Stop Using A Camera, Start Making Photographs

In The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David48 Comments

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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  1. Good observations, David. With respect, I add that frame of mind is everything. Obsessing about the difficulty of making images (writer’s block) can be as destructive to the creative process as obsessing about gear. Zen in the Art of Archery, a small book, can offer some useful insights into achieving a good balance and a fresh frame of mind.

  2. Oh thank god I found this post. I am NOT a professional photographer, I’d barely even say I am a photographer at all. I am a “fine artist” (I hate that term), I draw and paint and make a living doing graphic design. However, I have always loved photography as a second medium. Photography and painting are quite different processes and are generally approached by the artist in different ways but for me I am still looking for the same end result… the finished product MUST be more than an aesthetically astute image on a page. Both my drawings and my photo work I use to prompt a question, highlight something I feel is overlooked, or explore a concept that I feel requires investigation.

    I’ve been away from my camera for quite a while, trying to make a living branding things for people, and just recently started shooting again. Given the lapse in shooting, there has also been a lapse in participating in online photography circles. As I start to look around again in 2016 at Flickr, 500px and the like, I have found myself so monstrously uninspired by what I am seeing. It seems that now days every single person is far more technically astute than I am, which is fine, but I’ve spent HOURS trying to find photographers MAKING pictures with anything resembling content and come up with maybe 2.

    I’ve done so many google searches trying to find photographers focusing on picture making rather than camera taming and I was just about to call it quits until I found this article. I always saw Photography, like all mediums, as having two sides; photography as a trade and photography as an art; both have their value. What I’m wondering is where did all the artists go? Every single photo sharing website, photography forum, facebook group etc. seems to be the same incestuous blathering about megapixels, dynamic range, iso noise, BOKEH, creamy tones etc. etc. etc. complete with untold thousands of technically perfect photos of uninspired, lifeless subjects and insanely oversaturated, overcooked landscapes.

    From there I tried looking into current street photography as that “genre” used to be all about content over technical proficiency. Well it seems now days there are 5 trillion “street photographers” all snapping countless photos of someone doing something somewhere in front of something preferably while holding something. Generally these “street photos” are also so crisp and clean they end up looking like commercial travel photos and lose all life in them if there was any.

    To me the current state of the photography world, at least the parts I have accessed, is like watching all the great writers, poets, and philosophers stop dreaming beautiful ideas about how to understand our existence as humans and instead just focus on improving their handwriting. As someone who is not a professional or even really in the field of photography, I’m sure my sentiments here may be a bit flawed or unresearched but I don’t think they are entirely inaccurate.

    While everyone else I run into while trying to find a photo community is yapping about the latest and greatest gear, I’m still over here loving the hell out of my laughed-at Olympus E-PM1 with an old Yashica Tele-Wide rangefinder on it. I also constantly hear all the photo circles praising Bresson, Vivian Maier, Arbus, Parr, Stieglitz etc. and trying to mimic that look yet missing the biggest part of it all…. the content. Yes you nailed the contrast, the angle, the odd look on that face, the tones, but what gave “the greats” so much impact wasn’t just the image’s tone of voice but WHAT it was saying!

    Sorry that got kind of ranty, I’m just desperately trying to find the remaining photographers of real content out there and was happy as hell to have found this article.

    One last thing: I would also recommend aspiring photographers to not only study the great photographers but also look to fine arts as well, specifically abstraction and minimalism. When you understand how to make just a couple of shapes on a particular size of canvas arrest the audience’s attention, you’ll be off to a good start. For that matter, study some minimalist musicians like La Monte Young, William Basinski, Phillip Glass, Moondog, or Tom Heasley and try to figure out how they created so much with so little.

  3. Dear David, it is the first time for me reading your blog. And it is still true what you are saying. Don`t focus too much on the equipment, focus on the pictures and ideas behind them. I will start following your blog and I am very exciting what’s coming next! Great inspiration. Cheers Maik

  4. This really resonates with me. As someone who is more on the storyteller side of photography, I find sometimes gear and struggling with technical difficulties deters the artist side of me. And that’s not good. I am slowly learning to just keep trying and try to let go a little more. Try to see with my eyes more. I can totally relate to the avoidance of things when its just not happening creatively. Ugh. The struggle is real and you highlight it in a way that makes sense. Thank you.

  5. Wow, this was so the right time for me to read this post. Thank you David. I’m at the prickly edge right now of feeling like I’ve sort of mastered the camera (not really, will I ever?) and just finding my creative visual voice. This really helped affirm I’m not alone in this prickly place. Thanks!

  6. Loved the article! I find myself a bit in the situation you described above. Searching through tutorials, studying photos, playing a little bit with the light (light fascinates me, and the ways you can play with it). I do not have so much experience, but I feel like I reached a point where my photos are not satisfying me, like there is something missing – that something that I cannot express through my photos.

    The part with gathering constructive feedback is bugging me, because I am not sure where to start doing it. If someone can give me some advice on that, would be great 🙂

  7. A very inspiring article. Thanks for sharing. I’m only an amateur photographer with no proffesional aspirations, but like everyone I like to show my work. It’s a very good idea to ask in Facebook why one friend likes a photographs (or not). Greetings from Spain.

  8. You are reminding me of my college photography instructors. I’m 62 and have been “taking pictures” since I was about 11. Other than working in the darkroom, I never really got into the technical side of photography and thus don’t have the “consistent results” that some magazines and websites praise, but I still occasionally have the results I hope for. Thank you for reminding us there’s more to photography than equipment – the photographer!

  9. As always, thank you for your words. The internet needs more honesty when it comes to the pursuit of this passion/career path… more ‘be brave and make photographs’ and less ‘buy this lens and your photos will improve’. Personally, I found my love of the photograph returning in full force when I drifted from the articles on how to get tack sharp focus and perfect exposure and the books filled with lighting diagrams to following bloggers like yourself, and devouring books like 50 portraits ( I’ve studied the technical side of things for probably much longer than necessary and it’s a breath of fresh air to be getting back to the heart of the craft.

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  11. Wow. Very inspirational story. Need to slow down and read it again. Im happy I found this place.

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  14. Excellent advice! For years I was caught up in the need-this need-that cycle of GAS, which fellow photogs and myself fueled amongst ourselves. But, at the same time, seeing and realizing that great images can made with the cheapest cameras, and mostly from the heart.

    Luckily, I’ve lost the lust for gear, and yearn for images that move me first – I no longer shoot to please others, I think that way, you will most likely create meaningful work.

    Love your books, David, they are on-going guides and inspirations for me, always great to dip ack into them.

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  16. Greetings from the UK David. I shoot architecture and interiors. People often ask which camera to upgrade to. My question is normally how often they use the one that they have. Puzzled faces normally result. My point is similar to yours – improve your photography by getting involved in it daily if possible. Carry a cheap camera in the car – use your phone! anything.

    Here’s to many more great articles.


  17. Thank you, David! An excellent post. One of my mentors from my earliest days as a photographer/artist always used the term “make a photograph” and taught us the basics on a low-tech plastic Diana camera. For an artist as opposed to a specialized technician it will never be about the gear.

  18. Wonderful article Dave, so rare to get an emphasis in this direction and so refreshing, – I am a retired arts and media teacher – subjects – elements and principles of design and colour theory amongst them. One of the biggest hurdles is persuading students to look at resolving the design of a photo rather than purchase another expensive lens.
    I have saved your article for future reference as I still get pulled in to deliver workshops and talks.
    It is rare to have such an articulate and insightful statement on this, which is what I consider the biggest hurdle for most would be photographers. Well done Dave you’re a gem as we say in Australia!

  19. Great article that is honest and hard to disagree with. I wrote an article about how to choose a photographer as a guide for couples looking to book a wedding photographer.

    I started out filming weddings, and in my time I’ve worked alongside some great, some average, and some downright awful photographers.

    That early start in the world of videography really helped set me on a path as a photographer. Way too often I see what you describe in your article.

    Great to read your view, reinforces my own feelings.

  20. How interestingly you write, love to read. Its shows how much experience you have. You are a master. many things you pointed out through small piece is absolutly helpfull. inspiring too. I believe in.

  21. “The day my photography changed was the day I stopped learning to use a camera and started learning to make photographs.”

    So true for me. Thank you for helping me learn to make photographs, David.

  22. Reading you is like being guided by hand by a master and a very good friend. Whenever I can’t put what I’m missing into words, you just pop up on my screen and make it all very clear to me.

  23. Guilty as charged, although I think many of us have a legitimate defense:

    The sheer quantity of marketing noise out there is deafening. I’m not talking about the Canon/Nikon/Olympus etc. direct advertising. I’m talking about many of the blogs, podcasts and YouTube videos out there. It’s not that they aren’t informative with a lot of good information – it’s that they are also some of the most potent long form/long copy advertising ever known.

    If Canon write an ad saying “You need this widget etc. blah” you say to yourself, well they’re trying to sell me something – they would say that.

    When “independent” hosts say, “Your kit lens blows, buy a new one or suck forever” people listen. It’s hard not to. “Here, click my B&H affiliate link”.

    Trusted “experts” who simultaneously say, “It’s the photographer not the camera”, while toting only the most expensive equipment. “Listen to me – I’ll show you how to shoot like a pro!”

    To be fair, the same is true for many hobbies. There’s a problem with photography though – too many people are not satisfied to keep it as a hobby and just enjoy themselves – they want to “be a pro” because they think it’s a way to leave their day job which they don’t enjoy.

    They get overwhelmed by the noise. They feel they must have the best lenses and the best camera etc. otherwise the “competition” will blow them away. It’s enough to make a sane man sick.

    I honestly think if we want to improve our photography, getting rid of the noise is essential. Subscribe to one or two blogs that encourage the art side of things and leave it at that. No gear sites, no following 500 people on Twitter and no more worrying.

    1. True story, my friend. The noise is a tough one. It’s my constant struggle not to contribute to it, but wow, it’s tough. The best I can do is emit as much signal, as much wisdom and heart as I can and hope it gets through.

  24. Great post and I can echo that The Visual Toolbox is a great read for any photographer looking to become less dependent on their tech for results.

  25. I really appreciate your articles. As you have stated before, It is so easy to get caught up in the belief that more gear, better gear is going to make me a better photographer. Excessive focusing on gear is like a hamster on a wheel, it seems like you’re running and running, but getting no where. I have an older, very inexpensive, entry-level camera I sometimes take out with me. I am blown away by the photographs I take with it which sometimes seem better than those with the pro-grade cameras. I know some people would have a hard time with that statement. But I really think it is because with the simpler camera I am not thinking about the camera, it’s features, and technique so much, which leads me to put more thought, focus and energy on the subject and composition. Thanks again, always great articles.

  26. Great blog David. Gives me a lot to think about and inspires me to get back to why I really love taking pictures!

  27. I always enjoy your posts, I guess because it comforts me that my first love is taking pictures. ( camera is a D7000, the lens is used and I recently upgraded from LR 3 and a PC my son put together over 10 years ago, to an IMac and the latest LRCC. A learning curve to be sure.) I just came back from driving my mom down the Oregon Coast, and my favorite picture ended up being one of her, (at 83)and her old dog walking down the ditch bank at her house! The story it tells is priceless to me.

  28. Thanks, I enjoy every word you write. I am doing mostly wildlife here is South Africa and some landscapes, but I am tired of looking at the same Lions, leopards and all kinds of birds and animals. All sharp, close crops, detail, I have read every review on every telephoto lens and Nikon camera, but cannot get past spending the money just to take the same kind of pictures everyone else take. So I stick with my 300f2.8 and D700 and shoot wider, context, contrast and try and create something else, I want to sell the 300 and get the 200-400 f4 that will allow more flexibility but most people shout no no, the lens is not as sharp, but the way I shoot does not call for the sharpest lens in the box. It calls for flexibility and creativity. I love your work,mi am inspired. Thanks

  29. David, wonderful how you describe to thrive for new territories, which you will not learn in a magazine.
    I would add another point about understanding other arts, which give new input and view points to our own art. My wife is a jazz pianist and struggles in her own way to create new and different music.
    So looking at other arts gives a different viewpoint to my own world.

  30. Hi! Great advice! I would like to purchase a couple of David’s books and wonder which would be the best to start with. I am a stay-at-home mom mostly just shooting my kids…but would one day like to use this hobby in a more “humanitarian photographer” way. ANy suggestions on which books to purchase first?

    1. Author

      Hi Tish – Thanks for the note. I would suggest any of these three: Within The Frame, Photographically Speaking, and/or The Visual Toolbox – from what you’ve said, the Visual Toolbox might be a good one to start with, but it’s hard to beat Within The Frame, which was my first and will always mean something special to me. Or – and I really don’t want to be that guy, but you can buy all three – the publisher has a pretty good deal on right now:

  31. Thanks for the post! I bought your book “Within the Frame” and I read it about a year ago I think. I enjoy all types of photography and really my interest started when I was living in Colorado. I am in the Navy so have lived in many beautiful places. I am going to pull the book back out today and re-read it. I love when people look at a photo and gasp or look with a sense of awe. I saw your posts on Facebook and didn’t realize that you were the author of the “Within the Frame” book. Very interesting to me how that works out. Thanks for this post I’m glad I read it. Now reading the book again will have different meaning. You are doing great work!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Matt. Enjoy the read. You’d can’t imagine how strange and wonderful it is for me to know people all over the world are enjoying something I’ve written.

      1. Well David, then consider this reader from Germany also having your “Within the Frame” book – and not in the bookshelf, but on the desk right in front of him. Wonderful book, just like “The Photographer’s Eye” (plus some of the old masters of course).

        Just as in music, you have to get beyond technique at some point. Only when the instrument gets “transparent” as they say, real art can emerge.

  32. Wonderfully stated. I set up my camera as basic as I can, make fine adjustments when necessary and can just press a button to get back to my “basic” mode in an instant.

    I have been using the same brand camera for a long time, so I can almost change settings without looking…

  33. I wholeheartedly agree with David on this. I have beenseriously studying and learning the mechanics of using my camera for about 10 years now and had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I was going to spend one day on the Appalachian Trail and decided to forgo my DSLR on this once in a lifetime trip and take a point and shoot. I knew it was a compromise and made my peace with it. The day of the shoot, the batteries, the backup batteries and the extra batteries were all dead. It was the Universe telling me to put the camera down. I was lucky enough to have a GoPro and my iPhone, and while I didn’t get the images I might have made with the other cameras, I think I managed to capture moments and the spirit of the day, which in it’s own way was better. I’ve quit sweating the technical stuff and now shoot for moments and am less worried about getting THE shot and happy to get some really good shots I might have missed,

  34. As usual, you nail it. So many of these doubts and feelings are my own recently. Thank you for shining some light on the path out.

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