A Key Step To Becoming A Better Photographer In 2013

Photography Mission Statement
Right before Christmas, Scott Kelby and I did (what I thought at least) was one of our best episodes ever of The Grid (our weekly talk show). Seriously, if there was ever one show that I was a part of, that I really think helped people, it was this one. The topic? A Step-by-step Guide To Becoming A Better Photographer In 2013. I’ve embedded the show below (at the bottom of this post), so feel free to watch when you have an hour or so to sit at your computer. What I wanted to do here is talk a little about the first step – deciding what kind of photographer you want to be. For me personally, it was one of the most impactful moments in my photography career so far, and I think developing a plan can tremendously help your photography going forward.

2012 Was A Big Year For Me
See, 2012 was a BIG year in photography for me. Not because I took better photos or learned new techniques. I consider it a “BIG” year for me for another reason. 2012 was the first year I’ve really had clarity and purpose in my photography.

I tell the story in the episode of the Grid below, but I’ll give you the quick version. See, working at Kelby Media Group, I’m surrounded by many inspirational photographers throughout the year. You name it, from portrait, to landscape, macro, lighting, wedding, fashion, food, aviation, or even car photography. Because of my job in being the Director of Education there, I spend time with people that are at the absolute top in their field. In doing so, I think a very natural thing has happened to me over the years – I’ve tried to be everything. I’ve never really defined to myself what I want from photography. I’ve known that I’ve been better at some areas than others, but I’ve always felt that, with time and practice, I could get really good at any one of those areas if I decided to really put my mind to it. But up until this year, I hadn’t put my mind toward any one thing.

What Changed?
Well, at the beginning of 2012 I was giving this some thought. It wasn’t a new year’s resolution, and it wasn’t anything that I really sat down to think about. It just happened. I realized that I needed a mission statement. Sorry to go all 80-90′s marketing on you (ah… remember TQM? :) ). I realize you don’t hear much about mission statements anymore. So call it what you want. Mission, goal, artist statement – who cares? If you’re stressing about that then you’re missing the point. For me though, I really felt I needed to focus more and, for lack of a better phrase, that’s what I’m calling it. I guess that, between work, travel, family, exercise and personal time, I thought that I would benefit from defining what it really is that I want from my photography, so I could focus my efforts.

My Mission Statement
As I thought about it (and I didn’t have to think long), my personal mission statement hit my like a ton of bricks and was actually very simple.
To take beautiful pictures of beautiful places.
Basically, it’s landscape and outdoor photography. Simple right? That’s it. I realized, for me, that’s what truly get’s me excited about photography. I’m the type that actually gets psyched when I’m going on a cool outdoors shoot. And I don’t care if those places have been photographed a million times before, or if I’m among very few people to ever step foot in a location. If it’s a cool-looking beautiful location, I want to take photos of it. And if you’re thinking the term “beautiful” is vague and probably in the eye of the beholder, you’re absolutely correct – it is. Remember, my mission/goal/whatever is for me, not you. In fact, you don’t even need to share it with anyone if you don’t want.

A Huge Weight Lifted
I have to tell you, this was the single best thing that happened to my photography since I picked up a camera. And it wasn’t just because of the benefits you get from focussing on one thing. It was because of the benefits I got from NOT focussing on other things. I’ve got a perfect example. I’m surrounded by lighting gurus and a studio full of lighting equipment. I’ve always felt guilty that I wasn’t taking advantage of it. I’d use it once in a while, but I never had that passion to get in the studio and set up lights. I probably have no less than 10 photography lighting and studio DVDs from every great photographer you can imagine. I have free access to online training from Kelby Training, to just about every type of photography topic you can think of. While part of my job is to help set up/review these classes, I’ve always felt guilty that I wasn’t watching them more thoroughly and putting them to use. But my new mission statement lifted that guilt I’ve had, and I just became happy with what I did like about photography and spent my time getting better at that.

What I Did With My New Mission Statement
As soon as I had this clarity and purpose in my photography, my shooting plans for the year became crystal clear. I began looking up every city I had to travel to, and figured out some way to try to take photos there. If I was going to San Francisco, I rented a car for the day and drove down to the Big Sur coast (3+ hours each way) to shoot.
(click to see it larger)
Big Sur Photography

I was in Seattle and, after my seminar, I totally want to relax in my hotel room. Instead a drove to Kerry Park to shoot sunset.
seattle_post

While in Portland, I found that there’s a beautiful place called Trillium Lake about 90 minutes away.
TrilliumLake-465 copy

While in Boston, before my seminar started, I woke up at some ungodly hour to shoot a long-exposure sunrise photo.
boston

But it was having that clarity and purpose, that really let me focus on what I wanted from my photography and to figure out ways to get it.

A Few Closing Thoughts About Photography Mission Statements
Now, I know there’s some one reading this that’s saying that photography is art, and art doesn’t need to be defined, blah blah blah… That by defining my photography I’m missing out on growing, etc… (I write this because some one has already said this to me ;) ). Hey, that’s totally fine. If that’s what works for you, then no need to listen to my advice. All I can do is tell you what worked for me.

Also, keep in mind that having a mission statement doesn’t mean it can’t change. Remember, you’re not creating a roadmap for a Fortune 500 business. You’re creating one for yourself. And the best part about it is that you can change yourself (and your mission) any day you want.

One more thing. Having a mission statement doesn’t mean that you can’t photograph anything that doesn’t fit into the mission. Trust me, if Moose Peterson invites me to another aviation photography workshop, I’m goin’! If some one offers me the chance to fly in a jet and take pictures of it, I’m there in a heartbeat (that’s always been a dream of mine). But if some one offers me, say, a chance to go shoot my favorite college football team – I’m probably going to politely turn it down and bring my family to the game to enjoy it instead.

What I’m saying is that the mission statement guides me, but it doesn’t control me.

I hope as this new year sets in, you consider doing something similar yourself. It’s not necessarily a resolution. So whether you do it today, next week or next month doesn’t matter. Just do it. Sit down one day, surf around 500px.com and look through some of their “Popular” photos and see what catches your eye. What kind of photographer do you want to be? Once you figure that out, then watch/re-watch our episode of The Grid for the 7-ish Steps to becoming a better photographer in 2013 (FYI…Step 1 is figuring out what you want to shoot).

Enjoy the video below and have a very happy, safe and photography-filled New Year!

  • Mark Bean

    Thanks for the “focus, clarity and vibrance” Matt! These 4 pictures exemplify your success in doing what you set out to do “To take beautiful pictures of beautiful places”

  • http://gravatar.com/nmrai s. rai

    You make so much sense to me here. Including even the guilt part. Thanks for the thoughts which are making me think. And that’s a fabulous pic of Boston!!!

  • http://gravatar.com/scottking Scott King

    So Matt, you’re not a noob to photography. You teach a lot and have been exposed to a lot. …so I’m curious how much did you learn or not learn through all your trips? Beyond taking some pretty photos do you feel like you’ve grown as a photographer? Or was this more about branding yourself?

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Hey Scott. I think it was a combination of both. Just branding myself helped. But I also learned a lot too. Maybe not so much technically, but the more you do something the more you learn about it. I think focussing has helped me figure out what I like best about certain compositions in landscapes. I’ve learned what will make a great scene and what will not. I’ve learned what angles I like. Which way I’d like to face (away from the sun, toward the sun, etc…). Little things like that. It’s also forced me deeper into outdoor photography and pursue other areas like long exposure. Combine a beautiful place with a long exposure and (to me at least) you’ve got something even more spectacular. So while I maybe didn’t learn about f-stops and shutter speed, I did learn a lot about shooting outdoors in general. I feel more confident in my location scouting and more confident that when I leave somewhere, I know I’m going to come away with a good shot. Thanks :)

      • http://gravatar.com/scottking Scott King

        And that is so cool! To many of us you’re a pro. So to think that you decided “Hey this year I’m doing XYZ” and not only did you do it but you learned at the same time. Very inspirational. It means there is hope for the rest of us.

  • http://toddphotos.wordpress.com Todd Sadowski Photography

    Simple yet awesome perspective, Matt. I’ve enjoyed your posts and teachings over the past couple of years. From one “ski” to another, thanks for all you do! Hope you have an amazing 2013!

  • http://www.pattihouston.com Patti

    Thanks Matt. This is also a great lesson in life … not just photography. Happy New Year to you.

    • Peter-Bas

      I totally agree with Patti here. Not just photography, but much, much more. Lesson learned! Thanks a lot and a very healthy 2013 for you and your loved ones.

  • http://imagesbybilla.com aboutbilla

    You’re spot on! That was one of the best Grid episodes ever. I’d like to suggest that you guys archive it either with other NAPP tutorials or as some sort of quick inspirational or tips for success guides in the Kelby Training offerings. Not only would it make it easier to find to review to help stay on track but It’s another way for others, who don’t watch The Grid, to see it. Just a thought! Hope you have a fantastic 2013!

  • Glenn

    Ahh, so now the key question becomes “Gitzo Traveller or RSS TVC-33?” Life is so much simpler.
    Good advice, I keep struggling wanting to learn lighting and playing with flash, but truth is I’m really only enjoying it when it’s just pure landscapes. Those are the ones I spent the most time with in post, which tells me something I’m sure.

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Hey Glenn – I’d just think about what you shoot the most. Are you traveling where you need to travel light and fit your tripod into a laptop case or small bag? If that’s the case then go with the Traveler. If you typically take bigger trips or are driving to your shoots then go with a larger tripod. Vanguard makes some great tripods that are less expensive. So maybe buy the $$$$ tripod for the one you think you’ll use most, and purchase a more affordable tripod for the other since you’ll use it less. Hope that helps :)

      • http://gravatar.com/glbarlow Glenn

        Sorry Matt. I was referencing back to your tripod post. Like you I have both tripods, the post was more a (clearly weak) joke about limiting choices having chosen to leave the lighting gear at home.
        Still good advice though.

        • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

          Oooops. Sorry Glenn. I’m a little slow today… imagine how I’ll be tomorrow after ringing in the new year tonight ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/nico.liviu Liviu Nicolof

    I suggest to celebrate this with some free stuff (jokinkg) from kelby training.

  • http://mdfotography.wordpress.com MD Photography

    I’m curious which college team is your favorite? And I can’t agree with you more about focusing on the one thing. It’s so easy to fall into wanting to be great at many areas of photography, as well as other facets of life. Thanks again for a wonderful post. Keep snapping!

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      University of South Florida Bulls baby!!! That’s where I have my undergrad degrees, but they didn’t get a football team until the year after I graduated :)

  • Peter Nord

    I teach ‘Old Geezer’ photography at the local U. I tell them that the course will be hard because I will not tell them what to shoot. They should look inside themselves and shoot what they like best. It’s the old story, if you don’t have passion for shooting it, can you expect anyone to have passion for looking at it. Now I’ll tell them to read your essay. Thanks.

  • http://Inhiseyes.net Michael Drumgool

    Matt, thank you for all your words of knowledge! I have been trying to figure out what to do with my photography? I think I have the same passion about outdoors and nature as you seem to? I am going to try to focus on that in the coming months and see where it goes. (If I could just figure out how to make $ at that?) Hope you have a Blessed New Year with your family! Thanks again for all you do!

  • http://candersonphotography.wordpress.com canderson71

    I’ve really enjoyed your blog over the last 5 months. This article really hit home for me. I’ve been straying to other types of photography, but my heart has always and will be into landscape photos. What do you find to be your best resource for getting new ideas of what to shoot? What would you recommend as a resource to help take my pictures to the next level? I really love black and white landscape photos.

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Personally, I go to 500px quite a bit. I just go to the home page (there’s an iPad and iPhone app too) and go under the top “PHOTOS” menu. There’s a menu called Popular and Editors Choice and I just browse. From there, I can get a feel for what others are doing when it comes to mood, composition, color, etc… There’s a ton of ideas there. Plus, if I’m ever going to a city I just type it in the search bar and up pops up photos from that city. Another good way to find things and ideas.

      Hope that helps!

  • Craig

    It was a fantastic episode of The Grid. I really enjoyed it. When your travelling around, how do you go about finding places like Trillium lake. Is it a Twitter shout out, or do you do some serious research. Happy New Year also!!

    • http://mattk.com Matt Kloskowski

      Hey Craig – I do a few things. First, like I mentioned in the post, I go to 500px.com or Flickr and search that area. I believe that’s how I found Trillium. I just did a search for “Portland” and some one must have tagged it with a photo of Trillium in the description or something.
      Another thing that happens a lot for me is that I browse photo sites a lot (500px, Flickr) and just find photos I like. I look to see where they are and find them on a map to see what city they’re closest to. Then I keep a little notebook (an Evernote notebook like I wrote about here: http://www.mattk.com/2012/12/20/how-i-use-evernote-for-photography/) of cities with locations and when I visit that city I try to see if I can find some time to go out to the location.
      Good luck!

  • RustyParkhurst

    Thanks for this Matt. The Grid episode was great, but your post really helped to drive this point home. Although I’m early on in this journey, I realize the importance of having focus. I really enjoy trying new things photographically, but need to figure out where my real passion is. I believe that is landscapes/outdoors, much like yours, but will continue to explore my interests. Thanks again, and keep the teaching coming!

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