It’s probably been about a year since I sold my photo equipment and quite a few more since I’ve stopped genuinely putting time into photography. I’ve spent these years observing the world of photography around me (with my ever cynical eye) and I now have something to say.
During the few years that I spent toying with light, I never dared consider myself good. Perhaps it was because I had the pleasure of working and talking with truly talented people, which made me always feel like a novice; or perhaps it’s because I am always critical with my own work. Either way, I never considered myself good. Further more, I should also say that I only called myself a photographer when I was actually working as one for the student newspaper and official circumstances required it, but almost never outside of that situation. Perhaps that is why bad attitudes bother me more than bad work and people calling themselves photographers just because they have a photo album up on Flickr really tick me off.
I look at the work around me today and I am appalled by its inferior quality. It’s absolutely unbelievable how bad it is.
All sorts of enthusiasts put their work online (Flickr comes to mind again) where their peers can then post impressions. If you only read the impressions, you would think you’re looking at an Ansel Adams gallery, when in fact the photos are flawless…disasters! They fail to observe even basic concepts, there is no idea behind them, they have no redeeming qualities… but they get praised! Oh do they get praised!
Actually forget the online, even the published stuff is often just as bad and those people get paid for that work! They’re professionals and to say they are slacking off would be an understatement. Thank the Light for Getty and Reuters and the like, otherwise I would genuinely think it’s a lost cause. But it’s not, not yet, and that’s why you’re reading this.
Here are the main ideas of my criticism:
1. Pride: there is way too much pride in young photographers nowadays! They use the word “photographer” as some nobility title that can be thrown around, which somehow magically feeds experience into them. This probably annoys me most of all. Could you at least *try* to exercise some humility? Calling yourself a photographer does not raise your skills, only expectations. And you fail to meet them.
2. Lack of criticism: there can’t be any evolution where there is no criticism! If you post your work in circles where it constantly gets positive reviews then you need to look for a different circle. You need to find someone to bash your work so that you can make something better the next time. Show your work to people that do NOT like you, see how they pick on it and make sure next time you take care of those issues. If you were THAT good that you should only receive positive reviews, trust me, you would be properly recognized for it.
3. Over-reliance on hardware: Yes, HDR is cool, yes L lenses are nice. Yes, 5DMkII does awesome stuff. But that won’t make your pictures better. I know it’s hard to believe, but it really will not. It’s like getting a brand new half-a-million-dollar sports car… you will look good in it, but you won’t drive any better than you were driving in your 20 year old sedan. The idea of buying new hardware is important if you’ve truly reached the limitations of your current hardware and need more (and KNOW what you need and WHY you need it). Great pictures can be taken with almost any camera. It’s the light you paint with, not market value.
4. Over-reliance on software: I have *always* supported the use of “studio work”. To believe that photography should end when the button was clicked is – I think – to be naive. All my pictures are at the very least tweaked in Photoshop. BUT, the idea of editing is to first take the best picture you can and then make sure you present it just as well. If all you get out of a shooting are bad pictures and you keep trying to edit them until they look like something, you will still get a bad picture in the end. It’s just going to be a shinny bad pictures. And please, in the name of decency, stop overusing HDR to make your crappy photos interesting!! It’s not working!
5. Lack of theoretical background: I find it astonishing how people will spend thousands of dollars on lenses and hours and hours on photo-sharing communities patting each other on the back, but would not even consider spending a few tens of dollars on a book about ANY topic in photography and at least reading through it. You need to cover theory, you need to understand it and you need to apply it. You need to see and analyze the work of others and I mean REALLY analyze, not just give it thumbs up if it’s a friend and thumbs down if it’s someone you don’t like. Why is it good, why is it bad, what would you do differently etc.
Finally you need ideas, exercises and suggestions. Instead of that new filter that you really have no idea how to use, buy a book.
6. Lack of discipline: How many times have you tried exercises? Not going out to shoot what you can find, but going out with a specific theme in mind and working to get that exact theme? How many times have you tried going out on a shoot and made sure EACH PHOTO COUNTS? How many times have you tried shooting the same thing in hundreds of different ways? This list can go on forever. Even if it is a hobby, you need training. To compare photography to studying a martial art, if you just go out shooting, it’s like just going for sparring. Yes sparring is great, but it should really be the final part of your training regimen. To get to that, you need to do exercises and learn the proper forms in controlled conditions. Only once you have mastered the basic forms, do you go out to put it all together in the real world.
I could say some more, but I’ll stop here. The point is, this has really built up and annoyed me to the point where I feel I should pick up a camera again just out of pure frustration and the incredible amount of horrible photographic content being thrown my way. So I have decided to do a little experiment and perhaps a challenge (for myself).
I will be travelling a lot this summer and I will use this opportunity to take a lot of pictures. I currently have what you would call a point and shoot camera. Good image quality, but nothing special, limited manual settings, etc. My challenge is to produce photos that are not only good, but better than what people around me are trying to do with thousands of dollars of equipment (and unlimited amounts of foolish pride). At the end of this summer, I will publish the best photos I have taken. Of cities, people, museums, train stations, mugs of beer and other such summer travels related things. We’ll see how it works out.
Remember, photography is painting with light. The technology used to manipulate that light means nothing if you don’t know what you want to paint, why and how. The tools won’t help you answer those questions. And once again, show some humility. You’re trying to reproduce the world you live in. Do you think that’s as easy as pressing a button?