Every once in a while, I’m drawn to click on an article about how to improve my photography — human nature, I guess. But, as you’ve already undoubtedly experienced, it’s nearly always the same recycled list of tips about leading lines, looking up, getting low, rule of thirds and the like. It’s not only disappointing, it’s cruel — and perhaps even inadvertently designed to keep you from growing as a photographer.
These are beginners’ tips that started appearing in photography books by Kodak in the 70’s and were repurposed throughout the 80’s and 90’s in nearly exactly the same way articles do it today. While all true maxims on general photography, they are truly thoughts for beginners which, if you muse on them too much, continue to get you to think, and shoot, like a beginner.
How many times must you hear about golden hour, compositional techniques and lens choices before you consider yourself well beyond the beginner status and start a more advanced path toward individualistic expression and professional understanding of the medium? Well, there’s a psychological reason that we continue to look backward instead of forward at things we already pretty well understand. Self doubt.
I’m a professional photographer and plenty of the shots I take are not great — even in controlled studio settings with a full crew. This is true of every professional I know. We take a bunch and select the best ones, that’s photography. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the book, Magnum Contact Sheets, where the works of high masters are shown in context with the rest of the images on the roll. Not even those giants we hold in highest esteem could nail every shot perfectly. It’s not actually how photography works.
But despite it not being a medium of perfection, we like to think of it as such — and, indeed, that one incredible image certainly has the flavor of perfection. The result is false comparisons of our own work to these singly incredible unicorn images, that cause us to look at our shortcomings more than our successes. This negativity bias has biological advantages, I’m sure. But for a photographer, it can be stifling. If you let it, if you focus on the negative (no pun intended), the imperfection of it, it can push you into a worrisome place where we come to define ourselves by what we can’t yet do. And that sends us headlong into drastic solution-searches of 11-point missives about the fundamentals of good photography. As though the answers to perfection are in the unassailable basics. My linguine with clams didn’t turn out right, time to learn to boil water again.
Do you want to take better pictures than you’re taking right now? Okay, let’s really get into it. These are the things that all pros have figured out on the way to becoming great. They may not all be the quick fix that temporarily makes us feel like less of a failure, but they are the guardrails by which consistent growth most definitely happens. And they are all designed to push you forward, instead of backward. If you really embrace them, not only will your photos get better, your confidence will grow and the need to fill some emotional hole with trite reminders about composition and lighting techniques will become a thing of the past.
It’s Not How You Shoot, It’s Who (and What) You Shoot
Every professional is well aware of this truth, though they rarely talk about it. There’s little technical difference between most photographers’ images. The best photographers have the best subjects. This is true whether you shoot for Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated or National Geographic.
Today’s street photography craze has put a premium on finding found moments and beautiful compositions. Likewise, urban photography has made location scouting its own field. But both of these genres of shooting are distractions when it comes to true growth in the medium, as both capitalize on techniques that do not scale. That is, no light/shadow street shooter is ever going to do it better than Fan Ho did it in the 50’s. And as incredible as one’s perspective and timing is out on the street, you’re only hoping it reaches the heights of those who did it before you. Surpassing them is not really an option.
Which is not to say that street and urban photos aren’t amazing — they are. But they are achievable by any amateur photographer now, so it simply doesn’t make you better to focus on subjects that don’t push you to do more yourself.
Nothing pushes a photographer more than a great subject, forcing you to deal with characters and context, elevating you beyond image-taker to storyteller. And in that world, the better the talent, the better the scene. It’s a hard truth to have to face, but the pretty up-and-coming model/friend you shoot as you build your book just will simply bring less magic to the lens than the world class model who struts for Vogue. Because modeling, working the lens, making eye contact, gesturing, posing, connecting — these aren’t just things you can ask anyone to do very well; they are the work of professionals and the better ones are better at it. And that most definitely shows up on the image. So, the most immediate impact you can make on your photography is in deciding what or who you’re going to shoot. Don’t just shoot professionally, decide professionally.
Always Do Pre-Production
Most people think photography is taking photos and then working on them in post. That skips over probably the most crucial part of any professional photographer’s process: pre-production.
Pre-production is where nearly all the crucial decisions are being made: concept, location, talent, styling, props, story, even look and feel. So much is decided during pre-production, in fact, that by the time everyone gets to their location, there is often very little guesswork anymore. Which does not mean you need to go through an expensive, or even long drawn out, pre-pro process — sometimes it’s just a half hour ahead of time.
One of the biggest rebuttals to this kind of thinking is the work of folks like Cartier-Bresson or Maier, or countless others who seemed to just walk the world and take amazing photos. But even they had their own version of pre-production — the first couple hundred times they walked those same streets before those shots happened.
Know your shot before you go take/make your shot. Have a concept, even if it’s a simple one, like “girl on balcony.” Be a location scout (if you can’t hire one) and go out and find a great spot to shoot in, look at the light there at different parts of the day, so that by the time you and your subject are there shooting, you’re already comfortable with it. Then take your shots easily, letting ideas flow naturally in a great setting.
Shallow Depth Of Field Is A Crutch
This one’s gonna hurt, especially for you iPhone fans enamored with Portrait Mode (which looks amazing btw). But the issue is that the look of an extremely shallow depth of field image (where everything is blurry except for a very small portion of the image) is essentially a single look. And yes, there are subtle (and very beautiful) differences in ways some lenses handle the out-of-focus areas versus other, but in the end these are all the same technique, where a lens isolates a subject by blurring out everything else. When described with fancy terminology, like bokeh, art lenses, circle of confusion and Noctilux, it starts to sound like advanced photography — but it’s not. It’s simply a technique. Which is why, now, any iPhone can do it quite well. Techniques can be learned by anyone, or anything.
The issue is, it works. So, there’s that. It’s definitely a beauty shot — and perhaps even one you want in your arsenal. But it’s far from all one needs to do with shooting a person or product. Rely on it too much and it tends to make all shoots look monotonously similar. But it certainly draws you in, with its almost magically-immediate beautifying effect, and so it’s an easy one to lean on. Which is exactly why it’s a crutch.
If you want to get better at photography, up your game by shooting at f/2.8 or smaller, and use backdrops or real life in ways that offer more story in your image, while still drawing attention to the main event. Aside from more creative images, the smaller aperture will actually increase the detail of your image. And don’t forget, you can create soft effects in foregrounds and background with a variety of techniques besides just shallow depth of field. In fact, you have far more control over it when you start to see your background not as something to blur away, but to use in your story.
Stand on the Shoulders Of Giants
This is otherwise known as “copying.” It sounds wrong, but when used as part of the creative process, it’s a powerful tool that nearly all professionals employ. It’s about how to find inspiration. I do it all the time.
I’ll walk by a store with imagery in the window and if I like the shot, I’ll take a snap of it and save it into my “inspiration” folder of thousands of images.
I rely on this folder constantly, not to tell me what my final shot will be, but as a place to start. The real asset of these images is in carving out an emotional territory to play in. It opens a door to more ideas within that feel. Work at it enough and the end result will normally not look anything like where you started.
Also, every other medium does this with abandon. The Impressionists looked at and were inspired by each others’ work, as were the Surrealists, Cubists, Italian Renaissance painters, countless authors, script-writers and directors, actors, dancers and singers. Only in photography do we seem to have some sort of allergy to admitting that we use others’ work to inspire us. We do, we should, it’s normal.
Take for example these two shots:
On the left is an image based on another image that I absolutely adored and that I just stumbled onto. At the next shoot I was doing, I remembered it and grabbed a nearby ladder to go try to get something like it. But then I pushed further and ended up with something totally different — a shot I never would have conceived without the original influence. And this is the nature of creativity. It’s always adding new elements to something, pushing it, trusting the creative process and worrying less about where it originated from and more about where you’re taking it.
But even more, it teaches you taste, it elevates your bar and pushes you out of your comfort zone. In the end, you’ll learn more about yourself — and even grow more — by looking at and emulating the works of others than by trying to pull everything you do from some internal well of originality, which only really happens in movie renditions of artists anyway. Influence and inspiration are major elements of every great artist — embrace them.
Perhaps ironically, my last suggestion actually is in those early Kodak books, though they were unaware of it at the time. Shoot film.
Film is a demanding way to shoot and it forces you to embrace a more methodical way of looking at the world and using your camera. This practiced way of seeing is a far greater skill than getting better, brighter pixels with greater tonal ranges.
With a film camera, you have only so many shots per roll, they each cost money to develop and scan. And that, right off the bat, makes you far more purposeful in your approach. The affect is a more trained and disciplined way of shooting; one born of necessity. It’s a creative imperative that is all but destroyed by the convenience of digital. And nobody needs this more than the beginner or intermediate photographer. You need to know the agony of paying $40 for 36 images, none of which are very good. It seems like something that digital photography saves us from, but in fact it only serves to spoil us and atrophies the creative drive born of the nature of competition, with ourselves and our surroundings — a biologically-reasonable set of attributes that make us inventive creatures who find inspiration in challenge. Film shooting is like a natural stimulant to creative growth in photography.
You obviously can’t shoot only film. My technique is to always have digital and film cameras with me at shoots. And use them both. The digital camera gets my tonnage of images requested from the client and the film camera helps me hone my skill as a photographer, slowing me down, making me think, frame and concentrate. And the two things play off each other. Digital helps the film camera out with metering and film helps the digital camera out with composition and story. It’s a symbiotic relationship that serves you most of all as an artist.
I had to shoot film for twenty years before I got a digital camera, so for me holding it is second nature and switching mindsets is something I do fluidly. If you’re not used to shooting film, or never have, this will be an adventure — and one that you may find a bit scary, at first. But within that feeling of fear is growth. And I promise, if you’ve never done it before, the feeling of a great old film camera in your hands is about as good as it gets in this medium. Only topped by that moment you get those scans back and discover an image that needs no work and has that filmic quality that filters, LUTs and Lightroom can only partially emulate.
Do you know a film image when you see it? Not always. But sometimes very much so. It’s hit and miss in that regard. But the point of shooting film is not to compare the images and try to find some magic quality, like with vinyl records. The point is to be so good that you can produce a film image that is every bit as good as digital — and oftentimes quite a bit better.
With advanced tools, you can get good shots without being incredibly sound as a photographer. Which is great, to a point. That point is the place where you will or won’t push yourself beyond the skillset you have and into skillsets you don’t.
It’s not solely about moving slower, but also about the benefits of using manual focus and different film types on the road to becoming a true master or connoisseur of the photographic image. And yes, you may not totally know why a film image seems to carry with it something ethereally better, but you won’t care to explain it — you’ll be too busy making incredible images for people who truly value your talent and share your love of photography.
I hope this has been helpful. Any questions, please ask away. I’m not just a photographer, but also a teacher of the subject, who loves to chat and discuss. Feel free to reach out anytime. And find me on Instagram here.