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How to stand out in a world full of photographers?

In today’s world everyone can take photographs. Not only that, everyone seems to be brilliant at it. So, how can you stand out with your photography? Here are ten tips to help you to improve your skills:

1. Shoot through

Sometimes it is good to look back before you look forward. When at a location, I tend to spin around to see if I’m missing something I could use to shoot through. For example this picture is more interesting than a basic tourist photo of a mountain top, because I included the flower in it. (If you don’t agree with me, that’s awesome! It would be boring if we all thought the same way and created similar photos. Not agreeing with another photographer doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it means you have your own unique vision.)

2. Stop wasting time trying to find the perfect subject and location

For years and years I thought photography is about finding beautiful things to take pictures of. This tip might be obvious to you, but I’m saying it anyway because it took a long time for me to understand: what happens behind the camera matters much more than what’s in front of it. Don’t doubt yourself so much, it’s holding you back. Any location is a great location as long as you use your creativity. To illustrate, these next two photos of my brother have been taken in the same locations that are showing on the right hand side. If I had hunted beautiful locations, I would have missed both of these shots.

3. Challenge yourself and experiment

Everyone has photos of sunsets and cupcakes, so it’s about time you start doing something else. The greatest photos are the ones nobody else takes. By challenging yourself you’ll learn a lot more than by staying in your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid of failure because you will fail anyway. I need to take a hundred pictures before I get one good one. It is a natural (and vital ! ) part of the process.

And if the photo doesn’t work as well as you thought, that’s okay! At least you tried - and probably had some fun!

Many of my favourite photos started off as a joke between me and my brothers. We just wanted to try out something crazy. Most ideas fail, but when a crazy idea works… it’s worth all the trouble you went through to get it.

4. The secret behind magical photos

Winter is coming. Now, you might find yourself complaining about the darkness and how that makes photography impossible. I’ve done that too. But in Finland, we can use darkness as an advantage in our photography. We, Nordic photographers, have an easier access to magic. This magic is called “light painting with long exposure”. You can find step-by-step -tutorials for it on Google. It is a lot easier than it looks - you only need two ingredients: darkness and a flashlight.

5. Learn to use your camera!

This might come as a surprise, but your camera actually has more buttons than the shutter. Mindblowing, right? System cameras (in Finnish: järjestelmäkamera) have different modes. You’ll never meet a professional photographer who isn’t using manual mode. The manual mode allows you to control the settings more than any other mode on your camera. It’s freaking difficult to use at first, but once you learn how to use it and discover the secrets of manual mode, there’s no going back. The easiest way to get started is by watching tutorials on YouTube (searchterm: “the exposure triangle”). Knowing how to use the exposure triangle means you can adjust the settings to better match the conditions you’re shooting in. If you have a system camera, look it up. I promise you won’t regret it!

6. Portraits! (Colours and leading lines)

To really draw someone’s attention to your photographs, I suggest using leading lines. That means that you use some kinds of lines that are going towards your subject. In this photo I have used a bicycle lock to focus the attention to my model’s face.

Use complementary colours (vastavärit) when taking portraits. You can use complementary colours to make the object stand out. For example if you are shooting with a model and they’re wearing a yellow jacket, take a photo of them in front of a blue house.

7. Don’t wait for the photo to come to you

Do a little bit of preparation work for your photos. For example, I started feeding birds in my backyard in order to maximize the amount of encounters with birds. I placed bird seeds to carefully chosen places that had nice backgrounds. ) I took this photo one morning last December. The yellow background is a sunrise. Best photographs never walk right under your nose. Nature photographs are on purpose made to look like lucky encounters with a wild animal but trust me, they never are.

8. Practise and never give up.

Nobody ever wants to hear this, but you can only improve by practising. However, I can offer you a shortcut: the more you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the faster you’ll learn.

Practise never makes perfect, but it always makes you better. Be patient. Progress is slow and results always come with a delay. You will fail a hundred times before you succeed. Time spent on the photo will show on the results. Do you know how many days it took me to get that photo of a squirrel? Me neither. I started by “getting to know” the squirrels (where do they spend their time, when and what do they eat, at what time are they most active, in which areas...?) I noticed that these two trees were really close to one another, and that squirrels enjoyed spending time on those trees. Then I noticed that they jumped from one tree to another. I wanted to get a photo of a squirrel in the air in between those two trees. I was always a second or a minute too late, day after day, week after week. Had I quit after the twentieth time I failed to catch that flight, I wouldn’t have that photo now.

9. How to (actually) think outside the box

We are encouraged to “think differently” or to “do it from a different perspective”. It is easier said than done, but one concrete tip I have to offer is this: try to photograph the same object in different ways. How does the photograph change when the object is photographed from behind, the frontor upside down? What if you include only half of the object in the photo? Could you combine two ideas together? Could you approach the subject with movie genres (horror, romance etc.)? How could you make a flower look pretty/ scary/ dead/ alive/ red/ magical/ blue? Could you tell a story with a photograph?

Thinking in a completely original way is impossible. Everything has been done, no need to reinvent the wheel. Thinking outside the box is not something you’re born with. It comes with - yes, you guessed it - practise! The more you experiment, the more unique ideas you will get.

10. No one will know

No one will see the person standing behind the camera. No one will see the hours (or days, months even!) spent on the photo. They won’t see the luck or misfortune you had on the way. They won’t see that mud pit you were laying in. They won’t see your frozen fingers and toes. All they’ll see are the results. Nobody will know how much work you put into it, but that doesn’t matter, because you will know. That is a much bigger reward than any amount of likes or comments on social media. Your followers will never know all the stories behind your photos, so stop doing it for them. Start doing it for yourself.

So, how to stand out in a world full of photographers? Create your own style, and create photos that you adore. I am sure the rest of the world will love them too. And if they don’t, well, you should be doing it for yourself in the first place anyway, so who the heck cares what others think? When I stopped posting my photographs on social media, I started enjoying my photography (and my life) much more.

What I looked like... ...and the results.

These two photos were taken at the same exact moment. Keep in mind that before you jump down to the ground, make sure you aren’t jumping to a pool of mud with your best clothes on - I’ve done that… more often than I’d like to admit. Luckily, in this particular situation, there was snow underneath.


Teksti: Annukka Mäkeläinen

Kuvat: Annukka Mäkeläinen


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