10 Steps To Photographic Fulfillment

Take the journey from disappointment to delight

Oregon Tulip Fields. Lepp achieved sharp focus over acres of neon-colored tulips by focus stacking. He used software and a technique perfected and shared by his colleague Rik Littlefield of Zerene Systems. From a tripod, Lepp captured 10 images with the same framing at 400mm, 1⁄180 sec., ƒ/16 and ISO 200, manually advancing the focus through the composition. The images were composited in Zerene Stacker software to retain only the in-focus parts of each capture, and the result is a high-quality file that can be printed very large without loss of detail and sharpness throughout the frame. Lepp researched peak bloom time, watched the weather, chose a day with soft overcast and prioritized the projects he hoped to pursue in the fields.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately from photographers who are working hard at their craft, but are just plain disappointed with the images they see on their screens and prints. Some of these folks are relatively new at the photographic enterprise, and some have been working at it for a long time. Some have only the basics in equipment and experience, and others have backaches from carrying a full range of gear from one workshop to another, all over the world. What they have in common is a strong desire to bridge the gap between the reality of their photography and their higher expectations for it, and to be able to consistently and clearly convey the message of their work to those who view it.

Those of you who see photography as a means to self-expression and creativity, as well as a competitive outlet or even (gasp!) a business, have a vested interest in constant improvement of your skills and techniques. But in a digital world already filled with awesome images—not to mention gizmos and gimmicks, apps and accessories—it can be hard to discern the critical elements you really need to move your photography forward. You need a 10-step program to keep you focused.

Step 1: Photograph With A Purpose. Reflect often on what motivates you to pick up that camera bag and head out. Sometimes photography is adjunct to, and a tool for expression of, other passions we hold, such as birds, flowers, wildlands, rodeos, wildlife, stars, dogs and our children. And sometimes photography is a reason unto itself. Photography helps you to look more closely, drives you to travel farther, to stay longer and to understand more about your subjects. Defining your primary intentions as a photographer gives you identity and direction and helps you to avoid distractions that won’t advance your purpose.

Step 2: Do Your Research. Learn all you can about the techniques and equipment used by successful photographers who work in the areas of your interest, and consider these in the context of your own budget and abilities. Determine where your subjects can be found and the logistical challenges that must be met to photograph them. If your travel budget is unrestricted, it’s pretty easy to gain access to African wildlife in the company of a pro photographer; but if your geographic range is limited by reality, you’ll need to research the birds in your backyard and the compounds at the local zoo or wildlife sanctuary. When you’re developing your skills, there’s much to be gained by photographing a favorite subject repeatedly in varying conditions.

Step 3: Invest Wisely In Equipment. One of the surest predictors of disappointing results is photographing with insufficient or inadequate equipment. There are certain tools that will serve as the basis for all of your work, including a DSLR body able to deliver the quality results you demand (megapixels and ISO capabilities) and offering the functions you need, such as firing rate, mirror lock-up, Live View; lenses capable of capturing your subjects and equal to the quality of your DSLR; and a sturdy tripod and ballhead (one of the most important accessories for achievement of superior images—really). You should invest in the best quality you can afford when selecting these items. Add additional tools based on your subject of choice, such as flash attachments, macro extension tubes, cable releases, intervalometers and tele-extenders. If you’ve been reading my column for very long, you know this is an extremely conservative list!

Step 4: Embrace Education. If your community still has a local camera store, it’s probably much more than just a retail shop. It’s the hub of the photography community in the area. They usually offer professional expertise and free-to-inexpensive courses in the use of the equipment you buy. If you like to learn online, try the courses at Lynda.com, BetterPhoto.com, PhotoshopUser.com and KelbyTraining.com, to name a few. Most community colleges offer hands-on photography and postprocessing classes through extension. Join your local camera club. Watch for seminars being held in your area, and once you’ve achieved a basic level of competence, consider a field workshop with a qualified instructor.

Step 5: Pursue Your Project. Nothing happens until you make it happen, so don’t leave this to chance. Calendar your plan, handle logistics and follow through. Organize your results so you can easily access and review them. There will be twists and turns, but don’t let them completely derail you. Continue to define yourself and your goals as you progress.

Step 6: Adjust And Adapt. As you advance in your project, you’ll find out what works, what doesn’t work and what needs to be changed or abandoned. Incorporate new knowledge into your plans. Expect your project and goals to evolve, and your skills and results to improve, as you proceed!

Step 7: Follow Through At The Computer. Digital captures require postprocessing. One of the great advantages of the digital realm is the ability to take full control of your creative efforts so the end result is as good as, or better than, what you previsualized. This means you must maintain a capable computing system and master those aspects of image editing and optimization that apply to your work. Return to the educational resources discussed in Step 4, and practice.

Step 8: Invite Criticism. If you bring your iPad or prints to me at one of my seminars and ask me to look at your images, don’t expect that I’ll just give you an encouraging pat on the back. I’ll do that as warranted, but I’m also going to tell you what I believe you need to know to improve your work. You need to seek unbiased and informed input, and you can best do this by submitting your work to camera club critiques, enrolling in online mentoring through venues such as BetterPhoto.com and taking advantage of professional critiques offered at major conferences such as NANPA and Photoshop World. Check your ego at the door and listen to others’ suggestions. You can pick your ego back up on the way out, knowing that you’ve opened yourself to constructive criticism and learned from it.

Step 9: Use Your Work. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth sharing. Putting your images out there invites criticism, sometimes unwelcome criticism, but see Step 8. Even if you don’t sell your work, it can speak for you from your own walls, from your note cards, as illustration for newsletters, in the local newpaper’s readers’ contributions, on your Facebook page and as contest fodder (see Step 8 again). Give a talk about your latest project at the senior center, local museum or library.

Step 10: Share Your Knowledge. Once you’ve attained a high level of expertise (meaning you’ve distinguished yourself within a certain photographic genre or community), you can share your work and knowledge through articles in newsletters and newspapers, instructional talks at the camera club and local high schools, exhibitions of your prints within local nonprofits and businesses, and at community art walks and fairs. You now can publish in ways only available at great expense to professionals in the past. Look to publishing-on-demand services, such as Blurb.com or Lulu.com, and ebook development software, such as Adobe eBooks. You, too, can sell your creative production on Amazon.com and be seen on an iPad or a Kindle on the other side of the world!

One more thing about my 10-Step Program: It’s a process I go through every time I take on a new project, when I want to learn a major new technique, and in a less intense way, before each trip out the door or into the studio to undertake photography. I have a specific vision, and a purpose, and these can’t be realized without critical tools, knowledge and skills. I build on (and acknowledge) the foundational achievements of others, then adapt, learn and modify my approach as I’m working in the field. I share my images with capable colleagues and ask for their feedback. I put it out there for others to critique (and they’re not always kind). And, then, when I’ve got it to the level that satisfies me—even delights me—I share it. And, now, back to Step 1.

Follow George Lepp‘s exploits, see his latest photographs and be part of the discussion on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/georgelepp. Lepp is part of the OP Blog at www.outdoorphotographer.com/blog/author/glepp.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.