Raising your skill level as a photographer isn’t dependent on concentrating on one specific area nor is it something that will occur quickly.
In order to experience demonstrable growth, you must take a holistic approach to your creative development and give yourself time to incorporate and fully adapt to your expanding skill set.
But you’ve got to start somewhere, right?
1. Shoot (Almost) Every Day
My initial compulsion is to say, without exception, shoot every day. The rationale is simple: the more you do it, the better you’ll get. You’ll train your eye, learn your camera, gain a better understanding of metering and exposure. These are all necessary things that should be practised with regularity.
However, a day or two without your camera isn’t so bad. If for any reason you aren’t compelled to pick up your camera, that’s ok. Don’t force it. Even if you aren’t actively photographing you can still practice what is arguably a photographer’s most valuable skill — observation.
And when you reunite with your camera you will do so with renewed inspiration and vitality.
2. Know Your Camera
This is more fundamental than knowing all the cool features your camera has. Of course, you’ll want to know what all the knobs, buttons and switches do, and you’ll want to know how to customize them so that your most used settings are easily accessible.
But you also need to know if your camera’s metering system tends to over- or underexpose and how far you can go with ISO before shots become unacceptably noisy. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your camera’s autofocus system?
It’s true that a camera is just a tool, but to get the most out of it you must understand in sufficient detail how it works.
3. Change Your Perspective
It’s instinctual to photograph everything we see from eye level. That doesn’t mean this is always the best way to do it. More often than not, it works well enough but since you’re no longer content with well enough, it’s time for a change in perspective.
There’s nothing difficult about it — shoot from up high or from down low. Such a simple adjustment can have a powerful impact on the look of your photo.
4. Use The Histogram
Digital cameras are great because, among many other reasons, they provide an instant preview of each shot you take via the rear LCD. This is useful but not entirely accurate if you’re being meticulous about exposure.
A better way to evaluate exposure accuracy is to look at your camera’s histogram. From left to right, this graph will show you shadow, mid tone and highlight levels of a shot (click here to learn how to best use your camera's histogram).
For added convenience, most cameras will allow you to set the LCD to display the image preview in conjunction with the histogram.
5. Watch The Edges Of The Frame
It’s easy to have a sort of tunnel vision when composing a photo — you train your eye on your subject, compose the shot and press the shutter button. If all of your attention is focused on the midsection of the frame you may be allowing all manner of intruders to creep into your photos.
Always check the edges and corners of the frame before you take the shot. Recompose if you need to, or wait a moment for unwanted stragglers to exit the scene.
The subject may be most important, but the whole frame matters.
6. Watch The Background
The same basic principle discussed above applies here. With any shot you take, one of your goals is to avoid anything that will detract attention away from your subject.
While you can’t always control what’s going on in the background, you can frame your photo in such a way as to eliminate distractions.
For example, you can use shallow depth-of-field to isolate your subject from a busy background, or shoot from a low angle to effectively create a new background.
7. Seek Out The Light
Light is what photography is all about, isn’t it? Whether natural or artificial, let light be one of the driving factors in determining what you photograph and how you photograph it.
Learn the basic characteristics of light (color temperature, quality, quantity, etc.) and how it interacts with everything around you. This knowledge will have a profound effect on your creativity.
8. Try New Things
Never let complacency to set in. There’s always a new direction for you to go in if you allow yourself that freedom. Once you become proficient with all the basic stuff, great. But that’s not the end of the journey.
Push yourself to do something you’ve never done before — capture things you never previously bothered to capture, in ways you’ve never attempted to use your camera.
There will be failures, but those failures will seed new knowledge that will eventually sprout into success.
Use these individual building blocks as a foundation for a more comprehensive plan to grow your photography skills. Add on to them, customize them, disregard ones that you have no use for. However you use them, just remember to stay focused on your own creativity and have fun in the process.