I am a relatively new photographer. I've only owned my Canon Rebel XSi for a year, however I was researching SLR/DSLR camera gear and photographic theory for over a year before I purchased a DSLR. I have extensive theoretical knowledge, and I understand the technical aspects of cameras very well. I think this has lead to some of my troubles with practical application, however. All those technical details seem to get in the way, and I don't have any artistic knowledge to balance things out.

I am primarily interested in landscape, wildlife/bird, macro, and other nature photography. I am wondering how someone in my position can go about learning the artistic aspects of photography. I have several of the most recommended books, like John Shaw's Nature Photography Field Guide and Developing Vision & Style. Shaw's book is great, however primarily film based, and a lot of the book is about film photographic theory and technique (i.e. "pushing" film ISO). The Developing Vision & Style is a phenomenal book that interviews some fantastic artists, but does not really get to the heart of how one really develops vision and style.

Are there any other resources I could use to help me learn more about the artistic aspects of nature photography? Books, web sites? Personal tips are also welcome.

Many thanks for your insight.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great question, I'm in a very similar position, so I'll be watching this one! \$\endgroup\$
    – chills42
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 19:42

8 Answers 8


We've moved into (in my opinion) a more philosophical question with art and photography.

To answer this, you need to figure out what is your definition of "good photographic vision?"

How do you measure the artistic value of a photograph? To me, that is a very subjective question; much like judging any type of art is.

I have had the luxury of visiting many of the worlds finest art museums, and not every work of art that is on display had artistic meaning to me. In fact, I now know that I prefer modern art to the the classics.

So to get to your question: Spin it another way: Why do you think your photographs lack in artistic value? Are you judging your own work yourself? We're all probably our own harshest critics.

My definition of art is: any work that evokes an emotional connection. What is your definition?

How does one get better?

Like all artists, you need a mentor. Study the works of photographers whose work you admire. Every great artist spent years studying the works of other great artists.

Like many artists, you may need to leave your home. How many great authors, painters, sculptors, have traveled to find inspiration. Perhaps you need your own "walk about" (yeah I'm a Lost fan :)

Take risks. Since you enjoy nature photography, how about trying a different type of photography, to get you to think outside the parameters of nature. Street Candids, or still-life, macro, sports. A subject you don't have the "technical" mastery of will force your right brain to engage more.

Experiment. If you always shoot nature with tele's, try grabbing a wide-angle and see what you get.

Practice. The idea that creative types just know how to be creative is false. Artists spend so much time honing their skills, and it's the same with photography. The Beatles played shows day in and day out for years to hone their musical skills. Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote about 10,000 hours in Outliers. You said you're "new" to photography, so give it time. If you shot photographs for every hour of every day for the first year you owned your dSLR, you'd still need over 1000 more hours of practice :)

Be a true Renaissance man (or woman). Try other creative outlets. Ansel Adams taught himself piano. Lessons learned in one art form can directly influence the works of others.

Submit your work for critique. Enter photo contests, find a way to get into an art-show, submit your photos online to places that give honest constructive feedback.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for the detailed answer, Alan. :) To answer some of your questions: I am a bit critical of my own work, but I am purposely so as it forces me to improve. The main reason I've asked the original question was I've gotten a lot of negative critical review from other photographers (most notably, 1x.com). This criticism has been constructive most of the time, and I've learned a few things (i.e. how to better utilize natural lighting to enhance my work), but something still seems to be lacking. Anyway, I really appreciate your comment about "Take Risks"...very good advice. \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 20:31

I'm not nearly anywhere I'd like to be with my photography, but here are the things that have helped me on the way:

  • Books, both educational and "picture books". On educational side I'd recommend "The Photographer's Eye" by Michael Freeman and Freeman Patterson's instructional books. I can now also recommend Michael Freeman's "The Photographer's Mind".
  • Uploading your work to some photo critique site
  • Taking part of some photo competitions
  • Printing your own work. Sometimes photos that looked almost on computer screen doesn't really impress on A4.
  • Choosing a narrow topic, for example birding (not wildlife, not nature) and learning it. Not just the photography part, but also the species, where they live, how they act, when are they active, what they eat, how they hunt, etc. Rule number 1 of underwater photography is: "you have to be a good diver".
  • Trying to find a differentiator (ie why and how should your work stand out in Flickr) and work with it.
  • Setting yourself goals for example: "I want to take 3 photographs that I'll hang on the wall during half a year".
  • Browsing through huge volumes of pictures and thinking what I like and dislike about them. Make yourself familiar how the classics of your specialty were born. If your wildest dream is to get to National Geographic, well, you have to subscribe to it first.
  • \$\begingroup\$ I own the Photographers Eye. Excellent book! I've only barely started digging into it though. Part of the reason I've asked this question is I've uploaded a variety of my photos to 1x.com, a site that is very strict about what they accept. I've gotten some strong, but constructive, critical review there, and nothing has been accepted yet. Lighting is one of my biggest problems, but people have mentioned lacking style and/or vision several times, without really explaining what they really meant by it. Regarding photo contests...where/how can I find them? Are there good links/resources for that? \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 20:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are mini-contests called challenges (already mentioned in another answer too) at DPReview: dpreview.com/challenges. Everything else I can say would, once again, be too local. \$\endgroup\$
    – Karel
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 20:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jrista: 1x.com explicitly mentions that you don't only have to be good, but also need to fit certain style and vision the editors have about a site. So not being accepted there does not necesarrily mean you don't have vision. It can be that yours is different from what people at 1x.com like. \$\endgroup\$
    – che
    Commented Jul 28, 2010 at 11:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for printing as one of several good ideas. Sometimes, seeing an image on paper (even with just a cheap dot matrix printer) reveals flawed composition and other defects not obvious when shown on a computer screen. \$\endgroup\$
    – DarenW
    Commented Aug 1, 2010 at 16:38

One thing to bear in mind that single biggest advantage of digital over film is the freedom to experiment. While, of course, you can experiment with film, the cost of developing the results of your experiments can be prohibitive and you have to wait to see if the experiment worked.

For example, I started experimenting with water drop photography (not using fancy triggers, just me and the camera) and the first time I took well over 100 shots and got a handful that were interesting. That would have never happened with my film, I wouldn't have tried.

Anyways, the moral of the story is just do it, be unconvential and shoot. You'll probably end up with a lot of discards, but you'll probably nail some real gems as a result and all it cost you was time that you were willing to spend anyways.


Photographer's Life in Graph (by Robert Benson) has been doing the rounds. It shows visually what you can expect as you develop as a photographer.

  • \$\begingroup\$ LOL. Love it! Although.... /p/? I guess I haven't quite progressed that far yet. :P \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ boards.4chan.org/p for example. Not for the easily offended. \$\endgroup\$
    – Karel
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 21:59

When reviewing your own pictures, think about what you like and don't like for each one. What could be done to improve it (not just in post process, but when you were taking it, or even stuff like if that tree wasn't there, the clouds were better, a certain facial expression, etc).

Also look at photos and photogs that you like and try to understand why you like the work and how to do that.

Submit your good ones to critique forums and websites.

Critique other people's photos, it will help you see and take better pictures.

Participate in photo challenges. Once you spend a week agonizing over a good concept for a theme, you can look at what other people did. The pains of your own creative process combined with great ideas that others have executed will give you new insight.

Learn what you like, and learn how to make it happen.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the comment. You mentioned photo challenges...where might I find such things? I spend most of my time online, submitting to various sites (i.e. 1x.com, DeviantArt.com Groups, etc.) I guess I could look for a local photography group, but are there other ways to find groups of people involved in photo challenges? \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 20:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ One good photo challenge/assignment resource is DailyShoot.com \$\endgroup\$
    – ahockley
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 22:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ photo.stackexchange.com/questions/2021/on-line-photo-challenges \$\endgroup\$
    – eruditass
    Commented Dec 1, 2010 at 16:08

I'm debating even posting this since I don't know there's a "right" answer, but...

I really think everyone develops their own style and vision in their own way.

Create lots of photographs, and see which ones you like. Find patterns or consistent elements between the images that please you, then expand on those and see how you might extend those patterns and commonalities. Over time you'll start to see what sort of style or vision you have. There's not a prescriptive "how to" for developing your vision and style; I feel that it will come to you in a retrospective way as you look at your body of work.

The thing about vision and style is that most successful photographers have developed their own take on things. There is benefit in seeing what has worked (and what hasn't) for other photographers, but you won't really form your own style by merely trying to copy others.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I don't really think there is a "right" answer...I'm just looking for helpful insight. I do like your perspective though, that style and vision is a personal development, and must be gained through retrospection. I can't say that I've ever really tried copying others...just tried to gain insight from them. I think my problem so far is I've been rather listless and random...I don't have any consistency in any of my work. I guess I'll have to start looking for patterns in the things I want to photograph, and go from there. Thanks for the advice! \$\endgroup\$
    – jrista
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 20:34

I really like @Alan's answer.

I always ask myself this question when taking a shot, or going through shots I've taken:

Who cares?

Why should anyone look at the photo that I've taken? We are saturated with images on a daily basis in modern life, constantly bombarded with messages. In order to get through that, I have to consider my audience. And that means, I have to make something that resonates with them.

Here's the kicker-- I can't read their minds, I can just read my own.

In some instances, it's pretty easy. If you have a person who hires you to do a job, then they tell you what they want, and you produce it for them, and your audience is either satisfied with you or wants their money back. That kind of photography, while it can definitely produce works of art (viz: wedding photography, I've seen several shots there that I am simply amazed by), has a very clear focus and definition.

When you shoot without definition, your task becomes harder, because you have to make the definition. You have to find the thing that makes your audience care. And you have to develop a thick skin when no one else cares but you and people who like you.


Firstly, read David Hurn's and Bill Jay's "On Being A photographer". It's primarily about photojournalistic work, but much is applicable to any type of image making. You have a terrific advantage as you know what your subject area is already. Now you need to get out and shoot lots and lots of images. But, take those images with purpose.

What I mean by that is decide on what you are going to shoot: be very specific: "I want to shoot Herons in the Isle of Mull." Now do lots of research: read as much as you can about Herons and their habits, also research the Isle of Mull, and decide on the practicalities, such as when to visit, where to stay, the clothing you'll need, etc. Draw up a shooting plan that includes the time of day you intend to shoot and the type of images your are after: long shots, wide shots, close ups, birds in flight, feeding, mating, whatever. Then go shoot.

Once you're done, leave a bit of time before you review your images, then go through them forensically. Decide which pictures you like, which you don't, which met you expectations, which didn't. And, here's the really vital bit: figure out what it is you don't like about an image or how it failed. It might be obvious, blurred perhaps, or something a little less obvious, like a slightly off kilter horizon. Whatever it is, make sure you understand why and how the issue occurred and consciously make a note to avoid making the same mistake again.

Similarly, for images you like, figure out why you like it. What quality makes them stand out? How could they be improved? Again, make a conscious note of compositions, framing, focal lengths, lighting conditions, etc. that work best for you and then try to repeat these when appropriate.

I'd recommend you write this all down. Do this repeatedly, and you will become more and more conscious of your actions, and your photography will incrementally improve — guaranteed.

But, remember a really great photograph is a rare commodity. You need to take hundreds of good photographs to produce one brilliant one. Cartier-Bresson once asked W. Eugene Smith "How many great pictures do you think you take a year?" Eugene Smith, trying to sound modest, replied "About 15." Bresson retorted "You always exaggerate."


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