Improve as a Photographer Using One Easily Implemented Principle

I am always looking to improve my work and increase my efficiency and my open mindedness to try new methods isn’t always rewarded. However, applying one psychological principle for habit building has proven effective.

Anyone who reads my articles regularly will know I am an information addict always looking to grow as a photographer, business owner, and person. I consume a lot of books and podcasts on all of these areas and try any interesting theory or proposition I’m presented with. Many of these don’t quite apply to me or I can’t coax out a positive or impacting result. That said, from time to time I come across ideas or principles that resonate with me and become a staple of either my workflow or philosophy. My latest instance of this I believe is worth sharing.

While reading “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones” by James Clear I was introduced to a principle for improvement. The basic notion is this: work out ways to improve every part of an action by 1% and reap large rewards. The reasons for large rewards are not only as a result of all the small changes but the compound interest. Compound interest — simply put — is the interest on interest, where the interest on something is added to the original amount, and then generates interest of its own, ad infinitum. While this is usually referring to monetary investment, or more despicably, the pay day loans, it’s also applicable to actions and education.

So how can this apply to photography? Well, not to put the cart before the horse, it’s first worth understanding how infinitesimal improvements can lead to profound changes.

Almost invisible improvements, even in a large number of areas, is difficult to be motivated to maintain or implement. It’s natural to be skeptical of whether the changes are even enough to warrant the investment. For those who might doubt how much of an impact compound interest can have, I’ll offer two examples. The first is negative compound interest. If you were to borrow £100 ($130) when Wonga loans originally launched at 4,214% APR, within 7 years you would owe more than the U.S national debt (over 22 trillion dollars). The second example is more relevant to skills and actions.

David Brailsford, credited with masterminding the transformation of the British cycling team, came up with the term “aggregation of marginal gains” for compound interest of actions. The full story can be heard in chapter 1 of the aforementioned book, or read in some detail here. The synopsis is this: the British cycling team were unambiguously underperforming. Without changing personnel, Brailsford used marginal gains to turn them in to the most successful team in cycling history, winning the Tour de France multiple times, as well as a wealth of gold medals and championships. His approach is simply to improve each area by 1% and let the results take care of themselves. It’s important to note that improving each area is far more detailed than “fitness” and “bikes”. He changed everything from bike seats to the gel that masseuses used on the riders’ muscles after a work out based on recovery speeds. So, I decided to break down my photography career in to as many categories as possible to see where I can improve and how.  

I’m still trying to dissect my photography as a whole in to as many constituent parts as possible, so this can be improved on. Generally, the overarching subsections are gear, technique, and education. With gear, focus on what you would benefit from improving. If you’re a landscape photographer, acquiring an 85mm prime probably isn’t your best focus, even if it will improve your portraiture. Instead you might want to look in to a more heavy duty tripod. Gear is a slippery slope of GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrom) and it’s worth remembering you’re looking for incremental and small improvements, so any purchases should be off the back of the other two categories where absolute necessary. One area of my equipment I was already looking in to changing was fully supported by this method, and for me that was lighting. There were a few lighting setups and scenarios I couldn’t quite replicate and I was making do with lesser alternatives. I’m making the changes to my lighting system and overhauling it, and while the improvement is far more than a 1% gain, it wasn’t a decision made lightly. Going forward, my gear purchases will come as a result of areas that will see an obvious improvement from it.

So, instead of focusing on stuff, I looked at ways to improve workflow and knowledge in every way imaginable. I’ve made too many small changes to list without this article getting out of hand, but I’ll share some of the better examples where the difference was obvious. I started large with looking at how any lighting setups I was familiar with and if I could add more to my arsenal (which lead to the realization in the above paragraph). Then I looked at the order of my post-shoot routine and realized I could back up a shoot on to an external HDD while loading in to Lightroom, and have that external HDD automatically uploading to my offsite back up all simultaneously. I also made changes that seemed a little odd but were inspired by Brailsford’s changes for the cyclists. For my studio commercial shoots I changed what I wore from jeans and shoes, to stretch fabric chinos and running trainers so I could move more freely. I hadn’t noticed how restricted I was!

I systematically attacked every step, action, and thought process I had in my photography world and worked out a way to improve it, even if just a little. For us photographers, the results are irritatingly abstract and difficult to quantify, but the change has been profound. I’ve streamlined processes, increased comfort, and squeezed out more efficiency from such a simple principle. In fact, it felt a little embarrassing how simple it was, but habits form and go unchallenged without careful and regular analyses.

Have you any experience in habit building or breaking? Have you ever tried an approach like “aggregate marginal gains”? Share your advice and thoughts in the comments below.

Lead image courtesy of Pixabay on Pexels.

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