Category Archives: Learning

salt farm samut sakhon thailand sunset copyright Aloha Lavina

How to Teach Yourself to Improve Your Photography

You may not have to spend too much to get better at your hobby.

Photography is an expensive hobby. Aside from equipment expenses which you may be tempted to do after a new super duper camera or lens enters the market, you might also consider learning through a workshop or a course. But these things cost money, and there’s so much to learn.

If you are like many of photography hobbyists who would like to learn photography techniques but also need to pay bills and eat, there is a way you can take the learning opportunities available for free, and embark on a planned, effective learning path.

But how do you begin? And what sort of habits should you practice to improve your photography systematically?

The answer might be in applying a systematic, strategic plan that involves something as simple as directing your brain to start learning.

salt farm samut sakhon thailand sunset copyright Aloha Lavina

I told myself if I drove past this salt farm and the light was right, I would stop to photograph it. And I did.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, wrote recently in Edutopia about a strategy that you can apply to your photography and improve skills.

Halverson writes that most of us have a problem with transitioning from an idea, for example “I want to learn how to use a slow shutter to show motion” to action, which is actually doing it.

The author has written about a productive strategy called “if-then planning.” This strategy is designed to get you acting on a goal using the natural inclination of your brain.

The if-then planning goes like this.

First, you decide what you’re going to do, in advance, and try to name the action as specifically as you can. For example, say your goal is “Learn how to use a slow shutter to show motion in an image.” You can break down the goal into actions, for example:

• Use shutter speed priority on my camera to find out the shutter speeds that will keep walking people sharp.

• Use panning technique with slow shutter speed (learned in the practice session above) to create images.

Then, you schedule when you’re going to do these things, in advance. For example, you can schedule the shutter speed practice this way: “If I finish work on Tuesday or Wednesday and it’s already almost sunset, I will find a street where there are pedestrians and practice using shutter speed priority to photograph people walking.”

The way the strategy works is, if you set the conditions for the action, your brain will automatically push you to act upon it when the conditions you set are right. That means if you leave work just before sunset on Tuesday and the weather is right, you will be more likely to go to a street corner and practice making photos of people walking in shutter speed priority mode.

This is a tried-and-true strategy that actually has a pretty high success rate. Instead of wondering if you should go shoot on any given day, the if-then planning will push you to actually go ahead and do it.

And that decisive action could spell the difference between intention and actual results.

If you want to journey with me as I rekindle my love for all kinds of photography in 2012, and learn lots of things along the way, head on over to our Imagine That Photography Tribe Facebook page (and like us!), where you can participate in project modules, get some feedback, talk photography, and have your photography featured in a monthly roundup!

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

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Hey Photographer! Who are You and What do You Believe?
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Finding Good Photos where they Hide

Convict Lake, California copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.

Just in Time versus Just in Case

Learning and enjoying yourself while you learn is a situation that we crave our whole lives. That’s why when you find a hobby, like photography that lets you learn for a lifetime, you tend to stick with it because it’s so much fun.

But search on Google right now for “learning photography” and you’ll get 334,000,000 search results. How do you sift through all that and find a kind of learning pathway for yourself? How do you even start?

You can give yourself some photo assignments, first of all. Maybe you can shoot themes. Those are always fun. Just make sure you introduce something new into the task, every time.

What do I mean by that?

Learning and enjoying while learning doesn’t just happen automatically if you give yourself a task. If the task is too easy, it’s boring. If the task is too hard, it’s frustrating and stressful and could turn you off from learning it.

Convict Lake, California copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.

When I had learned to trigger the camera remotely, I started working on learning how landscapes are lit.

The task has to be designed well to make it both a learning experience and a fun one at that. It has to be relevant, have a feedback system, and stretch your skills.


This criterion for designing your photography learning task means that it has to mean something to you. That’s what I mean by ‘just in time.’ If you learn a skill  because you might need it ‘just in case,’ the relevance floats out of the situation—why learn it if you don’t need it right now?

By creating a need in your task design, you’re setting yourself up for a quick learning curve. Because you need the skills you are learning to make that good shot, you’re going to put a lot more concentration into the photo shoot, giving yourself a very good chance of putting that skill into your working memory, there to call on whenever you need it in the future.

How do you narrow a skill down? It depends on your current skill level. If you know the exposure triangle but need practice with exposure compensation, then that’s what the lesson is, for you at this moment. Design something out of that concept.

Creek, Northern California copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.

Learning how to create with a slow shutter is a lot of fun.

Another aspect of relevance is the authenticity of your task. Are you alone on a photowalk, practicing your exposure compensation? Or are you searching for that super duper image that you will post on Facebook or Flickr tonight? Having a real audience for the work that you’re doing gives you added pressure, and that’s a good thing.

What? Did I just say that pressure is a good thing?


Adding a relevant audience gives you additional motivation for doing the task well. That little bit of stress you introduce into the task is just enough to complete your optimized concentration.

Feedback System

A feedback system means you get responses about your task results. This is important especially in shaping what you do next, to improve. So it’s important to share your work on a public platform.

Northern California creek copyright Aloha Lavina 2011. All rights reserved.

Shooting this for Canon's PhotoYou magazine helped me learn how to use slow shutter and remote trigger in a couple days.

Flickr is a good place to start, but be aware that Flickr is often indiscriminate about quality. In the early days of learning Photoshop, I have posted horrendously processed photos on Flickr, and people liked them. Why is this bad? It’s bad because it’s like singing Celine Dion songs to my dog Mushu, who always, always licks my face happily no matter how croaky I sound. Do I then conclude that I am Celine Dion reincarnate from Mushu’s happy kisses? I’m not in any way saying Flickr is bad. I am just saying, it’s not a place you can reliably improve your photography just from the feedback. But you can sign up for specific groups that do give you authentic critique, instead of the fluffy “Great shot!” I learned a lot from the Strobist Group on Flickr.

A forum specifically designed for photography learning might work better. There are quite a few online. Search Google for “learning photography forum*” and you get 316,000,000 results.

Stretch your skills

On your journey learning photography, give yourself a new task or skill to learn every time. Say you are solid with the exposure triangle and have been using exposure compensation pretty well for the past few weeks. How about adding a new complexity to the task, like “Shoot a series of images for an essay on architecture of temples.” The task means you have to shoot both indoors and outdoors, so you’ll be using previously learned skills.

Then you might move onto “Shoot a series of portraits at the morning market in Chinatown.” This second task means you have to use the previous skills, mixed lighting situations, and you are shooting constantly moving subjects.

Challenging yourself more means you are learning more. As you move into more complex tasks in photography, you can also adjust your feedback system so it adds that extra pressure that will activate your optimal concentration. Is there a contest you can enter? Are you ready for 500px?

Thoughtful design of your photography improvement tasks can help you improve faster and enjoy your learning. By assigning yourself task to learn “just in time” for the right audience using a new skills, you are on your way to a fun and productive journey in photography.

What will you learn this week?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
10 Cliches a Photographer Can Believe
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men making charcoal in Perak, Malaysia copyright Aloha Lavina

Give Yourself Assignments and Watch Your Photography Improve

There are learners who don’t need teachers.

These are the remarkable people who learn even when there is no one to demand task performance from them. Usually they are internally motivated, and learned how to learn and have feedback systems of their own, from a young age.

No matter what age, we can learn how to teach ourselves. The key to this is to find out motivation, develop a feedback system, and structure our learning so that it is clear and easy to follow through. It’s easy to do these using assignments.

Assignments are useful because they lend themselves to structure. By structure I mean some kind of order imposed on the person performing the assignment. If you want to give yourself an assignment to add structure to your learning, there are a few things you can do.

low light photography by Aloha Lavina. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Found this beam of light hitting a plastic oil drum. Yum. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Make a list

You can make a shotlist for the assignment. A shotlist is like a shopping list for the images you might be able to make at a particular place. When I went to Perak State in Malaysia yesterday, my good friend and host Ker told me that Perak’s biggest export to the world was its charcoal made from the abundant mangrove trees in the state.

So when she asked me to go to the charcoal factory, I had a shotlist I wanted. Grungy, moody shots. Lots of texture. Light seeping in through windows and wall cracks to contrast the dark surfaces. Smoke from the charcoal ovens. Patterns….my shotlist was a good size, and I enjoyed making my way through the list.

Perak, Malaysia charcoal factory low light photography copyright Aloha Lavina

Giant oven for making charcoal. I used a a high ISO. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You can also make a list of techniques you might try out with a particular assignment. The technique I most used shooting the charcoal factory was making sure my exposure gave me a reasonably wide dynamic range—meaning the pictures I made had to hold on to as much detail as possible in the highlights, midtones and shadows. Other times, I made subjective exposures, or exposures based on how I felt the scene should look. Mostly I liked underexposure for the mood and mystery it gave.

Keep it simple

It’s important to keep it simple. Simplicity means you can easily remember your list, and don’t need to interrupt your image making with frequent glances at written instructions. Keeping it simple also means you break down the assignment into manageable chunks, so you don’t get overwhelmed from what you need to accomplish from the start. For instance, an assignment of “low light photography at a charcoal factory to practice exposure compensation” is a good assignment because it is really specific and you know right away what challenges face you when you begin.

low light photography charcoal factory in Perak, Malaysia. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

It felt like the set of Aliens 1, 2, or 3. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Get a feedback system into your workflow

A feedback system allows you to see and understand that what you have done in a task is ‘right’ in light of your goals. Since you’re learning on your own, you need to see that you are on the right track.

With photography, it’s fairly easy to learn a feedback system and incorporate it into your workflow, or what you do while shooting. For examples, you can: look at the LCD display to see your shot, look at histograms, or look at the values in the exposure you made.

The LCD is nifty because it helps us see what shot we made. But often it is so small that you can’t see some things that might be vital for the shot to work, such as sharpness, what highlights are blown out, detail captured, and the like. So yes, love your LCD, but learn another way to tell yourself how you did.

The histogram is also good, and there is a sort of ‘recipe’ that people have been talking about for years. This recipe is “expose to the right” which means basically that the histogram looks like a lump skewed toward the right—telling you that it’s basically brighter than darker. But if you make subjective exposures, the histogram will not be that useful. For example, if you underexpose for mood, the histogram will show a skew to the left. That’s against the recipe. But it is not necessarily wrong. This is a decision you have to make as a creative person.

The values of your exposure triangle are good to know as part of your feedback system. While you’re learning, if you note down your values, such as what ISO you used, what aperture and shutter speed, you learn what works best for the look you want. The more you shoot, the better able you will be at gauging what exposure values work for the type of shots you want to make.

men making charcoal in Perak, Malaysia copyright Aloha Lavina

I really like how smoke makes light visible. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Why do you do this?

Motivation is key. With creativity, a vision is really the most important element, even much more than technique. Technique is something that you can learn from a blog, a video, from someone else.

But the reason you have for picking up your camera is what makes you pick it up again and again, even when you fail.

So motivation is the key to learning. And you have to find out for yourself why you are doing this. Try to be specific, because that’s what helps you learn and improve.

I was happy at the charcoal factory because I love low light photography and dramatic light. Dramatic light sends me into exclamations of delight and keeps me buoyant. I found this out early on: light distracts me quite easily. So I know that if I want to challenge myself or just enjoy my photography, I’ve got to do an assignment that involves light. It will make me get up early, and it will give me joy.

What assignment will you give yourself this week?

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

You might also like:
6 Ways to Start Your Photography Hobby
Easy Way to Dodge and Burn Photos without Destroying Pixels
5 Myths about Creativity a Photographer Should Bust
Does Gear Really Make You a Better Photographer?
10 Small Things that make a Big Difference in Your Photos






light on leaves and rock, Siem Reap Cambodia copyright Aloha Lavina

6 Ways to Start Your Photography Hobby

Everyone starts somewhere.

But how do you start? When do we start creating magic with the camera?

There no magic tricks that a photographer can weave into a spell for good photography. But there are some tips that might just get you started on the way to making some pretty good imagery.

1. Vary settings for various shooting situations.

It is so easy to let the camera do the work for you—set it on Program mode, and click away. But this is one way to make sure that you continue to be mystified by the way the camera captures an image. If you experimented with the basic modes of Aperture and Shutter Priority Modes, you can see some subtle differences in the way these modes work. This could be your chance to start controlling some of the aspects of each mode to get the shots you want. There are some tutorials on line that simplify Aperture Priority Mode and Shutter Priority Mode for you. Take advantage of these tutorials, and let them lead you onto a learning path to master these camera controls.

2. Learn to see the light.

No matter what your subject matter is, lighting is going to make a difference in how the photos ultimately look like. Learning how to see how light affects the overall image is a skill that you can develop, to start making stunning images.

Light has character, nuance, variations in color and intensity. Studying it closely, you will see how these traits of light change the way a photo looks just with a small change. If you studied how light behaves on objects, you can begin to see the way a photographer sees. And your photos will show it.

light on leaves and rock, Siem Reap Cambodia copyright Aloha Lavina

Light is a beautiful subject. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

3. Every situation is a learning opportunity.

Taking a walk with your camera pretty much constitutes a great photography classroom. If there are people and things in motion, you’ve got a great subject for a study on capturing motion–either freezing it with a fast shutter speed, or making deliberate blur to suggest it.

If you’ve got a sociable nature, you can go out and talk to strangers, and convince them to have their photos taken. This sort of project can help you with making fast decisions about where the subject should stand in relation to light, and how to compose the shot so that you make a portrait that tells part of their stories.

Objects around you will interact with light. On your walk, you can watch out for instances when the light makes something so commonplace so beautiful.

4. Concentrate on composition.

There are a few ways you can hone your composition skills.

First, you can create still life situations in your own home. Placing some objects on a table beside a window, you have some ready subjects to photograph. You can create your own seasonal still life–flowers in the spring, a glass of lemonade glistening with condensation in the summer, pumpkin and berries in the fall, etc.

Second, you can try to vary composition when you’re photographing different scenes in your daily life. How would you shoot a birthday party or a community barbecue, and practice the compositions basics?

Practicing composition is a great place to begin to understand the creative ways you can include or exclude elements in a frame, to make an awesome photograph.

Thai monk hands copyright Aloha Lavina

Learn what to include or exclude from the frame. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

5. Give yourself assignments.

The first spark of love you have for photography is a wonderful feeling. But when difficulty strikes, and your photos don’t come out as well as you wanted, you might feel heartbreak. Sustaining your love for photography is essential for you to get over the obstacles of failed photos. One way to sustain your interest is to give yourself assignments.

Assignments can vary to short, very specific ones like shoot a theme on a given day, to long term projects like my love affair with faceless portraits.

A great lesson I’ve learned which I suggest you take on, is to combine your photography with something else you’re interested in. Do you like sports? Go and shoot sports. If you like fashion, have a friend model the latest releases in clothing and accessories. Do you have a train collection? Make a series of landscapes with trains and railways as the main focus. If you combine your other interests with your photography, you’ll always stay in love with it while you’re learning.

6. Use the photos you see on Flickr and 500px as learning points.

It’s actually useful to drool over photos that other photographers have made. On sites like Flickr and 500px, photographers post daily. Using a subsection of the websites like the Explore page on Flickr or the Editor’s Choices on 500px gives you a great place to start learning experiences based on critical assessment. Critically assessing photos that you see online can help you with how a photographer thinks.

Ratchaburi Thailand weaver of Thai silk copyright Aloha Lavina

A silk weaver in Thailand. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

View a photograph and ask yourself some basic photography questions, like, how did the photographer choose this subject? What’s the vantage point? If the photographer had stood somewhere else, how would the composition change? How does the composition work? What about the composition is compelling, gorgeous, engaging? Where was the light coming from? What time of day was this photo taken? How much of the subject is in the frame? What did the photographer decide to exclude? How could I have shot it better?

I know the last question sounds arrogant, Boo! But asking this question of the pictures you see online and in magazines helps you to improve your own way of approaching subjects. Even though your technical skills may be less developed than those other photographers’ skills, you will gain an understanding of how the photography mind works while you’re critiquing other people’s photos. You don’t have to publish your critique, so why worry? But the focused, deliberate study of photos that work will help you get into the decision making that can change your photos from snapshots to art.

There are a ton of other photo opportunities you can use to guide your beginnings in photography. With these simple tips, you can put yourself on the path to making magic with your images.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That!

If you like what’s on the blog, let us know by commenting! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage. It would also be cool to be friends with you on Facebook, or connect with you on Twitter.

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Using the Background Effectively in Your Portraits
When You have to Wing it
From Idea to Image Part I: Planning
From Idea to Image Part 2: Lighting Clothing

How Different Lenses Help You See Creatively