How to Become a Good Photographer: 12 Steps

by John Stapel

How to Become a Good Photographer: 12 Steps

In this article, I explain how you can become a better photographer – just by following a few simple guidelines.

Specifically, I share my 12-step plan that’ll help you develop both your technical skills (i.e., settings, composition, editing) and your artistic skills (i.e., your personal photographic voice).

If you read this article carefully, if you follow my plan, and you put in the work, then you will become a good photographer.

Step 1: Look at the light

SoHo, NYC.

Most folks, when trying to become great at photography, look straight to their camera settings. They dive headfirst into technical features like aperture, shutter speed, and autofocus modes.

And it’s true: Those settings have their place.

Yet in my view, starting out with camera settings will actually confuse you – because the camera is just a tool that can record light.

Instead, when you go to take photos, the first thing you should think about is light, not your camera. Get in the habit of asking yourself a series of questions every time you walk outside:

  • What time of day is it?
  • How strong is the light?
  • Is it sunny or cloudy?
  • What direction is the light coming from?
  • Where are the artificial light sources and what colors do they give off?

Pretty soon, you’ll constantly be aware of the light. You’ll know its quality and its direction. That’s a really good place to be in.

After all, light will affect how you shoot and the settings you use. Even a slight change in the direction of your light source can completely change how an image will look. You can’t learn how to use your camera properly if you do not first understand the light.

So start with light. And only then should you move on to the next step…

Step 2: Learn your camera settings

Every image exists at the confluence of a half-dozen (or more!) camera settings, including:

  • Aperture
  • Shutter speed
  • ISO
  • Shooting modes
  • Autofocus modes
  • Metering modes
  • White balance modes

Learn what each of these settings means, and learn how to adjust them on your camera. In the beginning, you don’t need to know literally everything about each setting, but you should understand how they’ll affect your photos and which settings work well as starting points.

That way, when you see an opportunity for a great photo, you’ll know how to adjust key features, such as sharpness, depth of field, brightness, and more. And you’ll get the shot you’re after.

It sounds like a lot of work just to take a single photo, and it is. However, if you start out shooting this way, it will eventually become second nature. It’s just like learning a basketball shot or a golf swing. Doing it the correct way might feel unnatural and weird at first, but eventually it will come naturally and quickly, and you will be better equipped to get great results.

A quick tip for moving forward with settings:

Get your camera off Auto mode and experiment with Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, or Manual mode. Aperture Priority is often a good place to start because it gives you control over exposure variables while letting the camera do some of the heavy lifting. But if you’re eager to really understand exposure, you can try switching over to Manual mode right away.

SoHo at Night, NYC how to become a good photographer

Step 3: Learn to carefully compose your shots

Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with key camera settings, it’s time to get into the slightly more artistic part of becoming a great photographer:

Composition.

Most new photographers have a bad habit: they look up, see something interesting, photograph it quickly, and move on. On the other hand, seasoned photographers often examine an interesting scene for many long minutes, deciding what precisely to include in the frame. Only then – once they’ve determined the best composition – do they take a photo.

Now, composition can be tricky, especially when starting out. And there’s no need to go it alone; instead, learn compositional aids such as the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, symmetry, leading lines, and so on.

Then, when faced with an interesting shot, take a breath. Think about different compositional variables. Where should you stand? Where should you place your main subject? Should you add other elements for a more complex composition?

Always remember that the difference between a snapshot and a work of art is thought. In fact, the difference between a decent image and a great image could be as simple as moving a step to the left.

Once you’ve taken a photo, review it on your camera’s LCD, and review it on the computer at home, too. Think about the composition. What do you like? What could you have done better? Over time, your compositional skills will flourish, and you’ll see interesting compositions everywhere.

three men walking, SoHo, NYC

Step 4: Learn to use color

Color, or a lack of color, is a very important element of photography. If you can learn to use it to your advantage, your photos will instantly be elevated. But how do you develop your color “sight”?

Start by looking at a color wheel. Study how the colors work together. Which colors look nice together? When you combine them, what effect do you get? Also, what do different colors represent? Which colors make the viewer feel calm, and which colors make them more agitated?

Then, when you’re out and about, look around. Notice different colors as you pass them by. Think about how they work (or fail to work) together.

Also, try to see how the light changes colors. Light can be cool, it can be warm, and it can even be green. Learn to identify these color casts and learn to determine how they affect the scene.

a woman in a shop

Also, you can improve your ability to use color by editing. Play around with color temperature to see if you like warmer or cooler images. Desaturate your shots then add a little saturation to see how you feel. And adjust the contrast, then ask yourself how it affects the colors.

Step 5: Learn to edit your images

You may not want to hear this, but if you’re serious about becoming a good photographer, then you need to become a great editor along the way.

Editing is vitally important to developing your vision, and the best photographers combine their photo skills and their editing skills to produce stunning final results.

I suggest subscribing to Lightroom Classic, as it is the industry standard and it works well for so many photographers. But you can also check out Luminar, Capture One, and ON1 Photo RAW, all of which offer plenty of tools for the up-and-coming shooter.

Note that editing your photos will involve lots of experimentation, especially at first, so practice constantly and don’t get upset if things don’t go your way. Simply do what you can to learn from your mistakes! For a fun challenge, try to recreate the look of your favorite photos to get a feel for how the editing was done.

Finally, be diligent about organizing your archive. A little time spent each time you upload images will save you so much time in the future. Star your good images (Lightroom allows one through five stars) so they are easy to find, and create Collections based on ideas that you develop over time. Viewing your work in an organized fashion will help you improve your skills much faster than if you have a messy archive!

Step 6: Print your photos

These days, hobbyists rarely print their photos – but that’s a mistake, and here’s why:

It’s one thing to see how your images look on a monitor. And it’s completely different to see them in their final, printed form. A print lets you see how the light, the color, and your camera settings all affected the final image. It’ll teach you a lot about how to shoot, mark my words.

I do recommend you try different printing papers and view your prints under different lights. I don’t recommend, however, doing the printing yourself. Find a local printer or a reputable online company and have prints made for you. If, after a time, you decide that you love printing and want to do it all the time, you might consider buying a printer of your own – but as a beginner, just go the easier route and send your photos off for printing.

Also, try creating a photography corkboard. I have a 36 x 48 inch board next to my workstation and I swear by it. Fill it up with 5 x 7 and 4 x 6 prints and constantly change it. See how the images relate to one other, which images last, and which you lose interest in. Use this as a playground for your prints!

Photography Inspiration corkboard how to become a great photographer My print corkboard!

Step 7: Photograph constantly

Once you’ve made it this far, you’re in a good place. You know what you’re doing, your prints look beautiful, and your photos are well composed. You might even be a decent photographer. But how can you become a better photographer? How can you become great?

The next step is figuring out how to take unique and interesting photographs. It is now time to spend more effort thinking about what resonates with you in photography and what makes images stand out in your mind.

And that starts by photographing all the time.

woman shadow with a nervous hand

So many people only take their cameras out on trips or vacations. They go places specifically for photography, such as mountain ranges, zoos, gardens, safaris, cute towns, or cities with great architecture. And while this is great to do, push yourself further than that. Take photos whenever you can, even during the course of your everyday life. If you’re unable to take your main camera with you, use a smartphone.

The best photographers can capture great photographs in the most ordinary places. Practice this. Go out to some random location – or even go out to a place that you think will be terrible for photography – and figure out how to take an interesting photograph. This will help you so much in your development. You can understand light and camera settings like a pro, but if you’re not out photographing in a variety of situations on a somewhat consistent basis, then you’re selling yourself short as a photographer.

Step 8: View the work of other photographers

woman faced toward a wall

At this point, you should be actively trying to develop your own voice and style. And one of the best ways to do that? Look at the work of others.

Go to galleries, purchase photography books, and study the images of great photographers. The internet is an easy place to view photography, but it is also easy to get lost. Galleries and books are curated for a reason. Study the images, think about how they were done, and figure out the context behind them. Sometimes images will hit you whether or not you know the context, but other times it can be important to learn about the photographer and the history behind the image. At the very least, it’ll add another layer to your appreciation.

Emulate the different styles of photographers that you like. Then pick and choose your favorite elements from different photographers and merge them to create your own style.

Purchase some prints. The average home has a lot of walls – enough for many artists!

Yes, there is something satisfying about seeing an image then going and figuring out how to create it for yourself. But it really is important to appreciate the work of others. Check out plenty of photos, and you’ll start to develop your own inspiration.

Finally, one of my favorite ways to gain inspiration is to read about things unrelated to photography. Learn about what you are shooting. Read poetry, read current events, read anything. This is about growing your voice outside of photography, which will help strengthen your voice within photography.

woman walking on the street

Step 9: Immerse yourself in a subject or area

Did you know that some photographers have spent literally 40 years photographing in the same area? You don’t need to go that far, but picking a single subject or area, then running with it, can significantly enhance your growth.

For instance, you might photograph:

  • Your surrounding neighborhood
  • Your backyard
  • Trees
  • Nearby lakes
  • Flowers

Really, you can choose anything, as long as it’s relatively specific. Rather than photographing “the streets of New York,” for instance, you might choose “the streets of SoHo” or even “Manhattan bridges.”

Then go back to the same place or subject at different times, in different light, and keep photographing it. This is very important for your growth, since it will allow you to learn the area or subject like the back of your hand. Your images will take on more depth, and you’ll start to recognize what you really like about a shot.

The internet is an amazing place for sharing your work – but it is also very impersonal. Everyone sees thousands of images a day from hundreds of people. While it’s definitely possible to develop through internet feedback, it can be tough to get a proper critique of your images.

So find a few people and put together a group that looks at physical images every once in a while. You ultimately want to shoot for yourself, but seeing how others relate to your images is important for your growth. The more they get used to your work and your style, the more helpful their comments and thoughts will be.

Note that your critique group doesn’t need to be full of photographers. They can be friends, creatives, even significant others. A good, tough critique from your partner can be very valuable – and though it can sometimes be tough to hear, it’ll be helpful in the long run.

Step 11: Put together an edit of similar images

One of the most beautiful aspects of Lightroom is that it allows you to create collections of images outside of your normal file structure. (Other programs allow you to do this, too – and at the very least, you can group images by adjusting your desktop file structure.)

Start to group and sequence images that relate to each other. Turn them into a project. All the images in this article relate to one another – but they were taken over time, not all at once. You can do the same.

Note that, while you can think about projects from the very beginning, often projects and ideas will come about naturally during the process of daily shooting. So review your work, look for patterns, and embark on various projects. After a while, you’ll have a handful of projects going at once, and you may even end up with a handful of completed projects to add to your portfolio!

Step 12: Really develop your photographic voice

stroller with a shopping bag how to become a good photographer

Developing your own voice is the final step in becoming a good, great, or even amazing photographer – but if you follow the previous 11 steps, your voice will come naturally.

Of course, you can think about your voice, and you can pay attention to it as you progress. But do not force it. Let it arrive over time.

And if you feel like you’ve reached this point in your photography and your voice still hasn’t developed, don’t panic. Instead, revisit a few of these steps, especially Step 7 (Photograph constantly), Step 8 (View the work of other photographers), and Step 9 (Immerse yourself in a subject or area).

You will develop your voice eventually. And you will become a great photographer.

How to become a good photographer: final words

You can learn to use your camera quickly, but you cannot become a great photographer overnight. Take your time, try to improve a little bit each day, and you will make huge strides over the course of a few years.

Now over to you:

Which of these steps have you followed so far? Which are you currently working on? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

How to Become a Good Photographer: 12 Steps