Although many tend to think of photography primarily as a way to show people what they saw, I have to agree with the famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh who at the close of his commercial career recalled his overall approach of always being aware that “the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.”
There are no formulas for this, no shortcuts although some have said that we should spend equal time observing and thinking as we do in making pictures. For me this has been a good place to start. All too often we head out with a camera and just photograph whatever tickles our fancy. This is a good approach if we are practising our craft, something akin to musical scales which are not to be confused with the real performance. To make really good photographs, we need to approach our photography with more than just what we see.
Many artists will tell you to carry a notebook and with good reason. Ideas can pop into your head at any time through a thought or an observation and you need to write them down as they occur because they can disappear as fast as they came into your head. I used to think that if something was a really good idea, there was no way I would forget it. Sadly I think many a good revelation has been fleeting because of my lack of discipline in carrying around a notebook. Writing down ideas at the moment of their conception will allow you to forget about them and to come back later and see a connection which can point you in a direction. You will only record a thought or an idea because it meant something to your heart or your mind. That is not to say everything you write down is going to be good or even directly useful but what you write in your notebook will create a map for what you are thinking and what is important to you.
The really good ideas for your photography happen slowly. They need time to incubate and percolate before they can take a form that is both useful and instructive for you. The best ideas will reveal themselves because when you encounter them again through your notebook, you will have the same or a similar feeling as the first time they came to you. The not-so-good ideas won’t resonate in the same way.
One of the best tools I have found that works for me is the virtual notebook. I use the program Evernote to record ideas, thoughts, pictures and links I want to remember. It is on my desktop computer and the information syncs to the app that is on my iPhone and my iPad. Information is organized according to “Notebook” but there is an added benefit of being able to use tags so I can connect articles I’ve read to current or potential photography projects and more. Using a virtual notebook is also good if you are prone to losing your notebook.
I used think of notebooks as a bit pretentious but now that I am using them on a regular basis I wonder how I would have remembered half as much as I record in them. For photographers who subscribe to Karsh’s view of making pictures, notebooks are essential and you can never have too many of them.
Exactly how many photographs are made each day is unknown but in 2013 PopPhoto.com shared the following statistics:
- According to Yahoo! 880 billion photos will be made in 2014.
- Buzzfeed reports more than 27,00 images are uploaded to Instagram every minute.
- Facebook has said 6 billion photos are uploaded to their site each month.
This constant stream of images shared through the Internet, can create pressure to draw comparisons to our own work and when compared to the really great photographers, can send you into a downward spiral wondering if you can ever create anything half as good. While it is natural to compare ourselves to others, that is probably one of the biggest stumbling blocks to our own growth. In fact, as someone once said: “the only photographer you should compare yourself to is the one you used to be”.
Sounds like great advice but what does that look like? Here are three simple suggestions for you.
Review Your Own Photographs
Whether you have been photographing for two or five or ten years, go back and look at your previous work. Do it with a critical eye as if you were not the photographer. What do you see? Has the work gotten better? What differences do you notice? If there have been changes or improvements in your photographs, can you determine why? Maybe you have a blog where you post your best work. Look at the images you shared and what you wrote about at that time. What lessons can you glean from them? If you have a Flickr or other image sharing account, you can do the same review. I have had a blog since 2009 and while I don’t post as often as I used to, I do share most of work there through blog posts and image galleries. When I look at my early work, I see someone who was working on exploring the craft of photography. I tried all sorts of things some of which I don’t do today like HDR. One thing I’ve noticed is how much my images have changed both in technique and in feeling and emotion. And when I read my blog posts, I can see how my approach to making photographs has become clearer to me. There is a greater sense of purpose and focus and that I feel is a sign of a maturing photographer. What reviewing your own photographs does is provide the proper context for comparison. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture will give you a sense of how far you have come in your own photographic journey and I am sure you will have a feeling of accomplishment you can never get from comparing yourself with others.
Look for Similarities
When you are doing the review of your work, take a look at the photographs you have been making and see if there are any similarities. Are you making the same photograph over and over again? I’m not talking about sunrises and sunsets (especially in Cortona) but photographs that you thought were particularly good. Be tough on yourself. Maybe the location is different but essentially the photograph is the same. If you look at when you made these photographs is there a pattern and are you still making the same photographs today? Sometimes this can indicate you have an interest in a particular subject but maybe you aren’t being honest with yourself and all you are doing is imitating yourself. If I’m not mistaken this is what Andy Warhol called “pot boiling”, when you make a successful image that people like and you keep making that same image. Imitating yourself can be a sign that you are not progressing in your photography and maybe you can do with a shake up. If you feel the similarities are more of a sign post to explore something in a more meaningful and deeper way, you won’t care about anyone’s work but your own as you will now have a renewed focus to making pictures.
Study Your Technical Data
I use Lightroom to process my images and from time to time I will go in and take a look at the EXIF data to see what I can learn about the way I am making photographs. The EXIF data will contain information about an image that when studied in relation to other images made, may indicate a pattern or a preference for making photographs or in my case, making mistakes. This includes information such as aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and focal length but also metering and exposure modes. Using EXIF data as a framework to compare your images will reveal areas you may need to work on to improve your photographs. For example, I looked at my images and realized while I was using the proper exposure (aperture, shutter speed and ISO), some of my pictures could really benefit from a change in metering mode to spot metering. Once I realized how much better some of my images could be, I programmed one of my camera function buttons for spot metering so that I could quickly make that change while out photographing. Another example is looking at images that missed the mark in terms of focus. They revealed to me that I really needed to nail down the area of focus for several apertures I prefer to use with certain lenses. That’s where the depth of field calculator came in handy. I now know what areas will be in focus in my photograph when using specific apertures and my rate of missed photographs has certainly improved.
You may feel inspired when looking at the work of other photographers but in my opinion, real improvements in your own photography always come from within. I hope these suggestions are useful to you and if you are looking for some help with technical improvements using Lightroom, rumour has it we might have a class soon. Make sure you sign up for our newsletter for any announcements regarding classes.
One of the things I like to do is spend time as a tourist in my own town. Literally. Every so often I will join a walking tour and let someone take me around and show me the sights. I sling my camera around my neck like any self-respecting tourist and with a new set of eyes I begin to appreciate things I seem to miss living here every day.
Walking tours are usually inexpensive and are led by knowledgeable hosts who are frequently well connected. Often when you arrive at stops along the way, you are taken behind the scenes and you are given the opportunity to make photographs you might not otherwise have. The tour host will have a good relationship with the people you meet since they see them on a regular basis and you might even parlay that into a story later on.
Here are a couple of photographs I made while on a tour of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
We visited a Chinese bakery and were treated to some fresh baked buns at the front of the store. It was only when the owner invited us into the back that we were able to photograph the people preparing the buns and then taking them out of the ovens. That kind of access in Chinatown is almost unheard of unless you know someone there. We also stopped at a local traditional medicine store and were given free range to photograph inside and to ask as many questions as we wanted. This is a great way to do research for future stories or to get ideas for a new photographic project.
Ten months ago I moved to a new part of town and last weekend I joined a walking tour of the village where I now live. The Boardwalks, Barrooms and Boats tour cost me $5 (yes that’s right, just $5) and I was the only participant. The guide was very open to giving me the usual talking points but because we were on our own, he was able to go off script and I could ask him anything I wanted. During this tour I didn’t make a single picture with my camera although I did carry it with me. Instead I used the opportunity to collect more information helpful to my long-term photographic project on the village plus I came away with a few new ideas.
The Bangkok Photo School offers private workshops that appeal to those who are just visiting the city for a few days but you can also be a tourist in your own town. There is an option to bring together 3 to 6 of your photography friends and we can take you around for a day or half a day. For more information, visit us here.
Photography is a form of visual communication. It is about imparting information or an idea and in its best form, it is a means of connecting people to each other. When we look for inspiration for our own photography, it is commonplace to look at photographs and believe we find inspiration in what we might see. I once saw a project where someone photographed his most treasured possessions and shared the pictures on his blog. One of the visitors to the blog was very excited at seeing the photographs, proclaimed how inspired he was and then asked for permission to follow suit and start his own series photographing his possessions. While this is a connection of sorts, photography has a much bigger potential to create a more meaningful relationship than simple imitation.
True inspiration is more than a supplier of motivation to go out and make a picture that looks like something someone else made. Perhaps the problem is in where many photographers seek inspiration. Maybe we need to stop looking at Flickr, 500px, and G+ and look for ideas for our photography in other places.
Several years ago I attended Steve Simon’s Passionate Photographer presentation, which is based on his book The Passionate Photographer: 10 Steps Toward Becoming Great. The most significant takeaway from that presentation was not the 10 Steps but something he shared about one of his early projects “America at the Edge”. The idea for this project came from a journal article (it might have been an essay) on how Canada and America are so much alike. There were comparisons and statistics to support this assertion but Simon began to wonder how to explore that idea photographically. He knew the two countries share the longest undefended border that stretches almost 4,000 miles (not including the border between Canada and Alaska). He extrapolated that if the two countries were more alike than they were different, the best example of those similarities would be found along the border between US and Canada. And so he began a project visiting small towns on either side of the border from west to east, making photographs of what he saw. What he learned was surprisingly different from what he had read in the article that first inspired his project. Even at the closest points between the two countries, the differences were more than palatable. They were visible and that difference could be communicated as an idea through his photographs.
Some people find inspiration in music and by this I don’t mean, music or concert photography but the ideas contained in music. Take for instance Johann Sebastian Bach. It has been said that he never ventured more than 200 miles from the place where he lived. Yet he was able to compose complex, moving pieces of music that symphonies all over the world still play nearly 300 years later. The central theme to Bach’s music is that everything–no matter how mundane–is spiritual. One of the best photographic examples of the idea of spirituality is the work of Freeman Patterson. Coincidental a majority of Patterson’s images were made within less than a mile of his home at Shamper’s Bluff in Nova Scotia. His book Embracing Creation was published in 2013 to accompany an exhibit by the same name. If you are a nature lover, this is a book you should have in your library, and even if you are not, the essay and pictures are excellent examples of how one central idea can be the root of a lifetime of work.
If you are just starting out as a photographer, this approach for finding inspiration might feel a bit overwhelming. Finding ideas for something to photograph doesn’t have to be this lofty. It can be as simple as taking a walk without a camera, stopping to talk to people you meet, and being present in the moment. Because photography is about saying something in a visual way, real life experiences are important for developing an opinion or point of view that you can put into your photographs and for understanding and building connections with people. Go skydiving, learn a new skill you think you cannot master or won’t enjoy, step outside your comfort zone and seek new experiences. Don’t settle for a borrowed experience from looking at someone else’s photographs. The guided tour is no substitute for the real thing.