Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Best Advice I Can Give

An amateur photographer emailed me the other day after he found a small gallery of my work that I have on display over at JPGmag.com and was impressed with my work. He asked for some advice since he is really just starting to get serious about photography, and I figured I might as well write about it in my blog.

I've received a ton of advice from photographers over the years and had my own experiences that have lead me to some opinions regarding photography. Here's a mix of advice from others and my own two cents:

1) Emotions matter. Whether it's capturing emotions of subjects or conveying your own emotions in the frame, if someone doesn't "feel" something when they look at your photo then it's basically just a snapshot. If you want someone to be happy when they look at a photo you need to create a happy photo. If you want the viewer to feel the weight of an emotional moment, then you have to make that emotional weight show in the frame. However, it's not just the emotions of your subjects that matter. Your own emotional state has an impact on the way your photo turns out. If you're feeling energetic and playful then it's a safe bet that some of your photos will communicate that feeling. On the other hand, if you show up feeling like you don't care about what you're photographing, that is going to show up in the images as well.

2) Assume the worst and sometimes you'll be pleasantly surprised. This bit of depressing advice comes courtesy of one of my favorite college professors. In short, if you prepare yourself (both in terms of equipment and psychologically) for the worst case scenario then you'll be even happier when good things happen ... and prepared if the shit hits the fan. If you show up to a photo assignment with only one lens then that will be the day that you wish you had brought another lens for a different angle or that will be the day that your one lens breaks. Likewise, even if you're certain that the first photo you took on an assignment is absolutely perfect you need to keep crafting more photos. You never know when that "perfect" photo will get accidentally deleted or whether that "perfect" photo will get rejected by an editor.

3) Keep studying and working on technique. Good photographers never stop learning about photography or stop studying new technologies. Many of the worlds best photographers nearly went bankrupt in the early part of this century when they were slow to transition to digital. Just because what you're doing today works today don't assume it will still work tomorrow. Similarly, even if you think you've mastered the basics of exposure and composition to the point that it's second nature, keep working on them. The "fundamentals" of photography are important for a reason. You need to know the rules before you can creatively break them without looking like an idiot.

4) Ignorance is your friend ... if it's someone else's ignorance. Knowledge is power, and if you have it and someone else lacks it then you can benefit. Some of the best opportunities I've had as a photographer came when someone else didn't know any better. Maybe it was my first magazine assignment when the editor thought I was someone who had been published in several other magazines. Maybe it was my first wedding assignment when the bride and groom had no idea I'd never photographed a wedding before. Then there were the times that subjects were willing to spend their time (and sometimes their money) in order for me to get a great photo not knowing that there was a good chance the photo would never be published. Those moments of opportunity often generate amazing photos ... and they wouldn't be possible if not for the ignorance of others. Just be sure that if you're going to take advantage of someone else's ignorance that you are a knowledgeable photographer. Ignorant subjects and skilled photographers make for great photos. Ignorant editors or subjects combined with ignorant photographers make for horrible photos.

5) Equipment doesn't matter ... until it does. Anyone with half a brain knows that the photographer is more important than the camera. However, any photographer with half a brain knows that sometimes having the right tool for the right job is essential to creating the image you need. Some images require shallow depth of field to isolate your subject. Sometimes landscapes or large group portraits require huge depth of field so everything is in focus. Occasionally you need high ISO to capture a candid portrait in low light. Other times you might need $15,000 in wireless strobes in order to creatively light an entire building for a corporate advertising assignment. Then there are times when you can take a $250 compact point-and-shoot digital camera and capture an award-winning image that skyrockets you to fortune and fame. The point is that a good photographer understands when it's important to have the right gear ... and knows when the gear doesn't matter.

The last jewel of wisdom that I've acquired over the years comes from none other than my dear old parents. The single best piece of advice I can give to aspiring photographers is, "Be responsible." This applies both photographically and in terms of your overall life philosophy. Take responsibility for anything that remotely can be considered your responsibility. Whether it's researching a subject prior to going on a photo assignment or having the right equipment you need to get the job done ... just make it your responsibility to get it done. Maybe being responsible means showing up 30 minutes early to an on-location photo shoot so you have enough time to get the shots you need. Another time your responsibility might involve calling a publicist a dozen times in one week in order to get a celebrity to sit down for a portrait session. Responsible people accomplish great things in this world. Irresponsible people who don't care about anything rarely rise above the depths of mediocrity.

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