Updated: Oct 1
On a recent visit to my local library, I picked up a book called Take Your Photography to the Next Level by George Barr.
I was intrigued by the title as, after four years of learning photography, I feel ready to take my photography to the next level.
A quick scan through the book suggested that this book was slightly different to the norm.
Many of the images are quite abstract. They are images of unusual objects or parts of objects or of subjects photographed in unusual places. They are not beautiful images in the conventional sense of the word, yet they spoke to me enough that I wanted to borrow the book and read on.
Before I read what George Barr has to say about elevating our photography to the next level, I want to give myself the challenge of coming up with my own ideas on how to do this.
Four years ago, I began my photography journey. I have since watched countless YouTube videos, followed the advice of professional photography teachers as they share their tips, and I have now taken hundreds of photographs, some better than others.
But overall, although I know I have made some progress, I still feel stuck at a beginner level.
And I want to move on.
Picking up this book has inspired me to think about what I have learned so far, and to think about what I need to do now if I am to take my photography up a notch.
A quick internet search will throw up lots of ideas about how to do this, some of which will be more effective than others.
Without first reading the ideas of any photography writer, I have come up with three main approaches that I think are necessary, at least for me, if I am to make further progress and elevate my photography from beginner to improver.
1. Be fanatical about composition
I put this as my number one because for me composition in photography comes before anything else and changing my attitude towards composition has been my most effective learning tool.
As is often the case with amateur photographers, I used to stop at a scene, take out my camera and press the shutter. I didn’t ask myself, ‘what is my subject?’ I just took a picture of the whole scene.
Today, I try to make images differently.
I look for a definite subject that I want to capture and then I try to draw the viewer's eye to my subject by using some of the compositional tools I have learned, such as leading lines, natural framing, and so on.
I pay attention to the whole frame, check that there are no distractions on the edges of the frame, ensure that there is separation so that elements in the frame are not overlapping and that my subject is not too close to the edge of the frame.
An S-Bend leads the viewer right through the frame
Symmetry, or near symmetry, can work well as a composition technique
I like to find examples of natural framing
What do I mean by being fanatical about composition?
I mean that we need to keep foremost in our minds that composition is king in photography. Composition is what helps us show the viewer what it was that excited us about our photograph when we took it.
It is by paying close attention to the finer details of composition, by spending time and effort in getting our compositions just right, that we direct the viewer’s eye to the parts of our image that we consider most important. By doing this we make better photographs and elevate our photography to a new level.
Sometimes we have to wait for the extra element, in this case a bird, to complete the composition
2. Shake it up
Most of us, as beginner photographers, take the same types of photographs in the same way. We shoot similar subjects repeatedly, usually from a standing position, often at the same time of day. And then we wonder why we don’t seem to be improving with our photography.
If we want to take our photography to the next level, we need to shake things up bit, start doing things differently. Just a slight change in perspective can make a huge difference to the look of our image.
My morning photography outings usually take me to one of my local parks. If I simply captured images every morning from the same standing position, they would be very similar and soon become boring.
Instead, I try to shake things up. I get down low, I shoot up using a wide aperture. I experiment with different lenses and different focal lengths. I try to find different subjects, sometimes shooting woodland trees, sometimes capturing some of the more intimate woodland details.
On other occasions a waterfall will be my subject, or I’ll chase the morning light streaming through the trees. I get close-ups and even enjoy getting an abstract image or two.
At other times I’ll take a trip to the coast or into an urban area for some street photography.
I am open to trying new things, to testing new ideas and to working on a new skill. I keep changing perspective and changing genres so that my photography doesn’t become stale, and this helps me take my photography to the next level.
3. Dare to be yourself
One of the biggest roadblocks to moving on in photography is our own lack of confidence.
We need to learn to express ourselves in the way that we want to express ourselves, not just follow the crowd in terms of photography styles.
I'm not even talking about developing your own style here, whatever that might be, I'm talking about not being afraid to experiment, to be creative, to be daring. Shoot what draws you, what speaks to you, what fires your imagination. You might not always show your images to anyone else – or maybe you will – but you will certainly grow as a photographer by doing things your own way.
This is not by any means a beautiful image, or even a well composed image, but I like the way the sun produces reflections in the window and the tiny watering can visible in the top left window pane
When I first thumbed through the pages of George Barr's book I was intrigued by his unusual choice of images. There are many abstract images of industrial objects and parts of random materials (such as the bottom of a steel drum!). They are not images of beautiful things, yet they have a certain beauty.
Barr has been criticised for including ‘mundane’ images in his book, yet he has sold millions of books, so that tells its own story.
The surest way to remain stuck in a rut creatively is to allow others to decide what we should do. The world’s most creative people did the opposite. They did what they wanted to do, despite the critical voices.
If we are going to take our own photography to the next level, we need to reclaim our own creative voice and make images for ourselves.
What is wrong with capturing raindrops on a garden fence when the sun is glinting on them?
Why not capture light wherever it shines?
When we see a beautiful shadow on a wall who cares if it’s close to home or not particularly beautiful?
I love to capture objects that catch my eye and bring the images home to give them a closer look.
These images always remind me of an enjoyable morning out with my camera and, if nothing else, that makes them special.
If, like me, you want to take your photography beyond the beginner stages, there is lots of advice available to you. I have found that some of these solutions work in the short term and can give your photography a temporary lift. But long-term I believe that a few changes in attitude and outlook are necessary.
I have outlined three approaches that change the way we think about photography and I believe that if we take these approaches on board, and if we put them into practice at least some of the time, we will gain much improvement in photography terms.
What has made the biggest difference to your photography?