10 New Year's Resolutions to Improve Your Photography

If you're going to get better at photography this year, you're going to need a plan

_One of the most common photography-related New Year's resolutions we hear is simply "to shoot more." It's a resolution with its heart in the right place, but simply increasing the number of frames you produce this year won't necessarily make you a better photographer. We've put together a list of resolutions that can help you get your photography skills in tip top shape before the ball drops next year. _

Choose a few aspects of your photography to concentrate on improving

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One of my primary focuses in the new year is to continue working on my off-camera flash technique

The craft of "photography" can be broken down into an endless number of smaller skills, all of which require constant learning and maintenance. A good golfer doesn't just walk out onto the driving range and hammer balls into the back fence. He or she goes out with a plan to address specific problems or shortcomings that may be happening in their swing or overall game.

The first step is to identify the things you want to work on. It can be a specific technique like off-camera flash or posing couples for portraits. Or, if you're a pro, you can spend some time learning about marketing or other business practices.

It can feel a bit cheesy, but a great way to start is to make a simple chart listing your strengths and weaknesses. Then you have a visual reminder of what you might want to work on over the course of the year.

You'll obviously want to work on your weak areas, but it's also important to hone your strengths. Once you've identified some things you want to practice, make a short list of things you might be able to do. The more specific you are in your planning, the quicker you can get into action on actually improving your photography.

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Get better at editing your own work

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Sometimes an abundance options is both a blessing and a curse

Coming home with a memory card full of photos can be a great feeling. It can also be overwhelming. And no matter how good of a shooter you are, your ability to select your best work and apply the finishing touches can be what separates a good photographer from a mediocre one.

Judging the merit of our own photographs can be extremely difficult. We're too close to them. We know how much work went into capturing each frame and handing out the dreaded one-star rating is like admitting defeat. But, there are some steps you can take to make the process smoother, if not easier.

One effective technique is to complete an edit, then give the photos a break, before coming back for another round of edits. A fresh perspective can sometimes make a huge difference in the way you see your photos.

Establishing some personal guidelines can also help streamline the process. For instance, If I miss focus in one of my portrait shots, even by a little, I drop it. Sometimes it hurts to bin an otherwise great image, but I know it will bug me (and some viewers) every time I look at it, so I save myself that trouble. If you have similar tendencies, having a set of top-level guidelines will save you time that would otherwise be spent hemming and hawing.

Remember, you want to show people your best work.

Choose a few larger or long-term projects to work on

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One of my long-term projects I started in 2013 was photographing shelter dogs to help them get adopted

Taking your camera out on an unplanned trip or walk can be a fantastic experience, but choosing a long-term project to work on can really help improve your photography in a variety of ways.

One of the big benefits of choosing a long-term project is that it can keep you motivated. You'll never be without something to shoot. It will also help you grow as a story-teller. As the body of work that makes up the project grows, you'll want to add and cut photos to help you tell a story and that refinement process is great practice.

There's also a great sense of satisfaction that comes from finishing a larger project. Putting up a single photo and raking in the Facebook likes is nice, but looking back at a completed work that took lots of time, work, and commitment is an entirely different animal.

Some important things to remember before choosing a long-term project:

1. Make sure it's something you're interested in because you're going to be spending a lot of time with the topic. You don't want to get bored and quit.

2. Pick something that will be a challenge, but is actually feasible. For instance, doing portraits of local business owners is likely an achievable long-term project. Shooting portraits of the New York Knicks may not be.

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Get your files under control

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_An example of a filing system that has worked for me _

Some of you likely have flawless systems for organizing your photo files, so this one doesn't apply to you. But, there's also a large contingent of people who have thousands of photos crammed into a folder called "pictures," and that's something that should be fixed in the coming year.

One of the most important things to consider when organizing your photo files is consistency. Often, a piece of software can help greatly when it comes to getting your filing system sorted right from import. I personally use Lightroom, but there are other options out there as well.

When you establish a filing system, you want to make sure the photos are easily found, so adding tags is crucial, if tedious. Once you establish your new system, do the work to go back and apply it to your old folders. That way, everything is organized. It's annoying and time-consuming, but throw on some old episodes of a TV show on Netflix and hammer it out. It will save you tons of time in the future.

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Establish an effective and efficient backup solution

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You'll likely pick up a collection of hard drives as your photo collection goes

Backing up photos is a funny thing. We all know how important it is to do, but so many of us neglect it. This year, make a resolution to get redundant.

One of the best ways to ensure that backups happen is to make them an integral part of your workflow. Once you've dumped your photos to your computer, don't start editing until you've also backed them up somewhere else.

Choosing the right drives can make a big difference. Ideally, you can choose a multi-drive enclosure like the Drobo, which makes several copies of your files to different drives. That way, if one bites the dust (which it will), you're still covered.

Looking into a cloud storage solution also isn't a bad idea. Prices are coming down all the time for good, reliable cloud storage.

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Get in the habit of "reading" the photographs that you see

We're literally bombarded with photos throughout our days. There's social media, advertisements, magazines, websites--photos are literally everywhere. Every one of them offers you a small chance to practice your craft.

When you see a photo you like, analyze it. How do you think it was lit? What lens do you think was used? Why is the subject posed that way? Do the catchlights in the eyes give away the lighting solution?

That doesn't just apply to good photos either. If you see a photo you don't like, try to figure out why. You don't want to ruin photography for yourself by approaching every photograph with a magnifying glass, but analyzing photos will help you develop your eye, and that, after all, is the most important part of your photography kit.

Get better at taking (and giving) criticism

It's very easy to get feedback about your photography. Put a picture online and, whether you want them to or not, people will tell you what they think of it. That's part of what makes giving and receiving criticism so tricky.

One thing to concentrate on is your ability to evaluate the source of criticism. Ideally, you want honest evaluations from people you respect, admire, and trust. Similarly, you want someone who understands your style and may have some context about your work to help them make a judgment. If the person critiquing you doesn't meet those criteria, then you have to evaluate how much stock you want to put in their opinions. If you think someone truly doesn't "get" your work or they're "just trolling," you have to learn to file that away and concentrate on more constructive criticism.

Similarly, we can all work on our ability to give criticism. Make a hard resolution to avoid cloying aphorisms like "great shot!" that offer no real insight. And make a similar pact with yourself to offer advice when it's truly wanted. Offering unsolicited advice to an unwilling photographer can be one of the quickest ways to make someone hate you.

It's also important that you don't get too wrapped up in positive feedback that comes without much thought. Lots of folks hand out "great shot!" comments in hopes that you'll respond in kind. It's a vicious cycle that seems positive, but ultimately can result in your work getting stale due to a lack of true criticism.

Re-evaluate some of your old work

Chances are you have thousands of old photo files sitting around on your hard drives. Make some time this year to go back and look through that stuff. Now that you've put some space between you and those photographs, you can look at them with a different perspective.

You should look for good photos you may have missed previously, and similarly reevaluate photos you once really liked, since they may no longer fit your overall aesthetic.

One of the most valuable things you can do when going through your old photos is to look for themes and threads. What are the tendencies that you've had since the beginning that you've been refining over time? You may not even realize you've been doing it.

Look at how you've grown and see if there are any areas in which you feel you've been making great strides. Those may be areas you want to concentrate going forward.

Take a close look at your gear needs

Most of us keep a mental wish list of gear we would love to have in our bags. I could fill shopping carts full of stuff right now given the chance. But, it's important not to let the gear become the primary focus of this whole thing. One way to go about doing that is to really evaluate your gear needs and wants and prioritize them.

The best time to buy a new piece of gear (other than when you're replacing a broken item) is when you find yourself being held back. Maybe you love portraits and the 18-55mm kit lens isn't cutting it in terms of blurry backgrounds. Then, it's time to look into a real portrait lens. Or, maybe you want to get into street photography and that nifty 50 is just too slow and tight for your needs. Then, it's off to the 35mm lens department you go.

Once you have a prioritized list of the gear you feel will actually change the way you shoot, keep it somewhere on your desk. It will help keep you motivated to save your money for your new gear and it will also remind you of what's important to buy next.

Figure out your photo sharing strategy

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Flickr has been one of my photo sharing outlets for a long time

The web can be an overwhelming place when you're trying to share photos. There are so many services out there that choosing which ones to participate in can be daunting, and that's why it's worth sitting down and figuring out how you want to spend your energy.

If you're going to be serious about photography, it can't hurt to have your own website. After all, domains and hosting have become incredibly cheap. And the big social media outlets are probably worth participating in as well. Facebook (at least for the moment) is something of a must, and Tumblr is popular with many photographers as well.

Instagram is a great outlet for photographers, too. Some people hate it, but to those people, I suggest going out and looking for some of the great work that's on there. Sure, there's a ton of, well, crap, but with hundreds of millions of users, you have to work a little to find the good stuff.

Ultimately, figuring out where you want to put your photos is something you should be doing in advance. If you skip around from site to site, it will be hard for people to find your photos and for you to build any kind of substantial following or community. Figure out where you want to put your photos and put the effort into it. It can make a huge difference. Especially if you're a pro.

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