A Photographic Workout

A Photographic Workout
Ladakh, India

Ladakh, India


So, you want to get better at taking photos. Ok, great. Are you ready to work at it? I often get this comment either in the form of a question or a declarative statement. It reminds me of my own declarative statement that I keep coming back to: “I need to lose weight.” In many ways both of these problems and their solutions are similar.

For both losing weight and getting better at photography, you need to be determined and willing to work hard to see progress. This is not something that’s just going to happen. You will no more find yourself waking up 30 lbs lighter than you will waking up one day and putting a camera to your face, miraculously start shooting like Steve McCurry. It simply doesn’t happen that way. It takes many hours sweating at the gym, pushing yourself to burn those calories, changing old eating habits and creating new ones. In the same way, it takes the novice photographer hours of working with his kit and a willingness to develop new habits. Neither will happen without time and determination so let me suggest a workout regime for you.

In the gym, you need to know what equipment is used for which purpose. You can’t expect the bench press to tone your legs. It won’t happen; it wasn’t designed to do that. In the same way, you need to know what your camera can do. Learn those buttons and dials. They are not there just to make the camera look cool—they all have a purpose. You may never use them all but you still need to know what they do. Get very familiar with your gear. Not only do you need to know what these buttons do, you need to know where they are even with your eyes closed. No kidding. Every photographer can tell you stories how he or she missed that “Decisive Moment[1. A term popularized by Henri Cartier-Bresson]” by lowering the camera from their eye to try to find the ISO or meter button. When you take the camera away from your eye you risk losing the shot. Trust me I know. Here is a drill you can do. Take your finger and touch each button on the camera and say the name out loud. After a few minutes try to do it with your eyes closed. Repeat this till you no longer have to look at the camera. Now try it up to your face. Keep at it till you no longer need to lower the camera from your eye to change a setting[2. One wish of mine is that camera manufacturers would make the LED readout in the viewfinder brighter. This would make it a little easier to know you got the right button under your finger.]

Not only do you need to know what your camera buttons do, you need to understand what they do. It’s no good knowing where the shutter speed dial is if you don’t understand what the shutter speed does and what it will to do to your image. You need to not only know but also understand your camera. Make no mistake, there is a difference. In fact, this was probably the hardest thing I had to do early on. Knowing that the aperture affects the depth of field is one thing; understanding what the aperture does is another altogether. Realizing you can keep your aperture at f/1.8, but by moving closer or further away from your subject, your depth of field still changes shows an understanding of how this all works. So does knowing that an image shot at f/1.2 evokes a completely different feel in an image shot at f/22. The same goes with shutter speed. Get familiar with what shutter speed you need to use when a person is walking, a bicycle is passing or a car driving to give you just the motion blur you need. Also, understand how the ISO is connected with both the aperture and the shutter speed. Understand the “exposure triangle[3. This is a term that I think David duChemin coined. At least I first heard it used by him in a workshop we taught together four years ago. It refers to the interconnection that the aperture, shutter speed and ISO have with each other in creating the perfect exposure.]” and how each part of that triangle affects the other. And for goodness’ sake, take the dang camera off program mode and start shooting in manual, aperture priority or shutter priority! Contrary to what some folks say, program mode does not stand for “professional”. In fact, it is a crutch that controls creativity. It’s like those vibration machines I see at the mall here in Asia. They tell you, you will lose weight with them but the only thing they do is make you lazy and keep you from your hard workout. Program mode will only keep you from learning your craft. Here is a great quote about knowing your gear:

Most young photographers can’t tell an f-stop from a bus stop. Bambi Cantrell

Don’t let yourself be one of those.

Every weekday I go to the gym, walk the treadmill and work on my back and abs but the one area in which I fail is my eating habits. I’ll never lose the weight I want because I can’t keep from snacking and returning to the trough. The same thing happens with neophyte photographers. They are going to have to stop some of those old bad habits and start developing new ones. I don’t know all your bad photographic habits but I bet I can guess a few. How familiar does this list sound?

  1. Framing your subject in the center of the image
  2. Shooting with a telephoto at a shutter speed too slow to hand hold the camera
  3. Getting excited and shooting in a hurry, thus not composing your shot
  4. Not keeping your sensor clean
  5. Not “zero-ing out” your settings after or before each shoot
  6. Did I say, shooting in a hurry?
  7. Using your popup flash just to get the picture
  8. Using any flash directed straight at your subject
  9. And lastly, shooting in a hurry

Developing new habits and patterns will keep you from getting a fat database of junk.

I used to have a trainer. He would always harp on me about the details, the small things that I was doing wrong when working out. He would gripe at me for turning my wrists wrong when I was doing curls or the position of my back when doing squats. He kept telling me that if I wanted to see results more quickly to concentrate on my form. I might be pushing this analogy to the breaking point here, but you might call understanding composition and visual weight (how your eye moves around an image) as developing good form in creating an image. There’s a reason why we don’t generally stick the subject in the center of an image. It creates a stagnate image, one without movement. There is a reason why we shoot low to the ground when shooting children; it creates intimacy and keeps them from looking overly vulnerable. Why does shooting in the midday sun make things look flat and boring? These are all examples of ways to take control of the photo and make it yours to communicate your vision–what you want to say. Understanding these things and turning them from happening by luck to happening by intention makes you a better photographer.

No workout regime will work overnight. As I said earlier, it takes time, determination and hard work. So it is with photographers. You can do all the above, but you have to keep at it. You will not see the results overnight. It will take weeks, maybe months. But you will see results. Just as fad diets don’t work for long-term weight reduction, fad photo techniques and image processing will not improve your photography. You can’t get good by cutting corners. Lay off the HDR for now and focus on the skills and techniques listed above and in a few weeks or months you will start seeing a vast improvement.

I hope this helps and gives you some encouragement. If you live in the Penang, Malaysia area, I will be teaching a short three-hour introduction to photography at my house in the mornings of Dec 11th and Dec 15th. Email me for more information.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Ed

    Matt, being a sportsman (rugby) I really like your analogy in this post. You are absolutely right that there are no quick fixes, that you have to work hard and with the correct form to achieve your goals. When I compare my own sporting life and the training that goes into – even just for the amateur level I compete at – it it really puts into perspective what I must do to really improve my photography. Unfortunately time is the hindrance here as with my job and family life I really only have enough time left over to put effort into one of rugby or photography in the way I will find fulfilling. I feel a shift in that part of my life coming. I’ve just got to find a way to keep the pounds off at the same time when it happens 😉

    I also really like your drill for getting to know the camera. It reminds me of a homework assignment, and I definitely need those sometimes when it comes to photography.

  2. Terrys

    Really great advise Matt! Not shooting hurried is something that really hits home with me because it’s something that I’m working hard to correct right now. I like the sports analogy on this too as it’s said that when a athlete becomes great at their sport, thing slow down for them. I understand that being prepared by really knowing your camera and zeroing out after each shot will go a long way to help slow down but can expand a bit (maybe in another blog post) on what it means to you to not shoot hurried?

  3. DT

    Very good advice. I went for years shooting static subjects – landscapes, people, detail etc, then one day I found myself shooting at the Hemis Festival, people moving around in all sorts of different diections. I was out of my comfort zone and realised that I had been using the same settings and techniques for years. It was really hard work trying to adapt to the situtaion and using controls and settings that I had almost forgotten how to operate.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  4. hecatom

    Great info. Unfortunatly, I don’t live in Penang.


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