I recently listened to an interview with Jay Maisel, photographer of 50+ years and Jay was asked, “How do you become a better photographer”? His answer, 1. “Become a more interesting person”, 2. “Don’t study photography, study life”. Now is that the answer you want to hear when you ask a renowned veteran photographer the question, how do I become a better photographer? Well heck fire no it’s not. Why, I think most people just want to be able to quickly and easily be a better photographer. This become a more interesting person stuff and study life stuff sounds like, well, work.
Nothing is work if you love to do it. I felt compelled to touch on this subject once again, and probably won’t be the last time. I’ve written previously that you can master your equipment but that sure won’t make your pictures any better. And I think Jay just hit the nail on the head with his, don’t study photography, study life answer. Now Jay is not a nature photographer, I guess his work would be described as contemporary, makes no difference. The fact of the matter is, you need to study your subject. You need to feel the depth of life in your subject. Be it a stranger on the street corner or a vast open meadow of wildflowers. If you have no passion or desire to understand such things how are you going to capture anything of interest in your photograph? Sure you can stand there and snap 100 images off and go home and pick out the best one. But how will you know you have the best one if you just stood there snapping indiscriminately at the scene.
You see, when you have a desire to learn, a passion to understand you instinctively engage yourself with your subject. You study it, you get up close to it, you look it in the eyes or smell the fragrance of it’s blooms. You look at it from every conceivable angle. You wonder what it will look like later that day or tomorrow morning. You do these things why? You are not studying your photography, you are studying your subject, or as Jay put it, studying life.
So many if not the vast majority want to take great pictures and they want to take them Now! They are smart people, capable of reading their cameras owners manual and fiddling with the controls and figuring out how to control the aperture and shutter speed and read about things like depth of field and the mind blowing monster “hyper focal distance.” They rack their brains with calculation on how to get the nth degree of focus and sharpness in their shots. How do I know this? I’ve been there, and it wasn’t pretty. The more I studied the calculations, specifications and combination’s, the more I focused on composition and how much sky was enough and where exactly to put an object in the foreground in relation to the sunset, the more I was disappointed in my results. This isn’t to say none of those things matter because they do. You still need to have the basics of visual art in play. But there comes a time when these things need to be automatic so you can focus on what is really important, your subject, life. How do you make these thing automatic, simple, you work at it. You don’t take for granted that just because you have 100 shots of a scene 1 of them will be good. You better make sure one of them is good. Stop studying your camera and study your subject.
Asked, what makes a photograph successful, Jay replied, “It hits a note or resonates with someone else, the more people it resonates with the more successful it will be”.
What inspires you? You may think the answer should be, well, life inspires me. But that in itself just isn’t enough. What is it that really inspires you? A question that you may never be able to answer, and that’s ok. It’s not the answer that’s important, it’s the why. It’s the not knowing but the always wanting to find out.
I’ve seen so many beautiful photographs of nature, many taken from the same place, of the same subject, but it’s only the ones that had that difference I remember. It’s only the ones that the photographer took the time to truly try and capture the life in the subject that stand out. You don’t really need to be in an exotic location or have amazing subjects in front of you to capture great pictures. You need to love what your doing and show why in your photographs.
So hurry up and master your equipment and stop wasting time figuring out the hyper focal distance of f/8 compared to f/22 when your subject is 3.674 feet from the focal plane of your camera, enough already. Start spending time becoming a better photographer. No it’s not easy, but if you truly love what you do, it is worth it.