A Photo A Day To Raise Your Game
Why I’d recommend a 365 challenge to any aspiring photographer.
What’s the best thing I ever did for my photographic development?
Studiously pore over that ebook I downloaded cover to cover?
Splash out on some tasty glass, unlocking longed-for shots previously out of my grasp?
I’d say the biggest shift in my photography came from challenging myself to take a photo a day – every single day – for one year. Admittedly there’s nothing new there. Even so, I thought I’d share my personal experience of an invigorating and enriching process in the hope my reflections might inspire others to do the same.
First a little disclaimer: I’m by no means stating I’m now some über-tog whose work is consistently or even occasionally incredible. I’m merely saying that I have improved to a reasonable degree over the past 12 months and that I credit this much of the progress to this year-long challenge.
Flash back to summer 2011: I’d just got a sexy new D700 (AKA the love of my life, sorry darling). I’d also recently finished a weekly night class covering basic camera techniques. The class not only had me shooting every Tuesday night for three hours straight, but also had me out shooting in much of my free time between classes – practising techniques and building material for an assessment portfolio.
Once the classes finished, I started getting a bit worried that without the structure and end goal the course had provided I wasn’t shooting as much, not honing my eye or building on the technical knowledge I’d acquired; worried that, like many of my fellow students probably did, I’d pop my camera back in it’s bag and it might only occasionally see the light of day on weekends away and holidays.
Something had to be done. I wanted to continue my photographic development and I needed a focus and a drive to help me keep shooting. All. The. Time.
But – wait a minute – if you’ve got that burning passion for photography surely you don’t need any of this? You’ll be just be out there everyday – chasing light, capturing, creating, experimenting – right? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the person.
I think though it can be trickiest when you’re at that certain stage of development – some skills, some natural acumen, but at the same time you’re vulnerable to a frustration can often creep in from not getting the shot you’re seeing in your head, from things not quite working and not knowing how to fix it – a feeling that your output is ‘good’ but maybe just a bit average. That frustration’s a real danger: it can easily kill your enthusiasm and momentum.
More than that though, for me at least, there was something else threatening the picking up of the camera all too often: that whole “real life” thing. Yeah, you know – 9 to 5, hours spent with the engine idling in traffic, friends and family, household chores. Just so distracting! Not to mention TV, twitter and Doodle Jump. It’s easy in the maelstrom of all this to relegate picking your camera up on a daily basis, to only reserve it for the city breaks and scenic country strolls.
So, decision made: a structure and a goal were a must and, come late June, I knew I was going to start on a 365 day challenge.
Now, I could’ve done what many do and waited to launch into this venture on that ultimate symbolic ‘new-leaf’ date, 1 January.
I didn’t, for a few reasons: I liked the idea that it would just start on any day, that there’d be nothing particularly ‘special’ or symbolic about the start or end dates. I also didn’t want it to be yet another photoaday project that started and/or ended with NYE fireworks.
But, most importantly, I wanted to just get the hell on with it: to be soaking up all the shooting, all that learning, as soon as humanly possible. Waiting six months was not in the equation.
Thus, while indulging in a sun-soaked BBQ and a beer with my friend Iain, I bagged a quick snapshot and so began a year-long photographic adventure…
There was no going back…
So, viewing it all retrospectively just over a year on, what did I get out of it?
Developing my skills and ‘eye’
I’m very much of the belief that, when it comes to someone’s personality, both nature and nurture play important parts. I believe the same is true of great photography.
Some friends and family have told me that they think they’d never be able to take photos like mine as they ‘don’t have the eye’ and somehow I do. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not.
I challenge this view though inasmuch as it seems they are implying that it’s a quality I was born with that they weren’t. Now, maybe there is a degree of one person having a greater level of natural ‘eye’ than another. I’m sure most photographers have gone green with envy at a superior shooter’s seeing ability at least once. But I do believe that your eye has to be worked on, constantly, whatever level of natural seeing ability you, your friends or peers feel you possess.
A photoaday challenge is a superb way to do this, with a focused approach over a sustained though not epically-long period. It’s a great vehicle to generate a quantum leap in your seeing ability, particularly if you’re taking your first steps into the world of creativity that lies beyond your camera’s ‘Auto’ mode.
As Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Here’s a way to burn through a chunk of that pretty speedily.
Having to constantly create – pushing yourself to attain something better than that brimming-with-pride capture from last week – you’ll just shoot so much, so continuously, it will generate a very noticeable uplift.
OK, it’s ‘a photo a day’ (I took liberties with this anyway and occasionally published multiple photos) and, yes, on certain days you might only shoot a handful of frames to get your daily post. But on other days – when you have more time, shoot multiple subjects over several hours, or it just ain’t happening – you might shoot in excess of 1,000. It matters not. It’s what you absorb from all of it that counts.
From that epic exposure you bagged in a mere three clicks to that awful day where nothing went right, when you made stupid mistakes, when every subject matter seemed duller than dull – you’ll learn from it all.
Journeys through genres
The challenge also brought other important aspects to my overall development: the often revelatory discovery of several genre of photography that I fell truly-madly-deeply for.
Shooting daily, I delved into these photographic worlds I started down the long, hard road of evolving my own unique style…
The word on the street
My challenge got me into street photography, and now there’s no turning back. More on this in a future post, but I have to say it opened a whole new world of photographic art to me and helped me build my skills.
Street photography is a marvellous medium to develop your seeing ability, work on focusing, aperture, shutter speed, framing and composition and – above all else – just get a lot of varied exposures under your belt very quickly.
Above all, it’s fun, fast-paced, unpredictable and utterly addictive.
Seeing in black and white
Again, more on this another time, but during the year I started seriously shooting in black and white (rather than just using it as a fix for iffy shots). In doing so, I not only produced some of my all-time favourite shots, but I also massively developed my all round technique specifically by shooting for mono.
Getting more dynamic
The advent of digital photo technology has given us some liberating gifts and High Dynamic Range photography is one of them.
I’m a huge fan of sensitively-rendered HDR and the unique look it can bring to landscapes and urban photography. HDR shooting can teach you a great deal about exposure and working in manual mode too.
It’s fair enough to say that, for most photographers, their work isn’t done and dusted once they’ve pressed the shutter release and a 365 challenge is a brilliant way to get to grips with Photoshop and other post-processing software too. Working with programs daily you’re likely to learn new techniques and improve your efficiency with custom actions and keyboard shortcuts. I certainly did, but bloody-blending-modes is there still a vast amount to master!
Exploring amazing places
Photography can take you to some incredible places. For me, it was plenty of slightly terrifying, potentially dangerous abandoned buildings.
Yes, I found my inner-Urbex freak and I’m hooked. From clambering over fences to climbing up steep, muddy verges in the dark – the hunger for the perfect shot is at times overwhelming. Just remember kids, safety first!
A process of elimination
Along with genres I love, I also discovered that there were subjects I just wasn’t really that bothered about shooting, such as still life and self portraiture.
Having to dream up a subject to shoot every day led me to experiment in these forms but I’m glad that the intensity of the challenge made me realise they were things I wanted to focus on less than others. This helped me to refine my skills, experience and approach in the direction of those subjects and styles I found far more interesting. I believe these realisations would’ve taken far longer if I hadn’t been shooting daily.
Things that start to click
Beyond introducing me to certain styles I enjoyed, I feel this project helped me to truly understand some crucial fundamentals of photography, art and the creative process too.
Here’s a few of them…
Less is much, much more
I learned that, at it’s best, photography is as much about what you leave out of the frame as what you put in; that simplicity is the key; that “Less” should be our watch word.
I find myself letting cluttered shots go by, constantly re-composing, exorcising the extraneous, trying to get to the core of what the shot is about.
Having to take at least one photo every day for a whole year gets you noticing things you’d have otherwise missed completely or overlooked, the stuff that most of us ignore. You find yourself getting curious, investigating and exploring.
I wrote another post when I took this shot all of five minutes from my flat which I think outlines my take on this pretty well.
“Amateurs talk about equipment. Professionals talk about photos.”
This famous anonymous quote illustrates my next point very aptly. Though killer gear can make a difference to the quality of your photography, it’s worth next to nothing if you don’t have a strong eye and an understanding of the key principles of great photography.
At the end of the day it’s your ability, skill and experience as a photographer that have the biggest influence on your likelihood to capture an with impact, not the camera in your hand.
I got a bit of a crash-course in this when I went on a once-in-a-lifetime US roadtrip in March 2012. I was nothing short of heartbroken when my D700 malfunctioned a couple of weeks before my trip and the company fixing it failed to repair it in time. I was now dependent on my old D40 and a recently purchased V1 to record my memories of this amazing journey.
Though I can’t deny there were moments I rued not having the superior functionality and higher quality of my D700, the experience taught me to work within my means and that, in the end, the shot is the key – not the slightly higher noise levels, not the reduced ‘quality’ and file size, or the fact that bracketing exposures was a total pain.
If great photography was really about the gear then why are we still jabbering on about Ansel, Henri, Bailey and Capa? Think about how much stunning photography is being captured on iPhones across the globe as you read this post.
Taking a striking still is great, but telling a story is way better
There’s an undeniable satisfaction in capturing a stunning image: that poppy field at dawn, a golden hour coast line. It’s a pleasure to admire quality images captured by others too.
I’ll always have a love for a singular breathtaking shot, but one thing my photoaday experience introduced me to was the concept of storytelling through my photography: taking image-making beyond ‘pretty pictures’ and into the arena of conveying something, crafting a narrative, revealing something deeper, be it through a series of shots or a single exposure.
Creating photographs along these lines is hugely exciting and there are few things more gratifying than capturing an image or a collection of stills that relay a story, invite questions, open up a discussion or challenge viewpoints.
It doesn’t have to be photojournalism per se but creating work that is both visually striking and message conveying is very, very addictive.
The unforeseen: stuff I’d never banked on that started happening
When I started my photoaday blog my sole intention was to use it as a structure to improve my photography. The only reason I published it online was knowing I would definitely stay committed if it was ‘public’ (apart from publishing posts on WordPress I only initially promoted it to Facebook friends).
However, as the months rolled by, things I’d never expected or hoped for occurred.
I was lucky enough to have two of my blogposts featured on WordPress.com’s ‘Freshly Pressed’, their homepage picks from the thousands of blogs they host. This attracted hundreds of new visitors and followers to my blog, many of them providing encouraging comments and feedback.
I also started getting enquiries about paid work: a family friend’s wedding, corporate events, selling framed prints. This gave me the confidence and momentum to set up fully as a working photographer.
Finally, something that never even entered my head when I started has come from this challenge: I like the idea that this body of work is now already a kind of ‘time capsule’ of a year in my life – all the little moments, events, places, experiences that can so easily be forgotten years down the line (or sooner given the quality of my memory!) are now frozen forever in these images.
This is already like some kind of photographic ‘mosquito in amber’ because for much of the year I was shooting my challenge I was living in Glasgow and then, just before the project ended, I moved down to London. It stands as a detailed memento of my final few months in a city I once called home.
It’s getting better all the time…
Ultimately, from the technical to the artistic, my photography did get better. However this is by no means illustrated by some lovely curve, infinitely climbing, shot by shot, on a graph of awesomeness. Far from it. This is about an evolution.
The progression is perhaps measured better in terms of batches of photos – when I look at the first 25 photos I posted against a random group of 25 later on I can see the growth. That’s not to say that I didn’t take images early on that were some of my best and, equally, that I didn’t take ones closer to the end that I believe totally stink. It’s about the long-term development, the increase in every aspect of your game: your best photos get better and even the ones that suck don’t seem to suck quite so bad.
As I said before, you learn from the bad shots as much as the brilliant ones and they’ll all motivate you moving forward too – the poorer ones will spur you on to try harder and expect more from yourself; the best stuff will set you off competing with yourself, upping the ante in search of an even more perfect picture.
Yes, it can be tough at times. When it’s chucking down with rain, when you’re tired, ill, insanely busy or completely devoid of inspiration. However, it can often be out of adversity that our greatest triumphs are achieved.
Some of my most satisfying memories from my challenge are bound up in shots that – though they may not be the very finest of my 366 posts – I crafted from nothing, that I coaxed out when starved of all creativity; shots that forced me to look beyond the immediately obvious, reassessing subjects or locations I’d previously dismissed, and capture something of worth.
A journey, not a destination
Ultimately a photoaday challenge is just a more intensive form of any photographer’s pursuit of the perfect image: it is a journey rather than a destination.
Could any photographer truly say they’re the finished article with nothing left to learn? Personally I believe you learn at least a tiny bit more, both consciously and unconsciously, every single time you shoot. The commitment, structure and goal provided by a 365 project is simply a way to compress and amplify that education.
That was my interest in undertaking this challenge: the learning, the growth. I knew my first few shots would be pretty rubbish, I knew there’d still be some junk and a fair bit of the decidedly average along the way too. Yet, in amongst this, there would be good work and over time the body of work would improve.
But that was the whole point: this was never supposed to be an amazing exhibition of how brilliant I am spread out over a calendar year. It was a learning experience, a developmental tool, a journey.
Looking back on it, I feel the act of producing a photo a day for a year deepened my love of photography, opened my eyes in so many ways and improved my skills and artistry as a photographer. I’m eternally thankful that I threw down the gauntlet to myself and carried it through to its conclusion.
And so that – as best as I can sum it up – is what I got from taking on the challenge of shooting every day for one year.
What could you get…?
You can check out my photoaday challenge in full here.Follow @RobJBC