Are you perfectly happy with your photographs? Do you think you're already as good as you can be?
If you're one of these lucky (or deluded!) few, then stop reading: this advice isn't for you.
If you're more typical, you may be somebody who's been interested in photography for a long time, knows a fair amount about it, and is reasonably well equipped, but still wonders about ways to improve.
My friends say I'm always qualifying things, but first, a few disclaimers. Tens of thousands of people read what I write every week, and I know there are photographers among them who are better, more experienced, more famous, and/or more active than I am. I know this for a fact because I know who some of them are. Okay, so here's the thing: this column may not be for them, either.
Second disclaimer: my personal position about photography as a hobby, activity, passion, or art, refined over twenty years of working with photographers and thinking way, way too much about it, is this: anybody can do anything he or she dang well pleases. We all have our little peculiarities and peccadilloes. You like to scratch-mix print developers? Go for it. Feel a pressing need to help address the world's critical ongoing shortage of color flower pictures? Get busy. Like to create databases of d.o.f. tables or the sale records of used 1970s third-party lenses? Be my guest. Feel that posing as a boudoir photographer is a good way to get women to take their clothes off for you? Fine by me. Think your life won't be complete until you have more money invested in equipment than most sane people have in their IRA's? It's your money. Enjoy getting online and writing endless snide, bitter comments denigrating anyone who you feel owns a worse camera than you do? Knock yourself out.
Although you may detect a trace of flippancy in the above, don't think I'm not serious. I basically (and honestly) have no objection to any of the inconceivably multitudinous things that people find to occupy themselves with in this hobby. If it's not a crime, then it ain't nobody's business but your own.
But this idea probably isn't for most of those people, either.
This one is for people who want to learn how to take better pictures. People in that category may be a minority, but hey, I try to please everybody sooner or later.
The Crucial Sentence
My principal approach to photography is that I come to it with an essential sympathy for photographers. I'm not a curator, not a critic, not a scholar, not a technician, not even a reviewer, although I play a pretty good game when participating in all those activities. Rather, I identify with people who are trying to accomplish something with pictures. This usually, though not always, has something to do with self-expression. I appreciate their struggle. I enjoy working through the problems that creativity confronts photographers with.
A few weeks ago, in response to my column about turning pro, a young photographer wrote me an e-mail that began, "Dear Mr. Johnston: I have a passion for sports and my goal is to be a staff photographer for a major sports magazine." He went on to describe his situation, his goals, his response to what I'd written, and so forth.
When I wrote him back, I told him that what he said in that very first sentence gave him a distinct advantage over 90% of the photographers in the world:
"I have a passion for ____________ and my goal is to _____________."
If you can possibly fill in that sentence with something that really makes sense for you, then it is, as the saying goes, half the battle. People who can make such a statement decisively and unambiguously have just leapfrogged ahead of the large majority of all other photographers.
You can fill it in any way you want. Here are just a few of the great many potential examples:
• "I have a passion for Formula 1 racing and my goal is to get pictures of all the major drivers."
• "I have a passion for my family and my goal is to create a record of our life that my children can pass along to their own grandchildren. I also like to take pictures of our kids that please my wife."
• "I have a passion for scrapbooking and my goal is to make at least one scrapbook every winter (which will include some photos)."
• "I have a passion for freight trains and my goal is to spend every second Saturday making roster shots."
• "I have a passion for fine printing and my goal is to make 4x5 negs of outstanding quality so I have something to sink my teeth into in the darkroom."
I could go on. And on. (Well, if you've been reading my writings for a while, you know how I can go on!)
Here's what I suggest: don't just think about this. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil. Write some things down. See if, in two minutes, an hour, a week, or a year, you can fill in the blanks in that crucial sentence such that it makes a statement you're completely, 100% comfortable with.
This is going to sound strange, but, if you manage to do this, I can almost guarantee that you will begin to do better work almost immediately. Try it and see!
Copyright 2003, 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
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