Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Automatic means bad."


Zeb Andrews is a photo man if there ever was a photo man. I always enjoy seeing the images he creates and the words he writes. The guy is a flickr celebrity for god sakes. He and Blue Moon (where he works) is a great resource to all the photographers of Portland. If you have never been to Blue Moon Camera and Machine I suggest you get in your car and go there right now. Here is his advice on how to be become a better photographer. I stole his words and this image of his from his flickr, and i hope he doesn't sue.

------I have answered this question more times that I can remember, in e-mails, over the counter at Blue Moon Camera, in high school and college classrooms, out in the field, etc. Each time that I answer it, my answer tends to evolve a little, so here is the latest evolution:

Be patient. Of all the traits a photographer should endeavor to possess, patience is the most important. Getting better at photography is like getting better at anything else; it takes time, practice and patience.

Forget talent. Talent, or the lack of it, is often used as an excuse for good and poor photography. Dedication, passion, and persistence trump talent every day of the week. I would take one passionate photographer for a dozen talented photographers any time.

Every photographer, no matter how good they are now, at one time had to start at the beginning. We all did. None of us started out making exceptional images. We all started out stumbling and feeling our way around, in varying degrees of confusion. All those mistakes you are embarrassed about making? Chances are I have made every one of them at least ten times over.

Make mistakes. And don't be afraid to. You learn more from your mistakes I think than your successes. Everything you do with a camera, should be teaching you how to do it better, regardless of the immediate results you get that day. Experiment, fail, learn, experiment some more.

The more you put in, the more you will get out. If you are going out one weekend a month to take photos, you will get better, but at a much slower rate. If you are going out everyday you will get better much more quickly. Now, not all of us have the opportunity to work with photography everyday. Some of us can only manage a weekend a month. That is fine, just try not to get too discouraged when you do not think you are growing as a photographer. It will happen, it may just take a bit longer.

Carry your camera everywhere. Never leave home without a camera. Ever. The best way to guarantee you will see a photo you really want to take is to not have a camera with you. It does not do much good sitting at home. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere, no matter how mundane the trip seems to be.

Shoot for yourself. Peer response is certainly important and can teach you a lot about your own photography, and you should definitely share your pictures with others every chance you get, but ultimately take photos for yourself, in your own way. You are your most important critic. If you are not happy with the images you are taking, it does not matter how popular they are. And don't make apologies for your photography. Some people will love it. Some will not. Some will think it completely pointless. That is fine, as long as you like it.

Shoot film. A lot of photographers getting into photography these days are "growing up" on strictly digital diets. Digital can do a lot, but it is a far from everything. Pick up a film camera to complement your digital camera. Film teaches different habits and styles from digital. It is like trying to build a house using only a screwdiver and not a hammer. It can be done, but you are missing out on a lot of other ways to create images. And what film has to teach, can very readily apply to digital photography too.

Shoot digital. If you are only into film photography, pick up a cheap digital camera. The quickness and readily available nature of the feedback they can give you can be a valuable learning tool. If you are limiting yourself to just film, you are missing a huge portion of the photographic spectrum.

Expose yourself to lots of other photography. Flickr is a good start, but it is a small pond in a much larger landscape. Hit up your local library and check out as many books as you can carry and go through them. Go to openings at museums and galleries. Attend artist lectures. Go to a workshop or two or attend a class at a local community college, not just for the instruction but the exposure to other photographers. Arrange photo outings with peers. The more photography you are exposed to, the wider the range of perspectives you will learn to see the world with.

A photographer is a photographer, no matter where they are. There are always pictures to be taken, everywhere. It is a photographer's task to see them. A good photographer realizes this, even if they cannot always see the pictures to be taken, they still try to.

Learn the rules to break them. There are a ton of rules in photography and they can be an excellent framework around which to improve your skills. Learn them thoroughly and how to use them. But, again, be careful for that very framework that has helped build you up can eventually become a cage that restricts you. Those that hold too tightly to the rules tend to see their creativity suffer.

Don't get too hung up on not knowing the technicals. Technical knowledge will come quickly, especially with practice. At first things like Depth of Field, aperture, resolution, aspect ratio, color temperature, exposure, shadows, highlights, zone V, reciprocity failure, visible spectrum, focal length, shutter speed can all seem confusing. Start slowly, and start simply, and put the these technical terms into practice as you learn them. But don't worry too much about knowing them because you will learn them quickly. I remember when I first picked up a camera I had no concept of what in the hell an aperture was. I just knew I had to rotate that ring on the lens until my meter needle pointed to the middle. That was how I began. Now years later this is all reflexive knowledge. You will get there too, probably within a few months. So don't stress out too much right now if you don't understand some of these technical terms. Find somebody helpful to explain them, get a good book, or go out and experiment. Or do all three.

Shoot manually. My boss often jokes that "Automatic means bad". He has a point. Turn all your auto functions on your camera to manual, especially focus and exposure. Taking photos this way will be more cumbersome and you will make more mistakes. But you will learn at a much quicker rate, and eventually you will understand how to use these features better than the automatic modes of your camera can. You are smarter than your camera, so try not to let the automatic features become a crutch, they will impair how quickly you understand what each shutter speed does, what each aperture does, how to learn to focus, etc. Keep as much control over your photography as possible.

Make scrapbooks. Routinely take your favorite photos and put them together into small scrapbooks. It is like keeping a visual journal of your progress. I did this for the first few years of photography and I noticed two big influences this had on my opinions of my own photography. First, when I got discouraged I could get out my latest albums and flip through them and see a collection of what were then my favorite photos, and I could see the cream of the crop. I could see how in fact I actually was making great images that I really liked. These scrapbooks helped remind me that I really was making progress. Second, I could go back to my earliest scrapbooks and see just how "awful" those photos that I had once thought were my best really were. I generally got a good chuckle out of this remembering how proud I was of those collections and how many people I showed them to, and then I would go back and flip through them and see, in contrast, just how much better I had become, but more importantly it kept me humble because it reminded me that there are times where we think our photos are much better than they may be, because we are so personally invested in them. This humble reminder of my beginnings was probably the biggest influence of these albums. So do not throw away or replace your old albums if you do this. If you use Flickr for this purpose, don't delete your old photos. They have a lot to teach you when you come back a few years later with a more experienced eye.

Have fun. For today, the last and most important piece of advice I have to offer. If you enjoy what you do, the rest of this will come quite naturally. This ties in with what I said about being passionate about your photography. Just go out and have fun and love what you do. In comparison very little else is nearly as important.

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