Photography as my teacher

Over the last 2 years I have tried hard to improve my photography. I have failed in at least two resolutions.

One was to stop buying gear. Certainly I buy a lot less in retirement than I did previously. In part that is a conscious decision to use what kit I have more productively, in part it is simple economics. Nevertheless I have added a couple of camera bodies and at least 3 lenses. I confess also that I am on the brink of another splurge. 

The second resolution was always going to be the bigger challenge. As I explore images on the internet it is easy to see those photographers with a recognizable style. They have a niche, a sphere of excellence. They make themselves identifiable with a particular genre. I felt I ought to specialize more and try to develop a distinctive style. Out with the dabbler and in with the specialist. Build a following based on excellence in depth rather than breadth. I simply could not bring myself to do this.

I have a genuine affection for photography. Not bird photography, not street photography, not macro or landscape, not portrait or architecture. I just enjoy each time the aspiration, the striving for a better image than the last one I took. My online journey has been through Pbase, Flickr, Facebook and now Google +.

Flickr and Google + are the ones I frequent most. It is easy to see that the world is overflowing with excellent images. Certainly there is plenty of run of the mill imagery but talented photographers abound. Their creativity, vision, technical mastery and presentation skills stand out. Some are professional, making their living from photography in one or more guises; some are aspiring professionals. They have a full time occupation but want to replace this with photography, the ultimate dream of earning a sustainable living from what was ‘just’ a hobby, a passion and perhaps an obsession; the rest are content to remain in the majority who never venture down the commercial path, either through a lack of need, spirit or perhaps because they fear failure…. A family to nurture, feed, educate, who wishes to stake stability for the prize of earning a living from photography. Lucky are those of us who do not need to risk failure but can pursue our passion without the constant Angst of financial exhaustion and a weary descent back into the corporate rat race or other world out of which the struggle to escape was so bitterly won.

Does the imperative of earning financial reward drive a person to be a better photographer? Can you reach the top without suffering for your art? Are there natural photographers in the way that some seem gifted academically or at sport? Can the charlatan survive and thrive in professional photography? Does it hold true that Medium Format Maketh the Man? Do you have to have sniffed darkroom chemicals to be a true photographer? Does digital degrade the art? Perhaps photography is the new opiate of the masses, the smart phone with camera bringing instant gratification photography to hoi polloi in a tumult of quasi-religious fervour.

Spending time looking at the work of others never bores me. Nor does it seem to me to be squandering valuable time as the pendulum of the longcase clock of ages tick-tocks quickly and persistently in my ear. I believe I have a heightened sense of what works and what does not. I have a better understanding of colour and composition. Bad photography is as instructive as good. What really inspires though is great photography. Immerse yourself in the best of the best and there seems to be a process of osmosis whereby a tiny fragment, perhaps just the odd atom of excellence is absorbed into the photographic bloodstream. On my shelves are books by McCurry, Lanting, Wolfe, Cartier-Bresson, McCullin, Adams and Rowell.

After you have invested some time with the elite you will soon recognize that so much of what is seen online is technically strong but lacks originality.  Much is what I dare to call over-engineered, too busy and complex. I am as guilty as the next person of adding my two or three words of supportive comment to an image on Flickr or G+. The words are well meant. When I see something out of the ordinary however I try to explain why it moves me differently. I marvel at the effusive praise that drenches a perfectly decent but unexceptional photo. It is intoxicating I am sure for the recipient but I doubt whether it makes them a better photographer.

The acid test for me is when someone asks me to show something of mine that I would regard as excellent. Occasionally I recall a photo of which I was proud at the time. When I go back several months later I usually find a sense of profound disappointment. Is that really how it was? Why did I think it was so good? Why did I make that choice? Surely it would have been better if…….?  That is part of the growth process. Constantly resetting the bar, ever higher. I suspect I will never have a photo, which truly satisfies me. I have always been a perfectionist. My concept of perfection changes over time. The more I shoot the more selective I become.  Fewer frames, fewer keepers. I hope that like an ageing sportsman my experience will substitute for speed of reaction and a faltering ability to go the real extra mile for the photo. Explore the detail whilst seeing the whole. Selectivity. It is mentally tough to reject old foibles, so engrained they have become.

Photography has become my teacher and companion. It asks me tough questions. It probes and challenges. It hones my eyes. It tests my integrity. It instills me with a sense of purpose. It is the bread of heaven that feeds me ‘til I want no more.



22 thoughts on “Photography as my teacher

  1. Interesting reading! You have many good points in here. I also feel that many, or even most, photos that I come across on the internet are over-engineered as you put it. Or maybe over-processed in Photoshop as I’d rather put it. They’re beautiful, no doubt about that, but they lack soul. A mere decent shot right out of the camera can be great and filled with soul and beauty. I do process my photos as well, but I keep to a minimum (white balance, contrast, sharpening etc.). I also know what you mean with resetting the bar. it’s amusing looking back at “great” photos from a couple of months ago, or a year ago, and realize they aren’t up to standard anymore! Have a great weekend Andrew!

  2. I’m not a photographer, I just love taking photographs because, like painting, it takes me out of time and space creating a divine tranquillity; and I do like looking at them (and the memory of the moment) as they float across my pc screen! Fortunately, I can also gaze upon at SPECTACULAR photographs like yours that I wouldn’t be able to shoot. Keep up the good work

  3. Incredible. Or probably, credible- I was aimlessly letting my thoughts wash and sway as one does on a crowded MTR, and I asked myself the question: If someone asked me what my best photo ever was, what would it be?

    And the silence told the 1000 words the picture was supposed to.

    Enjoy your cameras, (your oh so beautiful cameras), love the art, respect those that do it really, really well, and share. Share fearlessly.

    Your pictures and blog have inspired at least one person I can think of.

  4. I just left a lengthy comment on my iPhone – who knows where it is now – the comment not the phone – it just disappeared into the ether. You are a true artist Andrew – always searching, seeking and never satisfied. There is a creative urge in us and and yet always something just beyond our reach. Can you imagine if you produced the perfect (for you) image – could you take another, or would that be too risky?

    As a dabbler, I have learned a great deal from your excellent photos and often from your description of your process or thoughts about it.

    I don’t have what it takes to become a great photographer, but I love the process and the struggle for improvement. It has been great also to see others I love picking up cameras, stooping at strange angles to change the composition – and taking several images of the same object to try to get something just a little better.

    I can’t comment on your addiction to new and better gear – I just feel a twinge of guilty jealousy creeping in 🙂 However, I do know that with whatever gear you acquire you will make the very best use of it.

    The religious in me has to ask – ever wonder from where or why these creative urges emanate. Bread of Heaven indeed 🙂

  5. What you struggle with in your photography, Andrew, writers struggle with as well, and so do musicians and artists. It’s part of the creative artistic journey, to decide and choose and try…and try again, to find the best tool, subject, approach.
    Good post. Welcome to the club. ;=)

  6. Insightful post. You are an artist- no doubt about it. And to never be satisfied, that is how you should be. Otherwise one becomes complacent and with no advancement and then mediocrity sts in. I don’t see that in your photography. There has been vast improvement in your bird photography.

    I repeat. Never be satisfied. You have enough equipment to create fantastic photos. I don’t think a 10K lens or the latest camera is going to make a difference. It is how you use the cameras that you aleardy have. Well maybe 22 mega pixels will add some sharpness but I think that you have that already. 🙂 And yes, maybe a medium format camera will enhance the pics some.The bird pics of late are really excellent with nice unlcuttered background and complimentary colors.

    All excellent, Andrew. Keep your motivation going. 🙂 ~yvonne

  7. Andrew – your photos are the reason I keep coming back to your blog. They are beautiful and you have a real talent both with the technique and the composition.
    Back in the day, I used to style still life compositions for merchandise publicity shots. I worked with several very talented photographers who taught me how to build up and compose a complete picture; to consider lighting and shadows. They had a natural eye for what would work, as well as being technically accomplished with their cameras. You have both skills, I would say, so keep at it, enjoy what you do. One of the best things one of my photographer colleagues told me was that out of an old reel of 36, there would probably be one shot that might pass muster. Of course, that was in the pre-digital age but I think the same could still apply now.

  8. I don’t think true artists…or truly aspiring artists…are ever satisfied, Andrew. Some of your work will certainly stand the test of time but you will, no doubt, always see room for improvement as you seek a higher level of accomplishment. I feel much the same as you on most points…one exception being the gear as there are several items I would certainly like to add. But, Cartier-Bresson did amazing things with his small camera and single lens. Mastering what we have is a challenge.
    I have seen some truly amazing images from you, especially many bird images that I envy. As far as what other photographers do to their images, well it can be disappointing to us but many seem to enjoy the over the top saturation or bizarre HDR effects and more.
    I recently spent a few hours attending a workshop by a local pro. It was interesting to hear him say that he is never sure whether he got the image or not until he sits in front of his computer. He is also a teacher at a local photography school so that admission is surprising. I am reading one of Michael Freeman’s many excellent books and his contention, which I believe to be true, is that a pro knows that he or she got the shot from years of practice and knowing their equipment. When one is on assignment there is not room for missing the shot. So even among folks who make their living at photography there are differing views as to how to get where you are going.

    Your self-drive to improve is a key ingredient for success.

  9. Andrew, I’m glad I found you on G+. You add diversity and value to my world. This post…..well, you are probing my brain and my soul. Good words and thoughts my Friend. Thanks.

  10. To a certain point, professional landscape photographers tend to lose their own style as they shoot and process images according to the market / client needs. Over-saturated or HDR images, like Steve mentioned, are much more popular and easier to sell than the more subtle ones. I have read and heard this argument from pro’s more than once – sometimes almost like an excuse 😮

    Anyway, we have the freedom that we don’t have to make our living from photography and so we can pursue our own style and most importantly, shoot whatever we like! I’m a bit like you: I specialise in landscapes and hippie flowers but I also enjoy my excursions into street photography (the alley series i.e.), wildlife if it comes to me 😉 , cityscapes or even shootings in a music bar.

    Regarding G+ – I find it very hard to separate the wheat from the chaff … being your Bird Group one those I love to explore mostly.

  11. Thank you all for your comments. The feedback is very helpful. Some of you may have seen the article about how much money there is in landscape photography:
    The answer seemingly being the square root of not much. But still many people press on and there in seems to lie the proof that the dream lives on even if the reality is different. Too many people chasing a shrinking pool of financial reward. Well I shall continue in my not for profit vein and hope that one day I will produce the photograph for which I shall be remembered. And if it never happens, well don’t say I didn’t try.

  12. you see, this is exactly what I meant – losing your own vision, your style, your photography if you want to make a living – from the article you shared:
    “…and concentrate on general stock photography. Shoot a lot every day, take pictures of household appliances, car keys, coffee mugs, wellies…”
    This kind of photography would never be an option to make a living on photography. This would be like assembly line work – nor better, nor worse…

  13. Andrew, an interesting and illuminating post, followed by some great comments and feedback. I’m not sure what I can really add apart from this quote from the great Salvador Dali which I hope will make you smile ‘Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it’ 🙂

  14. This is a wonderful piece of prose, Andrew. I agree with you in everything. Especially the last point; letting a photo sit. I know of at least one professional who does a project, selects the keepers and then lets it sit for one whole year. After this, let’s call it “detachment time”, he goes through the original selection and removes all the photos that do not speak to him. It’s surprising how some pictures that seemed great when fresh lose all appeal after a long time. However, i like to think it works both ways: good photos actually seem to improve over time.

    Keep up the great work!

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