I get asked sometimes how one goes about improving their photography. Should they sign up for classes? Read some books? While it is worthwhile to get some structured instruction through college and the local library, there are, however, some things you could do right now to improve your images.
1 - Don't Worry About Equipment
Your camera doesn't matter. You don't need expensive equipment or to spend a lot of money. Money doesn't make great photographs, great photographers do. Many people think that if they just buy this camera or that lens their photographs will improve. The reality is if your photographs are not good now, they will not be good with that new equipment, either.
You cannot improve your photography without understanding this point. A great pianist can play an amazing piece on any piano, not just a grand piano. A great painter can make a masterpiece on cheap canvas and with second-rate brushes. It's the artist that matters, not the tools that the artist uses. It's the end that matters and not the means.
You should focus your time and attention to understanding what makes a great photograph great. Stop reading endless product reviews and comments about equipment on message boards by strangers. Don't waste your time with something that won't matter one bit in the long run.
You can improve your photographs with the equipment you already own. Once you've mastered the making of photographs, then you can think about equipment and how this or that can ever-so-slightly improve or make easier what you are doing. Until then, don't worry about it at all.
"The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." --Ansel Adams
2 - Take A Lot Of Photographs
You should be using your camera every day. The more images you can capture the better.
Don't just take pictures, that's not enough. Experiment, try things, be creative, use your imagination. Take lots of notes (even if just mental notes) of what worked and what didn't, what you liked and what you didn't like.
Don't worry about making mistakes. If something didn't work out, there is a lesson in that. If something did work, there is a lesson in that, too. Could you have done something--anything--that would have improved the photograph? A different angle? Closer? Further? Different aperture? Different shutter speed? Different white balance? Different composition? Different time-of-day?
Each photograph you create offers something of value if only you'd take the time to figure out what it is. Be your own critic and watch just how quickly your images improve.
"Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst." --Henri Cartier-Bresson
3 - Find Great Light
Photography is painting with light. Without light there is no photograph. Without great light there is no great photograph.
Great light can be found any time of the day or night, but you have to actively search it out. It may not be completely obvious. You may see some light a thousand times before you realize that it is indeed great.
The most obvious great light is near sunrise and sunset. A quick way to improve your photography is to be out with your camera when the sun is low to the horizon.
Sometimes great light just doesn't exist, so you have to create your own. Sometime you need to add light, sometimes you have to take some light away. Don't be afraid to use fill-flash (or more elaborate lighting equipment) or create shade (once in a while your own shadow will be enough).
Also consider the interplay of light and shadow and how they work together in an image. This interplay can be more important than the subject itself--in fact, it can very effectively be the subject.
"The moment you take the leap of understanding to realize you are not photographing a subject but are photographing light is when you have control over the medium." --Daryl Benson
4 - Speak Strongly
Photography is a form of non-verbal communication. Each image says something. What do your photographs say?
You speak the strongest when your conversation is something you are passionate about. Your words will not excite anyone if you are talking about something you have no interest in. So talk about whatever it is that you truly love!
What do you find interesting? What are your hobbies? What do you know more about than most people? What are you passionate about? Whatever your interests are is what you should be photographing. When you non-verbally talk about those things through your photographs, that is when you will create your strongest work.
It's important to understand that communication isn't a one-way street. For communication to be complete, it not only has to be transmitted, but it also has to be received. You have to consider how viewers will interpret your photographs. What the viewer actually deciphers from your image is more important than what you intended for them to decipher.
The key is to keep your communication easy to understand. Simple photographs are often better than complex photographs. Remove any and all unnecessary "words" from your images so there is no confusion. Make your message obvious.
"There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." --Ansel Adams
5 - Have Vision
Vision is seeing in your mind what you want your photograph to be even before the shutter has been opened. Vision is making an idea a reality.
This is where you use your imagination. This is where you are creative. This is where your photography is indeed art.
When you have vision, you have your own style that is unique to you. You cannot reach this step without completing the first four. One day it will just hit you. You will know exactly what you want to photograph, exactly how you will capture it, exactly what it will look like, and then you'll make it happen.
Even if you have yet to master steps one through four, you can still begin to consider what your vision might be and how you can get there. Before opening the shutter, try to think of the final image--what you want it to look like and how you can create that.
Push your creative self more and more. Try to see possibilities instead of difficulties, opportunities instead of opposition. The only thing holding you back from creating what you want is yourself.
"Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary." --Cecil Beaton
Once steps one through five are complete, the cycle repeats itself. You will need to remind yourself that it is never about the equipment, it's about the final print. Images 10,001 through 20,000 are your second worst, so you will need to continue making many photographs. You will have to push yourself to find great light where you never thought it existed before. You will continue to refine the communication through your photographs to make them even stronger. And you will have to continuously review your vision to ensure you are relevant.