I think you can look around at a lot of the content based around photography on the internet and extract a theme: People want to be better photographers. At the lower levels of the hobby that’s fairly easy. There are a lot of concrete skills and tips to pick up and integrate that are available via a variety of mediums. Doing tutorials for processing. Covering some basic design concepts like composition and other visual elements for shooting. Learning about lens optics and exactly what is going on in your camera. There are a lot of easily articulated skills to practice; it can keep you busy for years just consuming the basic instructional content.
But what happens when you bump into The End of the Internet? Really it’s not that simple I suppose. It’s not a lack of content — because goddamn, there’s an infinite amount — but rather a lack of applicability. Once you reach an endgame state, there are no more tutorials to make you better. There are no easy answers to the question, “How do I get better at photography?” You already understand the thirds rule of composition, and you at least have heard about the golden ratio and other compositional rules. You’ve probably developed an automatic eye to utilize those. But then it becomes a question repetition. Thousands of times, tens of thousands. Enough to wear out a shutter. And that’s soul crushing, because people live through narrative, not repetition. And there’s no good, fulfilling story inside “And then I tried ten thousand slightly different compositions over ten years to fine tune the exact placement of my foreground elements.”
So you need a philosophy. You need a set of rules and a guiding story that can help you down the path of years, instead of down a path of day or weeks. You need to zoom out from your tutorial existence that is one day to the next. You want to be better at taking photos. We all do. And it’s easy to say, intellectually, that it’s just practice, time invested. But it’s hard to live that.
This is my philosophy, my structure for this art. It is not the be-all-end-all. I don’t think such a thing exists, mind, but I think there are some universal concepts that are useful and I think there’s a good basic way to tie them together. That’s what this is. It’s just a net that maybe you can tote out on your fishing boat and cast into the ocean of the world and maybe, if you’re lucky and skilled and paying attention, catch some stuff reliably. I’m just another person with this net — and I didn’t even weave it all, I found it and just patched some parts up.
First, you need to idealize something. You need a destination. Where do you want your photos to go? Who is better than you? Identify them. Photography is very ego-laden but I guarantee even the best, most self-assured photographers know someone that they they at least suspect is better than them. Find as many examples of this as you can. Learn about those people. Especially learn their process, the thoughts they have as they create. Advanced levels of any art become less about the mechanical details of technique and more about the details of what is going on in the creators mind. Learn their mind. But bottom line, know what looks better than what you are doing. Have a target. Study it.
Then, through study, identify what specifically is better. There is something, it’s specific, find it. You may not have the vocabulary to understand it, but you can see it visually. Manipulating concepts is difficult without a solid vocabulary, but it is possible. Work on finding a simple word, even just one. Get started on something. Is your ideal photography clearer? Is it emotional? Is it warm? Is it cold? you can find one word, I guarantee it. Then find two words. Then three. It isn’t easy, nothing valuable is easy. But find words and apply the internet to them, or even just take it to discussion. Generate more vocabulary. Google that vocabulary. Think about what you already know about processing, shooting, seeing — and apply that concept. Apply several concepts! Snowball it, get exponential growth happening.
Then plateau. Because that’s what happens. you will plateau, every time you identify a concept that can improve your photography. You will apply it until you get sick of it, master it, and then plateau. And that’s when you start the process over. Yeah, you’re better now. Maybe you’re much better. Hey, maybe you’re really fucking gifted and there’s hardly anyone whose work you cannot break down into simple concepts in your own mind in moments. But I bet there’s at least one that isn’t so easily broken down. I bet there’s someone that’s a little better than you, a little more aware of the medium.
And start the process over. This is what getting better is like for anything. Embrace the larger timescale and just find enjoyment in the individual steps of the process. Watch fads come and go. Watch new technologies come and go–sometimes, and stick around other times. If they stick around, integrate their lessons. Now the game is structure — what is your structure? What lets you stay with this medium after the novelty of shooting vanilla images wears off? Because it will, trust me. You will shoot and forget so many images that you will learn that some are just worth experiencing and not recording. But once you have that realization, what then?
Structure. The project. You can have a one night stand with photography really easy, but this is how you marry it. Stories are the true nature of photography. Human beings see the world through story — period. This isn’t just photography, this is the human condition. If photography is the art of seeing, then the nature of photography is the stories that we see. So what story would you tell? A day in the life? The struggle of the working man? The horror of war? In every single worthy thing there is a story to tell. Shit, tell the story of the small. Tell the story of insects. It doesn’t matter, it all has a story. Take this idealization of technique and the graphic image and apply it to anything you feel strongly about. I guarantee these things — your love of the image and your desire to tell a story — will carry you forward the 10, 30, 50 years it takes to master photography. With these loops of idealizing your style and identifying the stories you care about, you will be a master… if you can stick with it for as long as it takes. However long.
Maybe it will be longer than you are alive. But if you transcend the process, someone will find you later. That is art. You are here now, and maybe no one will see you. But that is something a true artist will mostly ignore — because you’re too goddamn busy working.
Also, for perspective, I’d like to share a photo I took and processed something like 12 or 13 years ago that I was able to dig up on the internet. We all start somewhere.
About the Author
Patrick Beggan has been practicing photography for over 15 years, creating award-winning landscapes (Essence of Bellingham contest, Pacific Crest Trail Association Photo of the Year) as well as commercial work for individuals and organizations such as the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, Make.Shift Art Space, Subdued Stringband Jamboree, Bayou on Bay and others. You can see his work on his website, Flickr, 500px, Model Mayhem, Ello and Instagram. For any questions or inquiries you might have, you can contact him via his website or visit his Facebook page. This article was also published here and used with permission.