Starting Out: Top Ten
After a while the advice I give to new photographers begins to sound similar. Here’s my top ten list for photographers who are just getting their feet wet.
1. Study the Masters.
There’s no quicker way to skip a couple rungs on the ladder than to seriously study the work of photographers who’ve had a lifetime of shooting. Classic photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson, Yosef Karsh, or Ansel Adams. Recent photographers like Freeman Patterson, Steve McCurry, Phil Borges, Jill Greenburg, Ami Vitale. These lists are embarassingly short and lean heavily in favour of the stuff I like; find stuff you love and study it. Why does it work? What sets it apart?
Get an understanding of exposure. In the old days it was grappling with the nuances of Ansel Adams’ Zone System, now the digital age is on us and you’d do really well to learn everything you can about histograms and what they tell you about your exposure. Photography is about light and learning how your camera sees and captures light is crucial.
3. Big Lenses Are Not Just For Shooting Small Things.
Learn to use one lens at a time. Go out shooting with one lens, and only one lens. Learn it’s characteristics. How does it compress elements within a frame (or expand them). How do different aperture settings affect depth of field and what does that look like with this one lens? Start with a 50mm, then play with a wide angle lens, then a telephoto. If you’ve got a zoom lens, stick it on one focal length and leave it there. No cheating. Shoot for a week, or a month, with one lens.
4. Compose Yourself.
Study and understand composition. Start with the rule of thirds, by all means, but if that’s as far as you get in understanding composition you’ll be cheating yourself out of knowing WHY elements work well or don’t work well within a frame, and you’ll lose out on knowing how to control elements within the frame to tell the most compelling story you can. You must know how the eye moves through the frame and why if you hope to lead a viewers eye through the frame.
5. You are Not Your Camera.
Learn the gear so well it becomes intuitive, then forget it. The sooner you abandon the stupidity of the Canon vs. Nikon argument and the obsession with pouring over gear catalogues, the sooner you’ll rise above the masses of mediocre hobbyists and learn to make great photographs. Cameras and gear are really important, I get that. But put more time and money into actual photography, not gear-lust.
6. Shoot Everything.
And lots of everything. I believe it was Cartier-Bresson who said rightly that your first 10,000 images will be your worst. So get them out of the way. Shoot the stuff every beginner shoots. Imitate the masters. Shoot ducks. Shoot sunsets. Shoot people. Shoot crappy artsy experimental stuff. Just shoot lots and lots of frames. And be thankful you’re living in the digital age, because I spent every penny I earned from 14 year old on film and processing.
7. Get Closer.
Robert Capa said that if your photographs aren’t good enough you aren’t close enough. Get in there, get close. Use the whole frame. No painter uses just the middle spot on the canvas – they go edge to edge. Fill it.
8.Be Fully Aware of the Frame.
Now that you’re filling the frame, make sure every single element matters. Shoot intentionally. Be aware of every element within the frame and how it relates in two dimensions to the other elements. Be very conscious of the frame before you press the shutter.
9. Tell Me Something, Make Me Care.
Make me care. Bring something new to the table. Shoot bubbles for all I care. Or flowers. Or lines. But do it compellingly – show me something new – or something old in a new way. But make me care. Please.
10. Get Comfortable in the Darkroom.
There are three images that merge to become the final print; the image you envision before you raise the camera, the image you shoot, and the image you refine in the digital darkroom. Each of these should be a refinement on the previous. The more comfortable and capable you are in the digital darkroom, the more successfully you will be able to create a print that matches your original vision. Vincent Versace says Photoshop should be an emery board, not a jack hammer. Photoshop doesn’t make a crappy image great, but it can make an already good image much better in the same way that custom lab can great an exceptional print with a negtive that a one-hour place would only make a good print from. You are your own lab, so learn the craft.
11. Shorten The Curve
The learning curve is only as steep or as long as you allow it to be. There are some phenomenal books, seminars, associations, and teachers out there. Loosen up the gear addiction and put some of your money into learning. Get a mentor, read a few of Scott Kelby’s books, join the NAPP, get a video tutorial, attend Photoshop World or a lecture by a visiting photographer. The internet is great, and there are lots of good blogs out there – but none of them are a substitute for really focussed learning from people who really know their stuff and how to teach it.