Stick with photography, or pretty much anything else, long enough, and it happens: you begin to understand what you’re doing well enough that doing it becomes nearly automatic. At first, this can be gratifying. After all, you’ve worked your butt off, experimenting, studying, and shooting, all so you could get to a point where you could render what you see in the viewfinder, or your mind’s eye, with some degree of reliability.
However, if you allow it to be something you do without thinking long enough, something else starts to happen: what started as an easygoing familiarity begins to look like you’ve been phoning it in. It’s one thing not to have to sweat the settings, but it’s something else again when you just sit back and figure that the composition will also take care of itself.
Most of the cameras I’ve used for any length of time allowed very little control over their settings. This made them user-friendly, and gave me the ability to concentrate more on composition, but there were plenty of days when I’d shoot just because there was something in front of me, and I happened to have a camera. I could excuse this early on — after all, I was just getting started — but once I had some experience under my belt and a better understanding of what made a better photo, it became a lot harder to justify taking bland photos.
Upgrading to an SLR has made a difference. Granted, there are times I’ve taken a few dozen shots just to experiment with settings and see what happened with the changes I made (something I’d also suggest if you’re new, whether to photography or just to a new type of camera or lens). But I’ve also tried to turn this into an opportunity to look at things with a fresh set of eyes, as it were.
As frustrating as it’s occasionally been (especially when you shoot for an entire night and find you haven’t got much worth keeping), it’s also been very helpful. When you have to stop and think about what you’re doing with one part of the equation, it generally forces you to slow down and think about the other bits as well. In a way, this is one more reason not to shoot in Program or Auto. Having to stop and think — to make a series of choices, and to also consider what each of those choices is going to do to your end result — is a useful speed bump, of sorts, that usually results in you also thinking over your choice of subject (do I really want/need a photo of this?) and how you compose the shot.
If you’ve gotten more experienced, try to find a way to change something. Maybe it’s going to a mode you don’t generally use, or a different type of subject matter; it could also mean trading gear with someone else for a day. You usually use an SLR? Pick up a compact. Committed Canon fan? Grab a Sony. Die-hard bird watcher? Spend a day photographing surfers. You can always find ways to make the familiar just strange enough that those automatic responses now become food for thought.