In response to this post, Rez said:
Paul, I desperately need to learn how to take photos like you. I dont try to pose off people, but with you i make the exception.
Please write about this if you can in your coming blogs. kind of a like a tutorial on how not to suckâ€¦iâ€™d be very grateful.
First, a sincere thanks for the compliment. Now, so that we’ll know what the heck I’m talking about, let’s define that word, suck. I would, for the purpose of this post, define it as a serious dissatisfaction with the output of one’s own work. As in, all of my pictures suck, or at least the majority of them!
I do my best not to judge the work of others, other than to say, it appeals to me or it doesn’t. I’ve seen lots of work that hasn’t appealed to me, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it sucks. It simply means that I didn’t like the subject matter or the way that it was portrayed. That’s it.
The answer is quite simple and contained in the punch line to this joke:
A New Yorker (or in some versions Arthur Rubinstein) is approached in the street near Carnegie Hall, and asked, “Pardon me sir, but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” He replies, “Practice, practice, practice.”
Types of practice
Of course, you could go outside and practice, practice, practice, with no particular goal in mind. This type practice is not so effective as goal-oriented practice. First, you need to find what you like. Then, you need to find your voice, or what you have to say about it. You may like sunsets, sunrises, people, frogs, parking lots, discarded shopping carts, tin cans, road signs, fog, etc. Who knows? The world is a very big place with lots of interesting things!
The most important aspect of the whole thing, I think, is to get that camera in your hand and shoot, shoot, shoot. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ways of shooting, even if someone else says that it’s wasteful, fruitless, unorthodox, etc. So what. What works for them, might not work for you. Do your thing. If you have an idea, follow it.
The work of others
In finding your voice, you’re going to run across the work of others that you like. Keep viewing the work of other photographers that you like until you discover why you like it. This is a huge clue in finding your voice. Perhaps you like the photographer’s choice of subject; the use of lines and shapes; the bold use of color; the abstract nature of the photo; the sentimentality of the subject matter.
We all seem to start by mimicry. I know I certainly did. I remember how captivated I was by Ansel Adams’ photographs when I first saw them. Every landscape photographer that I knew, seemed to want to be like AA. Similarly, in the early 80’s and 90’s, nearly every basketball player wanted to be Michael Jordon. When they went to the playground, they tried the moves that they saw Michael do last night, or perhaps they would practice the move in the driveway a few hundred times before putting it on display to the rest of the world (playground). Eventually, they added their own particulars and made it their own.
The methods are same. See something that you like. Try to duplicate it. Practice. Practice. Practice. Add your own flavor. Make it yours. Sure, there are those critics who will yell “derivative”. So what. Ask to see their portfolio! You have to be pleased with your work.
I think that you have to be technically proficient with your camera before you can become very expressive with it. The camera can get in the way if you don’t know how to use it. It can be a frustrating experience. Even if you understand color, lines, composition, etc, it really doesn’t so much matter if you cannot get the exposure right or figure out why your pictures are constantly blurry. Technical excellence turns the camera into an extension of your imagination, not a roadblock.
You have to accept where you are at this moment and realize that as long as you keep shooting and evaluating, not judging your work as good or bad, then you are growing. Evaluate the merits of the photograph to decide if you met your goal for the picture. Did I capture the feeling that I was trying to? Am I satisfied with the result? What more could I have done to make the shot more appealing to me? What if …? Again, the merits of the photograph, not the abilities of the photographer. Tell the inner-critic to take the day off. You’re not interested in his/her opinion of your skills!
Don’t look for your voice to hard. You won’t find it. You’ll have to be quiet. You have to listen for it. Just keep shooting and, over time, it will find you. You’ll be drawn towards that which you like and that which speaks to you. When you start to over-think it, that’s when the confusion and anxiety sets in. Have fun and don’t let anyone tell you that you are doing ‘it’ wrong. There is no right or wrong. It’s simply what works for you.