It’s about vision, craft and practice (not the gear, honest!)
The trouble with photography is the appalling seductiveness of the tools we use to express our vision. Whether it’s a cheap plastic toy camera, a superbly engineered Leica or the latest digital slur, dreams of the next shiny new item of “essential” equipment constantly distract us from the real game – practicing our craft. Modern cameras are truly amazing. Anyone can achieve a reasonable proportion of decent photos by pointing and shooting with just about any digital camera, including low end compacts. Sadly, that makes us lazy and fosters the illusion that better cameras make better pictures. (The photographer as mobile tripod and automatic shutter release for clever, creative cameras?)
Of course gear matters. Better light meters, more reliable shutters, sharper lenses with low dispersion glass and superb anti-reflection coatings, through-the-lens flash technology, digital sensors that give more accurate colour and better low-light performance – these are all helpful features that free us up to concentrate on the creative side of the equation. But they are no substitute for learning our craft. Things are easier now, we don’t have to become photo-geeks to make great images, but a clear understanding of, say, the relationship between lens aperture, shutter speed and ISO will result in better exposures that require less “fixing” in Photoshop. That means more time behind the camera, less at the computer.
Even more to the point, they are no substitute for the photographer’s vision. No matter how basic the camera, the “just point and shoot” approach is unlikely to deliver many great images. We need to look at the subject (preferably through a viewfinder) and think about what we want the image to communicate. Then we need to review the results to see what worked and what didn’t, before going out and trying again.
So I keep reminding myself as I think about ways to kick-start my photography after losing far too many months to knee and ankle injuries last year, then finding myself dishearteningly out of practice once I recovered. There’s only one answer to that, of course – practice! Lots of it… But here’s another problem: inspiration flags when it’s not being exercised. Where to go, what to photograph – oh, is that the time? Well, maybe tomorrow.
Time for an action plan (or at least some new year’s resolutions)
Does this sound familiar? If it does, you might like to think about a few photographic resolutions of your own. Here are mine:
- Take the SLR everywhere (within reason) and use it every day, no matter what.
- Make a list. Make several – techniques to work on, ideas for competition entries, personal projects, exhibition submissions, events to photograph. Add new things as they occur. Review it often. Try always to have a few “action points” (i.e. specific things to do this week or on a specific day) in the diary.
- Learn from other photographers. There is a wealth of practical information and inspiration out there. Good photography books are a wonderful resource but they can be expensive – choose with care! The new batch which inspired this article are: Chris Orwig’s Visual Poetry: A Creative Guide for Making Engaging Digital Photographs and two books by David duChemin: Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision and Visionmongers: Making a Life and a Living in Photography. There are also many useful websites. Some photographers whose books I like also have blogs offering a nice blend of inspiration, practical tips and glimpses of the life of a working photographer. For some comic relief, try the “Father Bob” video on Joe McNally’s blog (look for the January 4 2010 post). This blog and all books by Joe McNally and Bob Krist (aka “Father Bob”) come highly recommended, by the way. And do have a look at David duChemin’s blog. Note the mantra at the top of his page – “Gear is good. Vision is better.” Now, repeat after me…
- Master my flash. I’ve been letting fear of ugly flash effects stop me from learning to make best use of its potential.
- Do something different – in my case, people photography in general, and environmental portraits in particular. I need lots of practice at this (volunteer models welcome!)
- Experiment more. It has been ages since I played with, for example, double exposures, motion blur or even close up and abstract photoography. It’s time to take the lens off my Diana+ toy camera and try some pinhole photography!
- Finish my current stock of film. That will force me to play around with three different formats — 35 mm, 120 mm and Polaroid 600 – which always sparks fresh ideas.
- Keep practicing lenscraft. This is an old trick that always pays dividends when I remember to do it. Take the camera and one prime lens out for the day or the week. If you don’t have a prime, set your zoom to a single focal length for the duration. No cheating! It’s a wonderful way to learn your lenses and refresh the photographic vision, especially if you start with less familiar focal lengths.
- Enter more competitions, refresh the website and revive the photo-blog. These all require lots of strong images that are worth showing off. First action point: get out there with the camera and shoot more photos, lots more!
- Shoot some events. There are lots of possibilities: Anzac Day, the Multicultural Festival, the National Folk Festival, dance performances (thanks, Marlene!). And thanks to Russell for reminding me how worthwhile this can be. I once spent a wonderful day photographing Anzac Day commemorations in northern France, but I haven’t done anything like that for years.
- Get leaner and fitter. Yes, the usual health and fitness resolutions are very relevant in my case – they translate into more energy and stamina for photography – much cheaper than buying a smaller and lighter camera kit! (I may have to do that in the end, but I would rather save my money for travel.)
- Don’t get too serious. Remember to play and experiment. Photography should be fun!
Happy New Year!
Andrée Lawrey | January 2010