Practice for Learning to See
Making better images is all about seeing better images. You're much more likely to take a good image if you can see the potential for that image. Here are a few tricks you can use in your day to day activities to help learn to see.
Photography is both a science and an art. There are great many technical skills that must be mastered to produce images that are properly exposed, acceptably sharp and so on. Yes, modern cameras can do these things for you to some degree, but the choices they make may not be the same ones you would make yourself in the same circumstances. If you practice your craft and intelligently assess the requirements and constraints of a situation you can generally make better images than if you leave everything up to your camera.
But cameras can't come close to composing an image as well as you can. This is the other side of photography — the artistic side. An image can be exposed well and still not be very interesting. This side of things is almost completely up to you. Cameras that are easy to use technically are known as "point and shoot" cameras, but even they need to be pointed somewhere.
Many aspiring shooters struggle with the creative side of photography. You can learn some of the basics from any number of books and websites (including this one of course). There's the rule of thirds and plenty of other guidelines to help you compose good images. But at some point you have to rules and concepts you've learned and take matters into your own hands. Your images have to be your images, not someone else's no matter how good they may be and what you've learned from them. The key to creating artistic, interesting images is seeing the potential for them in the first place. You have to really look at what is in front of you.
But you don't have to wait until your next photography outing to start looking. There's plenty around you all day, every day.
Back in the slide film days, when you sent off a roll of film to be developed, they'd return it to you all nicely cut up into individual frames, each one fastened in a plastic or cardboard slide mount. If you weren't around back then, these were the frames used to hold each piece of exposed slide film flat so it could be handled and fed into a slide projector. It had a rectangular cutout with the standard 24mm x 36mm film frame dimensions with just enough extra material surrounding it to do the job. I had plenty of shots that didn't come out as planned that I could either throw away of put to other uses.
I used to carry an old 35mm slide mount with me in my pocket. It had no actual slide in it. It was just an empty frame, but the opening had the right aspect ratio to emulate a camera viewfinder. By holding it up in front of me I could look through it to check out potentially interesting compositions. Move it close to my eye and the angle of view I could see through it matched that of a wide angle lens. Move it further away and it matched more of a telephoto lens. You can still do this today if you can find an empty slide mount of course, but some photographers just pull out their cell phone and use it. Either way is convenient to keep you thinking about composition as you go about your day.
A perhaps even more convenient habit for improving your composition skills is to study other people's images wherever you find them. All day long, we're assaulted by images in billboards, on the internet, on TV and in movies. When you think about it, it makes sense to pay attention to such images. The creators of advertising and movies are both highly incented to create compelling images. By watching their use of camera angles, focal length and other factors you can see what works and what attracts you. If it attracts you it will probably attract others.
Today is the day the Oscars Academy Awards get presented. Go rent a movie and tell everyone you're learning to take better images.