You want to become a better photographer? Take fewer photos!

The shock! The horror! The blasphemy! How can we here at Photocritic, a place that purports to teach people about photography, nay has over 2,000 students in its online school, dare to utter a statement that is contrary to the received wisdom of practice making perfect and the 10,000 hours rule? How can we possibly suggest that taking fewer photos might put you on a path to being a better photographer? Quite easily, as it turns out. Upon his graduation, my cousin was gifted with a Nikon D5300 and promptly legged it to Italy where he proceeded to photograph everything in sight. While I might be prone to hyperbole, that is scarcely an exaggeration. When he returned, he asked me if I would peruse his images and advise him on improving his photography. When he told me that there were in excess of 2,000 images, I dispensed my first piece of advice: that he needs to take fewer photos. He looked at me incredulously and said: 'But I see so much that I want to photograph!' And therein lies the problem.

Memory is cheap. Images are ubiquitous. We communicate via self-destructing snaps and have developed a penchant for deliberately aged-looking photos of cups of coffee. As a consequence, there is a persistent temptation to take hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs every time that we venture out with a camera. While this might serve our most pressing needs to relay where we are and what we are doing, the act of creating an image that will stand the test of time requires a more considered approach.

Too many coffees

If you want to improve your photography it demands that you practise it as a craft, and strive to make each photo better than the last, rather than regard images as digital currency in our social media-dominated world. It's time to step back, slow down, and take fewer of them.

Tell your story

All photos are about telling stories. They are about communicating something that you see to other people. This applies whether you're sharing a Snapchat chat or creating a fine art print. But if you are intent upon taking better photos, it should be at the forefront of your mind whenever you pick up your camera. Before you even raise your camera to your eye, you must ask yourself: 'What am I trying to say?' Until you have defined the story that you want to tell, don't click that shutter release button.

Not perfect, but at least I knew what I was trying to achieve.

Without a grounding narrative, your photo will fail to convey anything of value and will, effectively, be wasted. Show some restraint and discipline at this point and you'll benefit your photo-taking skills enormously. First, you will produce a meaningful image. That's step one towards becoming a better photographer. By thinking about what you want to say instead of randomly spraying your camera in the direction of something that you hope might make an image out of one of twenty three variations on a theme, you'll have increased the chances of saying something significant.

I'd worked out this story before I even scurried down the bank to the waterfall

Second, when you have identified the story you want to tell, you have to figure out how you're going to tell it. To do this, you will need to think about the light, know how best to use your camera, and consider how to manipulate light and tools to achieve your aims. That will improve your photography.

Third, I can guarantee that five miniscule variations on the same sunset scene over the Alps will not offer you any meaningful improvement on the first iteration. Of course we've all done it: taken nineteen photos of the exact same scene using focal lengths that vary over a distance of 3mm; shuffled half a pace to the left, and then switched the right; adjusted the aperture by a stop; and finally reverted to where we started. Looking back at the series of images, there's no discernible differences between them and you're left wondering which you actually prefer and which it's worth investing your time editing. If you take a moment to decide what you really want, you'll make your life easier.

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By honing your story-telling skills, slowing down your photo-taking process, and reducing the number of photos that you take, you'll force yourself to practise your skills. If that won't make you a better photographer then I doubt much will.

Edit judiciously

All photos deserve a little editing love. This isn't about airbrushing away half of a model's thigh, but subtle tweaks that enhance rather than alter an image. You cannot turn a sow's ear into a silk purse, so you must think of editing your images as adding the final touches to turn something already good into great. You must be working with already-good raw materials. In addition to taking great photos in-camera, learning how to finish them in post-production is part of the process of becoming a better photographer.

Not such a bad original

Apart from giving yourself a better opportunity to manage this by working with fewer, higher quality raw images, you also need to be shooting in Raw. Raw format gives you the flexibility to create images as you want them to be, rather than as the camera thinks they should look. When you shoot in JPEG format, your camera makes various decisions about the final version of the image, for example contrast and colour, that you really should be making yourself. It's a case of you being able to realise your vision, rather than your camera trying to decide for you.

But a teensy crop, a white balance fix, a bit more contrast, and some sharpening makes all the difference.

On a purely practical level, Raw images are significantly larger than JPEG files; you'll probably find that you need to shoot fewer images because storing them becomes a little more complicated.

Fewer photos means more time to edit and finish those you do take, helping you to create a better final product.

Reflect on your images

When you're trying to get somewhere, it helps if you know your starting point. On your (endless) journey to becoming a better photographer, you need to know how well you are doing at every given point and what you must do to improve. This is something that comes from evaluation and critique, given by both yourself and other people. Critically evaluating photos is demanding, however, and finding the stomach to do it for thousands of photos, or at least a good proportion of your catalogue, is probably overwhelming. You want to give yourself the best chance of being able to assess and to improve, and while it might sound counter-intuitive, it comes from fewer, rather than more, images.

Would I have preferred boy in-focus and wall blurred? I'm still not sure.

Go back to the five miniscule variations on the sunset scene over the Alps. With so little to choose between them, when you're in post-processing being able to determine their faults and their positive points will likely be a struggle. Rather than being a distinct iterative process, you might find it's easier to stick a pin in the collection to select one. Think more carefully about one or two shots when you take them, and you'll be able to reflect on them more effectively and improve your skills as a consequence.

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Of course, being able to play and experiment is a thoroughly important part of improving your photographic skills. What we're saying is that you need to do it in a way that actually helps you, rather than overwhelms and hinders you.

Practice does make perfect

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more you practise photography, the better the photos that you'll take. But the word 'practise' carries with it far more connotations than simply pointing your camera and depressing the shutter release button in the hope rather than the expectation that it will result in a well-exposed, beautifully composed shot that tells a meaningful story. It demands that you approach photography as a discipline: that you decide on what you are trying to say before you try to say it (or 'engage brain before opening mouth,' as my primary school teacher would say) and that you evaluate your images to establish what you are doing well and what you can do better. Then, you need to work on making those improvements.

Do I like it? Mostly. Could I do it better? Of course.

It's a never-ending process that you'll be working on for as long as choose to take photos.

Happy with it? Yes. Could it be better? Definitely.

Back in the old days of film you typically had 12, 24, or 36 exposures to a roll. Even if you had multiple rolls of film in your bag having them developed was expensive, or time-consuming if you did it yourself. It meant that you took a little more care in composing and exposing each shot, because every frame cost you money. Each exposure was precious. If you're serious about improving your photography, I'd advocate placing a restriction on the number of photos you can take in one day, or over the course of a trip or excursion. It will soon instill a sense of discipline into your picture-taking!

Four photos good; two photos better

This advice then, is not about using your camera less, it's about using it with more care, attention, and precision. It is about working to ensure that every frame you expose and develop tells the story that you want it to tell, and that you can use each image as a platform to taking a better one next time.

Sleep on it; it usually helps.

Telling stories

Theatre ii, Palazzolo All photos are about telling stories. From a beautiful lily in bloom to a shell exploding as it careens through a pock-marked wall in a war-torn suburb, they're about conveying a narrative. Much like words, that are also used to express an opinion or tell a tale, sometimes they are about truth and sometimes they are about fantasy. It doesn't matter which type of story a photographer chooses to tell with her or his images, the important factor is that the audience knows which type of story they're looking at: a real one, or a constructed one.

This element of truthfulness has been a matter of hot debate in photojournalistic circles over the past two weeks. It started when Paul Hansen was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year prize for his image of two young boys being carried to their funeral in Gaza. It's a raw and emotive photograph, overwhelmingly blue and dusty in tone. You can feel the cold numbness of heartache seeping through the screen when you look at it. And that, for many people, was the problem with the winning image. This chilled, depressed feeling had been processed into the image specifically for its entry into the competition in order to evoke an emotion in its audience. The tone of the image, the feeling that you get when you compare the competition version with the press version is quite different. Rather than acting as a record of events, it had been transformed into a work of art.

This is problematic for the inegrity of the competition. If it's a press photo competition, should the images not be as they were submitted to publications? Shouldn't they be about assessing the photos used to report the news over the past year and settle on which one tells the story best? If we are content to see images that have been manipulated in post-production in order to produce a response win the industry's major prize, are we also content to see these sorts of images tell the story of the news?

News reporting isn't about art and isn't about winning competitions. First and foremost, it is about telling the stories of those unable to tell them themselves, of keeping the world informed, of bringing light to situations that might otherwise remain festering pits of darkness. It isn't pretty and it is often thankless, but it is vital.

Then comes the Paolo Pellegrin situation, which also arose from his entry into the World Press Photo competition. This is a degree messier than the Hansen situation. His entry into the documentary category was of an ex-Marine sniper in The Crescent, a dodgy (putting it mildly) area of Rochester, New York. Except that the caption on the image was outed by Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes as not being entirely accurate. Shane Keller, the subject of the image, claims that although he was in the military he was never a sniper; furthermore, the photograph was not taken in the Crescent, but in his basement in an area of Rochester that most definitely isn't the Crescent. Rather than being a proper documentary image that is part of telling the story of the area, it's a bit more posed, maybe even staged, than that. What's more, it looks as if the caption for the image had been lifted from an article in the New York Times published in December 2003.

So we have a situation where a documentary photograph that has been entered into contests and in some cases recognised, isn't necessarily what it claims to be. If this alone isn't disturbing, I'm particularly perturbed by Pellegrin's response to the situation. (And no, I'm not even going to venture into the debate about whether or not BagNewsNotes should have contacted Pellegrin for his comments prior to publication. That's a whole different issue.)

As far as Pellegrin is concerned, this isn't an issue. He might have misunderstood Keller's description of his role in the military and he wasn't sure if the area where the image was taken was indeed The Crescent. But because it tells the story that he aimed to tell, about the deprivation, the gun crime, the drug abuse, and the complicated relationship that exists between them all in Rochester, it doesn't matter. As for the captions, that was a simple mistake.

I'm sorry Signor Pellegrin, but none of those explanations is good enough. You see, if you're a photojournalist or a documentary photographer, I have to be able to trust you. I have to be certain that the stories you are telling through your pictures are accurate. So this means that you need to be certain of whom you're photographing. You need to be certain of where you are taking photographs. And you need to be certain that the captions you attach to them are accurate and indeed your own.

This kind of storytelling isn't about setting up shots to tell the story that you want them to tell; this kind of storytelling is about telling the truth. If I can't trust you here, can I trust you anywhere else?

Photojournalists are the eyes of the world and we rely on their integrity as we rely on their bravery. We have to be certain that the stories that they are telling are the truthful ones, not the fantastical, beautiful, artistic ones. The truth is often ugly: so be it.

Viewbook PhotoStory 2010


Fancy seeing a series of your photos exhibited at a gallery in Amsterdam? How about having them published in a magazine and a book? I thought it sounded pretty cool, anyway. These are some of the prizes for the talented people who bag the Viewbook PhotoStory 2010 competition.

This is a competition with a bit of a difference, though, because you need to submit a series of photographs that weave a narrative. As the competition director, Alrik Swagerman said: ‘While a single image has a narrative in itself and can be strong in isolation, Viewbook PhotoStory’s focus is specifically on showing series of images, in a well-chosen sequence that triggers a reaction and combines a narrative with photographic excellence.’

Entries will be judged in two categories: documentary and conceptual. Although the overall competition winners will be selected by an international panel of judges, there is also a public vote and the winners of that get some goodies, too. You can submit your entries between now and 1 October 2010, when both public and jury voting commences.

So if you’re pro or amateur and fancy having a go, head over to the competition website. And don’t forget to look at our tips for winning competitions, either!