Recently I’ve received a number of e-mails from people complimenting me on my photography (which is always very nice), but with another message attached. That secondary statement is always along the lines of “you’re way out of my league” or “much as I’d like to, I’m sure I could never produce images like yours.”
I invariably have two responses to statements like this. The first: stop selling yourself short. If you’re dissatisfied with your images, I guarantee that you can improve. The second response? You don’t want to shoot like me. You may think that you do, but you don’t.
Let’s deal with the first part. Broadly speaking, there are two components to photography—the technical side and the aesthetic part. I’m here to tell you that no one—and I do mean no one—is incapable of mastering the technical aspects of photographic image making. In fact, one of the great ironies of the past decade or so—roughly equating with the firm eclipse of film by digital capture in the world of photography—is that at a time when it’s never been easier to quickly grasp the technical nuances of the medium, a smaller and smaller portion of people who use cameras seem to have mastered them. But the key point is that the immediate feedback that digital capture provides has made it ever-easier to understand the practical implications of technical concepts like exposure, depth of field, and so on.
Until about 15 years ago, when I decided to get serious about photography, I had only the vaguest notion of the technical aspects of photography, but I realized I had to learn. I read a fair amount and got some personal advice. Frankly, the concepts themselves aren’t very difficult to understand at all. Comprehending how to practically apply them in the field is significantly more involved, and was particularly so back then when a roll of film had to be developed before you could see your results. Today, you can see the implications of—for instance—adjusting the lens aperture or the camera’s shutter speed or the ISO setting immediately. How the exposure triumvirate works can be demonstrated thoroughly in a few minutes. The relevance of different priorities in this troika (when should each of the choices be altered to maintain exposure depending upon different photographic goals?) can be grasped virtually instantaneously.
Seriously—anyone can learn this stuff and it can be absorbed very quickly. Take advantage of this. Once you master the technical aspects of photography you’ll be able to implement the lessons instinctively in the field and it’s like riding a bike—you won’t forget how.
Aesthetic improvement is a little bit more difficult, but it’s also a lot more subjective. This is really an exercise in determining what it is that appeals to you and then figuring out how to go about making it a photographic reality. There are numerous exercises that you can utilize to help you accomplish this, but it really begins with an identification of what you find appealing.
And that leads me to the second part above. When people tell me that they want to be able to shoot like me, I disavow them of the true meaning of that statement. Really, you don’t want to shoot like me. Doing so probably wouldn’t be all that hard, once you figured out how to work a camera, but it wouldn’t be at all interesting either. What these folks really want to do (and stay with me here, because this is going to become a bit esoteric) is to shoot like themselves. The problem is, they have no idea what that really means. They don’t know what they want; they mostly seem to know what they don’t want, and that’s almost always exactly what they’re getting now. They know they don’t like their current results, they see something that they prefer (in this example, my images) and they’re willing, in effect, to settle for that. I always tell folks who I informally mentor—don’t settle. Don’t do yourself the disservice of simply copying what someone else does just because, at first blush, it appeals to you more than what you’re presently producing yourself.
It may not be the easiest thing in the world, but you owe it to yourself to figure out what your own personal creativity is capable of. Beginning to figure that out usually involves a great deal of introspection. What is it that appeals to me and why? There are exercises that can help you on your way in that regard. I’ve got my own set, but I don’t believe for a minute that my way is the only, or even the best, way go about this process of self-discovery. It works for me; it may or may not work for you, and frankly, it doesn’t matter how you go about it doing it as long as you do, in fact, do it.
In the end, you’re going to have to do the heavy lifting. Someone like me can, perhaps, help point you in the right direction, but neither I nor anyone else can tell you what your creativity ought to look like. (And if someone ever does tell you anything like that don’t walk—run—away as quickly as possible.) But once you start to understand what appeals to you and why, you’ll find it, I think, a relatively easy matter to unleash that creativity, in a way that will please you more than anything you’ve ever produced before.
And it probably goes without saying—or ought to, in any event—that this process of self-discovery is a dynamic one. This is one of those “enjoy the journey because you’re probably never going to reach the destination” kind of experiences that can be awfully frustrating but incredibly poignant and fulfilling, all at the same time.
Specifics aside, recognize the fact that you can do this—all of it. You can master the camera/lens technicals and you can find your muse. (I’m sure a significant number of the people reading this have already done so, in fact, before they ever read a single word of this essay.) And for the short term, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. But after a while, I think you’ll find that this will be trust well-placed.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.