Tips To Develop Your Photographic Skills

Yesterday I had breakfast with a very dear friend and we talked about the need to do photographic projects, independently of the daily tasks. He lives from commercial and editorial photography and I dedicate myself to academia and research.

With so many occupations, slopes and distractors it is very difficult to find time for a serious photographic project. That’s why I designed the 12 photographic actions to grow.

With so many occupations, slopes and distractors it is very difficult to find time for a serious photographic project. That’s why I designed the 12 photographic actions to grow.

We both agreed on the pressing need to make photographic projects that are deeply personal and meaningful to us; but we also recognized that the lack of order and structure is a major obstacle, not to mention the classic procrastination.

That’s why I decided to sit down and organize 12 meaningful photographic activities designed to grow. It is an articulated and structured plan so that each component contributes to generate a year of photographic dedication. Balance activities to include learning and practice. I sought to design affordable exercises, even for the most saturated lifestyles, but with a deep impact on the photographic life of those who make them.

To grow photographically you need a plan (here you have it) but also commitment and determination. Goethe was quite clear about it:

Notebook

First of all, I think it is very important to have a tool that serves as an epicentre, lighthouse and map. Having ideas is not always easy, but it is easy to lose them and make them fall into oblivion.

On the other hand, I am convinced of the need for materialization and rites that help us to create sensory manifestations of our determinations.

The first step is to make a notebook, preferably a new one, that will be used to track these 12 actions.

I’ve always believed it’s important to lead by example. That’s why I already have my notebook, as you can see. I chose a notebook with a photographic theme; with a labeling machine I made eyelashes for each one of the sections and I tried to leave enough space for each item.

This is a workbook intended to be carried with me all the time for making notes, pasting clippings, etc. It’s worth a reasonably portable size. I also like the Moleskine notebooks, although for this type of use I feel them a little limited and frankly expensive.

Complement Your Physical Notebook With Evernote

Open an Evernote account and download the app for your mobile device for free (available for iOS or Android). This can be a great digital complement to your notebook where you can also save notes and synchronize them on different devices.

If your life is very techie you can use your Evernote to keep pace with your 12 actions. I personally believe that the notebook and Evernote complement each other, and the digital version of your notebooks has the advantage of always being available on your phone, tablet or computer. On the other hand in Evernote you can take photos or record voice notes, which can also be very convenient.

I think the ideal is to complement your physical notebook with your digital notes. However, I always believe that the notebook has that component as an object that materializes your actions. Use the best of both worlds.

Your notebook will end up dirty and worn: No problem!
Returning to your notebook: I know it will end up stained and aged, but that’s precisely the idea. Now, if you really want to have creative fun with a journal get Wreck this Journal by Keri Smith.

Here are a couple of links to get it: Amazon.es and Gandhi. But that’s another story. So far, get the notebook you’ll use for your 12 photographic actions.

In Your Calendar

A Saturday afternoon is perfect: relaxed and without pressure; you can go to a bookstore where they sell interesting writing instruments… And if you find a nice pen you will complement your “creative kit”. Personally I like Lamy Safari, good fountain pens, nice and well priced. I like fountain pens because you have to take some time to write and that allows me to think too.

A pretty pen is a perfect complement to your photographic notebook. This red Lamy Safari is very good and does not cost an eye of the face. I prefer fountain pens because they require some care to write and give you time to think as you write.

Appreciation And Reading Of Photography

It never ceases to amaze me that even photographers with many years of experience may have little knowledge of how to appreciate their own medium and read a photograph.

In my blog you will find articles on image reading that can help you work on how to appreciate and read a photograph.

I am convinced that the skills required to read a photograph are the same as those required to appreciate a scene, situation or subject to be photographed. If you can see the light in a photo, you will know how to see it in the street. If you understand why the organization and design (composition) of a photograph works well, then you’ll be able to solve the visual puzzles you’re presented with a handheld camera.

Do You Want To Read Pictures?

Buy good books

A simple plan to delve into photographic appreciation is to schedule the purchase of 12 books from great photography masters. Pick one every month. A good photography book should cost about 50€. If in 12 months you spend 600€ I assure you that it will cost you less than a new camera or lens: the knowledge you will acquire will allow you to take better photos and, moreover, books will not become obsolete.

By the way, if you don’t want to spend on photography books, there are still some things called “libraries” (so, in quotation marks) that are another free option to get good photography books.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Take notes and write down your reflections and discoveries on photographic reading.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Look for the nearest library that has good photographic titles. Many have catalogs available via the web, so you can optimize your visit and know exactly what you need. Or, if it’s an open-shelf library, let yourself go and discover a book that catches your eye.

Meet New Photographers

Very much linked to the previous action, now I propose that you meet a photographer every week. In a year you’ll meet 52 new teachers. In my list of photo galleries you can find enough material.

Visit one of these galleries once a week. If there is a photographer that interests you in particular, investigate a little more, check my special reports to see if I’ve already written something about him or look in a photography book or on the Internet about him.

An additional possibility is to buy some dictionary of photographic authors to have a complete list and the complement of biographical elements. There are three dictionaries of this type that I find particularly useful and to which I constantly go:

Historical Dictionary of Photography

It’s a very portable, well-written dictionary and a reliable source. It does not include illustrations but it is a good starting point and is affordable.

History of Photography Dictionary

An essential text. It’s not that cheap, but it’s quite a benchmark. It shouldn’t be missing in a photographer’s library.

Photographers from A to Z

A complete book, illustrated and with interesting information, is a great resource to meet new authors. The original is a coffee table a little big and not so cheap. It is edited by Taschen, a house that recently published a smaller version that is much more manageable, less expensive and I think more useful for its size.

Koetzle Hans-Michael, Photographers from A to Z, Edit. Taschen, Cologne, 2011

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Search Google Images for photos of an author you’re interested in, print them in a small size and paste them into your notebook.

Get Closer To The History Of Art

I’m not talking about you enrolling in a master’s degree in art history, but about you also becoming the discipline of understanding the broad baggage of art.

If Julia Margaret-Cameron hadn’t met the pre-rafaelists she wouldn’t have made many of her fantastic photographs, or if you don’t understand the relevance of Marcel Duchamp and conceptual art you won’t understand post-modern art at all.

I propose you to study 12 subjects of art history, one per month. You don’t have to follow a special chronological order, and you don’t have to cover 40,000 years of art history in 12 months. The idea is to enjoy the history of art, not suffer it.

Personally, I will seek to delve deeper into Bauhaus, a subject that intrigues and interests me.


I suggest you start with some style, period, school or artist that catches your eye and start there. In my article 10 Art Books for Photographers there are some recommendations that you should review.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Is it necessary to reiterate that you take notes on what you find interesting? I don’t think I can repeat it enough: Take notes and write, especially, your reflections!

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Attend exhibitions of artistic disciplines other than photography: Not only photography lives the photographer.

Adopt a Grand Master

The history of photography abounds with great artists who have made fundamental contributions to our environment and who can become our Sensei. The key is to find one that you especially resonate with.

I personally find Garry Winogrand very intriguing and he is the photographer I will adopt during this photographic year.

Don’t you know who to adopt? Check my list of Special Reports, maybe you’ll find some interesting Grand Master. It’s important that it’s a figure you identify with.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that the lifestyle of your adopted photographer must be compatible with yours. If you adopt Steve McCurry, you’ll need to go all the way to Afghanistan. On the other hand, if you choose Edward Weston you will only need to buy some peppers, aubergines, lettuce or get yourself a good toilet. 🙂

Now, what does it mean to adopt him? First of all, have a more punctual approach to your life and try to learn as much as possible about your time, your confluences, your style, your way of working.

I have found over the years that biography is inseparable from the work of an artist. To understand his life is to approach his motives and the logic that led him to work in this or that way.

So the necessary step is to research, get books about the author, try to see as many of his photographs as possible. Today thanks to the Internet this task that could take years is a matter of a few keystrokes. However, if you want to know widely the work of a photographer you can not be content with Google Images, in this sense there is like books.

Become An Expert In Your Adopted Artist

Imaginatively dialogue with him. What would you have done in such and such a situation?

The next step is to copy it. Yeah, that’s how it sounds. Have you seen all those art students in the great museums copying the great masters?

Sometimes we have in photography that enormous ghost inherited from modernism about originality and that it is a mortal sin to copy. That’s how we all learned; you and I learned to walk, talk, read and write by copying.

You think the great masters of art didn’t get their copy dose? Of course! Remember Pablo Picasso’s famous phrase:

The idea is to copy faithfully (light, technique, models, way of facing the photo) the author you adopt.

The secret is that the reasons, approaches and style of your adopted photographer obey their own needs, history and obsessions. Since you are a person with your own motivations, at some point you will find that the reasons of the other are not your own and eventually, it cannot be otherwise, you will need to follow your own path.

By the time you get to solo flying, you’ll have learned and grown a lot from your adopted teacher’s hand, and you’ll understand yourself better.

So don’t be afraid, think adopting means choosing, tucking. And don’t worry: in the long run the referents are diluted.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Write down the historical, biographical, stylistic features that most appeal to you during your research. Of course, cut out and paste the photos with the ones that resonate the most. Also print and paste your copies. Compare them. What did you learn? Write it down!

Learn How To Edit

I remind you that editing is not the same as post-producing. Editing means choosing from a body of work the most significant pieces or those that have an articulation.

Editing someone else’s photographic work has its difficulties, but doing it with yours seems impossible! Don’t faint: Start with the work of others, learn to read photos, make collections and try to group.

My infographics 10 tips for photo editing can help you.

The Bischof Exercise


An exercise that I have always found very useful to learn the art of editing is to download this .ZIP file with images made by Werner Bischof. This Swiss photographer, member of Magnum Photos, left a very vast and interesting body of photographic work.

Bischof had a great eye, but the most important thing is that, thanks to the thematic variety he dealt with, you can build many collections.

I suggest you import the photos from the .ZIP file in Lightroom, Bridge or your favorite photo organization software and build the following collections: Children, geometries, the unusual in the street, women, mother, men, working …

Look at the collection of photos and ask yourself: What other thematic, chronological or geographical groupings could I put together with this body of work?

Edit Your Own Material: The Wall

Once you do these exercises, also work on your own material. Let your photos rest before you see them. Try to separate the anecdote from the photo. Don’t try to explain your photographs verbally either. Make collections, look for patterns. Print your photos in a 4×6″ size and paste them on a blackboard, board or wall. This is a great editing exercise. In this video I explain a little more about The Wall:

The Publishing Gathering

A third exercise is to meet with a group of photographers’ friends, who each take 30 photographs of themselves printed in 4×6″ and do the exercise of reviewing the photographs, grouping them, discussing them.

If you also order something to eat and you have a vinillo or a beer on hand I assure you that you will have a great time. But don’t let the party obscure your attention to hear what they say about your photos and what you discover about how others edit your photos.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Write down your personal opinions about what you are learning and the revelations you have about your work in the collective editing sessions.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Get together with your photographer friends for an editing chat. One possibility is that it will be a periodic meeting where each session is totally dedicated to the photographic work of one of the attendees. The key words in this activity are experimentation and adaptation.

Attend A Workshop

Workshops are fantastic ways to move forward. Many important and interesting photographers organize workshops. I’m sure there’s an interesting workshop in your city. I usually find without much effort interesting workshops that are advertised through social networks (Facebook and Twitter, especially).

Whenever I’ve attended a workshop I’ve learned something interesting, met people with whom I “click” and, more importantly, almost always ended up making friends with the instructor. It seems to me to be a first-class form of spiritual, human and photographic growth.

Facebook is usually a channel in which photographic workshops of all kinds are advertised.
I suggest you choose a workshop of something you’re interested in exploring. It can be something that you like very much or something that intrigues you but in which you have no experience.

A big advantage of workshops is that they often have a practical component with assignments that force you to take photographs. I have always left the workshops with interesting work that would otherwise have been more difficult to do on my own.

This self-portrait was made during a workshop by Karen Marshall at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. It was very successful between my classmates and Karen herself. Oscar Colorado
You can take many workshops, but personally I suggest you do two a year, one per semester. They’ll be great experiences, but they won’t saturate you either. It is necessary to let the workshops “breathe” so that you have time to calibrate and to settle what you learn in each one.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Of course this is the place where you should take your workshop notes.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Look for a workshop today that interests you and register. Within many public entities (museums, house of culture, etc.) they can even be free of charge.

Our Daily Practice: The Photo-Gym

As you know, I’m Professor of Advanced Photography at the Universidad Panamericana. In each school year I face the same problem: my Communication students can have 6, 12 or 24 months without taking the camera. People think that taking photographs is like riding a bicycle, but my experience is quite the opposite: With so much time without practicing they are rusty and have forgotten the basic rudiments.

My answer to this dilemma was to create Photo-Gym®, a practice system where you take pictures every day. It’s calculated to make you grow harmoniously.

Here you can find the entire Photo-Gym® practice system. I’ve included videos, free PDFs and everything you need to practice. Start with 10 minutes a day and you’ll see the results. What’s the hardest part? The discipline of doing it every day.

But if you achieve the rigor of working on it daily, even if it takes 10 minutes, the result will surprise you. These are testimonies from some of my students:

“[Photo-Gym]…helps you control the camera and get to know it completely.” Alejandra B.

“[Without the Photo-Gym]… I wouldn’t have been able to place myself in photography as I am now.” Javier T.

“… the Photo-Gym helped me a lot to improve the technique…” Lorena P.

“…the Photo-Gym, helped me a lot to correct mistakes…” Alejandra R.

There’s no pretext here: Photo-Gym® is free, it has no ads and no purpose other than to give you a push to take photos.

The Photo-Gym booklet can be downloaded in PDF format and will serve as a daily record of your practice.

At the end of the year you will have lots of photographs to edit and, I assure you, there will be good material.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Download Photo-Gym right now and start using it today.

Quick Project: The Intimate Environment

The first project I suggest to you is reasonably quick: dedicate one to three months to create a body of photographic work on your intimate environment. It could be your family, your friends, your home or your neighborhood. Seek to create a coherent series (aesthetically and conceptually) that shows your point of view on what is closest to you.

This is not a cold, impartial testimony: quite the opposite. It is important that your opinion is noticed through the photos you take. With John Szarkowski in mind, it is a question of taking mirror photographs, not window photographs.

Take lots of photos, but at the end do an edition where you end up with about 15 or 20 images.

For this project you don’t need a big camera or a trip to Timbuktu. You don’t need permits or insurance either. In other words, there’s no excuse not to. The hardest thing? That it’s something so close, maybe you’ve stopped looking. Don’t forget that seeing is a biological act, observing an intellectual act, observing a cultural act. How do you look at your immediate surroundings?

You want some inspiration? I invite you to meet the work of Larry Clark, Nan Goldin or Richard Billingham. It’s worth reading this article on Intimate Photography.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Here it is very important to plan and above all to define in writing what you want to say about that which is so close to you and how you will express it through photographs. Your photos have to make your speech visually explicit, not verbally.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Once you have your planning ready, establish an agenda and commit to specific dates to carry it out.

Connection Project

Your next project will take about three months to complete. Remember what Dorothea Lange used to say:

I personally believe that it is much more interesting to take photographs of what you dislike, what causes you problems or of some unresolved conflict because the connection is, in that case, very powerful and that can be seen in the photos. In addition, it is not always easy to define what we like, but we can immediately know what we dislike.

A few years ago I had a very talented student who had coulrophobia (fear of clowns), and she made a series of self-portraits dressed and made up like a clown! It caused him terror, but in return he took photos with an incredible personal connection and great power.

Struggle

We all have unresolved conflicts in our lives. It’s time to face them with your camera. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cute, but I assure you, you’ll end up with an important job. Again, choose the photos and generate a body of work: That we are less than 8 but not more than 15: with fewer photos may not tell clearly everything you need, but if there are more than 15 photos must be careful and not be redundant. It’s better to show 10 blunt photos than 30 where 20 are left over.

If you really don’t want to face your own demons you can also make a series with photographs of something you love deeply, moreover, that you are irrationally passionate about.

I personally prefer projects that generate friction, are more intimate, sincere, interesting and memorable, but it’s your decision.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Of course you’ll have to do an introspection exercise and your notebook is the ideal vehicle for organizing these inner conflicts, planning the series and following it up. However, it is very important to finish what you start. Don’t chicken out; I know it’s an intense project, but it’s worth it.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Once you have your planning ready, establish an agenda and commit to specific dates to carry it out.

One Year Of Photos: Twelve Pieces

This is a medium term project where the key word is planning. Choose a subject or theme you can explore by taking 12 photos, one per month. Here it is worth investigating, obtaining permissions, planning the technical execution well, obtaining the necessary accesses. I suggest you read my article El foto-essayo: Sujeto, tema y narrativa que te orientará.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: Planning is fundamental in this project. Make a budget, set the number of sessions, scope, topics. Everything you work on pre-production, you’ll earn more on production.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Set dates to take your 12 photographs.

Organize An Intimate Exhibition

We live in a time when we are used to our photos being public: from a profile in Instagram to the account of the well-known Flickr; today we have much more exposure than any photographer has ever dreamed before the Internet or social networks.

However, the exercise that I propose you for the end of your cycle is to mount an intimate exhibition. By this I mean that you choose your most significant work (eye that I didn’t write “the best”), that material that is so close to you, intimate that you are almost ashamed to show.

Get a simple and equally intimate place: a friend’s café, a school or university, on the street if necessary and build a facility. Set up the exhibition, make an opening, invite friends, press (yes, press), do a public relations job, make posters… And don’t forget to sell your photos.

How To Mount A Photographic Exhibition

It’s quite an adventure and my article How to mount a photographic exhibition will give you elements and ideas.

Making an exhibition will take time, even money, but you have a year to do it and the toast will be a great occasion to recapitulate what happened with these twelve photographic activities and close a cycle.

I warn you that mounting this exhibition can cost you blood, sweat and tears, but I guarantee that it will make you grow as you never imagined and it does not matter if you have exposed your work before, remember that the magic word here is “intimate”.

IN YOUR NOTEBOOK: In addition to all the necessary planning, I suggest that at the end you include your notebook as an additional piece in your exhibition. People will value your work even more and it will be a reminder to have started and finished something.

IN YOUR CALENDAR: Choose a tentative date for your exhibition. Announce to a good number of friends that at the end of the year you will invite them to your exhibition. Publishing your intention will commit you to carrying out your exhibition and that will help (compel?) you to make it a reality.

Calendar in Google Calendar

To help you follow these activities on Google, here you can access the calendar I made to help you:

By Way Of Conclusion

I cannot close this article without first recommending a book that has served me and accompanied me over the years: This is The Way of the Artist, by Julia Cameron. In this book I learned something that still serves me every day: as artists our work is to create, not to judge.

Available in Amazon (Spain) and Gandhi (Mexico)

With these 12 actions I offer you a map that serves as a first structure: If you want to adapt it throughout the year, make changes, include new ideas or whatever is needed, please do not see this path as something rigid, but as a starting point. This is a skeleton that will help us to have a certain direction.

If changes are needed it will be a good sign, because it will mean that we will be working. The important thing is to start this creative journey as soon as possible.

Remember that you are not alone: I also do this same exercise and if you need help, support, want to cry or share your experiences write a comment at the end of this article.

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