To improve your photography, DON’T do these five things:

I may not be a successful photographer, but I’m an expert at making photography mistakes! From my lifetime of experience, here are five key “don’ts” that will help you avoid developmental train wrecks:

Don’t buy stuff.

Ignore the massive marketing conspiracy that constantly tries to sell you more photography gear. Having less gear is almost always better than having more gear: It makes photography less complicated, less confusing, less distracting, and easier to learn. And, yes, less expensive.

Start out with the bare minimum of gear needed to make the photos that you are absolutely driven to make. (That’s probably less gear than you think.) Don’t buy anything else until life absolutely convinces you that you need it. (Even then, be skeptical – life is an incorrigible liar.)

Bonus tip: If you’ve got a lot of extra money and you want to spend it on photography, don’t spend it on gear. Spend it on creating opportunities to make the kinds of photos you care about.

Don’t study other photographers online.

Not on Instagram, not on Twitter, not on their blogs, etc. Okay, If you enjoy Phoebe Photostar’s breezy writing style, fine – just ignore her pictures! The most you can learn from photo-blog photos is what’s working for somebody else – and you’re NOT somebody else, so who cares?

You need to be concentrating your energy on discovering how to make photos that matter to you. That means going to primary sources. For example, if you’re interested in wildlife, don’t follow blogs about wildlife photography… follow blogs about wildlife behavior, habitats, ecosystems, etc.

Bonus tip: If you still feel the need for photo inspiration, try books. Any decent public library will have a good collection of photography books that practically nobody ever checks out, so all you need is a library card and it’s open season. Also, unlike blogging, book publishing is hard and expensive, so Darwinism works in your favor. The fact that a book exists doesn’t guarantee that it’s good, but at least it does guarantee that somebody cared enough to jump through all the hoops.

Don’t enter contests.

In terms of your chances of winning, the pay-to-play contests – the ones with ongoing “theme” categories and continual entry fees – are functionally equivalent to lotteries. All you can do is buy your ticket and see what happens. And if you’re going to do that, you might as well play the Powerball – the entry fees are lower, the prize is much bigger, and the game won’t distract you from finding your own way as a photographer.

The big-name prestige competitions may be less random. But they get mind-boggling numbers of entries – which means that their first step is to eliminate the vast majority via a one-to-two-second “screening.” Do you really want to train yourself to make superficial photographs that appeal to people with two-second attention spans? Then why would you enter a contest that rewards that?

Don’t try to be special.

Shooting with a Leica won’t make you special. Going back to film won’t make you special. Using a vintage lens won’t make you special. Going to Cuba won’t make you special. That thing you read about on Petapixel won’t make you special. Are you getting the message yet?

Being special is like being cool: Trying to be it disqualifies you from being it. So forget about it. Concentrate on making photos that matter to you. Then if special happens, rock it; if it doesn’t, you’ll still have work that satisfies you.

Don’t try to be great.

The photography education system conditions us to revere “great photographers” and to aspire to make “great pictures.” But here’s the reality: Throughout most of the history of civilization, the notion of “great” as applied to artists wasn’t even a thing.

Artists were part of a community and they did their work and people appreciated that. But the idea that we should erect some kind of pantheon of greatness and then sort every artist onto his or her appropriate level within it was actually just a peculiar artifact of Modernism – an important art movement, but one that’s now fading into history.

So don’t sweat greatness; it’s a con job. Instead of aspiring to make “great” photos, just work toward making YOUR photos. If you succeed, that IS great!