As a photographer and a photography teacher I am often asked the question, “What makes a good photo?” It seems like a simple enough question, right? Any one of us could wax both practical and philosophical over what makes a good– or even great– photo. We could go on and on for hours about composition, lighting, exposure, and vision. We would all most likely offer similar-yet-different answers to a question whose very nature can’t be pinned down– and that’s a good thing. Regardless of whether you view photography as art, craft, trade, or even science, the fact that we all see it so differently is, at its core, one of the things that makes it so damn interesting.
The question I don’t get nearly as often is, “What makes a good photographer?” On its surface, the question itself doesn’t seem too far afield from the inquiry into what makes a good photo. If we dig a little deeper, though, I think there are aspects to each that make them vastly different questions. The description of a beautiful house is going to be very different than the description of the talented carpenter who built it. I think in many ways, our descriptions of successful photographs are just as different from our descriptions of the photographers who take them
So, what makes a good photographer?
When it comes to composition, I often start my students off by telling them that composition is the answer to the question, “What made me stop and take this photo?” While this probably applies more to our personal photography than it does to client work, I still feel that a strong feeling of curiosity– even towards our commercial subjects– can’t help but make us better photographers. Anything in which we feel personally vested is going to be more interesting and more compelling. It’s our sense of curiosity that not only creates that personal feeling of investment, but it’s also the driving force behind our efforts to create something original and unique. In a world where there are seemingly no original ideas, it is the photographer’s curiosity that helps find them. It is this sense of curiosity that also forces photographers out of their comfort zones, pushing them to learn new things and increase their skill sets.
Finding the Light…Or Making It
Light. The key ingredient to absolutely everything we do as photographers. We capture light in a box and use it to tell a story. Without light there are no photos. Knowing how to find the light to tell your story– or create it when and where it doesn’t exist– is perhaps the most important element that separates top-tier photographers from the rest of the pack. At some point along the way, I found myself noticing light– it’s color, quality, and direction– sometimes before I even noticed subjects. While “finding the light” might sound like I’m only talking about ambient light photographers, the same thing absolutely applies to any studio or location photographer who introduces light into their scenes. When a good photographer has a story to tell they don’t let bad light stand in their way. They know how to create it, shape it, direct it, and conquer it. (Note: Click here for a round-up we ran last year on lighting tutorials).
This can be anything from making sure your batteries are charged to checking specific times for sunrise or sunset. Is your gear clean? Does your shoot location require permits? Do you have a vision for the shoot, or are you just winging it? Are you anticipating moments before they happen, or are you waiting for something cool to slap you in the face and announce itself? Being prepared is more than just making sure you have all your ducks in a row. It’s being in the moment. It’s immersing yourself in your craft and your subject. It’s capturing your vision while being open to the possibility of adapting and finding something new.
Working Quickly…But Efficiently
This kind of goes hand-in-hand with being prepared, but takes it a step further. If I’m out on my own, shooting for my own pleasure, this isn’t quite as important. I can take all the time I want. But for clients, time is money. If you’re wasting theirs’, they aren’t likely to come back to you any time soon. Don’t think, though, that this only applies to client work. The scenes that catch our attention can be fleeting. Capturing them in your little black box before losing the light or being abducted by aliens is the difference between coming home with a photo or coming home with a story about a missed photo.
Knowing the Gear
This is another trait that both you and your clients will appreciate. You’ll hear many photographers talk about their cameras being an extension of their bodies or their brains. While this may be a bit of an overstatement, the sentiment is sound. Learning your gear inside and out makes working efficiently so much easier. Can you adjust your camera settings while you’re looking through the camera? Or do you fumble around with menus, buttons, and dials while your client stands on the set losing patience? Do you know what your lights can and can’t do? Does the shoot need an umbrella or a softbox? Do you know exactly where and how all of your gear is packed? Or are you rummaging around looking for the lens you need to change? It’s not enough to have the gear. You have to know it intimately, inside and out.
Good Shooting Habits
Remember when your client wanted to know why you charge so much, and you explained that post production plays a big part of it? You were right, of course, but is that really where you want to be? Good shooting discipline can play a huge role in getting you out from behind the computer and back in front of the TV watching cartoons with your kids where you belong. Are you shooting ten frames when four will suffice? Are you trying to hand-hold at slow shutter speeds instead of using a tripod? Do you ever find yourself saying anything along the lines of, “I’ll fix it later in Photoshop?” As photographers, we learn by doing. We shoot. We practice. We do it over and over again until it becomes second nature. I’m not saying that we repeat the process until we turn into button-pushing robots, but I do think that removing the thought process from some of the mechanics frees us up to concentrate on the creativity.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. Since so much of what we do is subjective, any list of what supposedly makes a good photographer is also going to be highly subjective. I would also never claim to be smart enough to know everything that should appear on such a list. Speaking for myself, photography has been a lifelong journey. I’ve grown as a photographer over the course of that journey. I’ve gotten better. I’ve gotten worse. I’ve learned. I’ve forgotten. The constant, however, has been my love for the medium. And maybe that’s what it all boils down to. Loving what you do– being passionate about it and totally immersing yourself in it, coupled with an unquenchable thirst to learn– maybe that’s the only thing that needs to be on any list of what makes a good photographer.
What about you? What would you add to the list?