The following was a draft I was working on for a possible book for my photography website. I decided that since I had no passion for continuing writing it, I would make it available as a lengthy blog article and dedicate my future photography writing to this (previous) website.
The choice came about because I had gotten sick of writing about photography in a self-help/how-to style and will in future articles about photography be writing about the things I’m personally interested in within photography.
Anyway, this is an article about photography for people interested in getting good at photography.
A Primer on How To Get Good at Photography.
The following text is based on something I’ve been laboriously studying for the better half of a year. A little background is required first. I have been a photographer for at least 10 years and experimented with any cheap ways of producing digital images. Over the course of my photography passion, I have always been interested in street photography ever since I started. I was not educated in this matter and relative information for street photography in the late 90’s was hard to come by in terms of didactic information. I could look at books like Robert Doisneau’s Paris and Henri Cartier Bresson’s famous images. I was unaware of any other real sources of information about street photography and didn’t even call it that. My original aims for photography were to become a National Geographic photographer or a photojournalist/documentary photographer. I wasn’t so strict also taking photos of landscapes, flowers, animals, friends etc. I did however always take the opportunity to make street photograph’s simply for the practice of my ambition. In the latter years following up to this blog post, I had carved a candid reportage style that was semi-classic and was published in a few online groups and two copies of an online publication. I also made publishing into a book, 3 photos.
In 2015-16 I pursued my Top-Up year for my BA Photographic Media whereby I consolidated the efforts I’d made over the years into coursework through habit and efforts. The following article will detail some of my experience in form of advice along with the research I mentioned previously. The whole point of this article is to set out criteria and lay some foundational ideas for photographers seeking to get good in photography. It is extensive as it is succinct as I want to be thorough and share my findings of learning a skill such as photography. Readers of this article will walk away with more direction and knowledge of what first steps they should take to ‘get good at photography’.
Without further ado.
Photography is a skill.
Without being too vague about the description of what I mean by ‘photography is a skill’ I want to first direct your attention towards the fact that by reading this far you have shown a great interest in this topic and should ask yourself the following questions. Do I want to get good at photography? What are my perceptions about what being a photographer is to me? What might misconceptions about being a photographer I have? Do I have what it takes to be a photographer? How serious am I about becoming a photographer? If I could be anything I wanted to be would I be a photographer? Why?
If you feel uncertain about any of these things then bookmark this page and return when you have the right answers. If you DO want to be a photographer then I will give you one tip. You MUST be obsessed with photography. The journey will be soul crushing. It will be enjoyable but it will be soul crushing at times. I say this because you can’t go into this half-hearted. The moment you decide is the moment you commit.
Do you remember a time where you were no good at something and you learned the basic skills to perform that act? Take riding a bicycle as an example (assuming you can ride a bike). Photography is the same kind of thing. I’m not going to an overly tired personal development message about it being all happy endings. There will be fear, hardship, and gratitude along the way. Photography is a skill.
In Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code (Amazon.com/Amazon.co.uk) the author teaches us that almost any skill can be learned to the point where others call it a talent. The argument is that talent is not just an inherent part of a person’s abilities but the talent is rather the product of an immense amount of effort. In the following sections, I will be exploring some ideas from research that I’ve been doing on talent building and adding my own insights from experience.
One of the things most people don’t care to understand is that a person will have a certain way of seeing things especially if they are more of an auditory person who likes listening to things instead of just seeing. This, however, when it comes to photography doesn’t matter. There are different schools of thought that human potential leaders advocate such as 10 days, 21 days, 30 days, 40 days, 67 days and 90 days programs in order to create a new skillset. The thing is it doesn’t matter. If you have committed to becoming a good photographer through means of learning a new skill then you can and should keep going until you have the skill. At this point you would be good at it so would continue to do it. I will go into depth of the things you will need to do to get good at photography.
Why it’s important to be a good photographer now more than ever.
Demand & Popularity – As you may or may not be aware since photography became accessible to the public it has always had a growth and influx of uses for the public. The box brownie was popular among the masses for a time and the invention of 35 mm film brought photography to the public consumption of many households (especially in the western world).
In our current generation, there are the accessible benefits of digital cameras which fit in our pockets. The increase of consumer ability to take part in the usage of new technology is more tangible and accessible to a large majority of the public than ever known in history.
Digital cameras and mobile phones give us the opportunity to record, document and produce art with or without a formal education in the arts and therefore has brought with it a new generation of experimentation with visual culture. With the added benefit of the internet, there is also the ability to compare and contrast many different images within the differing genres of photography (and art) which allows photographers the uncanny ability to derive what makes a photograph (or piece of art) useful to culture and what makes an image strong.
This puts a lot of the general public in a position of free education on the nuances of visual communication and allows them to become part of the culture as a whole. Simply by sharing images the person is taking part in the worldwide influence of visual culture. There is no better time in history than our current day to take part in the arena of visual culture.
This demand for being a good photographer is the precedence for being able to be respected in visual culture and is mandatory for anyone willing and wishing to have their images in the public forefront.
Differentiation – With this new precedence of image making we inherit a sense of obligation in part to conform to a certain aesthetic, to improve image quality in all aspects to the standard and foundation of the masters of visual culture. There are many lessons for someone new to this participation.
Differentiation then is now more important than ever before. Without the pioneers we have no reference of what works yet at the same time there is the demand to stand out and not to share images that look like the last fifty you just looked at. The variation in nuances will always vitally be intrinsic to each individual’s eye, this is true, yet we are in more demand than ever for creativity, innovation and new prodigies of visual aesthetic that will push the boundaries of convention in ways that are desirable to the visual senses and even more so the gestalt aspects of interpreting images.
A need to practice generally until you are able to use basic camera controls and building reference experiences.
A lot of newcomers to photography become interested in the wrong topics of what it takes to become a reasonable or great photographer. It’s been a personal experience of mine to notice trends among digital photographers, becoming a mixture of an autodidact, in the process making mistakes, wasting time, improving things that cannot be changed that easily, and also experiencing formal education in photography which was mostly taught in a Socratic method concerning ideas, concepts, theory and history at the expense of technique, tricks and heuristic ability.
I can vouch for most students of photography not actually being that inclined to an aesthetic regime but more so conceptual, interpretation and ideologically qualitative instead. Being both self-taught and also a student of the arts I’ve had quite a strange education with large breaks of self-discovery in between. In this sense, I’ve been able to figure out some of the countering arguments with respect to image making without foresight of destructive comprehension of vitally useless information. Some of the things we want to learn when we start out on our photographic journey are utterly redundant and of no use to photographers in the long-term. With that being mentioned, it is imperative that you seek your own path and find what works for you, what drives you, what challenges you and what is of no use to you.
Photography is such a generalized term for such a huge subject that gives merit to an abundance of skills and topics that you can easily drown in information from. What really matters is a working consensus on the foundations of photographic practice and a deep knowledge of the theory/history of the subject. Most new photographers are excited about taking photographs and have grandiose ideas of being able to make profound images and are usually disappointed within their first period of practice.
There used to be a maxim going around the classroom when I was studying for my HND and it went like “R.T.F.M.” or ‘Read The Fucking Manual”. a lot of photographers complain about not being able to use their camera functions or something not working and seek advice about their cameras when all they needed to do was read the fucking manual. It’s an overlooked mistake but could save you countless amounts of energy and time.
This is a basic ideology that leads on from the previous paragraph, learn the basics. The most useful information about photography you can learn are the basics. Don’t go off on strange adventures of using Aperture Priority, for example, to learn how to use the aperture. Just go straight to the fundamental premise of the control features, this is the shortcut. In the early days of photography, there was the length of shutter speed, aperture, and film type/speed. This is the most fundamental aspect of photographic practice. Learn Manual Mode first and foremost and become comfortable with it.
Next, I want to address the issue of photo manipulation. The idea that you can fix certain specifics of an image with the use of post processing software is an unnecessary evil. It is utterly pointless in learning photography. What you ideally want to do is get it right ‘in-camera’. Make your photograph perfect to your suiting ‘in-the-camera’. Not afterward. Back in the days of film, it was an obligation that you would have to take the film in the darkroom and process it. It is not like that for the photographic process, learn to make a decent image in your camera first. Literally, these two things will set you apart from the masses if you learn them. Basic Controls and Straight Photography. This is photography in its purest form.
Once you have these two skills down pat then you may begin manipulating images or adding filters and so on. Of course, you may not be interested in going through the hard work of learning these two skill sets and just want to start taking photographs on your mobile phone. This is fine, a few famous photographers don’t use manual functions all the time and some are fond of mobile phones for their simplicity. Just remember that they’ve already done all the hard work before they made this decision. You may be thinking “..well, if they prefer the ease of use of an automated camera then why don’t I just take a shortcut?” This is perfectly fine too if you don’t want to learn photographic skills then go right ahead. Nobody will judge you differently just be prepared to deal with the criticism from more achieved photographers.
Some other basic skills you need when it comes to photographic practice is a consensus of visual composition and an ability to know where you are headed in terms of the level of ability. These skills require two main aspects of philosophy involved with the topic of ‘Mastery’ as well as two different types of knowledge accumulation.
Visual Composition, more importantly in the context of this article, your photographic composition is something you can’t wholly learn intuitively in a short time. The key to becoming adequate and coherent with composition requires that one must go and learn basic composition aspects and continually progress and learn more about composition from ‘book learning’. This is something alternatively and largely despised by newcomers to photography because they just want to go out and take photographs. It is mandatory that you learn the basics of composition if you want your intuitive composition abilities to improve. With a side note on composition a good place to begin your knowledge base of photographic base regardless of what type of photography you wish to pursue, I recommend Eric Kim’s article on composition (found here).
The other component of ‘Mastery’ is the key skill of introspection. A photographer must constantly and consistently be improving their craft and with this growth that is essential comes the elusive skill of introspection. You will almost always question your ability in the initial stages of progression and although people may be kind to your attempts, sometimes giving you compliments on your photography, you will learn that you will need to find validation for your photography from yourself and photographic peers who you deem worthy of judging your photographs. This can be difficult because it will seem as though you are gaining conflicting criticism and praise for your photography and you will come to learn that it is all opinion. Whether these opinions matter or not is largely based on your internal locus of control surrounding your interests in photography. Without being able to view your own work critically you will struggle to improve. I wrote an article about journaling here which you may adapt to your photographic practice.
The last element, and finally not the least the ONLY element (as you will learn there are much more than mentioned in this section) is the subject of growing your visual reference experiences. Reference experiences are basically experiences you can reference from real life and book learning knowledge. The idea behind reference experiences in relation to photographic practice is that you must build up a large amount of them in order to know what to look for. The more experience you have, the more options you have for making use of what you see as a photograph. The shortcut to this is to create virtual hot beds (which are mentioned further in this article) and also real life hot beds.
A need to define what ‘type of photography’ you want to pursue.
Once you have the basics figured out and you are able to make images it is a great time to start pursuing a single type of photography so that you can work on improving your style and vision. When I say ‘type of photography’ this would be your major niche where most of your energy for producing quality images should be focused. By focusing and narrowing your options you are faced with constraints that will enable you to learn the rules and then go beyond the rules in your own way. think of it like learning to do tricks on a skateboard. First, you will need to learn how to go forward and backward before you can manage an ollie or a kickflip. You learn the basics first and then you can start to work on your unique style.
Another tip that some photographers give to newcomers is to start out with one prime lens and one camera body. This is using the same principle and allows you to focus on the fundamental aspects of photography such as your vision, composition, exposure, shutter speed and so on. By using equipment that restrains you allows you to focus on the abilities of that particular equipment and push the boundaries of that equipment to the point where you learn it well. By over learning a skill we essential strengthen the neural pathways that create that skill so it becomes a habit. The importance of restricting yourself to a type of photography is also a great business model. As you get better in that specific genre of photography the demand for your images will increase in that genre.
The time scale of getting good at photography.
Henri Cartier-Bresson developed the idea that it takes 10,000 frames before you take a good photograph. Mostly you will see photographers online who seem to have everything figured out and have great photos right from the offset of finding their work. Truth is, mostly they have selected through editing process the images they want to use to represent themselves as a photographer. They usually select the most flattering photos for their ‘talent’. In different books about ‘mastery’ or habit building, or even crash courses in certain skills, the promise is that you can get good within a specific time frame. Although this may be true to some extent we must remember we are all learning different skills starting from different skill sets that we already have. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach ‘Mastery’ of a skill before it is considered a talent and that is why it is important that you learn from your mistakes and improve your strengths constantly throughout your practice. One tool you can use to achieve this more quickly and holistically is Journaling. An easy way to figure out your strengths is to journal about them and write about what you find difficult.
How practice is more important than talent.
The idea that certain photographers were simply born talented is a myth. The whole premise about ‘talent’ has been debated to death in the self-help and behavioral psychology section of the library. Practice and learning mistakes allow one to build a skill. As I mentioned in the last section if you actually practice a skill often you will get better at it as long as you recognize mistakes and vow never to make them again. I take my photography lightly because I used it as a therapeutic practice that allowed me to not focus on the downtrodden parts of my life and concentrate on photography as well. Was it a way of escaping? In short, no. It was just temporary relief in forms of productive breaks and before I knew it I was taking better photographs and thinking about photography constantly.
The idea that you have to have a talent is largely based on the premise that I talked about professionals only showing their best work. When it comes to the crunch most photographers who are worth any pinch of salt has gone through a period of deep practice and reinvention of their ideology surrounding their output of ‘work’. I’ve seen young photographers excel within short periods of time and older photographers keep making the same mistakes. This is due to the willingness to improve beyond limits. The only reason older photographers are stuck in their ways is the lack of adaptive flexibility in their preconceptions about getting good at photography. They see younger photographers whose output of work is more prolific and the tremendous amount of improvement over a short amount of time and think that they need to shoot more when in reality it is about practice.
Let’s look at the definition of the term ‘practice’ to clarify my thoughts on the matter:
The definitions above are from a quick google search and they define the term ‘practice’ as a ‘word’ not a concept. If you take some things too literally you will suffer. Talent is the product of deep practice and practice clearly defined given to photography as a concept means ‘correct procedure’ among other definitions such as the repetition of such correct procedures. It only makes sense then that one practice the correct procedure in relation to photography. This is the root of all photographic practice in a broken down sense of the word ‘practice’.
Compounding the Contrasting and Variety Effect.
Without trying to sound too pretentious in the subtitle of this section the idea behind research method for photographers is to use contrasting and variety. I’m trying to keep this simple. In order to get good at photography, it would help first to know what good photography is and the differing types of ways images are made. In this sense, you should and must look at lots and lots of photography. The whole point of this is so you can get a grasp of the dimensions of photography on a grand scale and see the variety of the work that is ‘out there’. If a writer is to write anything worthwhile then that writer must read and know the topics they want to write about well too. It is so easy to say “I can do that” yet not do it with substance or finesse.
That is the variety factor counted for and now we move on to the contrasting factor. Contrasting in this term (of research method) is to view many images with the intent to contrast the qualities of images in the mind over a period of time. The variety of images you look at will broaden your horizons of what is possible/not possible based on your current ability levels. The contrasting of all those varieties of images requires a critical thinking skill set whereby you make judgments of what made those images good or bad, useless or useful, important or not important and so on. This is the Contrasting and Variety Effect.
In Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, his research led him to the realization that talent is produced in areas where there are other talented individuals practicing and participating in the same pursuits. Now I went into higher education and was surrounded with differing levels of individuals with a variety of ideas and interests in photography which was what Daniel Coyle describes as a ‘Hot Bed’. In the book, he writes about soccer players of Brazil and how they get to such maximal levels of skillful ability to play soccer at professional levels. This is because Brazil has ‘Hot Beds’ whereby individuals all congregate and practice together with high levels of competence and competition. These Hot Beds are the kind of thing that will drive you to high levels of success in any chosen area, for this article, photography.
I found my interests in photography were limited in education because I had different ideas to what photography was about compared to some of my contemporaries. The majority of college students and university students are looking to advance careers in their chosen field and so the search for popularity, money, and convenience seem to be quite high. I always wanted to photograph in a way like I saw in street photography books so some of my hot bed opportunities seemed a little meek. Not only that but I live in a small Northern town, with two relatively modest-sized towns nearby. I don’t drive, have low income, so travel is not easy for me. My only other opportunity to find a hot bed was the internet. So I created a virtual hot bed using photography resources geared towards street photography along with social media sites. This way I used the Contrasting and Variety Effect above to further my achievements in this chosen genre.
Become contemporary before innovating.
There’s usually a great desire when starting out to try and innovate your photography from the outset. This is something people think will make them a known photographer. The truth is that by doing this you are skipping ahead of the pitfalls of what will teach you to be a good photographer. When starting out many photographers can and should make efforts to become contemporary. This may involve mimicking certain work as your own, safe to put your own spin on it. By doing this you will be respected for doing something that is already known to be successful. From there on out you can begin adding your own ideas and concepts to your photography to differentiate. There are so many photographers who tend to make photographs that look like other photographers work, and this is why. Become contemporary before innovating.
The idea of deep practice is inherent to all skill, however, I have to mention The Talent Code again. David Coyle discusses the topic of ‘deep practice’ at length and in a nutshell, it is just as it describes. Deep Practice is the process of practicing something over and over, making neural connections, strengthening neural connections and trying out new and various ways of getting results. By doing this deep practice one becomes very naturally ‘talented’ at getting results because they know it ‘off by heart’. This is all Deep Practice is on the surface, the thing is that during this phase, you will be growing by the process of making numerous mistakes and learning the things that work, and those which don’t.
Staying focused on the big picture.
During the phase of deep practice, you will face a lot of your own shortcomings, you will feel discouraged maybe even feel like doing something other than photography. This applies to many other fields also. The thing is when you go through the process of repetition and trying new things you will inevitably face challenges on all kinds of levels. There will be all kinds of distraction, missed opportunities, criticism for effort and so on. It is important that you ‘stay focused on the big picture’ and purge ahead with persistence and patience. You will have to set yourself an overarching goal or objective to achieve, a reason and purpose for why you are photographing in the first place, then focus on the deep practice with your ‘big picture’ in the back of your mind.
You must be obsessed beyond anyone else’s ideas.
This goes without saying but I have to mention it as it’s fundamental for mastery of any subject. You must be obsessed beyond measure, beyond anyone else’s ideas of what obsession is, beyond your current state of obsession, if you want to master photography.
How once you start getting good you HAVE to stay committed.
It’s difficult to measure your progress until you reach a point that you know you can produce international quality images and you are competent. The final piece of advice before I draw to a close is the fact that you can’t give up. Whatever you are seeking to master, photography as our subject here is that you HAVE to stay committed. You will face challenges, adversity, negativity, harsh criticism, hell, you may even fall victim to temporary setbacks that debilitate your pursuits but you have to say “I’m not giving up” and never give up.