I got interested in photography in 1966. I was 12. I started trying to really apply myself as a photographer when I was 15. I got my first “real” camera, a Nikkormat FTn as a gift from Tom Russell, a press photographer who happened to be the father of my girlfriend at the time. I was super excited to get that camera. I was 17. On May 25, 1975, I sold my first photograph. I remember the date because it was at the Indy 500. I was lucky enough to be stationed in the short chute of the second turn where Tom Sneva had a spectacular crash that nearly took his life. I was stringing for Associated Press and they used the image I captured of the car sliding off the wall. I was 21 years old.
In short, I’ve been bumming around with a camera for around 50 years. It occurs to me, that I might have picked up a couple of things that could help those of you who are new at this. For those of you who aren’t new, maybe just getting the perspective of an old man will open your eyes to something new.
So here are 10 simple truths that I think will help you become a better photographer.
1. Make things interesting. Get close. Use super wide lenses. Give us a perspective we’re not used to.
I made this image of a bald eagle using a 17mm lens on a Micro Four Thirds, Olympus body for an EFL of 35mm – from just a few feet away. The perspective is vastly different than you usually get when looking at eagles photographed with telephoto lenses. In my experience, everything gets much more interesting when you get close.
2. Be more selective. Make fewer exposures and be more deliberate in your choices. Do not spray and pray. Think about why you are going to press that shutter button. When I am in the field I may spend the day and only make a few hundred shots v. thousands I used to make when I was a newbie.
3. Practice patience. This is something I have to do as a bird photographer. My most famous photo, “Cranes in the Fire Mist” took me 13 years to make. I had pre-visualized it and had to go back year-after-year until I got what I wanted. The photo that you work for. . . the photo that you wait for. . . that is the photo you end up loving.
4. Pray for weather. Seriously. Bald blue skies are boring. Pray for clouds, and snow and all sorts of less than comfortable weather. The character of the light and the skies on such days is worth more than gold. Clouds make pictures more interesting. They also make for better sunrises and sunsets.
5. Learn the gear you have. Before you purchase a new lens, demonstrate that you have mastered the lenses you already own. There is a lot to be said for taking it slow when you’re adding gear. Make sure you know what you want from new gear and make sure you cannot get it from the old gear before you make the leap.
6. Stop shooting from 5’8″ (the average height of a tripod.) Get up or get down. Get high or get low. Use angle to tell stories. Shoot up on subjects if you want to give them hero status. Shoot down on them to remove their power. Shoot eye-to-eye to establish an emotional connection. How high or low the camera is to the ground when you shoot is much more important than just about anything you can think of.
7. Study light. Chase light. Ignore the people who are of the religion of low light. Instead, make light, crave light, love light, find light. When I started out, a Japanese friend of mine was impressed with my use of light and dubbed me a light and shadow warrior. This is a title I have always cherished. Nothing matters in photography more than light. Nothing.
8. Make checklists and update/check them often. I cannot tell you how important this is to building what I call, mental muscle memory. When you board a commercial aircraft, you can bet the pilots are running over multiple checklists every time you fly. These are people who have probably done this a minimum of hundreds of times and probably thousands of times. Yet they still use the checklist. I live by my checklists and am not ashamed to say I rely heavily on them.
9. Backup EVERYTHING. Make sure you have multiple backups of each photo. Back them up on to multiple hard disks and then separate the drives so they aren’t stored in the same building. Backup everything to the cloud – twice – using different services. You can never have too much money, or too many backups.
10. Remember photography is a spiritual calling. Those of us who use our cameras are high priests and priestesses of memory protection. It’s up to us to tell stories with our cameras that may end up being the last memory of the people, places or things we photograph. It’s a serious, and important thing. Treat it that way.
There is one amazing thing about photography that keeps drawing me in deeper and deeper. Even though I am now an old man, with fewer tomorrows than I have yesterdays, every time I grab a camera I am full of hope. Hope for what comes next. Find that in your own work and you will always be rich. I am rooting for you.