I was a competitive gymnast all through high school and college, so I'm no stranger to the saying "practice makes perfect". In fact, we athletes tend to take it as a sort of universal truth. It keeps us going to practice every day in the never ending quest for perfection.
My coach was more of a realist. He always told me that this particular universal truth was missing something. He would say: "practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect". I always dismissed this as just an attempt by my coach to be funny, but then one day I got the following piece of advice from my dad, which kind of made everything fall into place. My dad said to me: "stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." Wow! It all makes sense now. My coach and my dad were really saying the same thing. Practice will not make you perfect unless you keep changing your approach. If you keep practicing doing something wrong, you'll just get really good a doing it wrong! You have to keep approaching the problem from different angles until you get it right. It's like evolution, if each creature born was exactly the same as their parents, nothing would evolve.
So what's all this got to do with photography anyway? Well, the same applies to photography. Practice makes perfect, but only if you keep changing things, trying new approaches to the same problem, experimenting. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you will get the same picture every time.
The best way to keep your skills sharp and improve your photography is to get out of your comfort zone and experiment. If you are a pro, this can be a hard thing to do. You depend on your work for income, and mistakes can be expensive. Well, not moving forward can be even more expensive in the long run. If you read the blogs of successful photographers you most likely have come across something like this: "Get the safe shots out of the way first, then change things up and experiment". I have lost count how many times I have read that particular piece of advice during my treks through the blog world. You will also see many of them suggesting you take some time to do personal work. Shooting what you want, the way you want it.
My photography took a great leap when I joined a local studio meetup group which allowed me to experiment with lighting in a fun, no-pressure environment. There are no clients to impress, no teachers to satisfy, no grades. Just set up the lights and shoot. Did YOU like it? No? Change something. How about now?
This little fun exercise taught me more about photography than any book or blog out there. In addition, I got to see how other people work out their lighting problems. It stimulated my own creativity by observing the creative process in others. I would highly recommend joining such a group if one is available in your area. There really is no substitute for practice. Perfect practice.
The images I have included in this post were all taken in my meetup group. Some of them were images that I visualized, and then created. Others evolved during the meetup. The most important thing was that we as a group were constantly bouncing ideas off of each other and changing things just to see what would happen. Is the hair light better coming from the top or directly behind the model? What if we move the background light further away from the background? Try shooting through the blinds. How about a blue gel on that light? With this interaction you are gaining experience, and because you are having fun doing something you love with people who enjoy it as much as you do, you tend to remember. Learning is effortless and fun.
In conclusion, the main point I was hoping to get across here is that it is not enough to go out and practice for the sake of practicing. If you do the same thing over and over again, you will become very good at that ONE thing. So change things up a little. Tilt the camera, add a light, take one away. Experiment. Don't be afraid of making mistakes. After all we tend to learn more from our mistakes than our successes.