It’s an amazing time to become a photographer! If you’re just getting into photography, you’ve arrived at an amazing time. The gear is the best it’s ever been. Access to research and information is at an all-time high. The ability for nearly anyone with Internet access to reach a large audience has democratized the process.
But what next? Whether you are a raw, beginner or a seasoned, pro, you may find some of this advice rings true.
One coin, two sides
Take it from a guy with more than 45 years of photo experience – there’s always something you can do to get better and there’s always a challenge to face that you may not have seen coming.
I hope the tips below will help you with both sides of that coin.
The 20 tips
1. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is a better teacher than simply getting up off the couch, grabbing your camera, and going out into the world to make photographs. Go shoot. Something – anything! Taking lots and lots and lots of photos is better than studying photographic theory any day.
2. When you’re young, you have the ultimate license to experiment. So try everything. Try many styles of photography. Don’t make assumptions based solely on what your peers have told you. Go do it for yourself.
3. Obsess over your story, your subject, your passion – not your camera.
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas
4. Don’t give up. It takes time to master photography if you want to practice it at the highest levels. Some young photographers give up when they were (unknowingly) very close to a breakthrough. I know one young photographer who toiled for six years until she found out what she really cared about and in a matter of months, her career took off.
5. Photograph the subjects that move you and that you really care about – not what you think will get you lots of Instagram likes. If that’s all you want shoot lots of sunsets or nude girls. Better yet, photograph nude girls at sunset!
6. Be deliberate. Rather than simply documenting what you see and showing people what things happen to look like, pretend you’re explaining something (using only a camera) to someone who’s never seen your subject. Tell a story. This falls under the Ansel Adams ideology of MAKING good pictures, not TAKING good pictures.
7. Always remember that photography is a serious art form and the basis of much commercial endeavor – BUT – it should also ALWAYS be fun. If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right. Have a good time. Always.
8. If you’re thinking about photography as a career, know this. It’s going to be hard; very hard. I’d advise only those people who feel like they have a true calling – those who HAVE to be a photographer to engage in this as a profession. Did I mention that it will be hard?
9. All that matters is the picture – not the process. While some would disagree with me (usually people who use process as a crutch) it’s the truest thing I know about photography. The image should ALWAYS come first.
“Photography is a language. Think about what you want to use it to talk about. What are you interested in? What questions do you want to ask? Then go for it, and throw yourself into talking about that topic, using photography. Make a body of work about that.” – Jonas Bendiksen
10. Don’t fall into the trap of copying other photographers or their styles.
“Study photography, see what people have achieved, but learn from it, don’t try photographically to be one of those people.” – Chris Steele-Perkins
11. Avoid being trendy for trendiness sake. Being on the wrong side of 60, I’ve seen lots of trends in photography come and go. For a while it was light leaks – then it was intentionally blurry subjects – then it was the ever-present, backlit, flared wedding portfolio shot. The problem with trends is – they are not timeless. Good photography is timeless.
12. Always seek to improve. Hold yourself accountable. Don’t take shortcuts.
“Always be critical, question the conventions of the medium, and reflect on your own position and intentions as an artist.” – Max Pinckers
13. Follow your passion and not the money. Photographing from the heart always ALWAYS always produces the best images. Photographing PURELY for money, with no passion, just yields visual pollution.
14. Don’t overthink. I’ve had many students who start every photo project with “BUT WHAT ABOUT _______ ?” Stop that. Let the photos come to you. Imagine yourself standing in a creek. The water flows around you, regardless of what you do – or what you want the water to do. That is how you approach photography. Become part of the flow.
15. Don’t just study the work of famous photographers. Study painters, sculpture artists, and especially motion picture directors. Studying other visual arts helps you train your artists’ eye.
16. Read your camera manual! In order to be an effective, visual, storyteller, you have to be a master of your tools so they don’t get in the way. Read your camera manual all at once, but then, one page at a time – once every day. Take that one step further and practice the things your reading about, whether or not you think you’ll ever need to use them. Keep a copy of it on your smartphone.
17. Always question yourself. The most important question you can ask yourself as a photographer is this. WHY! When you’re about to press the shutter button, don’t do it unless you can articulate with specificity – WHY you’re making that picture.
18. If you want to really develop your craft, pour yourself into a long-term project. Pick something that you can really dig into and plant your flag there for a significant period of time. This doesn’t mean that you cannot shoot multiple subjects, styles, etc., it DOES mean that you spend the extra special time to one of them.
19. Learn to photograph with empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Some of the best photographers I know are also the most empathetic.
20. Remember that there is no substitute for experience. You cannot cheat time. As my dad used to say, “Everyone wants to be a rock star – nobody wants to take music lessons.” Sometimes, you just have to pay your dues. Since experience only comes by doing, if you’re unsure of your next step, just go photograph something. Nine times out of 10 you will be doing the best thing you can do for your photography.
There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas