5 ways to improve your photography by forward planning and intention setting

How many times have you grabbed your camera on the way out of the door and spent the day snapping what's in front of you? I'm certainly guilty as charged. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing that, in fact it can be hugely pleasurable to wander along with no specific plan, observing and reacting to your surroundings. However, I've come home on many an occasion very disappointed with the photos I've taken - they're just not "me" or not particularly creative.

So, if you can relate to the above or feel like your photographic mojo has taken a little wander, why not try a little planning in advance and intention setting before you head out with some of the tips below and see if this helps? 


1. Time of day / weather / tide / Location research

If you are planning on doing some outdoors photography, have a think about what time of day would be best for the light you want to capture: do you want to avoid mid-day shadows? Are you after the golden-hour glow? Do you want to capture a scene when it is busy or empty?

Similarly, check the weather forecast before you go. Cloud cover might be perfect for some portraiture or macro photography, but it might not make for interesting landscape shots. Don't necessarily rule out rainy days - very changeable weather can provide a lot of drama in the skies and interesting light.

And if you are intending to photograph coastal areas, check the tide times! I can't tell you how many times I've turned up at a beach to find it's high tide and there's no beach to be seen - or it's a super low tide and the sea is miles away.

Finally, doing some location research in advance can be very helpful. I like to search on Flickr or 500px and Pinterest for photos of a particular place I'm going to shoot (that's how we tend to plan our holidays!). I look for interesting landmarks such as rocks or pretty walls or beach huts, and information on where exactly they are so I can find them, and where I can park.

When the right time, weather, tide and location come together, it can make for some magical photography. The shot below was taken just after sunset as the tide was coming in and washing over some striking rocks (providing a focal point), with just enough clouds to add interest to the sky. I used a tripod and some filters to slow the exposure down so I could capture the movement of the water.

I definitely need to get out and do more sunrise and sunset photography!


2. Choose a Style and mood

Have a think about what style of photos you would like to capture and what kind of mood you want to convey. Light and airy with shallow depth of field? Dark and gritty with moody light? Happy? Angry? Tender? Lots of detail? Then plan the lenses and settings you want to experiment with to achieve your mood and style.

For example, my style is all about beautiful simplicity (the clue is in the name of my blog!), which to me means light, bright, airy, pretty, soft. I therefore like to shoot with lenses that have a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field, and a blurred, softer background (see my How to get background blur in your photographs post for more information about aperture and depth of field).

Sometimes it can help to take a look through your favourite photos or create a moodboard on Pinterest, and spend some time thinking what it is about the photo(s) that most appeals to you. This can really help you to develop your own style. Capturing the same style of photos can really help to unify diverse subject matter and provide a cohesive feel to your photostream or galleries.

If you're not sure what settings you need to use on your camera to achieve the style of images you love, it can help to take a look at the meta data behind the photographs. Flickr now displays some key settings information underneath each photo (although not all photographers permit this to be displayed). The meta data on the right is for the image below and shows what camera and lens I used, along with the aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, focal length and ISO.

Now keep your intended style/mood firmly in mind as you go out and shoot. Maybe even write it down and carry a notebook around with you.


3. Try using a prime lens of fixed focal length

If I'm stuck in a bit of a rut, I find it can be really helpful to leave my zoom lens behind and go out and shoot with one of my prime lenses. The only zooming you can do is with your feet, so it forces you to focus on your composition. By stripping away the distraction of zooming, you are less tempted to feel you have to capture everything about a scene and can stick to the intention you went out with.

For example, the bluebell photo below was taken on my 85mm f1.8 lens. I wanted to capture softness and a dreamy quality, with a very shallow depth of field, and avoid too much detail.


4. Pick a Subject or theme: tell a story

Sometimes it can help to set out with a specific subject or theme in mind. This can help your photographs relate to each other and collectively tell a story, and stop you getting distracted by everything else. For example:

  • patterns or shapes
  • a specific object
  • reflections
  • shadows
  • a colour
  • abstract
  • long exposure
  • movement
  • seasons
  • take a prop out with you to photograph, e.g. a mirror or a balloon

The possibilities are quite literally endless, so choose something that you are excited by. If you are stuck for ideas, you could follow along with the themes/challenges suggested by various Instagram accounts such as @its_my_week or follow the main @instagram account for the weekend hashtag projects. It's fascinating to see how diversely other people interpret the theme.

Recently I went out with the intention of shooting images that are suitable for text, for me to use as part of a new series of inspirational quotes/words that I'm working on. This caused me to shoot in a very different way, as the images I was capturing needed to be secondary, more about colour and mood, with the focus very much to the side, to leave plenty of space for text. It's definitely still a work in progress. 


5. Mid point review

It's really worth stopping during your photography session to review what you've captured. It's best to do this inside, away from glare. It's the ideal time to stop for a cup of tea or coffee and revisit your list of intentions. Have you captured what you set out to? Has something not worked? Do you need to go out and shoot it again, in a slightly different way? There's nothing worse then getting home and downloading your photos only to realise that something's not sharp or the shot that was most important to you hasn't worked.


So what do you think? Do you forward plan - or prefer to wing it? What are your favourite ways to get out of a photo rut?