot. Also, auto focus just isn’t all-powerful.

For example, take a look at this image I took a few years back of a child in a public fountain. Auto focus has no way to deal with this situation. There’s foreground elements constantly in flux and messing with the camera’s AI. You might be able to lock down on the boy here, but you have to remember he’s moving, too. No, the only way to really nail this shot consistently is on manual. Find the plane the kid is on, focus and then spend the rest of the time just thinking about composition, not how to tell your camera what to shoot here.

There are other situations where auto focus really struggles: reflections are difficult, as are low contrast scenes and anything where your main focus falls outside your camera’s focus point area or within too small a space for your focus point to find it. Even in Sonys, where the focus area covers over 90% of the sensor, it can often take too long to get your focus point to the right spot when trying to shoot quickly.

In this shot below, taken of Mexico as seen from the United States, the small space the boy was playing in would have been near-impossible for an auto focus reticle to track consistently. Using manual focus here allowed me to not have to think about it at all. Focus and then forget about focusing and simply try to position and time correctly.

And the truth is, manual focus is not nearly as old school as it sounds. Today, most cameras have multiple tools to help you do manual focus easily, including focus peaking (which puts a bright color right on the edges that are in focus) and focus aid (where moving the focus ring zooms into your subject, so you can quickly focus on small areas). It might sound weird, but going manual is actually one of the most advanced techniques in photography. Use it specifically to open up more time for compositional thinking — the best way to create powerful, purposeful imagery.

Color Matching

People have the wrong impression about how “filters” make photos look better. It’s often thought of in terms like Warmth, Saturation, Shadow Brightness, Shadow and Highlight Colors, Dynamic Range or things like “fade” or “brilliance.” As if one could find a recipe where all those things mix together to make any photo great. It doesn’t really work that way, as all photos are different and no one filter can truly make any photo look good in and of itself (and this is why companies like VSCO can forever pump out recipes — different scenes will look better with different developing).

But I have another way of thinking about coloring, not within the context of apps or individual controls, but within the context of what you’re looking at. And specifically, the color. I call it “color matching”.

In the before/after here, yes, I’ve worked nearly every control available to get the look on the right, but I had one goal — make the image blue. Why blue? Because there’s a sky.

See, the real trick here is to pick the predominant color of your photo and no matter which color that is, use the controls to try to compliment and enhance that one color. This is as true for the yellow and golds of sunset as they are for the deep greens of lush mountain areas.

In many ways you are falsely coloring your photos, but the reason the eye doesn’t see it as false is because it feels correct to a good portion of it. Your mind assumes the image is correct here, because the sky is correct (kind of), and that cues the mind that the photo is “real.”

Here’s what that building looks like against white — you can really see just how oddly colored it is. The highlight have a purplish hue and those window shades are impossibly blue. But when paired with the blue sky, you believe it all.

Go Full Bleed

This is a lesson that has taken me a long time to fully understand — a lot of what makes an image look good is not how you shot it, but how you display it. If you want to see an immediate increase in the drama and impact of your image, simply have it take up as much of the real estate as possible on whatever screen or page you’re displaying it on. In print, we call this a “full bleed” image — one that reaches all the way to the edge of the page — and it’s part of the reason images in magazines always seem so special. Emotionally, you become enveloped in them. But this rule can be applied anywhere you are displaying your work.

Embrace Softness

This next piece of advice goes completely against the grain of contemporary photography, which is geared toward sharper, more detailed images with better and better optics and glass. And sure, there are times when shooting with that kind of detail is exactly what the client ordered — especially if you’re shooting for a company who needs everything sharp, like Getty Images. But when just shooting around or doing lifestyle imagery, many of the top pros out there are shooting 35mm film, old glass and slower shutter speeds — all of which creates a far-less detailed look than what those fancy new Sonys will yield you.

Be Someone Else For A Day

This is a piece of advice I give every student of photography. It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to establish your look that it feels like unless you’re doing something wholly original, it’s not any good. This can send photographers into a hole, doing crazy things to their images in order to try to look different than other people.

Get outside your head and try shooting like someone else for a change. Find a photographer who you truly admire and just go get shots like that for a day. In fact, what you’ll find is that you can’t really get it exactly like them anyway, and no matter what you do, you’ll still somehow make it your own.