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.

10 thoughts on “What’s the Critical Variable for Improving Your Photography?

  1. John Patton

    Great discussion and actually motivational discourse. What motivates me to get out and take pictures can vary from day to day, week to week, hour to hour. Some days I can’t wait to take photos, other days I have to tell myself to bring out the camera. I find its easier to motivate myself, if I change it up a little. Shoot landscapes, then add subjects to the landscape, then add art nudes to the landscape. I find that way I don’t get stuck in the post-processing doldrums (doing the same thing every day) and in the same old type of photo day in and day out. I can play with camera settings and processing techniques depending on light conditions and subject matter.

    I can usually motivate myself to get out and shoot but here, next to the Tetons, I find that you have a tendency to say, “Well, if I don’t get that great shot today, it will be there tomorrow.” I try to remember the days where I told myself the shot will be there tomorrow, and I haven’t seen it since. Every so often I try to change course to keep myself motivated to shoot. Shoot night photos for a while, then models, then landscapes, and then wildlife when you can find them. I find that if I’m learning something new I am more motivated to get out and attempt to get that photo versus shooting that which I’m familiar. I also find that if someone else is relying on me to be there to shoot with them I have a tendency to not put off shooting.

    Hope I didn’t ramble too far off the subject.


  2. John, thanks for your comment. There is one sentence in your comment that I think is very powerful; “I also find that if someone else is relying on me to be there to shoot with them I have a tendency to not put off shooting.” I have found that one of the biggest motivational problems is getting up and taking the first step to go on a shoot. I agree that if someone is counting on me, I don’t want to let them down and I get moving AND get motivated. I’ll talk about this in a later post about a Peer Mentor Program. There are many advantages to having a peer mentor partner and one of them is they get you to make a commitment.


  3. As a wildlife and nature photographer I am always most motivated by finding a great and unique subject. Nothing is more fun than being the first one to find an animal and to shoot alone before others (photographers) arrive. That said, it is easier to get up before dawn during seasons when wildlife is more abundant.

    The second big motivator is seeing the images as they are downloaded. In the film days this delayed gratification was problematic. In the digital age immediate gratification is a huge motivator.

    My third motivation is feedback from others as I post sample images on social media sites or populate my website (www.NaturalPhotographyJackson.com). “Likes” and more important “comments” from friends, colleagues, and other photographers helps me evaluate my technical and compositional skills.

    Finally, the opportunity to travel and find new shooting locations is a great motivator. Changes in location, season, weather, etc. are all factors that keep photography fresh and keep me shooting.


    1. Loren, you are truly intrinsically motivated in the field of photography. Intrinsic motivation (involvement without any need for “rewards” or other incentives) is the most powerful motivation. As an educator yourself, think back to intrinsically motivated students and extrinsically motivated students – there is a world of difference. Most “new amateur” photographers are typically not intrinsically motivated, although retired amateurs are much more likely to be intrinsically motivated. Folks of any age that come to photography intrinsically motivated (e.g., folks who are very involved in nature because they love it) are much more likely to be successful and find time to fit photography into a busy life. I will probably use Adam (one of “the dozens”) as an example in my next post; he loves the outdoors and carries his camera with him outdoors all the time.


  4. Nancy takeda

    Homework: what motivates me?
    Truthfully some one who brow beats me into going out. Shameful, I’ll admit. You’d think I would enjoy getting out and soak up the beauty in our back yard that other people travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see. Especially since I work about 65 hours a week, in an office, in a basement with no windows. But once I get finished at work, all I want to do is go home, and do some quiet indoor activity like knit or read. When I was younger, a million years ago, ok, not quite that long ago, some times it seems that long ago, I had a Canon AE-1 film camera. I used to go out every chance I got. Had no idea what I was doing settings wise. But I got out. These days I find other activities to fill that time. I am not a self-motivator. Usually a time/deadline will give me a kick start. But not always. I took an accounting class at night a few years ago, and would wait till Sunday night to scramble to get my assignments done. I see all these amazing photos on TPG , and go I can do that, but that seems to be about as far as I get. I’ll be interested to see what you might suggest and what some of the others have to sat.


  5. Understanding your own motivation is the first step. I won’t brow beat you, that isn’t my style. But once we get a Peer Mentor Group going I will remind you that there we have an assignment and your partner and I will give you a gentle push – or maybe you can tell your partner to brow beat you 🙂 that will be up to you. Understanding your own motivation is always the first step.


  6. Nancy takeda

    I was invited by a knitting friend to go to the Park Saturday afternoon. It ended up being early evening. I threw my camera, figuratively, not literally, into my bag, and headed out. We went in at Moose. We watched for other cars to slow or stop to look for wildlife. We ran into antelope right along the road that didn’t take off. I had my 50 mm lens on there. So worked with it. Went on saw some elk, start of a possible good sunset. Saw deer, more elk. My friend, Mary Alice, would pull over or go down the road and turn around so I was on the correct side to shoot from the car window. We heard elk bundling, coyotes tipping, and I saw a sunset I have never seen the likes of. I guess having someone else do the driving motivates me to take my camera and get out. I could keep an eye out for animals or nice view shots! I didn’t have to worry about driving or other drivers. Being able to concentrate on what is going on around me helps a lot, and not worrying about the driving part helps.


    1. Nancy, sorry it took so long for me to get back to you but I was up in Stanley taking photographs. Motivation comes in many forms. When we look for it (Hmm, what is motivating me?) we will often discover what it takes to keep us motivated. Having a friend to be with is a great way to get motivated. Concentrating on the environment around you can really help motivate you to take better photographs. Getting focused on what is around you isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when you are first moving up the First an Amateur ladder. Keep on shooting Nancy, and find someone who you trust to go out and take more photos. And if you can get up early in the morning and hear the elk buggeling, it may get your up-and-out for another shoot.


  7. Lance Newsome

    What motivates me ? I would say the days I had to get up for summer track and be there at John Adams High before the younger group arrived in the afternoon and having to give Prescott Wooder a ride home on my bike handelbars because he didn’t have a ride to or from. It stuck with me to know someone depended on me. So I benifited all around it built my legs up. So finding myself up before most I get to see the plants come alive and the animals awaken out of their sleep. It’s gives much more meaning to my pictures.


    1. Lance, I remember the summer track days well. There are lessons to learn in life about making commitments to others and you have certainly responded to those that depend on you. I have found it very motivating to get out of bed very early to do photography shoots with others. Then I found that actually doing the shoot with them becomes educational for both of us. Glad to hear you find meaning in the plants and animals in the environment around you. I find that to be very motivating also.


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