I wanted to share with you some of the things that I have done over the years to improve my photography. It took me a while to gather this information mainly because I had to experience everything first hand to learn it. I am a slow learner but I have the energy to try things again and again. So here are the things that I would advice to anyone wanting to improve their pictures.
1) Critic your own pictures. This is my #1 rule and the only advice I would give if I was allowed to give just one. There is no worst critic of your pictures but yourself. Use your inside critic to assess a picture in the final format. Yes you tried and made it as attractive as possible by lighting it correctly, composing it, fine-tuning on photoshop, etc. but at the end of the day just look at it and say: "What could I have done better?" This question has nothing to do with putting yourself down. This question is about you as a photographer. Every time I look at a picture and find something I can improve (almost 99.9% of time) I make a mental note to myself so as to know what to do in a similar situation next time. If I find that composition could have improved by shifting the point of view I will try it in my next shot. If I find that a portrait of an animal or person is slightly out of focus because I was not looking at their eyes when focusing or because I did not inspect my picture properly after I took the shot then I mentally kick myself and remember next time.
2) Don't oversaturate your pictures. They say that photographers that work so long with colors become desensitized of them after years of looking at their photos in detail. I recently read an article from Tom Till that describes his experience with this. I agree that some people go over the top with such things but sometimes it is desirable to saturate more. There are people that like striking colors and then there are those that think that the picture should remain pure. I am not a resident of either camp. I like to bring out the colors if I can but I understand that there is something as too much. For instance, HDR looks unnatural to begin with and this is desirable, but making a green tree look like it is about to start dripping chlorophyll from its leaves is not appealing.
3) Spent more time composing and taking the picture to spent less time correcting and filtering. This advice is primarily for landscape/nature photographers. You made the effort to get to the place to take that one great shot, why not make the effort to compose it properly. Use Live View as often as possible. Live view is a great addition to digital photography. This lets you witness your shot before you actually take it. Some of you might say: "Why can I not just take the shot and then correct it and take it again?" The point of Live View is to give you instant feedback on the picture you are about to take. You won't have to guess what aperture or f-stop to change it to. This is very useful in difficult lighting situations as well as for focusing allowing you to optimize your depth of field. Here is a very informative article to Live View.
4) Take lots of pictures of the same subject. Don't be stingy with you photos. Take as many as you can and vary your point of view as well as your aperture and f-stop. Experiment with depth of field and shutter speed especially if there is a wind moving the landscape or lights in night time shoots. This is the time of digital photography, you don't have to spent any money on film so just go out and fill you memory card. If you are worried about leaving some space for the next subject you might miss the good picture. After you finish just go through your pictures and delete the ones that don't look good. On a typical day while traveling I will delete after every shoot about 80% of my pictures because I don't like something in them. From those after I upload to my computer I will choose 2-3 pictures of the subject to keep, further reducing the load. Those are the very best and from those I will showcase 1-2. Rarely I go above those numbers and more often I end up with just 1 picture.
5) Restrict yourself to one lens. Practice using only one lens at a time for an entire day. Just go out and see how you can best capture subjects and scenery when you have just one lens to work with. This exercise is to make you proficient with your lens and also to train your creativity. You will soon find that one lens can indeed do most of the things you want while others will be used more rarely. I have had times when my 11-16 or 17-50 were more than enough for 90% of my shots. Other times I have walked around with my 50-150 (was a little bit of a workout) and found that I had to detect my subject before I even got near it or that I had to walk a bit further away to actually get the shot. Now ideally you will have a couple of lenses with you but this little exercise will open your mind towards when to use what lens and how to best achieve the desired composition.
If you practice these tips you will find that your skills will improve greatly. Don't hesitate to practice as many of them as possible. I have and still do many of those. I still do tip #5 whenever I get a new lens and I still try and take as many shots as possible and I am still as critical as ever of my own work. Practice is the key.