Learning photography

I often get that question: how did you learn photography? Usually implying "did you take lessons? Where?"

Well I haven't, I actually haven't looked at an other photographer's work during the first 6 years of me shooting. Not one picture. Now that I come to think about it, I even wonder how I achieved that. Anyway the fact is I had little clue about mastering a camera (the one I had left little room for manual controls anyway), exposure or anything of that kind. A lot was left to randomness. However I did take some of my best shots back then, surely more original than the ones I take now. Why? Probably because I was free of rules and daring a lot more, following some elementary creative instincts.

One of my earliest shots, also one of the most creative in my point of view (shit compact camera)

This is why I want to share that quote from Ken Rockwell (.com for his site, don't be afraid of the poor site design, content is excellent):

"...when you start by trying to master camera, lens, Photoshop and computer jockeying, you never finish. Attempting to master all this before just going out and enjoying taking pictures will prevent you from ever having any time to learn about photography itself. Instead of learning photography, you'll spend a lifetime learning about cameras and computers. This makes lots of money for the people selling you all the new cameras and computers you'll think you need, but never helps you make better pictures."

Yes. I will add an other point to this, also raised by Mr. Rockwell somewhere on his site but we can never repeat it enough: nearly any camera is good enough, getting a much more expensive one just makes things a little easier and simpler, but it certainly doesn't make you a better photographer. 

I am a living example of that: I did professional jobs with my old D80 (a 2006 SLR) and Nikon full frame DSLRs, in normal light conditions with comparable lenses I could never tell which pictures were coming from what camera. I still do studio jobs with the D80 and I still can't see a difference with a D3 picture once on the screen. I even had shots taken with a D80 on bus stop size ads in the street. 

Look at the next 3 shots: one taken with a D80, one with a D300, one with a D700. Can you tell ? (No I won't tell you which one, try to guess in the comments)

Expensive gear is more reliable, tropicalized (rain & dust proof), faster to operate, pre-programable, can shoot better in extrem conditions, but it doesn't make better pictures. It's exactly the same as having a really nice clean well organized tool rack as opposed to a bunch of screw drivers in a shoe box. You'll still be able to built whatever it is you are building, but in one case the experience will be better and less annoying. Pros buy super fancy stuff because they shoot all day, they need to save time, efforts, carry less gear. Also they can expense it, they have insurance on the equipment. 

If you have money, and love the gear, why not getting it. Why not. But I have never met a non pro photographer that gets tons of expensive gear AFTER learning photography. I however know a zillion guys that have the huge Lowepro bag full of big lenses and a full frame DSLR, expensive flashes for "strobist" work (sorry but if you like artificial light work, you buy proper flash units). They walk around street with a 70/300mm on a 5D mkII to take picture of bikes attached to fences. They can't take an original, personal properly composed shot but damn those pixels are sharp ! 
Having lots of good gear often allows the bad photographers to market themselves as pros. I could give you a list of people who charge a lot, brand themselves as recognized photographers, while their work looks like a 5yo discovered photoshop for the first time. 

As opposed to this, I know plenty of pros that still shoot the same old 35mm FM3A or even early digital gear (4MP DSLR) because well, why changing? They do all they want with what they have already and they focus on the pictures. Of course reporters, wildlife photographer will go for the edgy gear, but the fact that many talented guys don't even bother using that kind of equipment means something.

Jan Sholtz is an amazing portrait photographer, here he used Nikon FE2 (30yo film camera)

Steve McCurry is probably the most famous photo reporter alive, most of his major shots were with a 35 film camera.

What about me? I shoot all of my stuff with 5 cameras, here they are ranked from the most used to the least:
  • Mamiya RZ67, 10yo, bought used 900$ with the main portrait lens
  • Nikon FE, 30+ yo, bought used for 109$, I used it with a 50mm 1.2 AIS
  • Nikon F5, 17yo, bought used for 300$ to a war reporter (it's got cool vintage impacts on it) 
  • Mamiya 645 manual focus, 30yo, bought 246$ on Adorama
  • Nikon D80, 5 yo, bought refurbished on Ebay.
  • Olympus C5050z (a good compact from 2002, 5MP, slow but great lens)...ok that makes 6 cameras, but I don't use this one anymore
All my gear could not get me a full frame DSLR if I was to sell it. However for photography, you do need light, so I bought a set of Elinchrom 400W studio strobes, so I have proper light when shooting inside. I was dumb enough to buy a SB600 flash because I wanted to save bucks on light, I haven't used it in years. 

The next three shots have been taken with a fully manual, old and used  RZ67:

Now that you feel bad about your impulse to buy better gear all the time, let's get back to our original point: learning photography. 

As a famous editor once said, it's not because you've done the best schools in NYC that you are any good. Unfortunately most wannabe photographers will end up flipping burgers or doing any other job they wish they didn't need. It's like gravity, you have talent (and a bit of luck), or you don't. I would always recommend you teach yourself by trying things as they come to your mind. You'll quickly figure out if you have any talent by being honest with yourself. Keep in mind that it's a process, it takes time, it's iterative. Do it for a while and you'll see. Have a camera with you as often as possible, challenge yourself to try different angles, shoot a lot, try things on silly intuitions, avoid courses at all cost.

Done? Ok so you should have figured out if you have talent or not. If yes, keep ignoring everything until you've matured your own art to the point that you can't find creativity anymore. Then you are probably ready for sourcing externally.

You realize that you are, let's say, limited talent wise. Keep trying. You might be wrong. But if you really are unable to avoid the same mistakes over and over again, it might be worth getting a few basics right. I insist, just a few basics, and then see how it goes from there. Don't let anyone teach you how exactly you should shoot, how a good picture looks like or not. There is no such thing. 

An image I personally like a lot although it goes against many "rules"

You can have a look at my shooting tips for portraits section. I try to give away some essential yet elementary tips there. It covers composition, exposure and much more. For landscape I am no good advice, but I invite you to check those links out for general photography:
Otherwise, you best friend is and will always be Google. For inspiration, check this link it's full of very talented photographers to get stimulated by.

Long story short, my tips: 
  1. A photographer is someone who...takes pictures. So go do that, only way to improve.
  2. Take the picture the way you should in the first place, don't do it afterwards in photoshop
  3. Force yourself not to redo the same thing that worked before
  4. At the beginning, put the camera in full auto, just work on the subject, your angle to it, your position towards light. And shoot. Approach the same subject in different way, dig for the great shot.
  5. Flickr is full of shit. Don't post half your memory card and get fake confidence from blind people lamely flattering you every time there is a bit of bokeh, a sunset or a hot girl. You will get addicted to this, and never challenge yourself. 
  6. In line with point 5: only constructive criticism will be useful. Also keep in mind that it's art, so one might not like something you adore, it doesn't matter. You'll think about it, question yourself, mature. It's always good. 
  7. Avoid  hanging out with photographers that are just masturbating on gear. It will pollute your creative mind.
  8. Buy a vintage camera, it will make you respect the crafting and enjoy better :)

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I'm just an amateur photographer starting out. Have been reading alot of blogs and articles on how to become a good photographer. Of all the stuff I've read so far, I'm really glad, and even relieved, to have finally stumbled upon your site. I was doing a google search on "D7000 VS D700" and saw your article. After reading it, it just brought everything down to earth for me, that it's all about the feel of a photograph, and the lens. I like your straight to the point and honest opinions. Thanks for sharing.