Most creative people are constantly trying to improve what they do and photographers are no exception. Getting better at a subject like photography, however, isn’t as simple as just deciding to “get better”. The best way is to set yourself structured goals that will help you make progress along the way.
What kind of goals you set and how you approach them will depend on what stage you’re at with your photography. If you’re a professional wedding photographer looking to explore compositing, your goals will obviously be different to someone who is just starting out and isn’t quite sure how to use their DSLR.
In this tutorial I’m going to finally make use of my psychology degree and explore what makes a good photographic goal and how to go about setting better goals.
Learning by Doing
There is only one sure way to get better at photography: go out and take pictures while consciously considering what you are doing.
Yes, looking at the work of great photographers, studying photographic theory and reading awesome Tuts+ tutorials will all influence how you think while you photograph, but no amount of books or lectures will ever replace actually taking images and trying different things.
Any aim to improve your photography should be underpinned with a plan to actively get out and shoot. If you’re trying something totally new you will, of course, need to spend an afternoon researching the basic technical aspects, but once you’ve done that, it’s time to put it into practice.
After spending some time exploring the basics, you’ll be in a position to understand the more advanced teachings. You’ll appreciate the problems that the techniques are designed to overcome. Don’t try to jump straight into bramping time lapses if you’ve never shot a time lapse or long exposure!
Outcome vs. Process Goals
Broadly, there are two kinds of goals: outcome goals and process goals. An outcome goal is defined by an end point, whereas a process goal is defined by the various steps that go towards reaching the end point. For learning new skills, process goals are typically better.
For example, an outcome goal is to capture ten good images, while a process goal is to spend an hour capturing images consciously. With both you may end up with ten great pictures, or you might only end up with five. If your goal is to have ten images you won’t have achieved it—despite spending some quality time with your camera and coming away with some great shots—but if your goal was to spend an hour photographing consciously, you’ve reached it and still come away with the shots.
In both situations you’ll have spent time learning, but in one you’ll be totally demotivated and in the other you’ll be excited at the progress you’ve made towards your goals.
One of the leading approaches to goal setting is the SMART approach—the acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Constrained. A good goal should fulfil all five criteria. This is true of all goals, not just those related to photography.
Firstly a good goal must be specific. “Get better at photography” is far too vague to act on easily. You need to choose something that can be easily defined. Things like "learn how to take natural light portraits" or "learn how professional retouchers use Photoshop" are all specific enough to be good goals.
Second, success or failure must be measurable. “Get better at photography” isn’t measurable, while spending an hour a week photographing or taking a set number of pictures is. If a goal isn’t measurable it isn’t attainable.
Third, your goal must be achievable. I would love to be published in National Geographic, but that’s not something that I’m likely to achieve any time soon. Setting that as a goal would be pointless, as after some early failures it wouldn’t motivate me to work. Getting published in a smaller magazine, however, may be achievable. In terms of process goals, saying you’ll spend 30 hours a week photographing is unrealistic, but one or two at the weekend is definitely possible.
Fourth, your goal must be relevant to your greater aims. The point of setting photographic goals is to improve or broaden your capabilities as a photographer. If your goal isn’t relevant, even if you reach achieve it, you won’t get better at photography. If you want to get better at wedding photography, going out and taking landscapes isn’t really going to help you. The best way would be to work more weddings, but if you can’t, you need to spend time working situations that are related, like portraiture or street photography.
Finally, a good goal must have a timeline. Spending an hour a week for a month photographing is perfectly time-constrained. After a month you can look back and see whether you succeeded. “Spend time taking pictures” isn’t, because there is no time at which you can evaluate success or failure.
Setting Good Goals
Now that I’ve covered what makes a good goal, let’s look at setting them.
To start, decide what your overall goal is. If you’re picking up a DSLR for the first time, your goal might be to get comfortable using manual mode. If you’ve been doing a lot of one kind of photography, the goal might be to branch out into others. If you only shoot video, it might be to shoot stills.
Once you’ve decided what you’re trying to achieve, you need to break it down into individual goals.
The first decision is whether to use outcome or process goals. If you’re already a skilled photographer, outcome goals can work well. If you’re trying something totally new then use process goals. I’m personally using a combination of broad outcome goals and more specific outcome and process goals.
When you’re deciding on each of these, make sure that they’re all SMART. The key is to make sure that they are goals that can motivate you. If they’re too simple to achieve then they are just as pointless as goals that are unachievable.
For this year I’ve decided to do 12 photo projects, one each month (an outcome goal that’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-constrained). May has been all about working with colour and models, so my goal was to spend at least eight hours this month with my camera in hand, working with a model (a process goal that’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-constrained). For editing the images, I planned to only work in colour (outcome-ish and SMART) and to come away with at least eight portfolio-worthy images (outcome and SMART).
If I were picking up a DSLR for the first time I’d approach things differently. My broad goal would be to learn to use manual mode. After reading up on what the settings do, I’d give myself two hours each weekend for a month to get comfortable with manual mode (it’s not a particularly good goal because it’s too vague, but it enables specific process goals).
For the first weekend, my goal would be to spend two hours shooting in shutter priority mode, exploring what shutter speed does to the image (process and SMART). The next weekend, I’d switch things around and shoot in aperture priority mode for two hours exploring the effects of aperture on the image (process and SMART).
On the final two weekends I’d experiment with ISO and pull everything together over both two-hour sessions (process and SMART). With eight hours freely exploring the different settings, it’s pretty much guaranteed I’d be comfortable with manual mode.
In this tutorial I’ve looked at how to set good goals in general, and how to apply the same principles specifically to photography. Once you get specific about what you want to achieve and how you will achieve it you’ll find yourself progressing in leaps and bounds. Don’t just think about improving your photography—break down the specific areas you want to improve and then work out how to do it.
What are your goals for your photography? Let me know in the comments, and if I can help you achieve them I will.