Common mistakes newbies make #5: “How can I improve?”
This one is all too prolific: someone posts a few (usually two or three) random photos on a photography forum and asks “how can I improve?”. And sometimes, even lists the camera make and model and the settings used.
Now I appreciate the willingness to learn, I really do, but honestly, that question baffles us old guys, because we do not know how to answer it. Allow me an example: Imagine you walk into a music teacher’s class with a guitar, and just make a random noise on it, and ask “How can I improve, I bought myself a Yamaha F-310 acoustic guitar with factory fitted strings”. You see how this is not anything meaningful to a teacher?
Okay, so lets get one thing off the table easily: your camera and settings do not matter, well, not at this stage at least. Makes and models and settings come into play at the top end of technical photography, but at entry level, they do not really mean anything. Sticking with the guitar argument: there is a different sound between a Gibson Les Paul and a Fender Stratocaster, but that difference is pointless if the aspiring guitarist cannot even play a basic E minor chord.
So, the guitar teacher will then ask you a question: well, what do you want to play, who are your influences? And you will then list a name of artists and bands who you like, and whom you would like to emulate. Then your teacher will then teach you a few basic chords and send you home to go practice.
This is the same with photography: the first thing I’d ask you is “what do you want to photography, who are your influences?” And if you cannot answer that question, you fail at the first hurdle. Sadly, you will never be good if you do not know what good actually is.
And this is where I give the advice no one seems to like very much; put down the camera and pick up a book. Just as the aspiring musician needs a good ear, so the aspiring photographer needs a good eye. “Study the masters” is my mantra. Who are the masters? Well, that list is very long, and you need to know what you want to shoot before you even know where to start looking for your masters.
Example: many years ago, a mentor of mine (sadly now deceased) asked me “what do you want to shoot?” and I replied with great enthusiasm and said “Everything!”. He shook his head and said “wrong answer”. He was right, because it is impossible to be good at everything. And the better you want to be, the narrower you need to define your focus. Scott Schuman is a master of street photography, but I’m not going to ask him to do automotive. Seagram Pearce is a master at Automotive, but I’m not going to ask him to do landscape. Jonathan Chritchley is a master at landscapes and seascapes, but I’m not going to ask him to do fashion. And Rankin is a master at fashion, but I’m not going to ask him to do Street. You see where I am going with this?
Once you know what you want to shoot, you can ask your friendly google who the masters in that field are. And once you know who your masters are, then I will compel you to study them. As in really look hard and study them. Look at angles, lines, colour, lighting, composition, exposure. Ever seen art students hanging around galleries copying old paintings? They do not do this to learn how to become fraudsters, they do this in order to learn how the old masters did things. Those paintings hang in the halls of The Louvre for a reason. Back to our music analogy: before you can write your own songs, you need to learn how to play a few standards first.
So, how can you improve? Firstly, define your genre, what do you want to shoot? Then secondly, find your masters and study them to see what they well and how they do it. Thirdly, practice what your masters taught you, and then, apply.
This is a long journey, one that takes a lifetime. Do not rush it, enjoy it.
PS: My initial master was a man named Alfred Eisenstaedt. His life and photos got me into the medium, but then I discovered the works of Helmut Newton, and I did not want to do photojournalism anymore, I wanted to do risqué fashion. Then I studied more and came upon the works of Irving Penn. Which lead me to the amazing work of Patrick Demarchelier. Which lead me to a wonderful underrated but amazing lady Lillith Leda. Which took me to a guy called Rankin. And so I have my masters to which I return to time and time again when inspiration or technique fails me.
Oh, full disclosure, I know nothing about music, except that I like it – I won’t know an E minor chord from a g-string if it bit me in the leg!
Header image: My very first wedding I shot in 2002. Luckily I was a second shooter and not the only tog on the day. Wrong film, pop-up flash, bad time of day, super-bad composition. Oi! How can I improve? By selling my camera and taking up accounting! I’d like to say I have since got marginally better at weddings, but if it is not your thing, it is not your thing… Sometimes, half of being clever is knowing what you are dumb at.