3 ways to develop your photography without shooting a camera

It's been pretty rough for me lately, everything from assignments, kids, wife, life keep me from dedicating some time to actually making pictures. But that doesn't mean one can't stay sharp while not actually making images! Here's 3 ways to  develop your photography without even touching a camera.

How can you develop your photography WITHOUT a camera?


Well let's tackle this question before digging in. How much total time does say a body builder spend building his or her body? Probably months. How much time does a photographer spend actually making images? Probably a day or three at most. You see actually shooting is only tiny fractions of a second and putting all of these fraction together and you might end up with at most a day's worth of shooting during a photographer's lifetime (Long exposure shooters look away!).




Actually shooting is only a tiny aspect of photography and it can only happen when you have a camera in hand. The rest of the time photography is primarily a mental game. The photographer's time is not spent actually pressing the shutter, but thinking about photos, concepts, getting inspired, etc.


The bodybuilder who wants to develop his or her muscles has no choice, he or she has to hit the gym, but since photography is very mental, besides picking up the camera here's 3 things you can do to develop your photography.


1-Look back to the past


Without a doubt your best image is the one you will make tomorrow, but there's some buried treasures in the past. You will be AMAZED at what you will find in your old images. Things you believed were crappy are actually stellar, you have new skills to develop and bring out the punch from the images, etc.





The images in your catalog are frozen in time, they are a reflection of your past skills, state of mind, intent, etc. But the you of the present is different. You are more knowledgeable, more skilled, have different views on things, and by looking at your past images you will see things that you couldn't have possibly seen before.




Think about a kid in a parking lot. The kid only sees fun rows of cars and wants to run all over, but as an older person with a different perspective, you will see the red lights of cars as they are backing up. I make it a point to look back at my old stuff every year or so.


It instills confidence because you see progress, but it makes you happy because you see all the buried treasure and finally, since you have a bird's eye view, it will allow you to create links you haven't seen before between the images.




The best projects are the one you aren't aware of making. Sometimes something will pop in your mind “Hummm I had another image like that” and you will be surprised that you had more than one in your catalog. I have 2 projects that I stumbled upon like that. They are still in early stages and even I can't fully articulate what they mean yet!


2-Make mental images


Every photographer has two cameras: One in their head, one in their hands. Even before picking up the camera you've probably made some mental pictures, that camera was always with you! Photography is essentially taking these mental pictures and making them real with a camera.


If you can't use an actual, use your mind's camera…..live your life and make zillions of mental pictures. For example when my wife talks to me, I am fully attentive but at the same time I'm making mental shots of her. I'm noticing the rim light around her face and even other compositions all while she's talking to me!




Now for sure you're going to ask me what's the point if no images are actually being made. Well you're really doing this not for prints but for a mental repertoire. Your brain does not know the difference between you actually making a picture or simply you imagining doing so….. whatever the case, the situation that you framed is now part of your repertoire.


What's the importance of a repertoire of shots? when you are actually shooting and looking for your images, your brain will scan the outside but also the inside and if it recognizes something you've encountered before, it will alert you that there's a picture there to be made. The broader your repertoire, the more images will present themselves.


It's like a missile system, you need a target in order to hit something. The more targets the more options you have. Having a mental repertoire is like having many targets to hit while you have a camera in hand.


3- Watch Movies (differently)


I always get a kick reading personal ads and people saying “I like movies”. Well who doesn't, right??? But back to the topic. Watch as many movies as you can to develop your photography. If you tell me that you are already doing that and you didn't see any results, it's probably because your are not watching movies with the intent of deconstructing them.


I think there's two ways to watch a movie, either passively or actively. Watching passively means you are being the receipient of the images, but actively watching means you are fully engaged in watching, your mind is always thinking why, why, WHY?


I don't do that all the time, sometimes it is time to shut the brain off and simply enjoy a movie because looking at a movie actively will probably ruin the experience. That's why it's better to watch the movie twice, one time for enjoyment, another time to deconstruct it.




Not everything is relevant to photographers of course. Photographers can't use sound to show tension or anything! But for the most part, looking at compositions, the way actors and everything are framed are always enlightening. I always pay attention to continuity (how the frames are linked) because it's very important to documentary stuff and sequencing images.


For example, movies usually always open with a scene that helps you locate where the action takes place, then an outside shot of the hotel or house and then of a room and then the actor in focus. I always use this classic opening in sequencing my wedding images. But I believe the icing on the cake is in composition.


Now granted, movies are like photography, the popular stuff is usually average while the gems are in the oldies or underdog stuff. Here's Not that you can't find good tips in popular movies! Let's look at a still from Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa):





The movie is about peasants recruiting 7 Samurais to help protect them. The shot is set as a sort of crescendo, it reflects what is already in the movie, the primary characters. The guy on the left is the gung ho goofball (his uncommon way to handle his katana (sword) and forward leaning posture hints at this), and the guy on the right is the wise old sage. The fact that he is in a perspective that makes him bigger than the others is not by chance, he IS the strongest one. It is almost as if he is supporting the others by being on the left and having a calm posture.


Now let's look at a Hollywood blockbuster: Batman!

batman composition


In this scene, we have Harey Dent, Commisionner Gordon and Batman. Without movement we already “get” what the scene is about. It's confrontational as both men have their hands on their hips. The most important people in the scene are  Harbey Dent on the left and Batman on the right as the Commisioner is smaller and at the end of an inverse triangle. Batman seems to be in a tight spot because he has no negative space like Harvey seems to have on the left and as always, Batman has a blocked view as he is still mysterious, unlike the others whom are in the light. Another one:


batman composition 2


(screengrab by apnatimepass) In this we have something similar as the above but inversed. Bane is part of the upside triangle, he's THE bad guy, the two others are mere henchmen. But the design doesn't stop there, his positioning mirrors the angle of the ceiling above, and everything is repeated by the 3 shoulders and Bane's hands. A last one for the road, Apocalypse Now:




In this movie, we meet Marlon Brando's character, he's quite messed up. How does the director Francis Ford Coppola show this? With tenebrism of course. He's a monster, he comes from the dark. Even while coming in the light there's half of his face that is not revealed, meaning that this character has a lot of stuff hidden. And before I forget…Anime can have some good stuff too! See here:


attack on titant composition


The main interest is of course bigger but also smack in the middle. Everyone around him is well placed to create a cross pattern. When it comes to background if it doesn't attract to the subject it detracts!


The benefits of looking at movies & anime like this is the same as making mental images, it enlarges your mental repertoire. You just need to notice the composition a few times and it will become second nature when you actually shoot. Did you ever get an insight by watching a movie? Let me know at the bottom!



I'm a dad, husband, business dude, pro photographer, and all sort of stuff. Sometimes I just don't shoot, free time is usually spent with my family. It can actually go for months without shooting (of course not speaking about the odd image here and there).


But whenever I pick up the camera for some extended time shooting, I have not rusted because during my supposed down time, my brain has always been on photographically, making mental pictures, looking at old images and simply being perceptive of movie director's devices. Very little time is spent actually shooting, so I think spending mental time sharpening your photography is the next best thing to actually shooting. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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11 thoughts on “3 ways to develop your photography without shooting a camera”

  1. Great post [minus the wife stuff and not listening – shudder] I have spent the last couple of weeks taking mental photos of scenes and people in Haiti when I return. They are so vivid and real and Florida is completely uninspiring.

  2. Thanks for the photos where you use the red lines to show composition, etc. Reminds me of the classes with you and Don. Another excellent magazine with #20. Appreciate the time you guys take to put together the magazine.

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