Can Gear Improve our Photos?

Time to move on to discuss what helps us improve our photography. Your last homework assignment (most of you were bad boys and girls and didn’t complete your homework) was to send me your answer to the following question: I would like for you to think about the top two pieces of equipment (cameras, lenses, tripods) that had the most impact on your photography and send me your top-2 and why they have been important to your improvement. I asked a very similar question to “the dozen” with quite similar answers.

But before I share the answers let me ask a slightly different question that was intended to be the heart of the homework assignment. If I were to promise to pay for any gear that you requested BUT you had to demonstrate to me after a month how it improved your photography, what would you choose to have me buy? AND if you couldn’t prove in one month that the gear I bought you had actually made a difference, you would have to pay me back. I might be dead- wrong but I suspect that you would be careful about how you spent my money – and theoretically your money. It seems to me that improving your photography should be why you buy new gear. Hmmmm …

I have been seriously into photography for about a year. This past year is the first time in many years that I have spent any money on photographic gear. Some of the gear has had a huge impact.   But I must admit I didn’t always think about what the impact would be before I bought the equipment. I suspect some of you didn’t think about the impact either, so let’s look at what “the dozen” said about photographic gear.

Two people said “good glass” is the most important gear to improve their photography. I know both of these photographers and I would definitely put them in the advanced category, a long way from point-and-shoot. They are highly skilled and have been involved in photography for many years. One said, “I would say good glass. I have shot many cameras and they all do well. Having good glass makes all the difference.” If you have owned many digital cameras and lenses and have taken thousands of images, you can probably see the difference. But if you are just starting to make the move from amateur to artist (remember, Emerson said “Every Artist was First an Amateur”) you probably don’t need expensive glass. So what else might help you become more artistic?

A number of people talked about how zoom lenses helped them improve their photographic skills and “eye.” Tom said, “Without a doubt, the ability to change focal lengths has made the biggest difference in transitioning from the hobbyist to the serious hobbyist.” I know Tom well and I think he certainly is moving toward being a real artist and I agree a zoom lens can have a big impact. Why would a zoom lens help improve the photo skills of an amateur more than expensive lenses?

From what I have read about composition, and what I have learned from my own photographic experience, amateur photographers often make the mistake of trying to include everything in their photos. Bryan Peterson is one of my favorite photo author/teachers. He often talks about “filling the frame” (i.e., getting closer to your subject) and removing “crying babies” (i.e., object that are distracting) to improve your composition by making the focus of your photo clear. If you want to improve the focus on your composition, a zoom lens can help you to “see” differently. I have found my zoom lenses to have a dramatic impact on the composition in my photographs.

Swabacher Uncropped (1 of 1)

Swabacher Cropped (1 of 1)

These two photos aren’t great examples of the use of a zoom lens but you’ll get the “picture” (sorry about the pun). A zoom lens helped me get closer to the subject (without getting my feet wet when it was 6 degrees).

A zoom lens also helps me get rid of the “screaming baby” on the right (the trees and brush) that are distracting to the focus on my photograph (the mountains and their reflection.) So what gear is the #1 way to spend you money to improve your photography ?

The photo gear that was listed most often by “the dozen” and those who did their homework was … the tripod. But you might be thinking, why would the tripod be important? Let me share Arnie’s comment because it truly states the true value of the tripod; “A good tripod is absolutely necessary. Not only do they reduce camera shake but more important, it slows down work flow allowing photographers to focus on details of composition.” I promise, I didn’t pay Arnie to say this but I agree 100%. Let me explain why, from my own experience, I believe a good tripod is so important to improving as a photographer.

I hate to admit this but a year ago when I went out on a photo shoot I would just fire away. I had read lots of books and gone on-line to watch many videos. But when I got out in the beauty of the mountains I just started firing away. What was I thinking? The answer is that I wasn’t thinking much at all except to assume (I guess) that the more pictures I took the more likely it was that one of them would be great. Sorry Randy, it doesn’t work that way! To improve your photography you have to think about it at the time you are taking the photographs. After a couple months of listening to great photographers from the Teton Photography Group I recognized that I need to have a good tripod AND I needed to think about what I was doing as I was doing it. I needed to think about exposure and composition and … take … my … time.

I found taking my time is more difficult that I thought it would be. But now I am absolutely addicted to my tripod. In fact, I have already upgraded my tripod to get a sturdier one. And I take my time to think about composition and exposure. I take a shot and then look at the monitor, including the histogram, to think – “Is this the shot I want?” I must admit I have not arrived … not even close. And when I get home after a shoot and look at my computer I realize I need to think more and slow down my workflow even more. I guess sometimes I think it would be nice if this photography art thing was easy … but if it was easy, every photographer would be an artist. Keep on shooting, but take your time and think about what you are doing. A tripod may be a big help.

Randy’s Fun with Camera and Friends

In my last two posts I have focused on what we might call “negative motivations” – those motivations that keep us from doing our best. Sorry if I came across as cynical. 🙂  So let’s look at the more positive motivations this time and focus on what types of experiences we encounter, or create, that help us to want to get out there and do more photography. After all in the second blog “the dozen” made it pretty clear that practice is likely to be the most important variable in helping us improve our photographic skills and our photographs.  Let me start with an experience I had last week that really got me excited about photography.

This summer I had three college fraternity brothers from back-in-the-day (more than 45 years ago) stop by our home. Two of them were part of “the dozen” (amateur photographers who had answered my 12 photography questions earlier this summer) and both were interested in stopping by to do some photography. Tom and Larry live in South Carolina and they decided to take a road-trip across the country (yea, a 6000 mile road trip) to take photographs and visit friends. I asked them if they would be interested in me arranging a one-day workshop with a professional photographer in the area. They were gung-ho about the idea and I set-up a full day workshop with Henry Holdsworth ( to visit Yellowstone in early October. It would be my first guided workshop.

It was fun to have two old friends visit, to get reacquainted, and tell stories from our days together in college. The next day we got up early to take some shots of sunrise and look for wildlife in Grand Teton National Park. It was overcast so we didn’t get any great shots and we didn’t see much wildlife until late in the afternoon. Nothing great behind the lens but we had many enjoyable discussions and a great exposure to a beautiful national park. Late in the afternoon we met my wife at a Jackson restaurant for dinner and got back home in Victor early to get ready to meet Henry at his gallery at 6:15 am. It may not sound like this could be a great positive motivator, but it set the stage. I was having fun with friends that were interested in photography and we were all anticipating a great learning experience the next day.

None of us had any problems getting up a 4:30 am and we arrived at the Wild by Nature Gallery early. It had rained over night and there was a dense fog in Jackson Hole. But I wasn’t worried or disappointed; I was pumped to get out there and take some shots. I had told Henry that Tom and Larry were excited about wildlife photography so we started looking for wildlife in the fog as soon as we entered the park – the visibility was terrible. Soon we came across a bull elk with a small harem of about five elk cows. Henry stopped the car and immediately said, “Set your ISO at about 3200 and let’s see what shots we can get.” The sun hadn’t quite risen and the fog was thick but leaving the ISO setting to Henry allowed me to feel confident and I started shooting. I didn’t get a great photograph but considering the conditions I was pleased. Henry had made a very difficult task (exposure setting in very low light) a realistic goal for me by helping with the ISO setting.

3 Morning Elk (1 of 1)

After the elk wandered off into the fog Henry said, “Let’s get out of the fog. Let’s drive to the top of Signal Mountain.” I never would of thought of that but I will from now on! We drove up Signal Mountain Road in the fog until we came to a turnout and then WOW, Mount Moran was sitting on a blanket of fog. We all jumped out of the van and Henry said, “Get setup on your tripod, this may not last too long. Watch out for the dead tree on the left.” The next twenty minutes were amazing. The view of Mount Moran changed every minute and the four of us kept shooting with suggestions from Henry. It was so helpful that he wasn’t telling us what to do, but rather offered suggestions. He would look in our viewfinder, give us feedback, and invite us to look in his viewfinder. I felt in control and supported. I got what I consider to be very good photos – but I didn’t “watch out for the dead tree.” When I got home and looked at the photos in Lightroom I noticed what I consider to be a real nice bonus I didn’t see in my viewfinder – the car driving on the road below Mount Moran. It helps tell the story and I think it adds to the photo. I hope to get the “dead tree” removed when I learn more about Lightroom. Henry helped minimize the overwhelming decision-making, but I’m still not quite ready for quick photos when the light is changing so quickly.

Mount Moran in the Fog (1 of 1)

As the fog moved in to cover Mount Moran we jumped back in the van and drove to the top – and another WOW ! The valley below us to the east was a blanket of fog that was changing – it seemed by the second – with the sun slightly above the Gros Ventre Mountains. The view was constantly changing but it wasn’t evaporating so we had plenty of time to LEARN. We talked about exposure, composition, the edges, and I learned important key elements to look for in my photos. We stayed at the top of Signal Mountain for over an hour, looked at each other’s viewfinders (including Henry’s), discussed what was happening and what each of us was seeing. I felt supported and confident that I was learning and improving as a photographer. Henry encouraged the three of us to make comments on the details of each person’s composition in their viewfinder and gave us specific details about what he though was strong or weak.  And I felt really really motivated. Why ?

Fog from Signal Mountain (1 of 1)

As I said in my last post, each of us is different in our motivation – both the positive motivations that get us pumped-up and the “negative motivations” that undermine the behaviors that help us to improve. So what I took from the morning with Henry, Tom, and Larry may not be true for all of you, but I suspect it is true for many of us. To save some space, let me put the positive motivations in a list:

Let’s Have Fun – This is pretty much a no-brainer but it can be something to include in your motivational plan. Taking photographs should NOT be stressful and disappointing; if you are frustrated and disheartened today, are you going to want to do this again tomorrow? Tom and Larry and I had a great time because we were with old friends that enjoyed being with one another doing something we valued. We weren’t “partying” but our conversation and interaction was woven into photography.

Learning is Enjoyable – Some of you may have had bad experiences in school, which unfortunately might lead you to believe learning isn’t enjoyable. But learning doesn’t stop when school ends. Most of what we learn in life happens after we leave school. There are a number of key elements in the process of learning that are likely to increase our motivation. Sorry but I’m going to get a little academic 🙂 and compare our experience to Ed Deci’s Theory of Intrinsic Motivation. Intrinsic Motivation doesn’t require any “reward” because what motivates us is an enjoyment of what we are doing. Deci says that there are three things that help encourage intrinsic motivation:

  1. Optimal Challenge – Whenever the goals for which we are striving are challenging, and also within our grasp, we are likely to increase our positive motivation. When Henry gave me the ISO for the elk photo in the low light situation he was making the task within my grasp. Be careful about comparing your work to the work of others; for some folks competition can actually undermine motivation. Choose realistic goals that are a challenge but not outlandish. When you have both short-term and long-term goals you can control the optimal challenge.
  2. Choice – Whenever we are put in situations where we are given choice and feel in control we are more likely to have a positive motivation. When WE decide what our goals are we are more likely to achieve them. Henry guided us at the Mount Moran turnout and at the top of Signal Mountain but he never told us what to do. He gave us choices and support for the tough stuff. And he “let me fail.” He told us to “Watch out for the dead tree” but let me learn my own lesson. I’ll check with him about how to get rid of that dead tree with Lightroom :-).
  3. Informational Feedback as opposed to Evaluative Feedback This is critical. When I see comments on FB they are almost always Evaluative Feedback: they say something like “Beautiful” but seldom explain what is beautiful about the photo. Informational feedback is a statement of what is good, or not-so-good, about the photograph: “I like the leading lines in the composition” or “I think the composition would be improved if you cleaned up the edges.” I believe that Henry is a very good teacher for many reasons but a very important reason is that he gave me specific feedback about what he thought was effective in my composition and what detracted from my composition. He setup an environment in which we critiqued one another’s photographs using specific details NOT something like “Wow, that is great” or “Boy, that stinks.”

By the way, it’s been raining here for a couple days and there was supposed to be rain today. But I got up at 5:00 am and drove to a very foggy Grand Teton National Park. I could have gotten discouraged but as soon as I saw the fog I thought, I can drive up Signal Mountain above the fog. It turned out pretty good. I would have liked some folks to talk with and share Informational Feedback but after my experience last week I have gained confidence to improve my own photos.

Signal Mountain For 10-20 (1 of 1)


I imaging some of you highly motivated folks may be tired of talking about motivation, so let’s move on. The next post will focus on photographic gear. I asked “the dozen” what they believe is the most important photographic gear they have acquired that has improved their photography. Their answers were very diverse and interesting. I would like for you to think about the top two pieces of equipment (cameras, lenses, tripods, computers, software, even books) that had the most impact on your photography and send me your top-2 and why they have been important to your improvement. Come on everyone, that isn’t that hard to do. Hit the reply button and send me your homework and any ideas you have to improve

Randy’s Experience – The Challenge of Getting Motivated to Learn

I’m hesitant to sound too academic in the blog but a comment by a reader recently reminded me of an idea I think I should share that may point out a real difference between some of us. It is common for us to assume other’s motivation is similar to ours and we wonder: why others choose to join challenging workshops; or why others don’t get out of bed in the morning for a great shoot; or why others get defensive or have hurt feelings about our feedback. Let me share a story I told the students in my class on educational motivation.

Imagine you are a fourth grade teacher and you are concerned about one of your students. Bobby never participates in class and when you ask him questions he always says, “I don’t know.” He has never turned in a homework assignment. On tests he simply puts his name and doesn’t answer any questions; he just puts his heads down on his desk. What do you think is Bobby’s problem? Why doesn’t he do any of the required work in your class?

If you are like my students you probably are thinking Bobby isn’t motivated.  When I asked my students how Bobby’s behavior led them to that conclusion, they said it was because he didn’t do anything in class. When I suggested that maybe Bobby was motivated but that his motivation was keeping him from getting involved for fear of failing, they didn’t believe me. But as long as Bobby didn’t try in class, his lack of effort was the excuse for his “failure.” And when he didn’t answer questions his classmates wouldn’t say he was stupid, rather they would say he was lazy or hated school. Bobby didn’t want to put himself in a situation where he would look bad and the best way to do that was to disengage from class as his excuse.

So what does that have to do with amateur photographers? How can Bobby’s disengagement in school be related to the photography challenges you are facing? Why do you have problems getting out of bed in the morning to go to a photo shoot? Why don’t you want to bring your photos to the photo club critique or enter your photo in a competition? Why were you so crushed by the “mean comments” that a skilled photography friend made about your photographs?

Let me share my own example of my fear of “not being good enough.” The biggest change I’ve had in my photography occurred in January of this year. When I learned about the Teton Photography Group and the Informal Critiques I was worried that my photos were terrible. I knew I should have brought my best photos to the meeting but I was scared (yep, scared is a good way to describe it) that people would rip my photos to shreds. So I went to the meeting without any photos and even considered lying if they asked why I didn’t have any photos.  I hate to admit it but I was afraid of failing, just like Bobby was afraid of looking stupid. Ever feel that way? Have you ever avoided trying something new ‘cuz you might look stupid, or clumsy, or lacking artistic skills? Almost all of us avoid putting ourselves in situations where we will look bad. Unfortunately, that avoidance typically keeps us from learning.

So what did you do Randy? I was very fortunate at my first Informal Critique to watch a number of other amateur photographs get really constructive feedback on their photos. Many of the people around the table were very skilled “amateur” photographers (they seem like pros to me) who were very constructive in their comments. The gave positive feedback to each person (e.g., “I like the contrasting colors.”) with suggestions that were constructive (e.g., “I think this photo would be improved by cropping out the tree on the left.”) I left the meeting feeling comfortable and convinced that the leaders at the meeting were there to help us improve our amateur photography. So the next month I brought some photos.

So how do others impact our motivation to improve our photography? For many of us our concerns about looking bad may get in the way, unless we trust those around us. I left that first Teton Photography Group meeting feeling that I could trust the people who were there; their comments focused on what the amateur photographers could do to improve their photos and they had positive comments about each of the photographs. Their support and “gentle critique” brought me back with my photos for the next meetings.

Since some of you have suggested that adding photos to the blog made it bit more interesting, I’ll give you an example. But I must add that these are not the first photos I brought to the critique. I know, some of you are probably thinking that I am ashamed to show them 🙂 but the truth is my original thumb drive is broken (I know that sounds like “the dog ate it” excuse.) So here are the two photos I shared at the Informal Critique at the next critique and the feedback I received.

This photo of a pair of pronghorns was received quite well. The feedback I received was the pronghorn on the left (in sharp focus) and the pronghorn on the right (not in focus) moved the viewers eye to the sharp pronghorn and his eyelashes, which is what I wanted to do. They also said that the brush between the two pronghorns was distracting and could be removed in Lightroom, which led me to want to learn more about Lightroom.

Pronghorn 2

This photo received a lot of feedback and all of it was very helpful. I can’t remember the exact comments but we discussed whether this should be a photo of a sunset or one that was more abstract. We talked about it for quite awhile and I felt I really learned a lot about composition, color, and ideas I never thought of exploring.

SSR Sunset

Some Suggestions to Consider for OUR Blog

That leads me to suggest a few things WE can do with this blog. I am pleased to see that we have about thirty followers of and that each post is receiving some comments.   I hope that this post will encourage more of you to make some comments. I suspect that I’ve got some of you to think about what might be holding you back from improvement (e.g., Are you hesitant to share your photos with others because they may shoot you down?). I also hope that if you realize that those concerns are getting in the way that you may share more of your photography IF we can build a supportive community of learners.

So here are a couple of suggestions.

First – What if I can add a page to the blog where you can share your photos with all the readers so they can give you some feedback? I know, for some of you that would be quite threatening, just like that first TPG Informal Critique was scary for me. If there are a number of you that are interested, I think I have someone that can help me create a webpage for the blog that will allow you to share your photos. Please note, I am admitting I cannot do that myself so I hope our community will be patient with me.

Second – What if I were to offer a Peer Mentor Photography Program? The Informal Critiques were very helpful to me and I think something like that could be helpful to many of you. What I’m thinking of doing is creating monthly informal critiques that include identifying a partner that you can work with for both the critique and a monthly photo shoot. You could identify your own partner (maybe someone you know who is also interested in improving their photography) or find someone at a group meeting. Lots of possibilities here and I am certainly open to your suggestion.

And one last request for comments. Does it help for me to share my experiences (successes and failures)? Has it helped you to read that I left the scene early at Little Redfish Lake when staying would have resulted in getting great photos? Or that I was fearful that my photos weren’t good enough to be critiqued by members of the Teton Photography Group? It feels a little awkward sharing my mistakes, but I’m thinking it is good for me to share my mistakes since we are all First an Amateur.

Randy’s Journey – Motivation to Get Out of Bed

Being an academic that has never followed a blog, I have a problem: I keep thinking I should have something “academic” to say, or teach, in every blog. For those of you who read/write blogs, I’m sorry to come across as such a stuffed shirt. Feel free to guide me in a more informal direction with a comment or two … please.

So here is my non-academic blog post that we can both learn from (or should that be “from which we can both learn”?) The homework from my last blog asked you to explore what motivates you to improve your photography. Since that blog post was about practice and the homework was about motivation, let me share my journey the last week and how it was impacted by practice and motivation.

Those of you who live near the Grand Teton National Park remember that early last week we had four days of pretty much all-day rain.   Since we had clear skies for a couple weeks, most of my landscape photos were fairly bland blue-bird-skies. I was looking for something more dramatic so the first day we were supposed to get clouds and afternoon rain, I set my alarm for 4:30 am and drove the 90 minutes to the park for some exciting sky. Nope, it wasn’t dramatic at all. I didn’t get any photos that were even slightly interesting. Killer for motivation !

Luckily my wife, dog, and I had reservations in Stanley Idaho for later that week – right as the rain was supposed to stop. I was excited to have a beautiful new environment in which to shoot (not that the Tetons aren’t beautiful) and when we arrived in Stanley the clouds were lifting, although it was pretty humid. I bumped into a fellow Teton Photography Group colleague (Aaron) and he told me there had been a lot of fog over Redfish Lake that morning. No worry, it will all be gone tomorrow morning and I’ll get great shots of a new environment. I set the alarm for 5:00 am since I was only a few minutes from Redfish Lake.

I got up the next morning, put on my clothes, and hurried out to the car. Whoa, I couldn’t see a thing! The fog was so thick I had
Fog at Redfish (1 of 1)to drive at 20 mph on the highway and when I got to the Redfish Lake I couldn’t even see the shoreline. I setup my tripod and camera (and didn’t fall in) and figured I could wait-it-out. I took a few photos but I couldn’t see the beautiful Sawtooth Mountains at all. After an hour I left.

As I was driving back to the motel I saw a group of cars parked at Little Redfish Lake so I stopped to see what they were doing. It turned ouLifting Fog at Redfish (1 of 1)t to be a photo workshop that had driven from Oregon the day before (a 12 hour trip) only to be socked-in with serious fog. I waited with them for more than an hour, but it was a bit easier to wait since I now had people to talk with about the lake, the fog, and photography in general. But by 9:15 they got hungry and left for breakfast. I was by myself and left a few minutes later. I had taken some photos but they fell far short of my goal; two very early rises with nothing to show for it. Bummer.

At dinner I bumped into a photographer from the area who asked me about my photography. I told him I was disappointed with all the fog at Little Redfish Lake that morning and he asked me what time I was there. I said I finally left at 9:15 after wandering at the lake for over two hours. “Too bad you left so early. I got there at 9:30 and the fog was lifting. I got some great shots of the mist over the lake with the mountains catching the light just perfectly.” Bummer! That’s what you get for leaving early.

How many times have you been discouraged when you got up really early, or drove really far, or made some other sacrifice only to get nothing in return? Not getting a “reward” after making a sacrifice can really undermine your motivation. So what should we do after such motivational discouragement?

Sunset at Stanley Lake (1 of 1)

That night I drove a few miles and set-up for the sunset over Stanley Lake. I was hoping for some clouds and they showed-up. I was hoping for some sun on the mountains and a nice sunset and it worked … and I felt better and maybe even a little more motivated.

And the next morning I had a little more bounce in my step when I got up at 5:00 am to go back to Little Redfish Lake for sunrise. There was a little fog/mist on the lake and watching the Sawtooth Mountain Range come alive as the sunlight came down the Sawtooths was rewarding enough even if I didn’t get any good shots – but I got some.

Sunrise at Little Redfish (1 of 1)

So what did I learn? It was something I already knew but getting the lessons once again boosted my motivation. Are you experiencing these lessons?

  1. Don’t Pack Up to Leave Quite Yet – This is a very tough lesson to learn since you can never be sure when things will change. I always try to stay “a little longer” and find something else to see or think about in the fog or smoke or rain or …
  2. Don’t Ask Yourself if You Should Get Up – Make up your mind the day before. Put your gear near the door or in the car. NEVER ask yourself if you should go out on a shoot when you are in a nice warm bed; the answer will always be “Sleep a few more minutes” and you won’t get out of bed.
  3. Have a Shoot-Partner to Meet – It is easy to go back to sleep but not if someone is counting on you to meet them. Photo workshops can be very helpful for many reasons and one of them is that others are counting on you.
  4. Reflect on Your Own Motivation – One of the key “strategies” to improve your motivation is to think about your own motivation. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What brings you back for another shoot after an uneventful day? How have your photos improved over the last month or year? What have you learned that has improved your photos?

And tomorrow I have an early morning shoot. I’ll leave home at 4:45 am and pick up an old college friend in Jackson at 5:45 to drive up to Oxbow Bend. It won’t be tough to get up and take a 90 minute travel because: I had some success last weekend; I have a friend to meet; and I’m confident the color of the vegetation in the park will give me a great opportunity to take some great photographs. And even if none of my photographs were great, the beauty of a sunrise at Oxbow Bend with an old friend will make it worthwhile.

A Little Help for Randy to Reach OUR Goal

I received eight comments to my last post, (and quite a few have been added to the first post.) If you are one of those folks who took the time to add a comment, thank you very much. Since I am such a raw rookie on blogs I need your help to achieve our goal of helping amateur photographers. I was looking for comments to include in my posts but that is going slowly. So rather than wait, I am going to try to put up a post every two weeks with a bit more about my journey. I also received some suggestions about including photographs; that is why I have added a few of my photos and I will probably ask for yours sometime in the future.

The next post will be about how to improve your motivation. Please respond with comments to the last post so I can include how YOU improve your motivation. Don’t worry. If you feel like you have no motivation, put that in a comment and I promise I won’t mention your name. 😉

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 ( 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 (  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.

“Every Artist was First an Amateur”      Ralph Waldo Emerson

You probably remember the time, back in the day, when you wanted to become an Olympic skier, or a concert pianist, or an astronaut, or a life-changing teacher, or an outdoor photographer who climbed Mount Everest. Many of us had those dreams but never achieved them due to a lack of time, devotion, skill, or uncontrollable circumstances.

And maybe now you have aspirations to become a scratch golfer, or a famous chef, or the solo singer in the church choir, or an amateur photographer that earns awards for outstanding photographs. Is such an aspiration reasonable or just daydreaming about a goal that is far from achievable?

As we progress through life our goals change. Some of us are still striving for professional or personal goals while others are ready to move on. But most of us still have a secondary goal that was pushed aside; perhaps a vocation we dreamed about or a hobby we enjoyed that dropped off our radar. Can we take on that goal now? As is always the case in life, you’ll never know until you try.

The goal of the First an Amateur blog is to help you on your journey to achieve your photography goal. This blog is not just for seniors who have nothing better to do. It is for anyone that would like to become an amateur photographer who moves beyond the point-and-shoot stage of taking pictures. First an Amateur is intended to introduce you to a number of other amateurs who are also on a journey to become more of an artistic photographer.

Since starting my own photography journey I have talked with many other amateur photographers who have the same goals. Their journey sounded so familiar that I asked them if they would be willing to share their story with me by answering a dozen questions to compare their experience to mine. Fortunately they were very willing to answer the questions and I am hoping this blog will motivate you to join the discussion and share some of your stories and questions.

I am retired now, but for 37 years I was an educational psychology professor. I spent my professional life studying how people learn and how teachers impact the learning and motivation of their students. Now, three years later, I miss exploring the teaching-learning process and regularly reflect on learning how to become a better photographer. I’ve come to believe that sharing my journey, and the journey of the other 12 photographers I am working with, will help other amateur photographers to improve their skills and motivation to become an artful photographer.

I am excited to work with a group of amateurs who share a similar photography journey and to explore how to help people learn to refine their photographic skills. My involvement with the Teton Photography Group (a photography club has been encouraging and has demonstrated how working with other photographers can motivate me to improve my photographic skills. I hope when you read about what I have learned it will help you move forward with better artistic photographs. I am striving to help create an on-line community that builds on Emerson’s idea that “Every Artist was First an Amateur.”

Optional Homework

My years of teaching showed me that when learners are engaged in answering a question their learning is more effective. So to help you learn more from my next post I would like you to think about the following question.

What do you believe is the single most important variable in improving as a photographer? There is no right answer and the most important variable in your success may be different from the critical variable of success for other people. Here are some possible variables you might want to consider: better gear; more time; better camera skills; post-processing skills; more motivation; better understanding of composition; live in a better photographic environment; access to a coach or photography teacher; more energy to get out of bed at sunrise. The last one is kind of a joke but not completely. The next post should be in approximately a week. Feel free to send me your answer and I may include it in the post.

“Our” Goal

My goal is to get a number of amateur photographers interested in joining in “our journey” to discover and implement strategies to improve our photography. I describe this as our journey because: 1) I am going to share with you what I am learning; 2) I am going to share what “the dozen” folks shared about their journey in the answers to my questions (Blog Questions), and 3) I want you to get involved in the discussion by responding to the homework questions or by sending me your answers to the twelve questions. Essentially my goal is our goal because this is our journey not just my journey. My plan is to have a post about every week that discusses topics that impact our photography. I’ll try to give a fairly simple homework assignment every week to encourage you to think about a topic and hopefully help you to advance your journey.