"Go as far as you can see; when you get there you'll be able to see farther." ~ Thomas Carlyle
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
If I were to teach you about photography, I would tell you that:
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.
Instead I’ll tell you to:
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