I’ve been a photographer for (gulp!!) more than half a century. In that time I have worked with, watched and studied some of the best photographers in their respective genres. Then, about 30 years ago, it dawned on me (duh!!) that perhaps these terrific photographers had some secrets that I should uncover in order to up my own game. And so, I began to research this angle in earnest.
I don’t like to admit it, but I was once an academic, having taught at the University level for several years. If there was one skill I gained from that experience, it was how to research a subject to death. So I embarked on a selfish personal research project. I wanted to know if there were some behaviors common to virtually all great photographers, behaviors I could emulate to improve my own work.
A Pattern Reveals Itself
I observed iconic photographers in action. I read biographies of many luminaries - Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Galen Rowell and others. When I began to detect certain patterns, I interviewed some colleagues whose work I respect and admire to see if I was missing anything. Over the past ten years I have refined my research. I have whittled down these best photography practices to six behaviors that these successful men and women all exhibit to one degree or other. And if you want to really, really kick your photography up, not one level, but to an entirely different realm, you’d be wise to also learn from these masters.
Over the past year I have compiled these practices into a brand new ebook, one that I am proud to announce is now available on my website. Titled Shun Your Photography: Lessons From 50 Years in the Field, the ebook uses my own images to illustrate these vital habits and to help readers incorporate these habits into their own artwork.
Each of the habits I uncovered ends in ‘tion,’ hence the play on words. There are two main segments to these behaviors, external ones and internal ones. And, like a sweet golf stroke, they must be practiced over and over again until you internalize them and they become part of your field workflow. Here is a brief summary.
You Have to Shun Photography
In short, every good photographer starts with inspiration. We are perhaps inspired by nature or the human body or grand architecture. Or, like Cartier-Bresson, you might be inspired by slice-of-life street photography. One of the key determinants of success is how well you keep that inspiration in mind and use it as a disciplinary tool to keep you focused.
But whatever the inspiration, nothing great in photography has ever been achieved without perspiration. Think Galen Rowell hanging from sheer cliff faces to capture iconic climbers in action. Or Ansel Adams lugging heavy wooden tripod, camera and lenses all day along steep paths in the Tetons. Perspiration also involves persistence aimed at being at one with your equipment, so that you are ready for the next stage of this cycle. My advice: If you want to create really great images, work at it!
In every great photographer’s career, we see a tipping point where they suddenly find their style, a way of expressing themselves that is at once comfortable and somehow unique. That differentiation is what makes an Adams print so recognizable, or a Galen Rowell or Jimmy Chin image.
The final ‘tion’ in the external cycle of winning photographers is experimentation. These alpha photographers are constantly experimenting, trying new techniques, fiddling with equipment, and post-processing using new technologies. Ansel Adams sometimes spent weeks experimenting with ways to improve one print. In our day, exemplars like Tony Sweet are constantly stretching the envelope, embracing new technologies (think iPhones) or creative long exposures to advance their art. Fortunately we all benefit from their pioneering work.
The Inner Muse
But all these external behaviors are nothing without two critical aspects of our art that well up from our mindsets. The first of these is visualization. If I had a dollar for every time I have gone out with a master photographer and heard him or her react to a perfectly beautiful image with, “Damn, it’s not what I had in mind,” I would be writing this moored on a yacht in a pristine blue-water cove next to a tropical beach.
Great photographers visualize what they want. They understand the limitations and strengths of their equipment. They research their subjects. They plan to be there in the right light. They have honed expectations and know what it is they are looking to capture.
This visualization presumes the final ‘tion,’ which is the nemesis of all photographers, young and old, beginner and pro. That is composition. I can hear you yelling at the screen, protesting that composition is a technique, not something that emerges from an internal source. Allow me to state my case.
I have been teaching photography and leading photography tours around the world for decades. Almost every one of my colleagues agrees on this one point; the toughest thing to teach in photography is composition. More promising images are ruined by poor composition than any other cause. Period.
A great photographer internalizes good composition so that it flows from a deeper source. It comes from being more mindful. It is a way of capturing a scene that is inherently dramatic, emotional, pleasing to the eye (or intentionally discordant). How on Earth did Dorothea Lange capture that exquisitely painful image of a mother during the Great Depression, her two children looking away from the camera, their heads buried in their mother’s neck? There is almost a sixth sense to it, a feeling that the perfectly composed image transcends time and space. Did Lange stop to think of Rule of Thirds, foreground elements or any of the other so-called rules of composition? Hardly. She was in the zone. Composition was in her blood.
Edward Weston perhaps said it best: “Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”
The great photographers don’t just walk, they fly. And lucky us, we get to soar with them.
To read more about the behaviors of great photographers and how that can help you improve your own photography, you can purchase my new ebook here. I also have an illustrated presentation on the topic for photography groups and general audiences, so send me an email if you’re interested.