I've only had my eye to a viewfinder for a year now, but it doesn't take long to recognize the ruts of the amateur photographer. We take shortcuts, lose our settings, forget to change the film speed (yes, I'm still bitter about half a wedding shot in 500 ISO) and get to thinking we've really mastered this hobby on which we spend half an afternoon each month, only to get back to our computers, plug in a card, and watch our mediocre snapshots plateau. What we need is a reminder to get out of these bad habits and keep shooting.
1. Don't Auto-Tune
One thing I never do—anymore—is take that little eyedropper, click in the brightest part of the image and hope all the colors come out right. You'll almost always end up with blue zombie-looking faces where your friends should be. Every light source—a bathroom fixture, chandelier, noonday sun or sunset—has a different color temperature. If you were to carry a piece of white paper around with you all day, you'd see how white is never really just white. That's why one-step photo editing commands that force the lightest part of every photo to the absolute brightest value a computer monitor project end up actually making the photo less "accurate," despite its attempt to "color-correct".
Shooting in a raw format helps make color temperature adjustments easier and improves color quality overall. Even if you shoot in JPG, color-adjusting is still a matter of preference. Remember that you're not just making a facsimile copy of the action in your frame—there is no one right way to process a photo, and learning how to use the color temperature to your advantage is key to taking the average photo to the next level. Yellower light reminds us of sunshine, and it makes skin tones healthier and warmer. Bluer light can really add to otherwise plain still life shots. Don't be afraid to cross process a photo either; warm light and cool shadows look a lot like sunset or sunrise and really showcase the difference between your key and fill lights.
2. Don't Lean on Me
I probably have a hundred of these tilted photos. MySpace made them popular, but they've become the staple of everyone who entered photography in the last 5 years. Too often, we amateur photographers take what we know to be a boring composition and figure that by tilting the plane a little, we'll end up with something really spectacular. Really, it's more of a cop-out; we'd rather tweak our wrists than our minds. If you're tempted to take one of these, stop and think, "Would this still be a picture worth taking if it didn't lean like a cholo?"
3. Photographer vs. Forecast
I never would have taken what ended up being my favorite photos of the whole year if I hadn't been challenged by another photographer to shoot no matter what the weather. The inspiration came from a photo of the quintessential black-and-white New York street, busy with countless shoppers ignoring the rain that offered the perfect amount of reflection and disguise against the asphalt. That evening, I went to Vancouver with some friends; a hundred admittedly horrible shots later, I turned up with this set that closed out the night.
4. Look Directly Into the Light
Photographers are snotty brats. Really, we are. Only a year ago, I moped around with nothing but my camera phone and already I think of myself as having a corner on the art of photography. Still, I love to break the rule heard squawked at every amusement park and birthday party: "Don't shoot towards the sun!" You'd think we still had to worry about overexposing a whole roll of film or something. I love shooting right at, or very near to, the main source of light. Sure, it's nearly impossible to recover unless you're shooting in raw and know how to process photos, but the effect is really unique. C'mon, what says summer better than a sun flare and backlit hair on a precious little girl? The last two photos looked completely unsalvagable at first—my first time shooting a wedding, and I made mistake after mistake—but a few extra minutes processing them and the third one ended up taking first place at the Lynden Fair in Professional Color Photography. (I know, right? I hadn't had my camera six months and I'm already pro? Yeah right; I'm a chump. To be fair, I was listed as professional because I was a second shooter for my good friend Mark, of Mark Michael French Photography.)
5. Share With the Other Kids
My camera equipment weighs in at about $2k new—I'm no starving college student but "graphic designer" isn't really anything to brag about either. It's definitely easier to keep it in my hands rather than entrust it to a life force other than my own. Of course, that would mean admitting I wasn't the center of my own universe and that, potentially, someone else could have a happy accident instead of me and take a fantastic shot or two. When I can get over myself long enough, I find out that friends who take my D90 on an adventure end up coming back with some really fun shots of their own; and they're usually considerate enough to point the lens back at me. It sure saves me the awkward self-portrait look.
6. Shoot What Who You Love
People, not landscapes, make the best subjects. Forget bridges, sunsets, mountains and lakes—the people you take with you on your photo journey end up being the star of it. You'll learn plenty more from trying to shoot people than scenery. Honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. These are great photos because I love the people in these photos; it's their personality that drives the picture, not how steadily I managed to hold the camera while they graciously posed for me.
7. Never Say No
Over and over again, so many of my favorite photos are near-misses. If I hadn't crouched down to see the water drops or the bee on a flower; if I'd decided 200 was enough photos of Grace (my baby niece) for one hour; if the 15 or so photographers up at Baker the same time I was really had managed to keep me from moving fifty feet down the trail to another vantage point; if I hadn't run out to the prow of the boat in the rain, or zoomed in when I had just finished a panorama, or kept clicking the shutter when I couldn't anticipate what would happen... I wouldn't have any of the pictures below. In fact, I had to say "yes" to every one of these moments in order to get a picture at all.