One of my favorite photography quotes comes from long-time National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson. “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” Like so many pieces of Life’s really great advice on topics big and small, it is both ridiculously simple and deeply profound at the same time. It’s the simplicity, though, that really resonates with me. I was discussing this with my students the other day when they pointed out to me that much of my advice to them is just as basic, simple, and straight-to-the-point.
That night I sat down with my class notes and started going through everything I had taught these kids over the past couple of years. They couldn’t possibly be right. Surely in that time I’d managed to drop at least one or two lofty, esoteric pearls of wisdom, right? Apparently, I’m just a keep-it-simple kind of guy. Hopefully my words and ideas on the subject of photography will educate and inspire my students in much the same way that Richardson’s quote does for me, but it looks like my best advice on giving advice is to keep it simple.
At my next class, I raised the question again, but this time I asked my students, “If you could give one piece of valuable photography advice to someone, what would it be?” I was kind of blown away by their answers, from both a technical and practical standpoint. So, with just a little added commentary from me, the kids of “Digital Photo Challenges” offer some of their best simple suggestions for taking better photos and being better photographers.
Leave Your Camera Turned On.
Once your camera is out of the bag, keep the power on and the lens cap off. This is particularly true when it comes to street photography. Even that slight delay in turning your camera on can mean the difference between capturing a moment in time or losing it for good. Carry extra batteries if you think you’re going to need them, but leave the camera on.
Go Light on the Gear Once in a While.
I don’t attend a lot of meet-ups or photo walks, but when I do I’m always amazed at the vast amount of gear that some people load on their backs. I understand wanting to plan for every eventuality, but try keeping things light once in a while. One camera. One lens. There will always be time for elaborate set-ups. Go back to basics once in a while and create something special. Embrace the challenge.
Look for Inspiration in Other Art Forms.
I always stress the importance of studying the work of influential photographers and applying those insights into your work, but don’t forget about how much knowledge, technique, and inspiration there is to be learned from painters, sculptors, glass blowers, welders, and folk artists. Remember that painters were capturing light with pigment and a brush long before we came along with our cameras. Walk through a museum once in a while and see what the old masters can teach you.
Shoot What Excites You.
I am all for experimenting, thinking outside the box, and pushing creative boundaries, but if you aren’t shooting what excites you it’s going to show. Standing in front of more interesting stuff might help make you a better photographer, but only if you’re excited about what you’re doing. Nothing is going to change if you’re only going through the motions.
Don’t Repeat Yourself (Too Much).
A while back I wrote an article about quintessential moments in photography. One of the points I made in that article was that defining moments can’t be created or contrived. Most of the time, you don’t even realize you’ve had such a moment until long after you’ve taken the shot. Once you’ve had one, however, recognize it for what it is and move on to something else. Lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, so don’t force it. New challenges. Onward and upward.
Learn to Edit Yourself.
This one is worthy of an article all its own, but suffice it to say that your portfolio probably has too many photos in it. If you are trying to get someone’s attention– a client, an art director, your family– learn how to show them only your best work. If the only difference between those six headshots is three degrees of head-tilt, cut it down to one. If you’re making me sit through a slide show of your European vacation, I’ll be just fine with one or two shots of the Eiffel Tower. I really don’t need to see all 137.
Here is a good general approach to editing yourself. If you’ve taken 100 shots, no more than fifty should make the first cut. Now keep cutting what’s left in half until what remains is not your best, but the best of your best. It’s not an easy thing to do, but in time you’ll notice more consistently positive reactions to your work.
Never Be Completely Satisfied.
I tend to be my own worst critic, which– most of the time– is a good thing. While it can be incredibly frustrating to constantly find flaws in my work (either real or perceived), I let myself be encouraged and motivated by it. Maybe that last shoot went smoothly and I’m just as happy as the client is with the results. That’s great, but I want it to be even better the next time.
Practice, Practice, Practice.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s quote about your first 10,000 photographs being your worst carries a lot of truth. Photography can be many things– your talent, your gift, your art, your job, your escape. But regardless of how you identify with your photography, you still have to practice. The more the better. Remember that improvement we were talking about a few minutes ago? This is where you make it happen.
Don’t Be a Photo Snob.
There is more than one way to do everything. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that your way is always the best way or that you can’t learn something valuable from someone less experienced that you.
Be Open to _______.
Anything. Everything. Photography is a lifetime education. Be open to all of its possibilities.
In my experience, the best advice I’ve been given has always been simple and uncomplicated, yet resonant and deeply meaningful. The same holds true for photography. While much of what we do can be very complicated, the wisdom that guides us on the road doesn’t have to be.
Eiffel Tower photo credit, Flickr Creative Commons user Kurt Munz. Thanks, Kurt!
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