Improving your skills is a difficult task. It is easy to get in that comfort zone and not realize you are killing your creativity. We are then stuck in a place with no room for growth and where we have stopped moving forward for a while without noticing it. The hard part is to notice it in time, the easy part is to react and get back on the right track.
For me, things started when I realized I wasn't enjoying myself anymore. The process of taking pictures was becoming a habit and fun had left a while ago. My pictures, looked all the same, I wasn't willing to make any efforts on location scouting, getting new clients and I even became lazy in my edits.
Money at the time was a huge concern for me. Photography is expensive if you are serious about it. Upgrading your gear, repairing your cameras and laptop, paying your monthly subscription for your insurance and editing software, and also self-promotion to a certain extent will cost you money. Add the taxes, and all the traveling you do to meet clients and prepare your shoots, and the list never seems to end... After 2 years of being in the business back in 2013, I felt I forgot why I got into photography in the first place.
The joy of picking up my camera and capturing the world surrounding me in my own sweet way. Meet with other creatives, artists, to share learn and create together. Challenging myself every day by creating something new, getting out of my comfort zone, and taking the risk of failing or succeeding. Let me share with you a few tips to help you keep that fire alive!
1/ Build a personal project
I love this one! Maybe the most valuable tip of the list and that is the reason why it is number one. Create something for you, with people you trust and that share the same vision. No client, or company whatsoever behind telling you what to do, you are free to do whatever you want. It sounds scary at first because it's hard to know exactly where to start, but that's the beauty of it, anything is possible. What is your dream location? Who do you want to work with? What kind of images do you wish to create?
This takes time but it's the whole process that makes it great. Building from scratch is a project that means something to you.
With my dance photography, I have a few rules that have never changed throughout the years. Staying true to the performance I am capturing, which for me means no photoshop to enhance the artist's performance, and create images that are "real".
I still never photoshop my performer's body, and only remove when necessary distracting objects details... But I wanted to go further recently and cross that line. Without touching my model's body, I wanted to add elements in my pictures to give a more fantastic, surreal, fantasy feel to my images. This led to creating the image below needing the help of 4 people for the silk work, 2 Broncolor Siros L flashes, a performer willing to climb up a 4m50 Chinese pôle... and let's not forget a killer location.
It took 6 months of preparation just for planning and authorizations and almost 4 hours for this one picture. I minimized the use of photoshop as I wanted to get most of the performance done in-camera. This is the start of my personal projects so I really hope to push it further. During preparation only, the excitement, the build-up until the final edit boosted my love for the art.
2/ Test shoots
Something I used to do often when I started, and that I rarely do these days. Some say it kills the industry... I don't believe it does, only if you are stupid enough to exclusively work for free. I believe it's important to place a few of these here and there because it is the only time where you can actually test new ideas and gear without the fear of failing. This is also the time to become a student again. Looking for information on the web, blogs and behind the scenes, videos, to see if what you are about to test has been tested before and how. This is where you experience first times again and although I hated that feeling before, today it really fuels me knowing I am going to discover something new. I actually restarted my youtube channel for that last August. My goal now is to share some of my knowledge and experience in photography with you. Some of the future behind the scenes on my channel will actually be test shoots. I'll be sharing with you my first times and experience with new gear, new ideas, or even testing myself exploring new genres of photography.
3/ Explore new genres
Yes, and this is also an important one directly related to point number 2. I am mainly known for being a dance photographer. But I have been photographing circus performers for years now and started shooting more and more athletes since last year. I also used to do portraits and decided to get back at it last summer. I remember when the opportunity of shooting a Muay thaï fighter presented itself, I was totally scared. How am I going to handle this? Sometimes you just literally got to jump inside the ring!
I always wanted to shoot athletics. Never knew how and where to start. Searched in my area for athletes, pitched the project to a few athletes, and the meeting was set up. To be honest I don't think it's my best work but I learned a lot during these 2 sessions.
Manon Eple (Nice - France)
Emma El Achkar (Nice / France)
4/ Challenge yourself and play
This is maybe the best way to improve your skills. Impose yourself to some restrictions. Do you really know your 85mm lens? Get out and shoot Architecture with only an 85mm lens. You will quickly understand why it is not the first choice for architecture photography, but this will force you to think and find new ways to use that particular lens. Do the opposite and use a 24mm lens or 35mm for tight portraits... Does it work? When and why? I even talked about this with other photographers that decided on a test shoot to only capture their model with their back facing the camera. I challenged myself once to shoot during that infamous mid-day sun. Trying to find ways to have a pleasant light by choosing the right location and the right poses for the model. With time, these become tools that will help you face any situation.
5/ Help and assist other photographers
Another great way to learn and grow as a photographer is to see how others do it. The internet is awesome for that, but it is always better to do this in the real world. Reach out to your favorite photographer near you and propose your help. Explain why you wish to help him and ask him if he is ok with that. Some photographers will refuse, and you have to respect that, others will gladly welcome you because it will also be an opportunity for them for an exchange of knowledge. Be respectful to the photographer's work and do not interfere in his creative process unless he asks for advice.
Bonus: Leave your camera at home!
Sometimes, it is a good idea to leave your camera at home to do something else, something different for yourself. Hang out with friends, with your family, with your girlfriend, just spend some time outside photography. You can find inspiration in a wide array of things. Reading a book, watching a movie, traveling, learning from one's experience can spark a fire and lead to new projects and ideas.
To conclude, don't get drowned by the business, and always remember why you decided to pursue a career in photography in the first place. If it was for fame and money, I am not sure you are in for the right reasons. Always be a student, if you stop learning, I believe there is something wrong. If you lost your joy in doing it, if there is no more fun, sit back make a pause and understand how you got up to this point. Be selfish for a moment and think of what you really wish for yourself.
Hope this helps, like always feel free to share your thoughts on this. How do you improve your skills with time and fight creative slumps?