3 Shortcuts to Deeper, Stronger Images.

In Rants and Sermons, The Craft, Vision Is Better by David19 Comments

There’s not a day goes by that I don’t see photographers being offered some shortcut or another on a craft that ultimately frowns darkly on shortcuts. Since I started teaching photography I’ve had one unwavering desire for my students: that they learn to make photographs that they love, in a way that they love, of the things that they love or feel deeply about. My suspicion of shortcuts stems from that, knowing that most short cuts are not merely a detour but a dead-end. They replace learning rather than encourage it. They get us to a desired end without an understanding of how to get back there. So the dopamine dealers sell us another “snap shots to great shots” Photoshop tutorial or one-click action set and get us all back to our computers to furiously polish our turds, and we never learn to make the kind of deeper photograph that already has an emotional core. We learn to make eye candy. It gives us the same rush any candy does. And it can give us the same crash when we realize only too late that we’re not mastering anything, yet alone our craft, with this mad rush from one preset to another, one new piece of gear to another, one new “hot trick for landscape photographers!” to another. We aren’t learning; we’re kidding ourselves. And I know. I was there. I just wanted hope: hope that my images could get better. They can. But not with something you buy.

“The fact is that relatively few photographers ever master their medium. Instead they allow the medium to master them and go on an endless squirrel cage chase from new lens to new paper to new developer to new gadget, never staying with one piece of equipment long enough to learn its full capacities, becoming lost in a maze of technical information that is of little or no use since they don’t know what to do with it.” ~ Edward Weston

In the end shortcuts and diversions cost us time. They cost us attention span and energy. They rob us of the scenic route through the landscape in which we actually learn. They aren’t shortcuts at all. Not if you’re walking towards mastery of this craft, that beautiful place where flow gets a little easier, where the gear and the technique becomes no less important but less a thing we actively think about as we create, and certainly not as important as our vision or intent. If you want shortcuts consider these, because unlike many shortcuts, these actually get us there and won’t waste our time.

Study Photographs Not Cameras.
Studying the ins and out of cameras and buttons and dials and settings is helpful, even necessary to a point. But it will only make you really good at camera-using. Only studying photographs will make you better at photograph-making. We need to know and understand the image itself. We need to speak its language. It’s no good just revering old dead guys, and too-few old dead gals, who make beautiful images. If you want to really revere them – study their photographs. Learn why they work. Learn to read an image so you know how others will read them, so you can better make images that people have a chance at reading one way or another. Learn what visual elements and devices you find compelling so you yourself can make images that scratch your creative itch.

Focus Your Attention, Not Just Your Lens.
If you want to go deeper you need to begin – when the time is right, and only you know when that might be – to focus your attention and your efforts. There’s so much to be said for learning broadly, playing with all kinds of different techniques, especially at the beginning. Try it all on for size. See what you can use, and what you prefer not to. But when you begin to hunger for deeper work and not just sharp and well-exposed work – you’ll probably find that you can only go deeper if you stop going so broadly. Leaning to make sharp and well-exposed photographs is important, but it shouldn’t take you 5 years. Most high-school students get workingly competent with this in a semester. It’s probably time for you to begin making some choices – create some bodies of work. Begin to get really good at a couple things, not passingly mediocre at everything. Begin seeking more intentionally chosen mentoring and critique. If we are more familiar with our cameras than we are with the subjects we’re photographing, we won’t be creating deeper work.

Expose Your Soul, Not Just Your Sensor.
This is another way of me begging you to show me something of yourself. I’ve alluded several times recently to the cliched idea of a photograph being worth a thousand words, each time pointing out that those thousand words only matter if we actually have something to say. If you want to make deeper images, that depth has to come from you, not the sensor. Forget sensor size: how big are your ideas? Ignore low-light sensitivity: it doesn’t hold a candle to your own sensitivity to the world around you. Water-sealing and dust-resistant lenses and bodies? Hell, our cameras take more risks than some of us take personally. If you really want better photographs and “better” means something more to you than “I can use a camera,” then you must says something. And the more honest, vulnerable, authentic, or human that thing is, the greater the chance that you’ll be heard for the thing you say and not only the way you say it. No one praises an author for the fonts they use.

Look, maybe it’s the coffee speaking, but I just don’t want you wasting your precious time running in circles. Life’s too short, and this craft is too full of possibility, for us to bullshit each other. Some people just want to make sharp images and play with new toys, and if that fires all the right places in your brain, then go for it. Really. But I suspect you want more because no one would put themselves through reading my poet-warrior ranty stuff if they were looking for camera reviews and an article on edge-to-edge sharpness. If you want more, if you want deeper – then you have to choose paths that take you to deeper places.

Want more? Want to go deeper? Check out The Soul of the Camera, The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making at SoulofTheCamera.com


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  4. This one is amazing post for deep stronger images. I have learned few important photography techniques after reading this post.

    Rohit Kothari
    Man with a Camera

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  6. David,

    I happened to be in the middle of Grit by Angela Duckworth when you put up this post on long cuts.

    Duckworth studies achievement as an academic pursuit, a psychologist exploring and sorting the data on high achieving people pursing high achievement, researching what it takes to get them to the place where onlookers stand in awe.

    Duckworth’s contribution to positive psychology is her theory on grit, not talent, as the major predictor of long term success, the main ingredient to make things happen.

    In her approach on deconstructing achievement, talent, the ability to pick up a skill area or knowledge domain easily, the initial ease that prompts parents, teachers and coaches to encourage more involvement—oh, you have a talent for this—is second string to grit, the inner drive to keep going despite lack of inherent talent, the inner drive to do the thing far beyond the diminishing returns on talent, the inner drive to go for it despite awards and recognition (yes, despite, because awards, and money, and likes on a Facebook fan page can derail the inner spark of serene achievement), we learn to play first fiddle all the time: grit.

    When presented with a conundrum: pick talent or grit; you can’t have a new hire with both; CEOs, HR department heads, hiring decision makers fall largely in favor of grit—give me a hard, dependable worker and we can get anything done—yet when questioned through indirect means the subconscious truth comes out—this resume shows more talent, so it a no-brainer decision.

    Our common predilection for talent, a predilection that endures long beyond hearing an anecdote of Albert Einstein as a mediocre student, covers the uncomfortable truth that endurance, not talent, that elusive blessing of the gods or DNA, is the key to achievement, uncomfortably within the reach of all of who would but grasp and hold on.

    Cory MacNeil

    1. Author

      Damn you’re a good writer, Cory – and this underlines so well the idea of the talent myth. Fantastic last line. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply with this!

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  8. David, you hit on something that bugs me in a good way. Reflecting back to my twenties, when I was a musician, and focused on my instrument. It took years to get to a point where I could comfortably play in public without all the focus on theory, method, technique, and trying to impress. I’m not sure when or how it happened. One day the audience vanished. They were there, I just wasn’t aware of them or looking for them. All I could sense was the band members, the music and this deeply connected flow from within. I wasn’t focused on what or how to play. I was playing the same music but not from my head. There was a feeling, a deep feeling like an energy flowing from within me and out through my guitar. It was as though something was playing me, if that makes any sense.

    That day the music changed. That was the day people told me that I could play anything. That was the day nothing else mattered except for how the music actually felt. It was me playing within the music. Not sure how to express it in words.

    I am no where even close to understanding what you teach in your writing and with your photos. I feel it. I just don’t understand it. I suspect it may in some way connect with my experience with music. I no longer am a musician, but I am still that artist.

    The question becomes how to find the bridge between what you teach, live and show in your photos and connect that with my experience in that different art form so that I can bring it into my pictures. That’s the question.

  9. Thank you, David! Another incredible “rant.” It reinforces my decision to focus on “bodies of work,” which has resulted in a deepening of my experience and of my love for the image. I’m teaching a class right now that pulls it all together under the concept of designing images with intention. I’ll be forwarding this inspiring post to the students. Again, thanks for your ongoing insights and wisdom.

  10. This. This is what I want to learn. I have a creative soul stick in a body with no artist abilities…I want to create pieces of life with my camera ski others can see what I see. Thank you. I feel like someone just have me permission to shoot what makes me feel.

  11. I love this! For beginners, there is a large mound of information that you have to learn in order to take a picture that looks the way you want it. Beyond that understanding of technicalities, there is an insurmountable amount of soft skills you have to learn. Exposing your soul and displaying yourself for the world to see is hard to do. It’s harder than learning the trade-off in the exposure triangle. But finding a way to portray your voice and make a picture more than just a snapshot is a real skill that I am constantly trying to achieve. Thank you for the motivation and words of wisdom!

  12. This comment is a little off topic but hopefully not too much. I recently completed a project of photographing the CA missions. I did this with Tri-X 400. It’s been a few years since I last shot the missions and when I picked up the Canon Rebel I noticed that I was having difficulty seeing a sharp image through the viewfinder. I believe this has to do with the fact that I wear glasses, progressive lenses. My prescription has changed in the years since I started this project which is probably why I suddenly find this difficulty with the viewfinder. I realize that the camera will focus for me, but it’s a little unnerving. I know David that you wear glasses and wondered how you deal with this issue. Getting older is beginning to create some photography challenges for sure!

    1. Author

      Hi Pam – There should be a little diopter adjustment next to the viewfinder – a tiny little dial usually. If you look through the viewfinder with your glasses on (or off if you prefer to shoot that way) then turn the dial up and down you should find a sweet spot where things come into focus again for you. I hope that helps!

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