What’s the Critical Variable for Improving Your Photography?

On the last post I left you with a question to consider – essentially a homework assignment. It wasn’t a very challenging assignment (after all, I don’t want to chase you away after my first post) but if you spent some time thinking about the questions it takes you to the heart of the difference between people who take point-and-shoot pictures and serious amateur photographers: What is the single most important variable to improving as a photographer?

As a sometimes frustrated, but usually committed, improving amateur photographer I have read dozens of books and on-line articles about how to improve as a photographer. I’ve talked to many photographers in the Teton Photography Group (http://tetonphotographygroup.org) and read the comments of “the dozen” (the photographers who have answered my questions). I’ve spent hours reflecting on what has improved my photographs. There are many variables that can improve your photography but one seems to be the foundation on which other variables build. Let me start with a funny YouTube video you may have seen.

If you are a sports fan you may have seen this video of Allen Iverson (https://youtu.be/d29VsG35DQM).  Iverson had incredible individual skills but he hated to go to practice. In this one-minute video he goes on a rant and complains about practice over 20 times. I imagine when Ansel Adams first started taking photographs there were days he didn’t feel like getting up and carrying that huge format camera out for a shoot. I know first hand there are days I don’t feel like getting up before dawn to go take photos in the golden hour. And I wonder if those of you who are most frustrated with your lack of improvement are also the ones who regularly tell yourself that you will get out for a shoot tomorrow.

As I mentioned in my first post, the First an Amateur blog is not just about my journey to better photography but also the journey of about a dozen other photographers who answered a series of questions for me. “The dozen” are all amateur photographers but they are a very diverse group in terms of experience and age and photographic skills. Let’s look at what they had to say about practice:

George – “Practice and more practice helped me learn effectively.”

Adam – “I was out on a daily basis. I would leave early to work and always have my camera with me. I made sure I found time and subjects to shoot.”

Mike – “The art of capturing unpredictable live action meant learning through trial and error a whole new set of skills.”

Patty – “After attending a workshop or reading an article, I would go out and try to practice what I had just learned.”

Loren – “I think practice and a structured approach to learning are more important than the time in the classroom or on-line.

The books and articles, my discussion with photographers, and my own personal experience has shown me that time behind the viewfinder is the most important variable in personal photographic improvement – especially for us amateurs. Boy, that was easy to say but not so easy to put into practice for most of us. Why?

Let me briefly tell you the story of freshman college students I regularly counseled when I was a professor. Many had done well in high school but by the middle of their first semester they were failing, or at least doing much worse than they had ever done in high school. They wanted to do well but most shared the same concern: “I don’t have any time to study.” I suspect many of you who are frustrated and stuck with what you see as mediocre photographs say the same thing to yourself. Most of my students thought I was respectful and understanding even though I typically said, “You don’t have any time? But everyone has 168 hours per week so we all have the same amount of time. How do you spend your time?”

As grown-ups we have a lot more responsibility than young college students but we still have only 168 hours per week. We have jobs, family, and other responsibilities and we typically have less energy. But our life is probably a little more organized than when we were teens and we probably have goals that are more clearly established. So how do we fit in time to take photographs? Adam took his camera with him everywhere he went and found time and subjects to shoot. Mike used trial and error and Patty went out to practice whenever she read about a new skill.

“But Randy, you make it sounds so easy. I just can’t find the time. You are retired so you have plenty of time.” Yea, I am retired but my first couple retirement years I didn’t “find the time” either. Now I have a way to achieve my goal most of the time; I set aside at least one morning a week to get up before sunrise to take photos. When the alarm goes off at 4:00 am I’m usually not mentally ready but I get up anyway. By the time I’ve driven for an hour to my destination I am psychologically ready and enjoying the beauty of another sunrise. Don’t ask yourself if you want to get up: the answer will always be NO. Get your clothes and photo gear ready the night before so you don’t have to answer the “Do I really want to go out this morning” question.

For many of us the biggest challenge is putting off the photo shoot until tomorrow, which certainly rivals what my failing college students did the week before a test. I thought you might “enjoy” a sign I had in my office that often explained one of the motivational strategies of my struggling students: Procrastination reduces anxiety by reducing the expected quality of the project from the best of all possible efforts to the best that can be expected given the limited time. I’m not trying to lay a guilt-trip on you – just as I was never trying to lay a guilt trip on my students – OK, maybe a wee-bit of guilt. But if procrastination leads you to be satisfied with little, if any, improvement in your photography, you might want to devote a certain amount of time-behind-the-viewfinder every week to see if you see progress. Be patient and give your new strategy a few months to work. You absolutely can improve; the question is whether you are willing to be committed to have the discipline to get out there behind the lens on a regular basis.

Some folks can find the time each week and see the progress in a few weeks or months. For others there is a time challenge they may not be able to overcome (e.g., a new job or child or other responsibilities) which will interfere with improvements. And for others the time challenge may be tied to a motivational challenge; they never seem to get around to “finding the time.” Since improving your photography skills takes time, let’s talk next week about how motivation could be impacting your photographic journey.


Motivation is a tricky topic no matter what you are talking about; motivation on the job; motivation in the classroom; motivation to clean the house; motivation to become a better photographer. I spent a lot of my professional time at the university studying motivation and applying what I learned in my college classroom. I found many research findings and classroom applications that were quite surprising that I will share with you in my next post. In the meantime, I want you to think about this question and put your answer in a comment to this blog. What motivates you to get out and take photographs and improve your photographic skills? What have you done to improve your motivation that didn’t work? What have you done to improve your motivation that has worked?   As always, your answers may be very very different.

A Little Help for Randy to Reach OUR Goal

For the first post I received about 9 comments; I responded to each of them and will respond to all future comments (until I am overwhelmed with hundreds.) A few of those comments were answers to the Homework Question (and I may include them in the motivation post) and some were commentary or questions.  Please feel free to answer the homework question or make a comment by going to the blue COMMENT button below the post.

And please feel free to include feedback to me about the post. I am very interested in knowing if First an Amateur is helping you, or at least getting you to think about improving your photography. Let me know what I can do to help you and I will try to address your alarms.