So you call yourself a photographer? Sure, you’ve got an expensive camera (or six) and more lenses than will fit in all your camera bags (of which you have more than you know what to do with). You know all the ‘rules’ of photography, can find you way around Photoshop and know the difference between Rembrandt and Butterfly lighting. You can hold your own in a discussion of Bailey versus Donovan and regularly join in with the lamenting of the state of the pictures that win the annual Taylor Wessing prize for portrait photography. All in all you think you are a pretty shit hot photographer right?
So, why do your photographs suck?
Simple. Rather than using the time you spend on all those peripheral activities (learning the rules, reading the books and magazines, buying more ‘stuff’, visiting the exhibitions of others) what you should be doing is getting out there and actually creating some images. Ultimately you see – that’s the only skill that matters with photography – creating the fucking image! That is a skill you can only learn by getting out there and doing it, not by sitting at home reading about it.
Unless you continuously embarrass yourself with the awfulness of your pictures until you can’t take it any more you are never going to see through the mists of your incompetence to the glimmer of an image you might actually be pleased with and that doesn’t shame you so much after all. Only then will it all become clear.
Until that time my friend you don’t stand a chance. Your photos will always suck and you’ll never be anything more than Mr/Ms Mediocre who thinks they are smart but actually knows shit about what it takes to create a truly great image. Here’s why…
#1: Because you have not created enough bad images.
Paradoxically even though you continue to create really bad images you still haven’t created enough of the things.
David Bailey said: “Most people manage to take one great picture in their life, I managed to do two so I’ve always got the edge.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”
Failure is good, fail as often as you can until you stop failing (or at least your rate of failure slows a bit) and you start making images you like and that are no longer mediocre garbage.
#2: Because you care more about what others think than what you really want to do.
If you spend all your time posting images on ‘Instabook’ trying to garner likes and nice comments you are not embracing your true self but always trying to please others (even when you don’t know who those ‘others’ actually are).
Instead of trying to please people by copying what is hot or what the critics are telling you is good dig deep into your own psyche and come up with something that is new, different and a little bit refreshing. As Steve Jobs said: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
#3: Because you spend more time acquiring new gear than learning to use what you already have.
You laugh at the acronym GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) but guess what? You are the biggest and most prolific GASbag out there! You sniff at others for being gear conscious whilst at every opportunity you browse review websites extolling the virtues of the latest and greatest cameras and regularly jump to commerce sites to find out how much said gear will set you back and think about how you will convince your spouse it will be worth it because you will be a better photographer, a more happy and rounded person and better in bed as well! Guess what you won’t. No matter how big your bulging camera bag becomes you will continue to suck at photography.
For many years the photographer Bill Cunningham used a manual Nikon FM2, before succumbing to a digital camera – a lowly Nikon D40x with a 10MP sensor and 1600 sensitivity. Cunningham’s photos were not particularly technically accomplished and were the type of thing that would be lambasted by a critic but guess what, Cunningham was one of the greats who didn’t give a flying fuck about what people thought of him. He just went out there (on his bike, in all weathers) and took lots and lots of images.
When did you last bother to look at the instruction manual for your present camera? These are actually mini novels in size these days and no matter how long you spend studying them you will never master all the controls on your camera, especially if you sell it every 12 or 18 months. Learn to use what you have, practice with it until you can change settings with your eyes closed.
#4: Because you don’t read (the right things).
Sure you read all the photography magazines and books and web sites which drone on about image resolution and bokeh and cameras with maximum ISOs of several million but what are you learning from that? Nothing, zip, the big zero! All this teaches you is lust and desire for more new kit (see #3) not how to be creative and come up with new ideas.
Don’t read books on photography but read stuff about art and philosophy and creativity and that are about people who had to fight for success and didn’t get it handed to them on a plate or were just plain lucky. As the Golfer Gary Player once said: “the more I practice the luckier I get”. Good photography and great photographers didn’t just get lucky, they worked their arses off to get where they did and exposed themselves to as many (non-photographic) influences as possible.
One of the best books I have read that has helped with my photography is this one by Twyla Tharp, the choreographer. Unlike most self-help books you come away with the feeling that this one offers real advice based on a lifetime of creative achievement and really does have something new to say.
#5: Because you don’t want it enough.
Despite the fact that everyone with a half decent smartphone calls themselves a photographer these days actually, making truly creative images is really fucking hard. Saying “photography is easy” is like saying “brain surgery is easy” or saying “writing novels is easy”.
Margret Atwood once told this story in one of her lectures:
A brain surgeon meets a writer at a cocktail party: “So you write?” says the brain surgeon. “Isn’t that interesting. I’ve always wanted to write. When I retire and have the time, I’m going to be a writer.” “What a coincidence,” says the writer, “because when I retire, I’m going to be a brain surgeon.”
Photography, if you are serious about it, is not something to be practiced at weekends or when the weather is nice or when you have time or just ‘feel like it’. It’s something that has to be continuously done, that you need to be always thinking about (or writing about maybe) because you really want to do it, even when you are not doing it.
You should do photography because you want to capture something about the world that others have not seen and which create a unique and novel view of it. As Grant Scott says in this post: about creating portraits “I do not want to create a falsity I want to find and document the reality”.