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7 ways to break plateaus and grow as a photographer

Back in 2011, I hit a point where I felt stuck.

I was a harsh critic of my photography and my attempts to get better weren’t working.  I had been to a few workshops in the past, and was unsuccessful in regards to improving the quality of my photos.

In 2012, I’ve incorporated a few of the following techniques and have seen my work improve vastly from what it has been in the past.  I hope these help, and if you have any experience with using these ideas, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


1.   Shoot everyday. 

Doesn’t matter if you use your 5D MK III or iPhone.  Maintaining the mindset of constantly thinking about light, framing, and moments keeps your mind tack sharp so that you’re in your best shape when it’s go-time.  The most important aspect being able to recognize how certain types of light affect your shot – and how to work with it or around it.  I’m planning on writing an extensive post on ‘this idea’ alone in the coming week, so check back later on for more in-detail discussion.


2.  Shoot film.

This is more of a “karate-kid” approach towards things, but it helps.  When you only have a certain number of frames to work with, you can be sure you’ll put more thought into each shot.  I know, I know – “But Tim, how does this improve my photography?  I can just take a zillion shots on burst mode and choose the best later!”

In my opinion, this technique helps your mindset.  It helps you anticipate moments, and also subconsciously helps you focus on what’s MOST important.  Not spending time shooting countless photos of a minor detail just because you want to have options to choose from later.  Avoiding any distractions that may affect your workflow come game-day.


3.  Personal projects

I’d suggest this for those that are feeling burnt out and/or bored with their work.  Another karate-kid approach, but I truly feel making photos purely of your own vision helps rejuvenate your motivation to be a photographer, and consequently – opens up your style and allows it to truly blossom into other areas of your work.

There has been a destination in New Mexico I’ve wanted to shoot for a couple years now…happy to say that I’ve booked a flight solely for the purpose of shooting it.  No people to see or places to visit.  Just to shoot.

Have something you’ve wanted to shoot?  Go after it.  You’ll notice a change in your style once you return to your normal work.


4.  Take workshops from photographers you admire

I’ve taken a few workshops in the past, I’ve attended WPPI and other trade shows, I’ve watched popular skilled photographers on CreativeLive…but nothing compared to the 2 hours of time I spent with a certain photographer.  I admired his work, and pursued him to offer a mini-session while he was in town on a short visit.  While he’s not the definitive style of photographer I aspire to be, meeting him led me to discover several other VERY resourceful photographers who’ve propelled my skills.

Recognizing what style you aspire in your own work is key to recognizing it in others.  Also, recognizing a photographer that can relay their approach and help you gain an understanding on how to achieve that look.


5.  Hire 2nd shooters that see things differently than you do

In 2011, I worked with several 2nd shooters who shot the same way I did.  They gave me great quality, but I didn’t really learn from them.

In 2012, I decided to pay a higher price point for my 2nd photographers and contract others that were more established than myself.  OR, some weddings that didn’t opt for a 2nd photographer – I brought on someone (out of my own pocket) whose style was different and new, but not necessarily as established.  Just to see how they worked and if I could use them again.  This approach ended up with a win-win-win.  Both scenarios brought more variety to the final product, I was able to gain knowledge from the more experienced photogs, and real-time discussion of how we saw things differently helped immensely.


6.  Shoot with one lens for an extended amount of time

On a recent trip, a friend of mine let me borrow his 14mm lens.  I’ve tried it in the past and really disliked the distortion on the edges.  In conversation, he assured me that I have to “really get to know it” before I judge it.

He couldn’t have been more right.  While 90% of the shots I took with the lens I won’t end up using, I discovered the situations in which it creates KILLER photos.  It’s a rare breed of shot, but the 14 nails it.

Point being, get to know your lenses REALLY well – where they excel and where they fall short.  It will help refine your thinking in terms of creating the shot, and anticipating what you’ll need ahead of time.  Less experimenting on-the-go.


7.  Shoot something for free. Under the condition that you shoot exactly how you want.  

No exceptions.

I’ve worked with a ton of clients for my event work in the past, and the more and more I express my own vision, I find the more they’re satisfied.  Might be a confidence issue, but when I was first starting out – I had 5 people telling me how to shoot a certain shot or what I need to focus on.

By doing things entirely your way and gauging the reaction from someone experiencing your vision – it may just give you the boost you need to start shooting from the gut more often.


(Here’s a shot of me in Berlin, feeling frustrated that I couldn’t achieve any growth)


Hope this helped!  If you think other’s might benefit from this, I’d be thrilled if you shared this with them.

Trina Dinnar - I love these tips. Very insightful. Thanks!March 31, 2015 – 5:59 pm

Phil - Thoroughly enjoyed the post. I have taken workshops with one of the Photographers I look up to, I have a few more I would like to spend a couple of hours with. I have tried the “sticking with one lens for an extended period”, it was very helpful as I wasn’t to happy with my Primes after I got the first one. I shoot primarily Sports, but would love to be able to learn more in the portrait style shoot. I guess I’ll be dragging my Petri 35mm back out now!December 30, 2012 – 1:14 pm

Mark Gonzales - Great write-up Tim! I hope to work with you again in 2013! Stay up buddy.December 30, 2012 – 1:03 pm

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