Becoming A Great Photographer
Photography is people's lives touching the environment that surrounds them. It is making connections. Photographs bridge the gap between cultures, landscapes, and generations. Through photographs, we gain the ability to remember, and that is a powerful thing.
What then makes someone into a truly great photographer? Is it their equipment, their repertoire of images, their vast travels? These are only by-products of the craft. You acquire the equipment and the experience because you are a photographer. "Greatness" is obtained through the character of the photographer. "Great" photographers are every-day, ordinary people.
First, let's level the playing field. We are all of us in the same standing where photography is concerned. I, as a wife, mother, daughter, and granddaughter, am on an even par with anyone else who picks up a camera. I can create great photographs. You can create great photographs. In reverse, I can also create bad photographs, as can you. No one of us is better at this than the other.
Part of achieving any status comes from showing true humility. To put it frankly, I must know that I do not know and in not knowing, know to ask someone who does. I realize that statement is a bit quirky, but the truth of it is that simple. Photography, we have already seen, is about making right decisions. A "great" photographer then is someone who sees they lack the ability sometimes to make a decision and has the courage to ask for help.
I have found that there are three types of photographers. There is the technical photographer. He is all about the equipment and the formulas. He can give you millimeters and focal lengths. There is the subject photographer. He takes photographs to study the object itself. He knows breeding habits, plumage differences, longitude and latitude. Then there is the artist. The artist has no idea what she just photographed or how she photographed it, yet somehow creates the most pleasing pictures.
Each type of photographer has its place in the field of photography. Each type also often lacks the skills of the other two. The technician spends so much time obtaining equipment that he never grasps the fundamentals of composition. Subject photographers become single-minded in their pursuit of the next sighting and forget that other people do not have their unique understanding. Artists take amazing pictures, but label them all "bird", "car", or "church".
There is something to be said for gleaning a piece of each type of photographer. There is also something to be said for realizing you should find out what kind of bird that is, you could have composed the shot differently, and you'd have had better results with an additional piece of equipment. Great photographers will ask questions of those who have knowledge they do not, and the kindness to in return answer questions from those who need to know.
Patience and Perseverance
Two additional traits a photographer must develop to become great are patience and perseverance. Amazing photographic moments do not often just drop into our lap. They are obtained because you walked that extra mile in the desert sun, because you sat ten more minutes waiting for the creature to emerge, because you rose up early to catch the best light. A photographer who continually expects to do things "when they want to at the time they want to" will miss a lot of good photographs.
Photographing animals and children are two perfect examples. Neither subject will stay still for very long. It takes time on the photographer's part to capture behavioral shots. What makes Little Johnny most remind his parents of who he is? Usually it is the things he does when he thinks you are not watching, and capturing those will take patience.
Patience also takes organization. Make a list of whatever you need to take along with you for your photo shoot. Discover what time of day animals are most active. Find out when the light will fall at the proper angle for that shot. Remember any filters or other equipment you might need. For studio shots, plan out your props. Part of being able to wait comes from not having to do other things that should have been done in advance. Nothing else can be more disturbing.
Perseverance means that you might have to return to that location and try again. If the first set of photographs are not what you wanted, be willing to admit it and be dedicated enough for a second take. I have photographed the same objects over and over and over again to get exactly what I had in my mind. Landscape photographer Ansel Adams referred to this as visualization. It is said he would develop the same images many times, continually tweaking the process, until he had the print he desired. We should all be just as committed to our results as that!
Great photographers become great by developing their power of observation. I often suggest photographers (of all skill levels) take a photo trip and at first leave their camera in the car. I know this seems like strange advice, but the point of the trip is to develop an ability to "see" scenes as photographs. Ask yourself questions and observe what scenarios you can create.
"Could I stand there and frame the castle with this tree?"
"If I lowered my camera perspective, would that be a more pleasing angle?"
"Should the family stand this direction by the fountain instead?"
Observation is really about finding the answers to such questions, and in finding the answers, making the process of observing a habit. You begin to notice things you used to pass by, and you're always examining your surroundings for possible photographs. Driving down the street, headed to lunch with friends, you see a photograph in a sign pressed against a brick building. You spot two toddlers sharing a toy in the park as their mothers look on and ask yourself how you would capture that moment. The shadows of clouds sweeping across a rolling meadow generate images in your mind.
A photographer who cannot visualize photographs will never advance as a photographer. On the other hand, hitting a figurative roadblock happens to all of us. Every photographer feels he is up against a wall at some point in time, but you break out of these moments again through the power of observation. You recognize you're in one and you do the things necessary to re-spark your imagination.
There are many great photographers out there, with always room for one more. There is no set number or limit. Any person who makes photographs, no matter what type or at what skill level, has in them the ability to an Ansel Adams or a Matthew Brady. For what truly makes someone a "great" photographer is not the money or the fame. It's not the equipment, the experiences, or the stories. It is that they have achieved the goals they set out for themselves, created photographs they are pleased with, and had fun along the way.
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