One of the things that makes me chuckle these days is the inordinate amount of websites based solely around lists. They also all use plenty of hyperbole and melodrama….
- The 50 Best Black and White Photos You’ll Ever See, Ever
- 100 Snow Shots To Make You Weep
- The Only 20 Tips on Improving Your Photography You’ll Ever Need to Read
- 80 Jaw-dropping, Mind-expanding Website Templates You’d be Insane Not To See
- etc etc etc
There’s probably even a list out there of the ’1000 of the Most Hyperbole-Ridden Lists on the Internet’.
The truth is, folks, there is no magic-wand to getting good at something. But there is good advice out there on how to get started. Read around many sources, see what common-ground there is in what they say.
Building anything means getting the first part right. With photography that means learning composition, exposure and the camera properly first so you can put the rest of the learning on top of it. Shooting on a semi-automatic mode and using Exposure-Compensation is great when you are proficient or need to do something very quickly. But at the start it’s lazy. It’s the difference between learning to drive with a stick-shift or an automatic. Learn on a car with manual gears and you get more of a feeling for driving, for how the car is behaving, what you can get out of it. It’s more responsive. You are in control. If you just want to get from A-B as quickly and simply as possible.. get an auto. Be my guest.
I love photography and it’s been a part of my life since the age of three, when I first stood rooted to the floor in my parent’s living-room and marvelled at the big, luminous picture being projected onto a screen by my dad. A camera arrived in my hands at age five. It became ‘my camera’ at the age of seven. Three years of art college, studying film and photography, happened between the ages of 19 and 23. I was published at 22. Got my first medium format camera at the age of 20….. I feel another list forming.
I learned on film, often very big film: 8x10inch plates, even up to 20×24 inch plates at one point. Exposure, light, composition… all learned at a time when it was costing me money every time I wanted to push the button. Sometimes I’d spend a whole day setting something up or wandering around until I pushed the button, once.
It was a good way to learn. I spent time on everything.
Now though I don’t really miss film so much, funnily enough. But it was the best way to learn, IMHO. And anyone learning photography now, in this digital era, should go shoot some film and then go and develop and print it. It’ll make you a better photographer, trust me.
As well as shooting for a living, as a freelancer here in Tokyo, I also teach photography. Each weekend there are photowalks, workshops and each week I am doing one-to-one lessons with people who either live here or who are passing through and have heard about me from the web. It’s a lot of fun and I learn something from everyone I teach; that’s one of the best parts.
I don’t just teach people how to use their camera. I teach them how to see better. There is no magic-wand for that. No list of ’20 Ways to Learn to See Better’. There are general, broad-brush ways to help people see but after that they vary from person to person because everyone has a different response to the world around them. My job as a teacher is to try and see through my student’s eyes first, then approach getting them to see better in a way that will appeal to them on their level. It’s one of the joys of doing what I do.
In the course of all the teaching I have done, there are certain things that I repeat over and over. My photographic ‘mantras’, shall we say. These are what I am going to share now. Well, the ones I can remember anyway. The great thing about a good list is that it is never finished. So, there will be no ’20 Top Tips’ list here. This is a start and I want people to add their own in the comments section. I’ll be posting links to this article on G+ and various other sites. There will be comments there and I will endeavour to feed some of those back into this article so you can all see them whether you do social networking or not.
After the first couple of points [which are the most important, I think] these pearls of wisdom are not in any particular order. They’ll just be in the order in which I thought of each of them. And what you see below is not the sum-total of my wisdom. That’s for a book, not one post on a blog…. so leave a comment if you have something to add, as I have not tried to include everything in this post and I will write Parts 2, 3, 4and 5 of this, so stay tuned.
- Composition is the bedrock of your photography: learn to compose properly first and the rest – learning the ‘machine’, learning about exposure, about light, about the ‘moment’ – will have the best foundations upon which to sit. One of the best ways I have found to teach people composition, after helping them understand the basic compositional guidelines, is to have them look at the world around them through a simple, cardboard frame the proportion of their camera’s frame. You can find out about it here. Make one for yourself. It’ll be the best piece of cardboard you’ve ever owned.
- Become visually literate: I like sharing my pictures with people and I understand that a lot of people either don’t have time to comment at length. I also understand that people express themselves in various ways and that by encouraging a response of any kind, my photo has ‘worked’ even if someone says ‘Wow, that’s beautiful’. However, for those of us who like taking pictures and who feel ourselves to be ‘photographers’, wouldn’t it be great if you could go beyond ‘Great capture!’ and really begin to explain WHY you like a photo, not just how much you like it? Photography is a language [in Greek it means 'writing with light']. Languages are read. Languages are written. Languages are spoken. They have a vocabulary, sentences, phrases, stories. Learn first to read a photo and that knowledge will help you ‘write’ your own. My visual literacy classes aim to do just this; we sit, we talk, we study a photograph in a prescribed way, subjecting it to a series of questions. We interrogate the image. Find out more about Visual Literacy here. There are some materials to download which will help you get started on how to read photos, build your vocabulary etc. It’ll help you with taking your own shots, believe me.
- Learn About Light: ‘photo’ means ‘light’. Therefore this whole thing called photography is all about light and you have to learn how to see light and to work with it to get each of your photos. Exposure is what I would regard as the ‘sum’ of specific components: aperture [the physical hole through which light passes], ISO [the light-sensitivity of your film or sensor] and speed [the amount of time which the shutter allows the light into your camera for]. They ALL effect the amount of light being received by your film/sensor but they effect it in different ways and each has a different side-effect for your photo [more or less grain, motion blur, less depth-of-field etc]. But beyond the mechanics of exposure, you need to learn to see the light. One great excercise I do with people involves guessing exposure and you can read about it here. Do this for ten minutes a day and you’ll have the basics of exposure down in a week. Within a month you’ll be impressing your friends by being able to guess the settings to take a picture without needing the light-meter in the camera. Really? Yes. I’ve seen it happen. Within half an hour one evening I had three students guessing exposure. Here’s another good excercise for using the auto or semi-auto modes on your camera to get yourself to Manual. Then, start looking around you for good light:
- that building in the street that reflects the sun onto the road really nicely, which can light people up like a spotlight on a theatre stage.
- the way the sun always hits that tree on the hill by your house at 3pm in the winter, how soft it is.
- the fact that it’s better to shoot portraits outdoors on a cloudy day and not in bright sunshine
- make a list of areas in your town and times of the day when the light is good or bad
- get an app for your phone that has sunset times and directions on it
- find out what the ‘spot meter’ does in your camera and use it to measure the light from the brightest and the darkest thing in your scene: the difference between them is your ‘dynamic range’
- find out how much dynamic range your camera can cope with
- Shoot with a purpose and ‘collect’ things from the world around you: I am sure we have all said ‘I’m just going out to shoot some pictures’. No harm in that. But I bet you’d have come back with something better if you’d decided to ‘go out and shoot pictures of red things’. There’s a mission, an objective and therefore a goal. This is important. Lots of people on the web and in various places have lists of projects and they organise projects for people to do. This is good. I have a bunch of them I do with people, too. Check out my ‘Learn Photo’ category and you’ll find some of the photographic projects we do. Make a project, find a project, join-in on a project that’s going on via a website or your local camera-club. Have some ongoing projects too, because those are often the ones that can help keep your eyes sharp. It doesnt necessarily have to be a project to take a photo of yourself for 365-days a year. That’s a fairly sizeable undertaking and I know many who have stopped long before the end of the year. I’m talking about things to ‘collect’. Here are some of my ongoing ‘collections’. I live in a city so that’s why they are generally ‘urban’ things:
- blue things
- red things
- traffic cones
- abandoned bicycles
- road markings
- people in my neighbourhood
- washing hanging on people’s balconies
- cars covered by plastic sheets