What do the really great photographers have in common? I mean specifically. It’s more than “They take great pictures.” Why? What? How? What makes them great?
I’ve analyzed this for most of the last two decades. I still don’t have the complete picture – pun intended, but I’m getting closer. Here’s what I think makes a great – a great.
(In no particular order.)
1. They hold their mud. That’s an old fashioned way of saying they stake out their ground and defend it. They own their opinions. They hold fast to their beliefs. They ignore the chattering class and instead, look inward for their true self. When you study the work of the truly great masters, you will notice that they generally ignored the opinion of the critics and did what they thought was necessary to make the camera tell the story – the story the way THEY saw it. The greats don’t fret. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They are doers. They do. They leave others to wonder why.
2. They avoid religion. I don’t mean they aren’t spiritual people or that they don’t go to church. I mean that they don’t get too wrapped up in PC v. Mac, Aperture v. Lightroom, film v. digital, HDR v. NON-HDR, filters v. no filters. Sure the greats have opinions on these subjects. But that’s it. They are just opinions. They don’t spend hours writing long missives to post in some camera forum about why this or that product sucks. They just use what they think will create the best photograph for them. That’s all. There’s no need to get religion about a workflow or a camera company. They pick one that works for them and they go shoot. While others engage in pointless, pedantic, time-wasting arguments over widget “A” being better than widget “B,” the greats just keep getting greater by staying away from the religion. To the greats, it has always been, and will always be, about the picture. Nothing else matters.
3. They know what they want and they go for it. In a world where political correctness has run amok and where “buy-in” reigns, it’s harder and harder to find people who will go for the gusto. It seems that the current generation of photographers is more concerned about making everyone else feel good than just going out there and grabbing the best image. This is hard to describe but I am sure I am on to something here. When you have the confidence to say, “This is the shot,” then you are closer to greatness. When you feel the need to run that image by everyone from your priest to your camera club president for “feedback,” then you’re still lacking what it takes to be really, insanely great. The greats don’t wait for permission. Ever.
4. They move ahead. The greats don’t dwell on the past. Last year’s photograph is last year’s photograph. The greats are always thinking about the next great image. They move ahead. They don’t worry about the image they missed. They enjoy the one they didn’t miss. The greats don’t let any excuse hold them back. They don’t complain about their gear or their health or their lack of money or theiranything. They abandon past mistakes. They constantly seek the bleeding edge in their photography. The NEXT image is the one they spend the most time thinking about. When asked which of his photographs was his best, the great portrait photographer of more than 50 years Don Blair said, “I don’t know – I haven’t taken it yet.”
5. They know what NOT to include in a photograph. John Shaw is one of the most widely-published nature photographers in the world. I once heard him say (and I have used this quote in my writings many times) “The difference between a professional photographer and an amateur photographer is that the professional knows what NOT to include in the photo.” In this instance you can substitute “Great” for “Professional” and the meaning still holds. The great photographers acted as filters more than anything else. They looked at their subjects and immediately carved away all the distractions to reveal the beauty, or pain, or truth, or grace or whatever story they wanted to tell. A great photographer knows that a great photo is much like an onion. You have to peel away the skin to get to the good stuff. Great photographers work by process of elimination. They refine rather than mine. They dig deeper than the rest of us. Where we see a complex scene involving many subjects, they see one simple subject in all its glory.
The pursuit of greatness is not something everyone cares about. I was shocked when I first learned this. I’ve always just assumed that everyone wants to be great at what they do. Not so. Some folks are happy just getting by. I’m guessing you’re not one of the people who think getting by is good enough because if you were, you wouldn’t have taken the time to read this post. I congratulate you. Now, I’d also like to challenge you. Look through this list and see how many of these traits you do have. Spend time improving on those and adding to them. I hope to see great things come from you too.