Goal Setting in Photography

goal setting in photography


As I write this, we are in the final few days of 2016. As with the end of every year, we are all being bombarded with calls to set new goals for the coming year. Everybody talks about New Year’s resolutions, for example. If you follow any productivity or self-help resources, this is the time of year when they all give you their process for goalsetting in the coming year.

As it relates to photography, setting goals can be a useful exercise and I have done it in the past. It helps you see the big picture and then put you on the right path. I confess, however, that I was feeling particularly uninspired about the process for this year, and was considering skipping it.

Despite that, I have recently run across some advice on the subject of goal setting that changed things more me. In particular, I have a few tips for you to make the process of setting goals more fun and more useful. Therefore, I thought I would pass along a few tips for doing so. Then, while I’m at it, I thought I would talk about some specific areas of photography that might be worthy of your goals.

The Goal Setting Process

First, here is something to make this process fun for you. Start by writing out, in a stream of conscious fashion possible, goals for the coming year. Make no attempt at making them realistic or achievable. Don’t edit them. Just scribble them on a piece of paper that no one will ever see.

I think you’ll find this part to be fun. Previously, thinking about goals was draining for me. You have to think about what you need, what is realistic, how you get there, etc. Now, by merely concentrating on goals that come straight from the gut, it eliminates that drain.

Once you are done with that, then take this list and turn it into actual goals for the year. Now you can add the realism and practicality. But somehow, since you already have the goals, that doesn’t seem so bad. And here’s a tip to make this more concrete and useful: break it down into steps. Have a timetable if you want. But doing so will provide you with a path to achieving the goals. Further, it will divide it up into bite-sized chunks.

Adding these two steps to the process makes things more fun and more useful. But that leads to the question of what kind of goals you might set for photography. Let’s get into that now.

goal setting in photography

Photography Goals

Obviously everyone’s goals are different. We’re all not interested in the same sorts of photography. We are all further along than others on our photographic journeys. We live in different areas and have different things available to us. And so on.

At the same time, we are all the same. Our goals in photography all boil down to either “take better pictures” or “do stuff so that more people see our pictures.” Of course, those are so broad and vague that they are useless as goals. We need to break them down.

I’ve done that, and provided some categories you might focus on. For example, you can focus on learning new things. Or you can focus on creating new things or going new places. What follows is a listing of areas that you might consider in creating your own goals for the upcoming year.

1.  Learning

A great way to advance your photography is by making a commitment to learning in the upcoming year. Think about areas where you are weak and vow to work on them. If you are just starting out, there are countless resources. If you have been shooting for a while, it is easy to fall into a rut and this is a good way to break out of it.

It is easy to find resources for learning photography. Let’s start with books. Just go to Amazon and your local Barnes and Noble and you will find countless resources. Here are some of my favorites to get you started:

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of books to help you learn photography. One problem you may encounter is that the first several pages of Amazon’s list are filled with books for beginning photography, or basic Lightroom, or on specific cameras. To bypass that, just think about some of the better photography books you have read, go to them, and then scroll down to the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section. That will give you a better list of books to choose from.

You may learn better with video. That will probably be true if you want to learn Photoshop, Lightroom, or some other software. If that is the case, there are many great online resources. The two best paid resources are Lynda.com and KelbyOne.com. I have been members of both in the past and found them to be great resources.

Another one you might check out is LensWork Online. This is less of a basic how-to website, it is more of a resource for inspiration and motivation. There are interviews with photographers and a lot of commentary. As a bonus, you get the online editions of LensWork.

There are more, but that will get you started. The point is to make a commitment to learning new techniques, skills, or ways of seeing.

So what am I doing in this regard? Lately, I have fallen out of the habit of reading photography books. At some point I just felt like I had read everything worth reading and stopped. So I’m simply making a commitment to read 12 photography books this year, one each month. But the point isn’t really what I’m doing – I’m just telling you that so you can see that I am practicing what I preach here – but rather to give you ideas for the coming year.

2.  Broadening Your Horizons

You might also set out to learn a completely new type of photography. A caveat before we discuss this: don’t think you need to go explore other areas of photography. I see people get unnecessarily hung up on this. It isn’t a requirement and doesn’t necessarily make you a better photographer. For example, Ansel Adams was a fine photographer without photographing nudes. Similarly, Henri Cartier Bresson didn’t need to go waste a lot of time shooting landscapes in order to capture his famous street scenes. If you are comfortable where you are, you need not change.

That said, learning about other areas of photography can be a lot of fun and really open you up to new things. Start by considering other areas of photography that you don’t really do. Macro, wildlife, and night photography all come to mind right away.

In addition, there are two areas that have previously been off-limits that have now become affordable that you might want to consider.

  • The first is using drones for photography. They are easy to fly and are becoming less and less expensive. I wrote an article on getting started with drones, which you can see here. If you just want to dip your toe in the water, there are options for just a few hundred dollars. For example, you can get a Phantom 3 Standard for $399. If you want state of the art, the Phantom 4 Pro is an awesome device, with a much improved camera over previous models among other improvements, and it costs $1,500.
  • The other area of photography that is rapidly opening up is underwater photography. It used to be that you had to buy a housing for your DSLR that cost around $2,000. No thanks. Now, there are a lot of other options. There are waterproof point and shoots and mirrorless cameras. Further, there are cheaper housings these days, particularly when it comes to smaller mirrorless cameras. I previously wrote an article on the options for underwater photography, which you can find here.

These are just two areas that interest me, and there are many others as well.

Rather than changing your whole area of photography, you might stick with what you are doing but try different styles. This is especially helpful if you find yourself stuck in a rut. I remember one year I felt like I was stuck so, as an exercise, I decided to go out and try to photograph landscapes like Michael Kenna. I will freely admit my final pictures looked nothing like his. But I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot in the process. Picking a photographer whose work you like but who does things completely different than you can really shake things up for you.

3.  Community

In addition to taking better pictures, we all want more people to see them. At the same time, putting your photos out there is difficult for a lot of people. I know it has been for me. I just feel like I am shoving my photos in people’s faces by displaying them, or that I am being egotistical by implying that my photos should be seen by others. This manifests itself in me taking very few steps to show my pictures to others. For example, I have been taking photos for yours and never posted them to Instagram or Facebook until a few months ago.

In this regard, there is almost no better way to get your photos out into the world and seen by others than Instagram. This is a social media device based solely on pictures. What could be better for photographers than that? That said, there are other options as well. You might create a fan page on Facebook, for example. I did this because a lot of my friends and family aren’t on Instagram.

Two other platforms created solely for photographers are 500px and Flickr. On either site, you essentially create your own gallery. I much prefer 500px because the pictures are usually of higher quality and also because of the scoring system it uses.

If you haven’t already, start a photography website. It is cheap, easy, and fun. It is one of the best things I have done since getting into photography several years ago. Check out my Online Portfolio Guide and head over to Squarespace or Smugmug to get started.

You could also start your own blog. Most blogs focus on either the photographer or teaching others photography. There is plenty of room for your own take on photography within either of these broad categories.

4.  Products

There has never been a better time to be a photographer. That is particularly true when it comes to the options for actually doing something with your pictures. There are myriad of digital and print options that weren’t available even a few years ago.

When it comes to print options, you might resolve to create a definite number of prints this year. That will get you involved with printing process and result in a gallery of sorts. Keep in mind that the prints don’t have to be paper. Gallery wraps, printing on other materials such as wood or metal have come into their own.

Another great option is to resolve to create your own book. You can create a hard-copy book or digital book. For hard-copies, check out Blurb.  These books are beautiful, but the downside is that they are expensive. Digital publishing is essentially free, but it is time consuming. If you want to publish to Kindle, it does not handle pictures very well.

5.  Publishing

Thus far, we have essentially talked about self-publishing your photos, which is great but doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will look at your photos. However, there are many magazines and other publications out there that are looking for photos. If you get published, you will likely get a lot of eyeballs on your photographs.

Are you guaranteed publication? Of course not. But if you are, it is something to be proud of. Check out this recent podcast by Brooks Jensen of LensWork to get his take on why you should submit to publications. And if you aren’t chosen for publication, what have you lost?

I understand it can be somewhat intimidating to submit your photos for publication. It also takes effort to figure out who publishes what and then to get your photos ready per the submission guidelines. Perhaps for these reasons, I’ve actually never done it. This year, however, I resolve to submit to at least 3 magazines.

6.  Gear

There is nothing that will hold you back in photography more than gear lust. Many of us look at high-priced cameras and lenses that we don’t own and then give up on trying to achieve great photos. Logically, that is a sucker’s game and it is exactly what the marketers want you to think. You need to overcome it.

But that’s easier said than done. And so, rather than continue to fight it, it might make sense to invest in a lens or piece of gear you have been lusting after. Take this opportunity to pull the trigger. It will do two things for you. First, the new item will energize you and get you ready to tackle some photography projects. Second, it will inevitably teach you that more expensive gear isn’t the answer.

What am I doing in this department? Hopefully, nothing! That said, there are now significantly better options for both my primary camera and drone so I will likely upgrade one or the other this year. But this one is not really a goal I am mentioning for me – but rather one for you to consider.

7.  Locations

More than any piece of gear. a new location will add a great boost to your photography. Be sure you have a few new places lined up for this year. Trips cost less than lenses, and I guarantee you’ll end up with better photographs.

At the same time, don’t overlook what is around you. Think of locations near you that you have been meaning to shoot, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Make this the year.

I confess I have been guilty of overlooking my own local area. But no more. For this year, I have already been scouting out local places I will be shooting.

8.  Combination

Obviously, some of these categories overlap. Taking up a new type of photography will involve new learning as well, for example. In addition, there are steps you can take that will kill multiple birds with one stone. One good example of this is attending a photography workshop. It will take you to a new location, involve new learning, and introduce you to other photographers. Sometimes these take the form of a small group traveling to an exotic location with the idea of shooting most of the time. Other times these take the form of seminars that involve additional photo walks and other limited photography opportunities.

I do not have specific workshops that I want to recommend, and I have nothing planned this year. But I did want to mention it as a possible goal. In the past, I’ve made it a goal to attend 2 of these a year, and found them to be worthwhile.

Define Your Own Goals

Of course, these are just some areas to get you started. There are many other ways you can define your goals in photography. For example, some people look at the process and set out to be more consistent in their shooting habits or product creation. However you go about it, I think you’ll find it energizes you – at least in January! So make another point to check in at 6 months and see how you’re doing. Doubtlessly you’ll be behind schedule, so make adjustments (either to your schedule or your expectations) and keep going.