This week was photography week, and I’m writing about it completely retrospectively, somehow a focus on imagery has stolen the words away from me these past seven days!

I can take good, but unremarkable and usually cliched photos

It makes sense to set relevant challenges – learning to be a better photographer has many benefits: it will not only improve this blog but will also provide a stronger record of my travels. Besides, I’ve worked in arts and media for over a decade and, shockingly, have never been more than fleetingly interested in the mechanics of composing an image. To be honest, if I wanted something good (in stills or video) up to this point, I relied on instinct or paid a specialist to do it; all the while I took pictures of course, thousands of ‘em, just like everyone does. I even did it on fairly upmarket SLRs (the first of which I received 12 years ago on my 21st birthday) but the results were usually cliched and poorly executed.

All of that said, the challenge isn’t actually to become a better photographer – that’d be a nice by-product. No, this week, I was challenged with generating one amazing photograph. So here’s how I went about it…

Get inspired
I’ve admired photography for a long time (my guilty art secret is that I’d rather be looking at photography than classic or contemporary fine art). More recently, I’ve become particularly enamoured with nature photography, mainly getting my fix from the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year – the technique is invariably brilliant here but requires years of dedication and learning a habitat, so I couldn’t see myself becoming a nature photographer.

Like many people, I’ve also admired the work of The Sartorialist, though I couldn’t see myself snapping moody portraits of hipster glamour-vamps either. So, I knew I loved photography but how could I get involved and leave my own mark? It wasn’t until I was in Chicago last week and stumbled across the work of Victoria Sambunaris that I was really moved to start taking some pictures of my own. I love the way she frames the American landscape, and I was captivated by the singularity of her photography, which was all themed and composed around one subject: the taxonomy of the landscape.

It really helps to be inspired doesn’t it? And as my weekly challenge began, I was!

Hack it
Despite wanting to learn a bit more about photography I was also mindful of the time constraints, so my first cry for help was, of course, to my old friend Google. Surely there must be a way to hack this challenge, to use the sweat and tears of others and become a genius photographer by stealth? I mean, let’s face it, libraries and evening classes are way less cool than just aggregating a few top tips from existing lists! So here’s the best of what I found:

  1. Tricks: I found tons of ‘top tips’ lists, two stuck out for me: firstly this Tips to Becoming a Better Photographer on Photable. I liked the hands on, practical advice, particularly the tip about squinting a little to improve your understanding of how light is hitting your subject. Simple, but effective! The second tips list I liked was by Lauren Lim on photographyconcentrate.com, who prescribed a genuinely practical route to taking better photos, including shooting at ‘golden hour’ and forcing unconventional framing.

  2. Mission: Matt Kloskowski’s piece about how he became a better photographer really resonated with me. For Matt, it was all about finding a Mission Statement – an internal compass which drove his photographic development – and with fresh purpose, he became a better photographer.

  3. Artist or technician: the central question in this piece written by Thom Hogan, is whether you need to be an artist or technician to make the leap from amateur to professional photographer. For someone like me with a little knowledge of both sides, I’d never even considered this question, and it really helped me decide where to focus my energies. I was so fixated on this question, in fact, that I also asked a professional photographer I know to weigh in with an answer…and then I realised what I really needed was to ask an actual expert for some advice…so I did:

Ask an expert
Tips lists are all well and good, but they are, of course, necessarily concise and generalist in their approach. I decided my next step would be to approach an expert for some help with my specific predicament. I didn’t have enough time or contacts to find any help in Seattle and Vancouver (where I’ve been this week), so I went to photographer Brendan Lea from back home in the UK who I admired, respected and had worked with occasionally in the past. Not only does Brendan shoot, he also teaches photography.

You can read my quick interview with Brendan here, and I’d definitely recommend it: his tip about spending longer composing an image (he suggests as long as 1-2 hours!) was a real eye opener for someone who is pretty damn trigger happy…

Read the manual
A good workman knows his tools, whereas I just bought a good tool (Sony RX100) and had been mostly relying on its auto features up to this point.

Much of the tips list research I did (see above) pointed towards doing some actual reading, which sounded arduous, but reading about the camera I was shooting with, well that sounded so obvious it might just work! A happy accident – Sony deciding not to release a proper manual with this model – led me to buying and reading ‘Photographer’s Guide to the Sony DSC-RX100′, which was like a manual, only written by an actual human being. In a few short hours I learned what every button, feature and option did/was/could do and because I was using the camera constantly during the day (documenting our traveling fun in Seattle and Vancouver), I was able to put my learnings into practice, which meant quickly developing my skills with the camera’s manual options and improving my understanding of ISO, shutter speed, aperture etc.

Take pictures
As I mention above, one of the distinct opportunities I had this week was being in a naturally beautiful and interesting place (Vancouver, Canada), which definitely helped me be inspired to take more photos.

“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
Jim Richardson (photographer, National Geographic)

Who knows, I may have been just as inspired if I’d have been doing this at home (in fact I probably would have known where to go for some nice shots), but being somewhere new naturally kept the camera in my hand.

Decide what to photograph
Now that I had undertaken research, received expert advice, got to grips with my camera, and began taking a lot more photographs, I decided that I needed to (pardon the pun) focus my photographic efforts in a bit.

I decided to spend time on landscape photography, partly thanks to Victoria Sambunaris and mainly due to the stunning 2 day journey I took at the start of the week on the Empire Builder train between Chicago and Seattle….where there wasn’t much other than stunning landscape for my lens to look at!

So, I had a focus – my amazing photograph would be a landscape.

Finally, I made the decision to hedge my bets and have a secondary focus, using a more photojournalistic approach by collecting photos of a subject which was personal to me, namely bike theft:

As a keen cyclist, my heart always sinks when I see mangled bikes chained up in towns and cities, often abandoned, vandalised or half-stolen. These poor beasts are a fixture of our urban landscape, and I’ve begun documenting ‘Sad Bikes’ wherever I see them.

Sad trendy bike Seattle

So did I take an amazing photo?
The million dollar question, after all this work, was I successful?