The day my photography changed was the day I stopped learning to use a camera and started learning to make photographs. Indulge me: it’s more than just semantics, at least it was for me. We begin, most of us, learning photography as the art of using a camera, figuring out the buttons and dials and learning to focus and expose. It’s a first, necessary stage. And many, if not most, of us camp out there way too long. I did. We point our cameras at things, we expose, we focus, we press the button. And we wonder why, day after day, our photographs don’t get better. So we focus on the flaws, moan about the low dynamic range, or the high ISO noise, or the lack of edge to edge sharpness. Those things become our target in the ongoing quest for better photographs, because it seems so logical – if we use our cameras better, and we use better cameras, our photographs will get better.
“And many, if not most, of us camp out there way too long. I did. We point our cameras at things, we expose, we focus, we press the button. And we wonder why, day after day, our photographs don’t get better.”
Frankly, it was easier when photography was just that for me. I blame the poets and storytellers for pushing me further, for drawing me out of my technical pursuit and into something so much richer, but so much less tangible, and infinitely harder to pin down. They too master the technical stuff – the verbs, the grammar, the pens, the word processors. And they too have their share of very proficient word-users with nothing at all to say. And they too, regardless of what they call themselves, only make poems and stories that connect with us, when they get beyond the words and the writing itself, and say something. Using a pen is not the point, even using it really, really well, though if you use that pen better than most of your peers I suppose you might get an award and inspire others to use pens really, really well also. You might even lead workshops in pen-use, and write a blog. You could probably fill bookshelves with books about using pens. And you could do this without ever writing a poem, without ever writing a novel.
That was never enough for me. It’s not enough for me now, which is why I’m struggling so hard right now, and that struggle is most visible in my week-long absences from this blog. I write best when I’m creating. When I’m working. And I’m not there yet right now. I want to be. I want to be creating images underwater, showing others the whole worlds I’m finding in the emerald sea surrounding me on Vancouver Island. But I feel like the guy who was good at writing stories and decided to start writing poems, and despite all his time using a pen, he’s back at square one, trying to learn his craft and at the same time trying to understand his vision and find new ways to express it. Right now I suck so profoundly at all this that it’s taking all my energy just to gain competence. (My God, am I having fun, but making compelling photographs in this new way is a long way away!)
“But mere competence isn’t the point, is it? Don’t we want more?”
It’s easy to see how, once we reach competence we might just rest there, increasing that competence with magazines and YouTube tutorials, all of which have their place. But mere competence isn’t the point, is it? Don’t we want more? I guess we all do things for different reasons. For me, I want more than to use my camera really well. What I pursue is the visual poem or story, the final thing – something I have created – that does more than garner praise and collect various versions of the ubiquitous online compliment: “nice capture, man.”
“Be suspicious of thoughtless praise. When you want to learn, your more faithful teacher isn’t praise but constructive feedback from someone who is making art that’s stronger than yours.”
My point, which is dangerously close to another rant about the paucity of depth and substance in popular photographic education, never mind spirit and life, is that the moment you realize that you long for these things, and that they are found beyond competence with a camera, only then are you able to begin playing with light and lines and moments and the language of visual design, and that’s where the real journey begins. When you get there, if you’re not there already and a little bewildered about where to go next, here are three suggestions:
1. Study the masters. Put the camera magazines down. You don’t need another article of making tack sharp landscape photographs or 10 Reasons You Need Yet Another Lens. Study photographs. Stop asking which settings they used, and don’t order a Nikon just because Your Favourite Photographer uses one. Just study photographs. How do they make you feel? Why? How do they use lines? What decisions did they make that resulted in this photograph? What do they do that you do not? What can you learn? This is one of the chapters in The Visual Toolbox, and if you own that book, go back to that chapter – there’s a list of the photographers, among many, to whom I return constantly and keep learning something new.
2. Think about photographs as visual design. Stop obsessing about the gear and start finding excitement in finding great moments, new approaches to composition, and great light. If you’ve never picked up a book on visual design, consider looking at my book, Photographically Speaking, Michael Freeman’s excellent, The Photographer’s Eye, or Picture This, How Pictures Work, by Molly Bang
3. Go make photographs, and then study them in the same way you would study the masters – don’t seek compliments, and don’t ask your mom if she likes it. She loves it, but she might be not be the one to go to if you’re hoping to learn something you don’t know. Seek criticism from a source you respect. Avoid the online trap of mistaking likes on Instagram or Facebook for progress in your art. And when someone says, “I like it.” Ask them why. Don’t let them off the hook. How does it make them feel? Why? Be suspicious of thoughtless praise. When you want to learn, your more faithful teacher isn’t praise but constructive feedback from someone who is making art that’s stronger than yours.
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