Your Most Powerful Photographic Tool

In Pep Talks, Storytelling, The Craft by David14 Comments

Among the first words I said at an exclusive little photography workshop on the east coast last year were: “I don’t give a sh*t about your photographs.” They were not my best-chosen words ever. But I got their attention, and that’s always half the battle. The other half of the battle was trying to convince them I wasn’t a jerk and they hadn’t wasted their money coming all that way to listen to me. What I meant was, “I care so much more about you, the photographer, than any one technique you might learn or any specific image you might make this weekend.” I probably should have led with that.

Somewhere in the back of my head was a thought I was having a hard time expressing. Let me try again:

The real work of making photographs is not exposing and focusing your image well. That stuff is the price of admission. It is assumed. That’s just learning to use a camera and it’s not mastery, just a necessary first step. High school photography students nail that in one semester.

The real work, the labour of years, is in learning to tell a story, learning to cram a heart-full of emotion or a brain full ideas into our impossibly limited little frames. It’s in learning not to focus a lens but to focus attention. Learning to expose our souls, not just a negative. Learning composition, and how to play with balance, tension, line, shape, colour, selection of moment and gesture.

Add to that the ability to create a body of work, to make a great print, to wrestle with your creative process daily, and having the humility and determination to do it over and over again. It is learning to speak with a very specific kind of language to the people that read our images, and say things that matter.

It is connecting and engaging and worrying more about inspiring than being inspired. It is in understanding emotional range more than dynamic range. It is being open and receptive and patient. It’s not about the camera or the settings; it’s about the photographer. The most powerful tool of your craft is not your gear. It’s you.


This week I released The Photographic Story, How to Use Storytelling to Make More Powerful Photographs. If you’re at the point in your craft where you’re hungering for something more than “Nice capture, man” from the people who experience your work, this digital book and its companion video might be a great next step.


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  1. David,
    It is always a pleasure to read your posts. Even if the points you make have already been made a thousand times, you have a gift of reiterating them with a passion and skill, so that they stay with me forever. Please keep posting and hopefully more people will learn your invaluable lessons.

  2. So glad I stumbled on to your site! I’ve just started a blog myself as a way to see where my learning of photography (a lifelong dream I never made time for) leads me at age 52! I LOVED your opening line and it sure did get people’s attention :). I’m still that “high school student” 🙂 learning to use my camera so I can’t wait to be able to incorporate that to show what my soul sees in people, animals and life. I have an odd question if you care to indulge me??? What is your favorite photo that you’ve ever taken?

  3. Beautiful. Thank you David. The title of the article would suggest I save this in my equipment folder but I’m putting it in the creative and a copy in the composition. In today’s world, it’s easy to get caught in the express vs impress chaos. Your words here are a clear path through that.

  4. “Learning to expose our souls, not just a negative” — boy, you can write! Really concise beautiful writing, love the catchy allegories.

  5. I’ve heard this sentiment before but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it better. Right now I am deep into the process of learning to tell a story – the gear, the technical requirements and the logistics of photography that previously took so much of my attention are now routine and the only path forward is to tackle the far more challenging part of the craft – story, vision, and a creation of a body of work.

  6. Thanks, David, just picked up The Photographic Story. I’m looking forward to spending some time with it, reading and watching. Thank you for continuing to produce work that inspires others to produce work of their own, and just maybe work with meaning.

  7. Here is a very poetic, but precise way to express what is required…. 😉

    “Plunge Deep enough in order to see something that is hidden and glimmering.”
    ~Matsuo Basho

  8. Hi David,

    Actually I like your opening line because it rings true. To me it works because the photographer is the most important tool as you say, AND that the world is so full of images /information that the first response of a viewer is to ignore a photograph as more noise. Therefore the photographer must work to capture the attention of the viewer and force them to engage with their work more deeply through the skills you mention. This is especially true in the commercial world where you need to connect with potential clients. Thank you again for all of your wonderful work.


  9. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You for this beautiful and timely post. Spot on as usual. I am so appreciative of your clear vision & the voice to tell it as it is.

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