Many photographers fall victim to "GAS" (gear acquisition syndrome). The truth is, your success has very little to do with what tool you're using, but more to do with your unique vision. Great images can be made from a phone to a DSLR and everything in between.
And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness." - Genesis 1:4
I was talking to a client the other day when I first uttered the words..."Photography connects all the dots for me." Although I meant what I said, I wasn't yet sure exactly what I meant. As if you didn't already know, I do a lot of thinking. So I pondered the statement for a few days. I can now sum it up in two sentences.
Photography provides ongoing hope that beauty can be uncovered in every moment whether luminous or murky. It's visual proof that nothing is ordinary, and we are all connected on a deeper level.
1) For the secret of how to find artistic fulfillment, you have to go all the way back to Hamlet. In those pages you'll find these words from William Shakespeare, "This above all, to thine own self be true". While feedback can certainly help your growth as an artist, trying to appease the critics can stifle one's creativity.
2) A camera's image quality is only as good as the person controlling it.
3) The lens you choose is often more important than the actual camera.
4) Things will not always go according to plan. In fact, they rarely do. The key then is for you to have the ability to make the best of all scenarios. If you prepare for anything that could go wrong, you'll be able to handle unexpected mishaps in stride.
5) RAW files are like your digital negative. No matter how many copies and edits you make, it's always possible to go back to this original file and start over. The file is uncompressed, meaning it contains all of the beautiful resolution your camera is capable of.
6) The moment you point a camera at someone, they get self conscious and alter their natural behavior. Engage them in conversation for a more relaxed appearance.
7) Photography is a lot like riding a bike in that you never forget how to do it. Don't worry if you're feeling a bit rusty. You'll find your balance with a bit of practice.
8) We've become programmed to quickly search for answers on the web. In art however, it's the questions that often lead to new growth.
9) The most complex ideas are best expressed through simplicity.
10) Extensive travel is not a prerequisite for creating great photographs. Often there are wonderful and willing subjects right in front of you, or just a short car ride away.
11) Recent studies show how one's level of grit and determination can predict success more accurately than an IQ score. And so it is with photography as well. It's those who can find the courage to keep going despite the continuous challenges that ultimately succeed.
12) Say NO to the things that detract from your goals, and YES to those that enhance it.
13) In the Cubist style of painting, it's not what you see, but how you see that matters. This is also true for photographers looking to further develop their eye. Look beyond the obvious and you'll find a deeper truth, not only in your subject, but yourself.
14) The ingredients of any spectacular photo are only one part technical. Sure, the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are important. Yet, as any great chef will tell you, recipes are meant to be tinkered with. Today, we have more control over images than ever before. From in-camera settings to the digital darkroom, our pantry overflows with possible options. Rather than settling for the same tried and true formula, keep pushing yourself to learn new methods. Be bold in your experiments, and you just may stumble on a new recipe for success.
15) Avoid categorizing yourself with labels, or engaging in debates that seek to define terms such as “professional” and “amateur”. A good photographer is not concerned with these phrases, but rather focuses on their craft. The word amateur is often does not imply a lack of skill. The actual definition is "to do something for the love of". This is the spirit that all professionals should strive to retain throughout their career.
There are turning points in everyone’s life that remain vividly clear long after they occur. I’ll always remember the precise moment I decided to apply myself and learn how to take better pictures. I was passionate about spending time outdoors, and loved the act of taking photos. Yet, after picking up my film from the lab, the images did not come anywhere close to matching what I had envisioned. While this failure was exasperating, it was the catalyst for taking things to the next level.
Fast forward ten plus years and I’ve learned how the occasional misstep is not only necessary, but essential to artistic growth. They force you to take personal inventory, find what you need to move forward and reach your goals.
I've spent these years searching for the perfect image. On a few occasions, I have even came close. Yet there's always one nagging aspect of a frame that irks me. Maybe the depth of field was a little too shallow, or the sky wasn't as ideal as I would have liked. "Next time" I think, it'll be just right. And so it goes, the ongoing pursuit of the elusive flawless image. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I believe it's still out there waiting to be captured. The craft of photography can be humbling like that.
The more I learn about photography, the more I realize how much more there is to know. This is one of the things that makes it a worthwhile endeavour. It challenges me to work harder everyday, get better, and study new techniques and technology. The web is certainly a great resource but I find something more serendipitous about the photography section in a bookstore or library. To spend a few hours reading and looking at photos can fill your inspiration bank in a hurry.
"Wow, the perfect picture!" reads a comment on my Facebook page. It's funny how art is subjective like that. You can look at other people's photos and think they've achieved perfection, but rarely give your own work the same credit. I know I've been guilty of this. I'm learning though that it's more productive to only compare yourself with yourself. Do you see improvement over this years captures compared to those from last year? How about five years ago?
There is no overnight success in any artistic medium. Anyone who achieves success does so by showing up each and every day and putting in the work. Without mistakes, perfection wouldn't exist. As Victor Kiam said, “Even if you fall on your face, you're still moving forward.”
Every day holds the potential for a spectacular image. This is what springs me from bed early each morning. Whatever you decide to do today will have an effect on tomorrow. Whether or not you achieve perfection is subjective. The important thing is that you have the courage and ambition to try.
The self help section of my local library is overflowing with titles dedicated to leading a happy life. A few aisles over in the photography area however, the topics are mostly limited to ways to control your camera and process digital files. There's little on the practical skills needed to sustain a career and maintain one's joy of photography. Photography is a rewarding profession, but it's also abundant in potential traps and pitfalls. To avoid falling victim to these, it helps to have a code of values to lean on. Over the last decade, these are the methods which have consistently guided me in times of uncertainty.
1) Don’t waste your energies comparing yourself harshly against other photographers. Instead, focus on creating your best work and making it original. If you see a particularly spectacular photo, use it as an educational tool. What techniques did the photographer use that you might be able to adopt in your own unique way? Their success is likely the result of a long sustained effort. With patience and persistence, you too will create head-turning work.
2) Accept jobs not solely for the money, but agree to only those that are artistically stimulating or provide an opportunity for creative growth. This is easier said than done, especially when we all have bills and pressing responsibilities. Yet, as the writer Anais Nin noted in 1941, “There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like.” By filling the calendar with unfulfilling tasks, we lose the opportunity to nurture more rewarding projects. Sometimes, we have to walk away from one job in order to find something even more rewarding.
3) Avoid categorizing yourself with labels, or engaging in debates that seek to define terms such as “professional” and “amateur”. A good photographer is not concerned with these phrases, but rather focuses on their craft. The word amateur is often does not imply a lack of skill. The actual definition is "to do something for the love of". This is the spirit that all professionals should strive to retain throughout their career.
4) Do not profess to have all the answers. Those with true knowledge understand how much more there is to learn. This path to learning is not limited solely to photography content. Inspiration can come from any number of disciplines including science, literature, and music. Today, there is so much information available at our fingertips. The challenge is not where to find it, but how to save it. I use a service called "Pocket" to save intriguing articles for future reference. Synced with their app, one can even read offline on a phone or tablet. This simple solution provides the ability to tune out all of the social noise, and focus on more thoughtful content.
5) Face issues head on, putting fear and uncertainty in their proper place. When I'm asked if photographing strangers on the streets is intimidating, the answer is "YES - and that's why I do it." Rarely is the path to success found along the unobstructed road. When we overcome obstacles, it makes us stronger. This kind of growth benefits us personally and professionally. Dale Carnegie said "Inaction breeds doubt and fear, action breeds confidence and courage."
6) Act not in haste, but with thoughtful deliberation, never quick to draw conclusions or join pessimistic company whether online or in person. The internet has given everyone an equal voice. In many cases, this has extremely beneficial. Yet, there are countless forum threads and blog posts that are sharing misinformation. For example, I've seen dozens of people claim a high quality camera or lens was producing blurry images. When pressed for more factual details, their technique was clearly at the root of the issue. Photographing a moving subject with a shutter speed of 1/15 without a tripod will make blurry photos every time, even with vibration reduction or image stabilization. With proper technique, the same products are capable of professional quality results. Always check the source and cross reference with independent research.
7) Take all constructive criticism thankfully, as it holds greater value than superfluous compliments. At a time when many business owners are paying for more "likes", it's easy to lose sight of this. Yet as author Anna Quindlen notes, “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” To truly stand apart, seek real engagement with your audience. Their feedback may contain the kind of insight that we, as the creator of the work, can't see. As the artist, you have the option to embrace or ignore it.
8) Recognize that shortcuts will only cause you to miss important mile markers, ultimately postponing your arrival at the desired destination. If one wants to enjoy long term success, a strong foundation is key. This starts with a solid knowledge of manual exposure, the important camera features, and the language of photography. Buying more expensive gear won't result in leapfrogging the competition. No matter what piano an untrained musician sits at, they still can't play it. The effort you put in now will be rewarded later. This is echoed by writer Henry Miller who said "In this age, which believes that there is a shortcut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest."
9) Many photographers fall victim to "GAS" (gear acquisition syndrome). The truth is, your success has very little to do with what tool you're using, and more to do with your unique vision. Great images can be made from a phone to a DSLR and everything in between. Statistically speaking it's actually rather simple. By carrying a camera at all times, your photo opportunities increase, and with it, your success ratio soars. Remember, a camera's image quality is only as good as the person controlling it.
10) Before reaching any breathtaking vista, you must first climb, sweat, and navigate around thickets. This type of persistence is equally important on the path to good photography. Even the greatest photographers of all time had outings that were less than ideal. Perhaps no finer example than this story from Ansel Adams. He just spent a frustrating day with "several exasperating trials." Yet Adams wasn't discouraged, noting that "defeat comes occasionally to all photographers, as to all politicians, and there is no use moaning about it." He got back in the car, started driving, and soon found a majestic scene that would become one of his most famous works, Moonrise, Hernandez. Whether you're just starting your photography pursuit, or are exploring new creative avenues, you never know what treasures will greet you around the next bend.
- Setbacks can be used as opportunities. Haas was studying to be a doctor to help people after watching the atrocities of WWII. Yet, he wasn’t allowed to continue medical school because he was Jewish. This was a major turning point in his life as he started studying photography. He got his first camera at the age of 25.
He called being a photographer “a painter in a hurry”. Photography to him wasn’t just a way to take pictures, but travel the world and have rich experiences. The camera gave him a way to do this in a way that painting wouldn’t have allowed due to the slower nature of that medium.
Studying the masters is essential to one’s growth and he deeply explored the work of Edward Weston among others. Weston of course is famous for his Pepper photo along with an incredible body of work. It was these types of images that made him realize that photos can be used to make art not just record shots of a moment.
Personal work is a critical part of any photographers commercial success. His first huge break came when he was supposed to be working a small story. Instead he did a series of homecoming shots of POWs, and soldiers. This was an non-commissioned shoot that he just happened upon. It led to LIFE magazine and the very well known Magnum agency. Even later in his career when he was shooting major ad campaigns like the Marlboro Man, he would use breaks to shoot personal work.
He experimented with color very early on, not willing to merely rest on his earlier successes in black and white. This eventually led to color photography being widely embraced at a time when many were questioning its artistic legitimacy.
He kept pushing himself to try new things - working with creative blur and slow shutter speeds, never willing to stay in one style for too long. He called this style “painting with the camera”. He was never afraid of failure, understanding that progress comes not from complacency but a constant evolution of ideas.
Haas said “A picture is the expression of an impression. If the beautiful were not in us, how would we ever recognize it?” This is a powerful sentiment as he explains how photography is not merely a snapshot of something in front of us, but rather something that’s generated from within. He later would say “The limitations in your photography are within yourself as what we see is what we are.”
His interests were broad and well rounded with his work being influenced by music, painting, literature, philosophy, and history. The world around him provided a wealth of inspiration. If you look in photography magazines today they are filled with ads, and a few recycled articles with concepts that have been used for decades. A better approach is to fill your creative queue with all kinds of inspirational work. This can come from just about anywhere for those who are open to accept it.
The Bible was inspiration for Haas. He curated a collection of his photographs from around the world and arranged them to show the story of creation as he interpreted from the book of Genesis. This was his first book, titled “The Creation” and remains a classic in the art world.
The success of your photography doesn’t rest on just a handful of highlights. For those who work often, inspiration strikes more frequently. We must always be creating, and willing to try new things. Recognizing that mistakes are not failing if they lead to change and improvement. Haas said, “Important is the end result of your work: the opus. Therefore, I want to be remembered much more by a total vision than a few perfect single pictures.”
"Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage." - Lao Tzu
"Within you is the light of a thousand suns." - Robert Adams
With a new day comes new strength and new thoughts" -Eleanor Roosevelt
"True strength is delicate." - Louise Berliawsky Nevelson
"Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong." - Leo Buscaglia
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anais Nin
"Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence." - Henry David Thoreau
"A good goal is like a strenuous exercise - it makes you stretch." - Mary Kay Ash
Volume 5 of CLARITY magazine is now available, and includes my new article inspired by the people and landscape of Tuscany, Italy. This visually striking e-magazine provides a refreshing new direction, covering far more than the standard how-to photography techniques and processing tips. Readers learn about the stuff that really makes photographers better at their craft – topics like: developing creativity, working with light, how to make photographs that communicate, the role of the digital darkroom, and more. CLARITY is delivered in PDF format for maximum compatibility with all of your devices and every edition includes supplemental video tutorials. Get it here.
The wow factor is something all artists strive to achieve. Whether you're focusing on painting, photography, or drawing, the goal is the same. You want people to look at your work and have a big reaction. A gasp, a sigh, an exclamation point; all of these show an emotional connection with your art. Creating images with impact may not happen every time out. Yet, with these tips, you can improve your chances of success.