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One eye in the viewfinder, one hand cupping the lens, breathe in and at the top of the breath release the shutter. It's a mantra that was taught to me when I first started shooting. Before getting to that point, there needed to be preparation done beforehand. These pre-shooting rituals are performed by many photographers that need to either get a serious shoot done, or just want to improve themselves. Here are a couple of rituals to experiment with before you release the shutter.
Meditation can help many people clear their minds and focus more on the task at hand. Whether you're trying to improve yourself or you've got a big game to shoot, it is important to concentrate on what you're doing. Back in college, my photojournalism mentor used to threaten the class every day with failure (and sometimes he even carried through) and said that if we didn't concentrate on nailing all the elements in a photojournalism story, we'd be yelled at by future editors and we could potentially be fired.
Eventually the human need to pass a class—and the adrenaline—kick in, combined with the need to do better and improve, since you're paying thousands of dollars in tuition money. Meditation, clearing your head, and focusing on accomplishment are what will help every photographer out there.
There is nothing wrong with shooting just for fun—but in order to improve, you should have something that you're trying to accomplish. It can be something as small as trying to ensure that there is no camera shake in your images. Or, it could be something as big as trying to figure out how best to light subjects for a graduation portrait. Accomplishing these goals, once again, depends on your maintaining a clear head.
One of the keys to creating better photos is self-motivation, combined with trying to work on self-improvement.
I knew a photography student that was praised for his composition skills by his teachers. Then, one day he bought a new lens and focused, instead, on creating photos with gorgeous bokeh, by shooting only wide open. Because of his newfound fascination he lost his composition skills, until one day someone told him to stop the lens down a bit and work on his composition skills again. This way, he was able to maintain the balance between that creamy bokeh goodness—getting his subject sharply in focus—and regaining his composition skills.
If he didn't set the goal of regaining his skill to compose, and to push himself away from the 'bokeh effect,' his previously-gained skills would have been lost.
One of the worst things that can happen before shooting is discovering that you've got a very dirty sensor. What this means is that you'll have to spend a lot more time in the post-process stage to edit out those pesky problems. Alternatively, you could clean your sensor—if you're brave enough—or can pay someone to do it. Many people choose not to do it themselves, out of the very real fear of damaging it.
Besides the heart of your camera, there could be loads of other problems that could arise: your pop-up flash may not work, your memory card could be be experiencing errors, your lens may not zoom in and out anymore, or it may not be as sharp as it used to be. More obviously, your batteries may almost be dead. Make sure your batteries are fully charged, because the last thing you want is for your battery to die when you've got plans on shooting your kid's winning goal in soccer.
A fresh idea is usually appreciated in one way or another. It can be as simple as a new angle of view, different shooting perspective, an extra light, etc. Keeping your ideas fresh can usually help to ensure that your portfolio won't seem like you're reading War and Peace. Sometimes a client will want a specific look, in which case this should be discussed before hand. However, if you're shooting for yourself, your only limitation is yourself. Why not shoot street photography without looking through the viewfinder and seeing what you get?
Art students will probably make the most use of this in their photographic journey, but that's not to say that anyone can't benefit from it.
A great way to search for new ideas is by browsing Flickr and looking at the work of the great photographers. For my work, I tend to look at the work of Magnum Photographers, Chase Jarvis, and loads of others. Jeff Ascough is an excellent wedding photographer to learn from.
Some may call it paranoia, but it is always a good idea to be ready for a problem, just in case matters get out of hand. When I first started out in photography, I used to be butterfingers, and dropped lenses every now and again. To compensate, I always had another lens with me (though of a different focal length) ready to use.
Now, I'm not going to sit here and preach to you all the marketing pitches that ADT and other alarm companies will tell you in order to buy their product. I will tell you to be cautious, and it doesn't hurt to have a bit of a backup plan.
What rituals do you do to prepare for shooting? Do you do any of these? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments.