On and Over the Hills

"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle

How to Begin to Become a Great Photographer – My Take

Click play on the audio player below to hear me read this to you (With grateful recognition to the gifted Julian Hoffman for the idea and assistance)

Fly to Bhuntar Airport in the Kullu Valley, take a taxi from Bhuntar to Manali, climb the Himalayas and stay there till you find the rare Himalayan tigers.

Or not.

Rather, stay where you are and take lots of pictures. And look at lots of pictures. You learn photography by looking and doing. Find out what you love and shoot (for) it.

OK, I’m sorry. The first is totally impossible for most of us and the second I know is completely cliché, but it is one of those clichés that have become one for a reason: it’s true. Looking and doing. There is no other way. Let me just tell you the story of the first three years of my journey towards this lofty goal and what I’ve learned about learning photography. Hopefully it will help you begin or continue yours.

Count the Clichés

“Count the Clichés” May 2011

My own journey began when I discovered Flickr. Each image in this post links to the Flickr page where you can read the comments I’ve received from the generous and kind people I have had the pleasure of interacting with there. I want to clarify that Flickr is not paying me for this. (I wish they would.) If, after reading this and clicking on the images to read the comments on the posts, you know of an equally supportive site, please let everyone know in this post’s comments.

In April of 2009, I had a point-and-shoot camera and hundreds of digital files. I thought I had some pretty nice pictures and I wanted to do something with them. Period.


Within a week of looking around Flickr I discovered that my pictures where not even average. I was immediately seized by an overwhelming desire to learn how to make images as beautiful as what I was seeing. What exactly was wrong with my pictures? Why didn’t they look as good? What could I do about making them better?

What followed was a storm of new learning. Inspired, I began to shoot hundreds of pictures a week. I downloaded an open-sourced photo-editing program and began experimenting.

"Something moved!" June 1, 2009

“Something moved!” A picture combined with multiple texture layers from June 2009

A few months after I joined Flickr, one of my images magically hit the site’s front page. Wow! What made the ‘magic donkey’ (popularity algorithm) decide that this was one of the best pictures on Flickr for that day, or hour, or moment?

Skinner's Meat

“Skinner’s Meat” on Flickr’s front page in July 2009

For a while, I got kind of caught up in trying to figure out the trick to hitting Explore. Don’t do that. I wasted a lot of time and mental energy timing my uploads, comments and replies, and adding and not adding to certain groups. It’s a very tempting challenge because the criteria is so unpredictable. Resist it. Explore was not what I was there for and I didn’t necessarily admire all the images that made it there, including my own. Just by hanging around Flickr it was obvious that there are many, many amateur photographers out there and most produce way more exciting images than I do…so far.

Rather than playing the popularity game, I found it far more gratifying to get involved in the sharing that goes on around the site. As with most places, you have the option to choose which license with which to post your images. You can choose to reserve all rights for something you would rather not see elsewhere on the net, or you can choose a Creative Commons License, which allows for different levels of sharing. I have learned a lot from editing images that others have chosen to share and have reciprocated with many of my pictures. I have even gained a little attention from images that have been placed on websites.

Mr. Griggs leaving work on a lovely autumn evening

A Halloween composite that I made from a variety of images that others have chosen to share.

Once I realized that I had a lot to learn and that there were many generous people willing to help me do that, I gladly jumped in. I posted my hope of constructive criticism below my photos and quickly began adding helpful and inspiring photographers to my contacts list. That way I could see their uploads and develop a rapport as I commented on their work. I joined groups that helped me learn and endeavored to acquire a working vocabulary of photography.

I wish the lamp wasn't broken :-)

Image critiqued by members of the Plus-Minus Group a month after I joined – Click to read their points.

Although one should always be aware of ‘fishers’, people who are simply adding generic compliments so that you will go check out their photos, Flickr is full of very supportive people who often provide feedback that lets me know I’m making progress and sometimes makes me choke up with pride.

Finger cymbals

“Finger Cymbals” Click on the image to see just how generous some very knowledgeable people can be with their time and expertise.

Although I have always been wholeheartedly appreciative of anyone taking the time to critique my work whether it is positive or not, sometimes I disagree with opinions expressed. Those moments are gold. When I know enough about what I like to be able to disagree with another’s opinion, I know I am learning something. I am learning about myself as an artist – the only person an artist can be.

We hold one another from falling

I wasn’t and still am not happy with this image despite compliments (and criticisms) that you can read if you want by clicking on it.

In October of 2009 I bought a DSLR so that I could learn how to control exposure and depth of focus. I began to shoot RAW for even more developmental control. I devoured the photographs on Flickr, learning a lot about the possibilities of image-taking and editing, continuously inspired to make new pictures. I played with all kinds of styles, subjects and techniques.

Good News

“Good News” August 2010

In retrospect, the most important element in my learning was simply looking at the world around me influenced by the incredible range of photography on Flickr and elsewhere. I even began to watch movies a little more analytically.  Eventually I landed here in the blogisphere and discovered even more amazing photography. I have spent almost as much time looking at others’ work as I have working on my own, maybe more. I have spent a lot of time commenting and soon discovered that by making the effort to articulate what struck me in an image, I was developing my own ‘eye’ and working towards knowing what I wanted to accomplish with my photography, although that is still an ever-changing vision for me.

“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.”
Ansel Adams

Broad-Winged Hawk...Not!

At the moment my focus is attempting to show how nature affects me emotionally.

Nobody can teach you what art is. Nobody can teach you what ‘good’ art is. You truly have to figure it out for yourself.

I have been reading statements like the one above since I began this journey and if you’re just starting out you will read it not just here, but everywhere. If you’re like me though it will take some time to really ‘get’ it. You can and should learn the rules of photography – the rule of thirds, that horizons should be level, etc. and then you can, and should allow yourself to disregard the ones you disagree with. Ansel Adams said, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs”. Take your time in identifying what is a good photograph for you.

Learn the technical stuff like how to control exposure, white balance and depth of field, how to use your photo-editing program and other software.

Most importantly learn to give, and to accept or reject constructive criticism with tact.  A rejection doesn’t even have to be expressed, just internalized as another step to developing your own personal vision. Keep the conversation going. There is always more to learn.

And then you have to play.

Mona's Misfortune

“Mona’s Misfortune” March 2012

Play and play and play and play and really Play. Have fun. The goal is to eventually get to the point where you don’t shoot or edit a picture with anyone else’s ideas in your mind. This has always been and still is, to some extent, a challenge for me – others’ words keep popping into my head when shooting and processing: “Too much grain”, “No detail in the shadows”, “The highlights are blown”, “Too saturated”. I needed to learn those ideas, and now I need to keep them tucked away in deeper recesses.

I’m trying to reconnect with and learn to listen to that voice that says, “I like it just like this.”


“Turbulence” August 2011

If I were to teach you about photography, I would tell you that:

  • I’m drawn to colour
  • Off-level horizon lines in landscapes bother me
  • The quality of the light is important to me
  • I like organic shapes and textures
  • An image has to evoke an emotion

What does that teach you? It might teach you to make images that please me, but would they also please you? And if pleasing me is your goal, you’ll have to check back with me next month because I just might change my mind.

“If You Could See Me Now” July 2010

Instead I’ll tell you to:

  • Look at lots of pictures of all different styles. Learn more about those you admire.
  • Learn to articulate your reaction to each image you look at, even if just to yourself.
  • Take lots of pictures, experiment, try to articulate what you like or don’t like about your own images too.
  • Take a Photography Day with other people that like to take pictures, share each others’ personal what, where, when, why and how of shooting.
  • Pay it forward – share your enthusiasm, your knowledge and even some of your images.
  • Learn to pay attention to the quality of light – the colour and hardness or softness of it.
  • Learn to welcome constructive criticism – privately decide whether or not you agree with it.
  • Use the internet to learn the techniques you need to create the feel you are after, or take a course but remember that it will only teach you how to make pictures, not necessarily the pictures You need to make.
  • Enjoy yourself – don’t take yourself or your photography too seriously. Impatience and too much analysis will kill creativity.
  • Be prepared to change your mind, your taste and your style.
  • Stay humble so that your mind and your heart stay open.
  • Do all this at the same time and repeat.

No one person can turn you into the photographer you want to be. Reach out, keep learning, keep growing. An artist’s development is never finished, although if we continue to do all the above, someday you and I might both be Great Photographers.

“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
Ansel Adams


23 comments on “How to Begin to Become a Great Photographer – My Take

  1. Dan Jurak
    August 6, 2012

    Great advice Cindy. I see a dramatic change in the way that you see and cultivate that vision. It’s a wonderful journey of exploration to be on.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      August 7, 2012

      Thanks, Dan. It is a wonderful journey and I expect that the scenery will continue to be ever-changing. I appreciate the inspiration of your images very much – always so beautiful and moving.

  2. Bob Zeller
    August 6, 2012

    A tremendous and informative post, Cindy. Your photographs are simply outstanding. I am proud to say that I am one that watched you grow photographically and artistically the past three years. I can’t find the right words. I agree with you on what you say about ‘fishers’, etc. I don’t just tell people ‘fluff’. When I comment, it comes from what I really feel. Some of your images just boggle my mind. It is as if I am looking thru your lens with you, and I am in awe.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      August 7, 2012

      While being wonderfully supportive, Bob, I know that your comments are sincere and I appreciate that very much. I think I’m getting pretty good at recognizing the ‘fishers’. Although I may never have the magical tack that gets me as close as you do, I have been inspired by your images and have learned a lot from your blog, and for that and your continued friendship, I thank you.

  3. Rose
    August 7, 2012

    Just love your insight on this topic, Cindy! 🙂

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      August 7, 2012

      Thank you, Rose. While writing, I was thinking that it would be fun to revisit the topic in another three years and see if anything has changed.

  4. bob emmerich
    August 11, 2012

    Well,well, well! Yup! Wonderful insight but more than that, Cindy Kilpatrick, is the kind of person I want to be around. Through your work and comments I see a kind,caring, sharing and humble persona. I have been lucky enough to have shared some of your ride. I’ll raise a glass of wine tonight for you Cindy. To the future………….
    All the best always,

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      August 13, 2012

      Bob, the joy that oozes from your wonderful work, (which readers can see by clicking on Bob’s name in the post), is always a reminder to play, to keep the process of making art fun. Thank you so much for your very kind compliments. I don’t have any wine at the moment, but I’ll gratefully toast you in return with a beer this evening.

  5. luke casey photography
    August 12, 2012

    What a great read. I found myself nodding as I read on. Nicely put together. revisiting would be a great idea and very possible thanks to your blog. Keep up the good writing and shooting.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      August 13, 2012

      I’m glad you agree with the post, Luke. I hope I do remember to revisit the ideas here but I know that I will always be evaluating the way I do and look at art because I become very bored if things stay the same for too long. If, in three years, I am doing things exactly the way I am now…well, I probably won’t be doing it at all. I will have moved on to something else. Thank you very much for stopping by and taking the time to leave your welcome comment. A quick look at your blog shows me that I will enjoy perusing it more deeply.

  6. pixilated2
    August 13, 2012

    Cindy, I certainly don’t think of myself as a photographer, but I know what I like! Much of your work is simply amazing to me, but the falcon and “Turbulence” above are astounding!
    ~ Lynda
    PS: Loved your reading of your post too!

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      August 13, 2012

      Thanks Lynda. Those are two of my current favourites as well, obviously, I suppose by their inclusion in their places in the post. I’m glad you enjoyed my reading. I’m not sure if I’ll do it again because of the time involved, but I’d like to. I read aloud as part of my job, naturally, and it’s a part that I enjoy very much.

    • Steve Schwartzman
      August 15, 2012

      I’m with both of you in liking those two pictures. It’s hard to get good bird photographs, and the one of the hawk captures its takeoff at just the right moment. The image of turbulence makes we wish I’d been there to see those clouds.

  7. Steve Schwartzman
    August 15, 2012

    Regarding that concluding comment by Ansel Adams: did you know that he trained as a classical pianist before he decided to devote himself to photography?

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      August 15, 2012

      I did not, Steve. Thanks for enlightening me. That comment could be applied to any art form, couldn’t it?

  8. Heather
    September 25, 2012

    Some very sage words, Cindy. Our experiences in learning photography have been similar in many respects. I think that with any art form you can only get better by learning from others. Thanks for sharing your experiences and terrific images. I always enjoy learning from you 🙂

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      October 14, 2012

      The feeling is mutual, Heather. What a wonderful world the internet is – that we can get to know and admire someone we would never otherwise have met, and in your case to carry that even further to actually meet in person. It brings the pen-pal concept to a much deeper and broader level.

  9. Jo Ann
    October 14, 2012

    Thanks for giving me lots to think about. I know I will never be a great photographer, but I can aspire to train my “artist’s eye” so that I can best capture what it is I’m looking at through the lens.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      October 15, 2012

      Never say never, Jo Ann! 🙂 Great doesn’t really matter, you create a legacy no matter what because what you choose to shoot and how you choose to shoot it will never be the same as someone else. Enjoy the exploring and thank you so much for stopping by.

  10. suitablefish
    November 3, 2012

    “by making the effort to articulate what struck me in an image, I was developing my own ‘eye’ and working towards knowing what I wanted to accomplish with my photography” – some stunning photographs and a post that’s good food for thought and photography. The hawk taking flight, the roiling orange sky, the asters fading into green, easy to see your eye and heart. Thank you.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      November 4, 2012

      You have found me out! Those are images I was pleased to have made, ones that spoke to who I am, or want to be as a photographer. I appreciate you comment, your compliment very much, Susan. Thank you for stopping by.

  11. Curt Saunier
    November 22, 2012

    Hi Cindy,
    I was looking up friends I hadn’t seen or heard from in awhile and that lead me here! Great post! I’ve been kind of spinning aimlessly with my photography for awhile now, and going through this and hearing you share and explain the wisdom and knowledge you’ve gained through this process, I think, has helped me re-focus again. Thanks. Hope all is well with you.

    • Cindy Kilpatrick
      November 24, 2012

      Hello Curt! It’s so good to hear from you and to think that I have had a hand in helping a photographer I admire to get back on the creative path is so very gratifying.

      I miss my Flickr friends and wait for the day that I will be able to refocus on photography. I’m still taking pictures of course, but not allowing myself to fall into the obsession right now because that’s what it becomes for me – an obsession that leaves me neglecting professional and personal priorities. It’s OK, though because I do get a lot of satisfaction of jobs-well-done in other areas…always working towards a balance with gratitude that life is so full.

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This entry was posted on August 6, 2012 by in The Journey and tagged , , , .
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