How to Take Your Photography to the Next Level

Downtown LA, 2016 #cindyproject
Downtown LA, 2016 #cindyproject

Whenever I feel frustrated in life, it is because I have a feeling of inertia. I feel like I’m not developing or growing.

This often happens in my photography. I keep taking the same type of photo over and over, and I become bored. I want to innovate, to create something new. I want to take my work to the next level— but how do I do that?

1. Don’t be satisfied with the past

Paris, 2015 #suits
Paris, 2015 #suits

I feel that it is important to have a sense of gratitude with the work that we’ve done. However if you really want to take your photography to the next level, you need to not be satisfied. Not being satisfied is what helped push the human race forward. If we were all satisfied with horses and carriages, we would never have developed electric cars and rocketships.

I often look back at my old work (which I thought was great) — and then I wonder, “What was I thinking?”

Stay hungry, and think about your next step. If you’re an avid gym-goer, you probably won’t be satisfied lifting the same weight for the rest of your life. You want to “level up”, get stronger, and push your limits.

2. Pretend like your old work didn’t exist

SF, 2015 #suits
SF, 2015 #suits

I also feel that our old work traps us. We feel like we need to always shot the way we did in the past. And that prevents us from experimenting, from growing, and from innovating.

One thing I try to do is pretend like my old work didn’t exist. I wonder to myself, “If I started photography all over again from a blank slate, how would I take photos differently?”

A lot of photographers who try to preserve their “style” in photography get stuck in a trap. They keep taking the same photo over and over again, only so their work can be easily recognized.

If you feel like your past work is holding you back, pretend like it didn’t exist. Or better yet, mark all your old photos to private, and only keep them for yourselves. Perhaps re-start your social media channels, your portfolio, and your past.

Always have a “carte blanche” (blank paper) mentality— the more white space we have, the more possibilities.

3. Increase complexity

Downtown LA, 2016
Downtown LA, 2016

I think what we’re searching for is additional complexity in our photos, not additional complications.

What is the difference between “complexity” and “complication”?

  • Complexity is something that has more flavor, more intricacies, more layers, and more interest.
  • Complication is something that adds more stress, anxiety, and frustration.

Therefore, avoid complication, and add complexity.

To add complexity to your photos, see how you can add layers, depth, and additional subjects. Try to make your photos more multi-faceted, with more going on in the frame.

If you work on layers, try to avoid overlapping figures. Try to add more gestures, emotions, and drama to your photos.

The photographers I highly recommend to study to see their complex images include Alex Webb, Constantine Manos, and Nikos Economopoulos.

4. Be more selective

Downtown LA, 2016
Downtown LA, 2016

The problem with social media is that we over-share our images. Rather than letting our photos “sit” and “marinate” for a long time— we share every single photo (our good ones, and our bad ones, and our “so-so” ones).

My suggestion: be very selective before you decide which image to share. You’re judged by your worst photos. So don’t let any of your bad photos exist online.

I reckon the difference between the master photos and us is that they were more selective with their photos. They probably shot as many bad photos as us (if not more). But they were extremely brutal in knowing which photos to “keep” and which photos to “ditch.”

Ultimately, you are the judge of your own photos. If you make a photo that you don’t think is great (but others think is great) — trust your own gut. Trust your own conscience, rather than what others say.

5. Only study the best

Downtown LA, 2016
Downtown LA, 2016

If you want to become a world-class athlete, you will only eat the most nutritious and wholesome foods. You will avoid junk food, alcohol, drugs, and other things that hamper your performance.

If you want to be a world-class photographer, you will only look at the best images shot in history. You will buy books, study the masters, and look at other forms of great art. You will spend little to no time on social media where there are a lot of “junk food” type of images.

If you aspire to be the best photographer you possibly can become, study the best. Don’t compare your work with the work that you see online or on social media. Compare your work to that of the masters— and know that with enough hard work, perseverance, and tight editing, you can get to their level as well.

6. Get critique from the best

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

Whenever I’ve wanted to take my photography to the next level, it was to collaborate, get honest feedback and critique from others, and to learn from the best.

I appreciate all my photographic teachers and mentors over the years, some of them friends, others acquaintances, and others I consider masters (Magnum photographers). I’ve learned how to build a thick skin, to not take criticism personally, and to know that I am not my photos.

It is easy to make photos that please your mom, and a few of your Facebook friends. But can you make photos that impress the greats of photography?

Of course at the end of the day, your purpose of being a photographer isn’t to impress others. It is to impress yourself. But getting honest feedback and critique from the best is the only way you can take your work to the next level. Even the best athletes in the world need coaches.

7. Take more pictures

Downtown LA, 2016
Downtown LA, 2016

1-la sweat contact

I feel one of the most practical things I’ve learned in photography is that if you want to take a good photo of a scene, take more photos.

The more photos you take of a scene, the more likely you are to get a great image.

Not only that, but if you take more photos in general, the more likely you are to capture an interesting moment.

If you’re a batter in baseball, the more pitches people throw at you, and the more you swing your bat, the more likely you are to hit a home run.

So if you see a good scene, don’t just take 1-2 photos and move on. Work the scene. Try to take 20, 30, 40, 50, or even 100, 200, 300. Aim for the closest thing to “perfection” you possibly can— and don’t settle.

8. Don’t get distracted

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

The best photographers in history are the ones who have produced the most inspiring bodies of work, photography books, and exhibitions. Not the one who has uploaded the most photos to social media.

I love and hate social media. I love how social media can empower us, can connect us, and spread our work. I hate how social media distracts us from working on a consistent, single body of work. Social media encourages us to always upload random single images, hoping to get more likes and followers.

If you want to take your work to the next level, I encourage you to take a break from social media and any other sites that distract you (gear review sites, gear rumor sites, etc). You already have the perfect camera with you, and a great photography project idea. Why get distracted— go out and shoot what your soul longs for.


SF, 2016. Portrait by Luis Donoso
SF, 2016. Portrait by Luis Donoso

“Taking your work to the next level” means becoming the best that you can possibly become. Being social creatures, we do need encouragement and motivation from others.

I think it is good to get honest feedback from the best in the field, and to also compare ourselves to the best. But let it encourage and uplift you, rather than de-motivate you. Sometimes when I look at the work of the masters of photography, I aspire for greatness. Other times, I think to myself, “Damn, their work is a million times better than mine. Why even bother?”

Have confidence in yourself. Know that you are the most important person to impress, not that famous photographer. Even the most famous photographers in the world are dissatisfied, want more money, want more fame, and want more recognition.

Ultimately we need to be satisfied with ourselves. So push yourself to the limits, always aim for growth, and don’t forget— have fun. Photography should help us become the best version of ourself, rather than add unnecessary stress and anxiety to our lives.

So go forth, and become the best photographer you can. And drink lots of great coffee.


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