They say you master something once you’ve made 10,000 mistakes doing it. If that’s true, then I must be a Grand Master at photography because I seem to have found a way to make 20,000 mistakes. As I talk with young people about photography some of the same misconceptions and questions come up over and over and I realized – I wish someone had taken the time to sit me down and share a few things with me when I first started out that would have saved me at least 5,000 of those mistakes. So here goes nothing. I’m going to let you know what I would have liked that advice to be.
1. Do not spend any time making serious photographs if you are not seriously passionate about it. Every bad photo I ever made started going bad because I wasn’t really into it. I was just going through the motions. It’s like kissing your sister so to speak. You have to care about what you are photographing, how it comes out and what story the image tells or you’re going to be disappointed.
2. Understanding how your camera REALLY works, as in every button, every switch, every menu and sub menu and sub, sub menu, will save your bacon over and over and over. The camera needs to be an extension of your eye – not something that gets between you and your subject. Learn how to use your camera and stop changing systems so often in the great hope that the NEXT big thing will make you better. It won’t. Learning how to get 100% out of what you have right now WILL!
3. Speaking of gear, focus as little as you can on gear and as much as you can on your subject, their story and how you’re going to share it. The “hey you take good pictures – you must have a good camera” line gets old. I guarantee you that it’s not the camera that makes the shot – it’s the photographer. It took me a VERY long time to figure this out. As a geek and a tech head I kept jumping into the science side of photography and the gear and the gadgets thinking THAT would save me. It didn’t. It sent me backwards. I now realize the gear is nothing more than the hammer looking for a naill.
4. Find the light first, the background second and the subject third. This statement will be controversial to many of you – some of you will yell at me because I said it. That’s because you haven’t made the 10,000 mistakes I had to make to understand it so go ahead and yell, but once you stop yelling pay attention and you’ll save yourself some pain. EVERYTHING starts with light. I can have the prettiest subject in ugly light and get no shot. And if the background is distracting, nobody notices the subject. So start with great light. Seek it out. Know it. Search for and yearn for it. Love it. Bathe in it. Dream about it. Then go find it in front of a nice clean background and THEN put your subject right there. You’ll win every time you do that.
5. If you photograph people or make pictures professionally understand that being nice is better than being good. When I listen to the people who primarily buy photographs (women are responsible for most portrait session purchases) they constantly refer to their photographer as nice. I rarely hear them say that he/she is good. My point is not that you don’t have to be good – you do. But concentrate on being nice. It took me far too long to realize how important this is and I am STILL working on it – as many of you can attest.
6. The best photographs in the world happen when the photographer or the subject or the viewer or some combination of the three are in a place where there is solid, real emotion and/or love. I know this sounds corny but if you can learn to love the subjects you photograph, you’ll take more care and make fewer mistakes. If you find real emotion in your work, you’ll cause others to feel those emotions. Thinking this doesn’t matter is the biggest photo-related mistake you can make. It took me 10 years of photography to understand this. Hopefully (and likely) you are smarter than me and you’ll get this right sooner than I did.
7. I have to stop this list somewhere so I’ll stop here with this. Understand that serious photography is about protecting memories, telling stories, keeping moments in time that have passed alive for the future and sharing all of the above. If you can think about that every time you press the shutter, you’ll make fewer mistakes and become a great photographer.
If I could have had this conversation with myself 30 years ago, I’d have become a good photographer MUCH sooner. I hope I at least helped you do that because it’s too late to do it for myself. I had to bungle through this crap on my own. No wonder I”m considered “cantankerous!”