A Commitment to Becoming a Better Photographer

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To follow up on my previous post I thought that I’d share some of the things that I’d done to improve my photography and hopefully they may be useful to you. At the time I did all of this stuff I felt that I was a late starter and wanted to accelerate my learning as much as I could. This meant using the expertise and experience of photographers that I liked to quickly get a solid foundation. Please do chime in with your thoughts and comments too.

1. Find your true calling. Work out what appeals to you, what repels you. Start a scrap book real or virtual of images that appeal to you. Make a list of common attributes – color or black and white, landscape, portraiture, wildlife, fashion, wedding, dig a bit deeper what else do these have in common, what differentiates them.

2. Find a mentor. Have you found yourself gravitating to one or two photographers? Study what they’ve done and how they got the shots you particularly admire. Of course if they’re alive today they probably teaching workshops – take a workshop with them and get some advice from your photographic hero. Not only will you get some insight into how they achieve their signature works but you’ll also get some feedback on your own work.

3. Get the right gear. Figuring out what gear your heros are using to get the shots you admire and get the same stuff. Somethings you’ll want to buy now, others you should rent. But without getting the gear to get the shot you won’t get the shot. A good example for landscape photographers is a rock solid tripod – get a good one and it will last you for years.

4. Do what your heros do to get the shot. When I was at Alison Shaw’s Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard in 2009 I was bemoaning my lack of progress to Alison’s assistant Donna Foster. Donna quickly pointed out that there was a progression to my work but that my biggest problem was that I wasn’t shooting in the best light and that if I wanted to improve I should find some time to get out early or late and shoot when the light is good.

5. Get feedback on your work. There are a number of ways to get comments on your work I prefer one on one portfolio reviews with someone who is going to be brutally frank. Feedback from workshop instructors is also very useful, as can be comments from friends whose opinion you trust and value.

I hope that you found this useful. I’d be delighted to hear what you’ve done to improve.

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2 thoughts on “A Commitment to Becoming a Better Photographer

  1. I agree to the points above, but with some reservation to some.
    In the beginning, I would say it is important to find out that photography is something for you and not something that wastes your time. If it doesn’t fill you with passion, then no need for it (or the money wasted on it). Toss it back.
    Then, I’d say it is not so important to learn fast as much as it is important to have a concrete base and foundation. If the person in question is a fast learner, then s/he’s gifted and it’s absolutely natural to jump to higher levels of education in the field. If, however, the person under question is an average but with passion to this field, he or she must be given the time to recollect the thought and proceed accordingly to the pace that fits.

    In points (2) and (3), there is always a danger of being a “copy cat” to the masters or the heroes. Some philosophers say: what good a student is, if he does not overcome the master? A photographer, as I believe, must have a critical mindset and decide what works best for the processes involved. In other words, the tricks and gears, or the styles and signatures at work from the masters, must be deemed as merely tools and means to reach a point of expression, but not to make a replica.

    Getting criticism should be done with care, even if the photographer has nerves of steel and not quite easily offended. This is because criticism in many occasions lacks something and there should always be a conversation between the photographer and the self to answer the question “is what the critic is telling true? Does it fit?”. From my own personal experience, there were many critics who disliked some points that, in fact, I worked hard to show in the image for a purpose (e.g. out-of-focus subject). On the other hand, lot of critics emphasize of the technical details forgetting the whole purpose of art. Does not that discriminate between the poor and unable photographer, and the rich one, for example? I’m sure at some point it does. However, between the groups and thoughts of the critics, we have to remember that people in general are not critics on their own. So, it is up to the photographer – whether to make a photo the pleases some critics, or make a photo that pleases the public at most!

    Hope this adds a bit to the topic 🙂

    • Many thanks for the thoughtful comments. Greatly appreciate it. I’m going to continue to exercise my thoughts here about how to continue to grow and avoid just being a copy cat of the masters over the next week or so. This also ties into seeking feedback on your work.

      Getting feedback on your work can be a test of your intestinal fortitude, if you’ve really stretched in making the photograph then there is certainly a chance of being wounded by the feedback. At it’s worst feedback focuses entirely on the technical and comments start with ‘You should…’ Every time I hear these kinds of comments all I hear is ‘You should take photographs like mine’. The best feedback I’ve had was essentially these are really good, these are poor and check out these other artists who have tried similar things or photographed similar subjects.

      I would recommend finding people who’s work you like and who’s opinion you trust. An inner circle that you can rely on to give it to you straight but in a way that you can hear. Building this kind of community can take time but is enormously helpful and supportive. Ideally this group would understand your photography goals and help you continue to move towards achieving them.

      Thinking of your audience while your taking your photographs is a trap. It’s a thankless task to try and anticipate what people will like. Be true to yourself and your vision. You should photograph with abandon – shoot the images that catch your eye, that make you happy and only after the fact give your audience a thought. With a pile of photographs you can then edit out the weaker ones and develop a strong body of work with a consistent thread connecting them.

      I agree that we photographers are notoriously poor editors of our own work. I enjoy working with curators and editors to sift through the photographs that I’ve taken. Sometimes they want to elevate photographs that I didn’t particularly rate but more often that not this experience has been enormously helpful in weeding out the weaker images in my portfolio.

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