Part of our mission here at Field Photographer is to help our readers become better photographers. Both in person and from readers on-line, we are regularly asked for advice on how to become better with a camera. The following are five things anyone can do to improve their picture making ability. None of them are terribly complicated or very expensive. There are no cryptic, esoteric secrets involved. I don’t doubt that investing years of study and tens of thousands of dollars going to photography school would make you better than when you started (or maybe not, judging by some of what is currently in fashion from visual academia). I am advising neither for nor against formal education. What I am saying is that there are a number of things anyone who is truly interested in the art and craft of photography can do to become much better.
These are, in their way, easy things to do. They require time and commitment but if you are not willing to invest time and commitment then I would suggest you find another pastime or at least find contentment at your current skill level. Time and again I speak with people who claim to be passionately interested, to love photography above all else, to be willing to do nearly anything to improve their skills. In fact they are not willing to do anything. In practice (or lack thereof), what I see are people waiting for a magical engraved invitation to a mythical land where photography is an entree to a life of creative ease, cool gadgets, authentic landscapes, sexy models, and none of the toil and sweat and stink and drudgery (and skill) required by even the worst painter or novelist. The fact is that very few photographers (or other artists) make vast (or even modest) piles of money, regardless of how talented they are. There are fewer and fewer good photography jobs and more and more people — many very good indeed — with excellent cameras. But this isn’t about how to make money or land a job, dear reader. That is up to you. This is how to be a better photographer. Which is also up to you.
The main thing you can do to become a better photographer is to practice, specifically to practice with direction. The extent of possible photographic knowledge is, in fact, limitless. This should not be discouraging as it means that no one knows it all. You are always in a state of knowing only what you know at any given moment. Therefore, you are never more ready than you are right now.
“…if you wish to be a great photographer, measuring up to merely competent isn’t all that much of an accomplishment.”
Ultimately, what I am trying to convey, is that if you wish to be a better photographer then the time to begin is now, right after you finish reading this. If you follow the practices in this series of articles then, by the simple virtue of having committed to working on them, you will become a better photographer. You will know more than you did before, you will have new insights and inspirations. You will have more experience.
In this article I will briefly lay out the five tasks, exercises, or lessons. These will be elaborated upon in a series of upcoming individual articles. And so, let us commence. Grab your camera, your notepad, and a good cup of coffee. Remember that the point of all these exercises is, ultimately, intentionality and commitment.
1: Make prints of your work. MAKE PRINTS. Even if you have no intention of showing your work in galleries you cannot learn to judge a photograph by looking at it onscreen. It ought to be self-evident that making a photograph is essential to photography. It isn’t particularly expensive but it is a commitment. It focuses your mind, your camera, and your decisions. It helps train you to make decisions and it is also incredibly satisfying. Make prints and then arrange them in a book, in a collection, in a sequence. Show them to people. Print the exhibition you would like to have. Don’t wait for an invitation. If you want to be a photographer then make some photographs. To quote my friend, the incredibly polymath Timothy Braucher, “An artist without art isn’t one.” A photographer without any photos isn’t a photographer.
2: Take photo-walks. Go everyday places with the specific intent to take photos. This need cost nothing more than time. Certainly, you can take a photo trip to some exotic location, by all means travel, but too often people put off practicing with their camera and spending time refining their craft because they are waiting for the day they are in Kathmandu or Bali or Big Sur. It is far more a test of your ability to make an interesting image at noon in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio than it is at the Grand Canyon at sunset. Walk from your house to see what you see. Go explore an interesting (or boring) area of your own hometown. Spend some time walking with a friend discussing life and art without looking at your phone. Take a day trip to a nearby town you have never been to if you need the spark of unknown lands to fire your creativity. Diane Arbus, one of my favorite photographers, said, “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” Think upon that a moment. She didn’t say “Timbuktu” or “Ulan Bator.” She just said, “…where I’ve never been.” Try it. With your camera.
3: Study great photographers. Often people bring me well-executed images of sunsets or lovely landscapes and present them proudly, asking if I think them to be as good as similar images in some popular magazine of photography. Very often they are. I am not saying this to insult their images of to make fun of sunsets on beaches. If you don’t respond in a positive manner to a beautiful image of a sunset on a beach then I would posit that you are soulless and quite possibly non-human. If your goal as a photographer is to make beach photos then you would be well on your way to success and I would encourage you to continue. For a long time, back when I was soulless and non-human, I scoffed at beach photos. Then, one time I saw a sunset so absolutely spectacular that I couldn’t help taking a color shot of a lone palm silhouetted against the flaming sky. Do I consider that image great art? No, I do not. Have I sold more of that particular image than any other and thus funded several plane tickets to pursue serious projects? Yes.
My point being that if you wish to be a great photographer, measuring up to merely competent isn’t all that much of an accomplishment. If you want to be a great novelist you study great writers. If you want to be a great poet you study the great poets. If you want to be a great painter you study the techniques and work of the great painters. Thus, if you want to be a great photographer you need to study the work of masters.
4: Shoot some film. I love film. I grew up shooting film. I still shoot film. And I mostly shoot digital. Most of the people in the modern film photography community are open and accepting of all photographic mediums but there are those who fetishize the analog. To them it doesn’t matter that a photo is dull or clichéd as long as it was shot on film (the more esoteric, expired, or unusual the film stock the better). There are certain tangible advantages and differences to film just as there are tangible advantages and differences with digital. I will go into some of these in the longer article but the point for you, as a learning photographer, is not to become an acolyte of the TRUE PATH OF ANALOG HIPSTERALITY. It is again to focus, to make decisions, to photograph with direction, commitment, and intentionality. It is to teach you about the craft and development of the medium and how film and digital photography both differ and align. It is to teach you to introduce some patience and uncertainty to your work and to think about the process of making an image.
“Make prints of your work. MAKE PRINTS. Even if you have no intention of showing your work in galleries you cannot learn to judge a photograph by looking at it onscreen.”
5: Shoot a photo essay. This might sound scary and arcane; the exclusive provenance of world-weary, chain-smoking photojournalists, but you need not invest in any Kevlar or risk stepping on a land mine to shoot a photo essay. Again, this is all about focus and working with intent. As I advised in the article about printing your work, I would suggest that you also print this work and arrange it in a portfolio book. You can also arrange it in a desktop folder or an online gallery but, in the end, it needs to be arranged and presented (if only to yourself, your mom, or your dog.)
What this means is picking a subject. ANY SUBJECT. Your photo essay does not need to involve refugee children, opioid addicts, homeless veterans or any other hard-boiled, gritty subject. It certainly can, of course, but it can also be an essay on something your adorable child does, on floppy-eared spaniels in dog parks, on something taken from your daily routine. The intent of this is to work on telling a story, to see how photos can work with each other rather than simply standing alone, one image after another after another, with no connection to anything else. It is to teach you how you see stories and how you tell them. Everyone sees different stories in different ways. One of the biggest mistakes people make in writing is trying to sound like “a writer.” Just tell me a story. You already know how to do that. Introduction, body, conclusion. Beginning, middle, end. Counter intuitively, thinking within certain confines, arranging things into order, will help you to, as they say, think outside the box.
The above are a good start. In the writing of this, five more exercises occurred to me. But begin here. Do these things. You will learn and you will have finished work, and your finished work will be better work. Now finish your coffee. Make some notes on how you are going to begin and where you want to go. Then pick up your camera. Go forth. FP