Highly successful people often give credit to the formation of good habits. Photographers are no exception. Yes, developing good habits can make you a better photographer. But if you're not careful, they can also prevent you from becoming one.
Getting the best images can require hard work. You have to get up early and stay up late to catch the golden sunlight at its peak. You have to be willing to eat at odd hours and live on the sun's schedule rather than the one you might prefer at home. You have to be willing to carry heavy loads of expensive and relatively fragile gear, even if only from your car to the edge of the scenic overlook parking lot. You have to sometimes push yourself when you'd rather be catching a bit of shuteye.
But the rewards of all this hard work can be clear every time you manage to capture an image that impresses not only your friends and associated, but impresses you too. "That's cool" you tell yourself. "I shot that image" you tell everyone around you.
Developing good habits can help. You don't want to be having to figure things out in the heat of the moment that you could have learned and gotten comfortable with in your living room at home. You and your gear need to be ready go or you're unlikely to get what you are after when you press the shutter release. There's nothing worse than finding out you forgot to charge the battery for your camera or that you have to take time out to clean the lens you got a fingerprint on last night. Speaking from experience, it's best to get in the habit of being prepared. It's better to overdo your preparation too.
Perhaps the worst thing I've ever done is to drive 150 miles one Friday afternoon from Seattle to Artist Point at the end of the Mount Baker Highway in the North Cascades. If that doesn't sound so bad, I probably should let you know that when I got there just as the sun was setting and started to set up for my first shot of what looked to be the start of a gorgeous weekend, I found that I had left my tripod leaning against the wall at home. Bummer. No sunset shot for me that night. I had two basic options. Either I resign myself to the idea that my entire weekend was a bust, or I had to turn around and drive the round trip back home to get the darned thing. After finally admitting that these really were my only two choices, I got back in my car and headed for home to fetch my tripod. The only good thing to come out of that experience is that I learned my lesson. I've never left my tripod behind ever again. Oh, and if you're curious, the traffic on my return trip to Mount Baker later that night was a lot easier going than it was on my first trip earlier in the day during Friday night rush hour.
Habits can be formed through repetition. You get in the habit of doing something by doing it over and over until it becomes more or less automatic. That way, you can concentrate on your composition rather than which direction your lens rotates when manually focusing it. Packing your camera back in basically the same way means you don't have to go fumbling for where a needed teleconverter might be. Or if it's there at all and not sitting at home on the counter. You get the idea.
But if you always conform to your habits, you can find yourself bound by their limits. I've noticed an easy tendency — call it a habit — of always photographing the same subject the same way. Knowing how you packed your camera bag or which side of the lens mount the depth of field preview button is on is one thing. Always shooting Mount Baker reflected in an Alpine mountain tarn in exactly the same way is another. There are limits beyond which habits can become obstacles rather than a benefits. And it can be easy to go past that line without ever realizing you're doing so. If you already know how to shoot a particular subject it can seem to be safest not to tempt fate with anything else.
But this leads to habits becoming ruts. All your images will end up looking the same since you shot them all the same. How do you ever come up with anything new if you always limit yourself to following your habitual way of shooting things? I'll bet that if you stop and think about it you'll realize you been guilty of this trap at least to some degree.
It may be helpful to consciously pay attention to this behavior. When faced with a given subject, consider how you've approached similar shots in the past. Force yourself to come up with a new way of photographing it. Shoot from way down near the ground or raise your camera as high up as you possibly can to see it from above. Change the exposure. Change the focal length. Change something. Whatever it may be that you haven't tried changing before. Just to see what you can do differently. It may be a complete bust, but you may just as well end up with one of those "that's cool, I shot that" sort of images. You'll never know unless you make the conscious effort to try. You might even want to pick a particular subject and keep shooting it in different ways for as long as possible. Set yourself a challenge to find just one more way to shoot it. And once you do that, come up with another still.
Of course no one would recommend you go out on a photographic adventure unprepared. Please, don't forget to charge your camera battery and please, remember to take your tripod with you. But don't allow creative decisions to be made out of habit. Without realizing it, bad habits can become habit forming too.