THE fastest way to get better is to develop a thorough feedback system. Imagine if, as you were learning the technical side of photography, you made lots of mistakes such as underexposing everything, but then did nothing about it? You’d feel pretty stupid if shot after shot things kept coming out too dark and you did nothing to change it.
With many technical things, the feedback is pretty rapid – you glance at the back of the camera, and you can see what’s gone wrong. Ideally, you then find out what technique you need to learn, and you get better. As you get more skilled, this sort of thing can get harder to work out, but it can be much more difficult to discern mistakes in areas that are less tangible. I’m talking here about your creativity, your ideas, and the nuts and bolts that hold a shoot together.
To improve beyond the technical, I suggest keeping a logbook. Here you can record all the other aspects of the shoot – how you organised it, what work inspired you, and above all – what you learnt from the shoot. You can use it whichever way works for you, but here’s how I’ve been using mine for more than 20 years
Start with the brief. This will either be one given to me by a client, or will be self-generated in the case of a personal project. Essentially it’s the question “What am I photographing?”
Sketch out or write down my initial ideas.
Gather together any visual research – bring together all the inspiring imagery that you can. Some will be technical references (I like the lighting on this one) some will be more “feel” (I want my shot to be “big” and “epic” like these shots)
Make technical notes or plans – think about equipment you’ll need, lighting, issues you might have to overcome.
Nail down any production (organisation) issues. These will be things along the lines of who, what, where, and how. You may want to to stick in images of suitable locations, or images of your subject with work they’ve previously done, or make notes of who you need to contact to secure access to places. Feel free to get as detailed as you like at this stage – these notes may be incredibly useful later on if you need to recreate this shot.
Record as much info as you feel you need to from the shoot itself. Not just finished images, but behind the scenes and setup shots. Feel free to include notes from how you processed the images in photoshop too.
Now comes the most important part – your lessons/conclusion/assessment. Here’s where the “Feedback” really kicks in. Assess how happy you are with your images, and well you think they met your brief. If you’re lucky enough to have hit the nail bang on the head, then try and work out exactly why, so you can do it again – don’t just write “I think these images are great!” Odds are things won’t be perfect though, and this is the point where you try and ascertain exactly why so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes again. Be honest with yourself, as this logbook is really only for you, and you alone, so if you lie about what you think about the images, it’s YOU you’re lying to! You may even find that you don’t know why the images didn’t work, in which case you know what your next step will be….
Finally, work out what your next steps should be. Do you want to take what you’ve done in this image, and refine a few elements, maybe trying the same technical approach with a different subject matter? Do you have a big gap of technical knowledge that you need to fill in? Do you feel you’ve now taken this subject as far as you can and it’s time to move on? Let each shoot be a springboard to the next, and provide the seeds of the next image.
Start a logbook. Go out and buy yourself a suitable book, and start recording your image-making process. DO NOT get hung up on following the exact method I lay out above – this book is personal to you, and although you may end up showing it to people, it’s purpose is to serve as your confidant, support and inspiration.
30 second summary:
Log your process. Record your ideas, the things it will take to realise those ideas, and the process you went through when you did the shoot. Then, assess how well you think you did and suggest changes for the next shoot.