16 insights for photographers

I don’t earn much of my income through photography. People don’t pay me for advice on how to take pictures. However, I’ve been taking pictures – with proper full-control cameras in several film sizes – since I was about six years old.

I learned photography, including darkroom developing and printing, from my dad, who was a professional photographer at the time. I love photography, I look at a lot of photographs, I take a lot of photographs. I also love photographic equipment and I know a lot about it.

So, as a little cherry to put on top of my 12 days of gifts for writers, here – in one day – are 16 insights for photographers. If you’re a lifelong serious photographer, each of these is probably something you already either know or disagree with (or both). If you don’t care about photography, skip this. If, however, you like taking pictures but would like more thoughts and insights, here are some things I’ve observed that might be useful to you. (If you don’t like frank language, well, be forewarned.)

1. Equipment isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing, either.
Some photographers get GAS (gear acquisition syndrome): “I just need this one more lens and my photos will be great” or “What I’ve been needing is just this particular camera body.” Of course they really just want more toys. I know the feeling very well.

But some other photographers chuckle smugly and say “A good photographer can take a good photo on any equipment.” This is true in the same way that a good pianist can play well on any piano. A good pianist will nonetheless be demanding about the piano for a concert, because it does make a difference. Good equipment gives you more options and more control. You can always make a technically good photo a bit crappier if you want, but you can’t really go the other way.

2. Know the technical stuff well enough that it’s your slave, not vice versa.
You should be able to decide and control which parts of the photo are how much in focus, what’s exposed how, and so on. Same with the processing software. It’s like the difference between good home cooking and buying frozen dinners. (If you want to know more about digital photo editing software, see the bottom of this article. If you want to know more about how to use your camera, ask someone who knows. Me, for example, if you see me in person. Or go online.)

3. It’s not about abstract geometric lines.
There are articles out there that will tell you that all good photos can be described in terms of “laws” of geometry and proportion: rule of thirds, golden mean, et cetera. If you look at their illustrations, you will see that they have slapped the lines on top of the photo in whatever way suited them, and you could as easily slap on different lines and claim different things. It’s not that there’s nothing to the “rules”; it’s just that they’re general approximations of things that tend to work in composition. They won’t guarantee an interesting photo, and ignoring them won’t guarantee an uninteresting one.

4. Three things that can be relied on to make an interesting photo are fighting, f—ing, and fame.
You know what will make a photo interesting? Things people are interested in. The presence or promise of violence or sex is likely to grab attention, as is anything to do with a famous person or incident. That doesn’t mean that all photos of such subjects are equally good, nor does it mean that you have to have those to make a good photo. Ansel Adams made a great career without any of them. But if you want to sell photos, the three F’s are not a bad road to go down… if you can. Most of us aren’t surrounded by them on a regular basis.

5. “Rules” are bullshit.
Many people just love rules. “You have to do this for it to be a good photo”; “If you do that, you’re not a good photographer.” I recently read an article in which someone was talking about the “rules of street photography.” They were, every single one of them, utter rubbish (“Never use a long lens”; “Never shoot from the hip”). I hadn’t heard or seen any of them before and they had no basis in what makes a photo that a person wants to look at; they were all about chest-beating and approaching it as a competitive sport. Neither of those really has to do with the only thing that photography is actually about: Making pictures that people want to look at.

6. Don’t be a jerk.
Oh, there is onerule I would insist on beyond “Make pictures that people want to look at.” Weirdly, it’s one that some of the “rules” people really suck at. It doesn’t make a difference to how the photo looks, but it’s nonetheless an important rule for being a human on this planet: Don’t be a jerk. Don’t jam your camera right in strangers’ faces, for instance. Don’t take flash photos in places where it would be disruptive. (Modern cameras handle low light so well, flash is really seldom useful anymore anyway except for filling in backlit subjects.) Treat other people as humans who are at least as important as you.

7. You miss a million great shots every moment of your life.
If you only have one that “got away,” are you even looking? You should have loads of them. Great photos are there every moment, all the time. So it goes. If you want to take a picture, take one. If you miss it, keep taking pictures anyway. I’ll tell you what: I’ve often notmissed the “great shot” but then, when looking at it afterwards, decided that it just wasn’t as great as I thought… and tossed it.

8. Take appallingly many photos and throw appallingly many out.
Digital photography makes this so easy. Why take one photo if you can take three? It’s like getting three lottery tickets instead of one! But please recognize that most of your photos will not be up to any reasonable standard. In a recent six-day trip to Ireland, I took 1200 photos. I went through them afterward and discarded almost 1000 of them, which is probably not even as many as I should have tossed. (To be fair: by “tossed” I mean I didn’t process them and put them in my finals on Flickr. I still have the raw files because it costs me so little to keep them. There’s a minuscule chance I’ll want to look in them and find something, probably for evidential reasons. But they’re as good as down the toilet otherwise.)

9. Good timing is mostly waiting and watching.
Many of the great photos by great photographers capture great moments: “L’instant décisif,” as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it. But even though I already said that countless great photos are happening all around you, you’re not going to be there and on the moment for all of them. You need to find a situation where interesting things are likely to happen and just be there, ready. And keep taking pictures. I know for a fact that Cartier-Bresson took a lot of toss-aways for every one that nailed it.

10. Look for good light. Wait for things to happen in it.
If you want to find somewhere to watch and wait for good timing to happen, look for good light. Bad light (flat light, strong backlighting, etc.) can make even interesting subjects look bleah. Good lighting can make comparatively ordinary things look important and classic. Expensive professional photographers bring their own light and control it carefully. Expensive professional photographers aren’t still reading this because they know it already. If you’re still reading, you probably don’t have softboxes and key lights and reflectors and so forth. As you pass through your life, pay attention to places where the light is especially catchy. Pull out your camera and wait for people to happen in it. Take lots of photos and try not to be a jerk.

11. Look at lots of photos of all kinds.
Do you want to know what light looks good, as far as your tastes are concerned? Look at other people’s photos. Look at ridiculously many of them. Build up a very detailed and informed taste. Look at how they’re composed, Look at their subjects. Don’t overanalyze them – that just leads to drawing those stupid geometric lines. Look at so many that you build up reflexes. Look at so many that you get a taste that informs how you take your photos and how you choose and discard them. (Also how you crop them. Crop freely and without remorse or arbitrary constraint, by the way. Did someone tell you that you should never crop your photos? To hell with them. Rules are bullshit.)

12. You almost certainly won’t become rich or famous from photography.
No one photo will change that. In fact, no hundreds or thousands of photos will change that. There are very few rich photographers and far fewer famous ones. If you want to become rich at photography, I suggest having extremely good people skills and business sense combined with good technical skills and impressive-looking equipment, and going after corporate markets. If you want to become famous at photography, I suggest having extremely good people skills, a single-minded dedication to it beyond what anyone would call reasonable, and tons of luck. Or you could get famous at something else and then take photos – that actually is probably a more reliable way about it.

13. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.
Look, you won’t get rich. You won’t get famous. The number of photos taken in the world is estimated at over 3 billion each day. Sure, lots of those are smartphone photos for functional reasons, but even just counting dweebs with expensive cameras trying to make photo art, it’s still way more than just millions. There’s only one good reason to take pictures: Because you enjoy actually doing it. You’ll enjoy it more as you like your results more, of course. But unless you’re among the few who can make a living at it, you’re doing it for you.

14. Ignore the comments.
This is a general truism, but in photography in particular, comments from random people are, on average, of negative value. If you’re looking at reviews of camera equipment, people who have used the equipment in question will probably have useful information to share, but I have observed that most people who comment will not have used the equipment but will still have strong opinions on it. Would you pay attention to restaurant reviews by people who had never eaten at the restaurant?

Comments on photos (e.g., on Flickr or Instagram) are also of marginal value in general. Partly this is because many of the commenters are just hoping to get positive feedback on their own work in return. Partly it’s because it’s a social thing and some people just like being nice and other people just like being nasty. And partly it’s because why in hell should you care what they think? Who TF are they? Are they offering you money?

15. If they critique your photos, look at their photos.
Lots of people have opinions and advice on photos. Most of those people have not demonstrated that they know how to make a photo that you would like. Now, it’s true that a person may be able to teach you how to be a good photographer even if you don’t care for their photos, but unless the person is a seasoned instructor in a photography program in a respected institution, you can safely assume that no. If they have opinions on your work, they will be based on their taste and informed by their skill. If you’re not going to just ignore them (as well you may if you didn’t ask them), look at their photos.

If you like their photos, listen to them and think about what they suggest (they may or may not be right, but it’s worth a go). If you don’t like their photos, you can take their feedback as information, but it may be information on what to avoid. If they don’t take photos, why should you take their advice? Of course, if they’re paying you, it matters what they do and don’t like… but their advice on how to achieve what they like may not be altogether reliable.

16. There’s no such thing as an objective (or pure) photo.
All photography is selection: what’s in the frame, what’s out of the frame, what’s in focus, what’s out of focus, what moment it’s caught at. Different lenses will give different perspectives and effects. A photo takes a moving three-dimensional reality and freezes it into a still two-dimensional one. All representation of colour, no matter how “realistic,” involves choice, balance, alteration, adjustment. Black and white is not more “pure”; it just has fewer variables. The world is not in black and white, and conversion of it to black and white involves choices about the relative lightness of different colours. Ideologies about photography are all naïve.

Be aware of everything that’s going on and everything you’re doing. Take photos you’re glad you’ve taken, and don’t pretend they’re something more or other than chosen arrangements of coloured light that give the impression of representing real-world scenes. When people talk about “truth” in photography, they’re really just using it as a sock puppet for their own tastes and emotional inclinations.

Oh, here’s one more thing: If you want to know more about processing photos in digital photography software such as Adobe Photoshop, I gave a webinar on it for Editors Canada and you can get a recorded copy for the low low price of CAD$60 ($42 for members) at www.editors.ca/professional-development/webinar-recordings (scroll down to “How to Handle Digital Photos,” a bit past halfway down). Fair warning: I cover a lot, so it’s a bit like getting a drink from a fire hose. But you can always watch it multiple times, and it comes with a good handout.

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