I was asked recently what advice I would give to myself in my first year of photography — to sixteen-year-old Oliver. The more I thought about it, the longer the list became, so I thought that I would share it here in case it’s useful for anyone who’s trying to improve their photography. Rather than write it out as prose, I was inspired by Kevin Kelly’s posts — 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice and 99 Additional Bits of Unsolicited Advice to present it in list form. Good advice is specific to your situation, so I wanted to make it easy to blast through everything, pull out what resonates, and ditch the rest. No single concept below applies to all photographers and all styles of photography all of the time. Instead, this is an idiosyncratic list of recommendations for the kind of photography that interests me — documentary and portrait photography, often people-related and shot at close to middle distances. As much as this is advice for the photographer I was twenty years ago, this is also the advice that I need to hear now. These aren’t internalised rules that guide my every move — they’re prompts to shape me into the photographer I aspire to be.
1. The three most important variables under your control are:
2. It’s very hard to make interesting pictures without putting interesting things in front of your camera.
3. If it doesn’t improve your picture, it shouldn’t be in your picture.
4. Compose by moving your feet, not by zooming. The best way to practice this is to shoot with one camera, one lens, for one year (I have my own take on this exercise, which is less print heavy, but it’s too long to write up here. One for the future…).
5. Always shoot a scene or subject from multiple angles and distances.
6. When you start shooting (and ideally later on, too) — always carry a camera with you.
7. Change your settings to reflect the lighting conditions that you are moving through, even if you aren’t actively shooting.
8. Like every skill, the fastest way to get better at photography is to get in as much high quality practice as possible. Shoot, shoot, shoot.
9. Your first 10,000 pictures will be shit, so try to get them out of the way as fast as you can…
10. Leave the lens cap off!
11. Shoot first, think later.
12. You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.
13. Smile when you’re shooting people — it sets them at ease. Also, it relaxes you and prevents you getting tunnel vision when you’re under pressure.
14. Try to stay light — soften your gaze, relax your grip, and let the pictures come to you. Keep it playful.
15. Embrace chaos, impose order.
16. Shallow depth of field is often used as a crutch by the lazy to photograph the mundane. It has its place, and it can be a powerful tool, but don’t use it reflexively. Your pictures will be better for it.
17. Learn to organise your frame, layer different elements, and lead the eye to the subject.
18. Can you move yourself or the subject to get a better background?
19. Leave symmetry to Wes Anderson — it’s a one way ticket to static pictures and same-y sequences.
20. Don’t lose sight of The Thing Itself.
21. How can you make your subject feel more comfortable?
22. How can you make the viewer feel uncomfortable?
23. Get closer to increase intimacy.
24. Pull back to show context.
25. Work to capture how a subject/scene feels, not just how it looks.
26. Learn to guess distances/zone focus. It’s incredibly useful when shooting street or working with flash in dark environments. Once you pre-set your focus, you can move into position and shoot incredibly quickly, without waiting for the autofocus to lock on to your subject.
27. ⅓ of your depth-of-field is in front of the focus point, ⅔ of your depth-of-field is behind the focus point. Focus accordingly!
28. Use your camera so regularly that you can operate it without looking at the controls.
29. It’s fine to be where you are, doing your thing.
30. When shooting larger groups ask them to arrange themselves so that they can see the camera — ‘If you can’t see the camera, I can’t see you!’.
31. Editing is as important as shooting.
32. Good light is (almost) everything.
33. It’s very hard to make great pictures with bad light.
34. Wake up early and catch that morning magic.
35. When the light is great, turn around…
36. Smaller light sources are harder than larger light sources. However, it’s their relative size compared the subject, not their absolute size that is important. For example, the sun is huge but because it’s so far away, it appears small in the sky. Therefore the sun produces a much harder light than a softbox that is only 1.5m x 1.5m across, but is much nearer to the subject.
37. Another factor at play is whether the light is direct (it’s all travelling in one direction) or diffuse (it’s travelling in multiple directions). The sun’s light produces hard shadows because it’s reaching us in one direction from a single point. A cloudy sky produces very soft light as it disperses the sunlight in lots of directions. This creates a huge, soft source that lights everything from many directions at once, filling in all the shadows.
38. Two useful physics concepts for lighting:
39. Amazing light is a gift, don’t waste it.
40. Should I make the light more beautiful? Should I make the light uglier?
41. How does the light make me feel? How can I use light to increase drama or mystery?
42. How can I use shadows to point the viewer to what is important?
43. How can I add light to make this picture better?
44. How can I remove light to make this picture better?
45. Learning to fake daylight helps you better understand how to work with real daylight.
46. On the flipside, the better you understand how natural light works, the easier it is to learn how to use artificial lights.
47. Good enough, isn’t good enough.
48. When shooting prioritise quantity, when editing prioritise quality.
49. Shoot as many pictures as you can, show as few as you can bear.
50. Successful images solve aesthetic problems but ask emotional questions.
51. It might be a ‘good’ picture, but is it one of your pictures?
52. Aim for the gut or the heart, not the head.
53. Mood + energy > technical perfection.
54. Look at your photos upside down or very small — this can be really helpful for the first run through. You get a sense of the broad brush strokes of a composition without getting lost in the details.
55. Make small work prints that you can shuffle and lay out when sequencing projects.
56. Live with your pictures — surround yourself with them — time is the best editor.
57. Cut one more pic than you are comfortable with.
58. Kill your darlings, and their attractive siblings and even their cute kids…
59. A nice colour is not enough to make a strong picture.
60. Sequence matters. Editing is as much about flow as it is about selection.
61. Use variety in your sequences to keep the viewer engaged — scene-setting wides, storytelling mid-shots, close-up details.
62. Don’t be afraid of using a quieter picture to give some breathing room to your edit and to make the bangers hit harder.
63. People don’t care how hard it was to make a picture, only how good it is. Edit accordingly.
64. Print your work as often as possible — as zines, books or prints. Experiment with layout, typography, and sequencing. Going to print pushes you to make difficult decisions and finalise your edits. This is something that I want to do more of…
65. Entering competitions will help your editing. The deadline prevents faffing and the limit on the number of images forces you to distill a project down to its core pictures.
66. You can ask a question with one image that you answer with another. You don’t need to put everything into one picture.
67. Always pose more questions than you answer…
68. Images and text can enhance one another, but keep both sharp and concise.
69. Your portfolio is a garden to be tended. Weed out the near misses before they choke it.
70. Work with and for great photographers.
71. Look at as much high quality photography as you can — it’s as important to improve your taste as it is to improve your technical skills. Deconstruct what makes the pictures work (or not work). What do you like? What don’t you like? What can you use in your work?
72. What was radical at the time but feels tired now? What feels radical now, but will feel like a gimmick in a few years?
73. Work both inside and against a tradition.
74. Shamelessly copy the work of photographers that you admire — you’ll fail, but in the process you’ll discover your style.
75. The Feed is showing you the best work from the last 24hrs. Photo books and exhibitions are showing you the best work from the last 100 years.
76. A corollary: don’t just look at photographs — watch great films, look at paintings and other art.
77. Read, read, read.
78. Wear comfortable shoes.
79. You are carrying more than you need.
80. Don’t let technique trump content…
81. …but don’t let bad technique ruin good pictures.
82. If you need to write at length about why your images or projects are interesting — they’re boring.
83. Covering the branding on your camera with tape makes your pictures 10% better.
84. Your ‘style’ isn’t what you choose to shoot, it’s what you choose to show.
85. NEVER leave your camera without batteries and a card/film in it — it’s a one-way road to heartbreak. If you need to remove the battery to charge it or the card to download pictures, leave the doors open until you replace it, so that you can’t pick up the camera without noticing that it isn’t ready to shoot.
86. NEVER leave your camera strap dangling off the surface the camera is sitting on. It’s so easy for something to catch the strap and pull the camera to its doom. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen more than once…).
87. Date your cameras, marry your lenses.
88. Prefer small, quiet cameras for documentary work — they’re discreet and they cover less of your face. This minimises the ‘creepy factor’ and doesn’t intimidate subjects. It’s often an asset to look like an amateur, rather than a ProFesSionAl PhOtoGrAPher.
89. Athletes and musicians train for hours per day — how are you getting your reps in?
90. You can probably raise your rates 10% right now and no one will even notice. You can probably do 20% if your work is good. Research what other people are charging. You will be AMAZED to learn how much some people are getting paid to do the same kind of work that you do.
91. Work for free or for full price.
92. Connect with other photographers and artists. It can be a lonely pursuit. Bonus points — connect other photographers and artists with each other.
93. Photographing people is a privilege that comes with a large responsibility to the subject. Outside of close relationships, there are few situations where you scrutinise people as closely as you do when photographing them — it’s a very vulnerable position for the subject. Treat them with respect and make them feel as comfortable as possible.
94. Cultivate curiosity without snobbery.
95. Find a way to engage with everyone. You’re a detective — aim to find out something fascinating about everyone you meet.
96. Be interested. Be interesting.
97. Learn to ask better questions.
98. No one cares about your work, no one is talking behind your back, no one is waiting for you to fail.
99. Don’t make excuses — make pictures.
100. Be kind, be generous, go first.
Which was your favourite? Which felt like a personal attack? What did I miss?
Qen Sew by Ethiopian Records
Techno by way of traditional Ethiopian instrumentation and percussion. Dense, textural and hypnotic.
Kubali by MC Yallah and Debmaster
Sounds of the East African underground hip-hop scene from Kenyan born, Ugandan raised MC Yallah. High-speed, razor-sharp flow over huge beats by Debmaster, delivered in four languages — Kiswahili, Luganda, English and Luo. Check out this video of her spitting 🔥 to see the energy that she brings to her music.
Optimism by Not Boring
Packy McCormick makes the case for pragmatic optimism in the face of doom and cynicism.
Notes on a Genre by Robin Sloan
Robin Sloan considers the state of AI art in the wake of GPT-3 and DALL-E. On bullshit, genre, AI collaboration, and the synth as a template for a healthy, sustainable path away from the current ‘all gimmick, no content’ AI output.
The Memex Method by Cory Doctorow
Blogging as an outboard brain:
The genius of the blog was not in the note-taking, it was in the publishing. The act of making your log-file public requires a rigor that keeping personal notes does not. Writing for a notional audience — particularly an audience of strangers — demands a comprehensive account that I rarely muster when I’m taking notes for myself. I am much better at kidding myself my ability to interpret my notes at a later date than I am at convincing myself that anyone else will be able to make heads or tails of them.
Writing for an audience keeps me honest.
The Top Idea in Your Mind by Paul Graham
Be very careful what you allow to be top of mind — don’t let life’s boring stuff take over your ambient thinking time:
I realized recently that what one thinks about in the shower in the morning is more important than I’d thought. I knew it was a good time to have ideas. Now I’d go further: now I’d say it’s hard to do a really good job on anything you don’t think about in the shower.
TikTok Q&A collection by Alec Soth
A great collection of short answers to interesting questions about photography that covers burnout, failure, whether to explain projects, considering the viewer, allowing a project to change, exhibition planning, and more.
Why You Should Watch Experimental Documentaries by Thomas Flight
A brilliant and beautiful video essay about the power of experimental documentaries. It’s worth watching for the visuals alone — particularly the Werner Herzog oil field sequences. I added a stack of films to my ‘to watch’ list that I’d never heard of too.
Trent Parke Interview
I really enjoyed this insight into the process of one of my favourite photographers. It was great to hear about how hard he works to foster serendipity in his work. Also, I was inspired by the interplay between creation and curation in his projects. Rather than shoot all the pictures, then edit them in one go, he shoots manically for three weeks, does an edit, and lets the project live on the wall while he refines the sequence. Then he heads out to shoot pictures to fill in the gaps and repeats the process. I like the idea of using multiple iterations of shooting and editing as a way to spiral down into the core of a project, refining its shape as you go.
Dumb and sweet — three nerdy guys go to Scotland to live and train for a day like two of the world’s strongest men, a pair of gigantic brothers. It starts off silly, but becomes increasingly touching as the brothers open up about their struggles and the presenters challenge themselves to do things at the very edge of their capabilities. The brothers’s enthusiasm about welcoming people into their world is infectious and heartwarming.