I believe it was Cartier-Bresson who said that your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. For many hobbyist photographers, myself included, it may be much more than that, as improving our craft means constantly shooting, experimenting, reassessing, and continually culling our very best from our best.
See more photos from the series here.
Many photographers will subscribe to online challenges of capturing a particular subject each week or month, and yet they largely fall into a trap of capturing a subject simply because it is there and then uploading it to the benefit of the site that set the challenge. Rather than improve their own skills, they have merely added to the inventory of someone else’s site. It has been said that a good photographer captures, while a great photographer reveals. However, it is only a few that truly reveal something original or creative.
It does often seem as though many of the amateur photographers today have more of a gadget fetish than a desire to improve their photography, preferring to know more about such things as pixel density and corner sharpness than composition or lighting. Indeed, despite deliberately not preaching any technical nor photographic expertise, I have been sometimes been attacked by people who have little to show for their vitriol other than pictures of their gear!
I write this with all the humility of a hobbyist, and with only the intention of someone trying to help. My blog is a catalogue of my attempts to improve my own skill. Because I accept that I myself capture more than I reveal, I am always challenging myself to improve my ability to see, the foremost skill I think any photographer should have.
Our images will never improve by simply upgrading our equipment and hoping they deliver results for us. We need to think about our composition, framing, timing and light. Deconstructing our subject into its constituent shapes, colours or shades and understanding how they juxtapose and relate to each other will yield stronger and bolder images, whether they belong to building or cars or nature. Even portraits can make creative use of light and form to highlight features or anatomy, or to enhance beauty or tell a story.
One of the ways in which I attempt to improve is by setting myself (along with friends and fellow photographers who join me) real challenges. We will often limit ourselves to taking only a few shots, say 20-30, and perhaps with only one focal length (prime lens). This kind of restriction forces us to slow down and see the world differently, and to look for compositions in ways and places that we may not have considered before. It encourages us to properly frame a scene or subject, leaving out anything superfluous. With only one focal length, our feet do the zooming rather than the lens. This can train us to get into better positions and have better spatial awareness.
Being limited in how many times we can press the shutter forces us to consider whether an image is really worth taking. The luxury of digital is that we can spray and pray but by limiting the number of shots, as in the days of film, we have to take our time to really look for something interesting to shoot. The result is hopefully fewer, but stronger, images. Have the courage to limit the number of images you decide to shoot on your next excursion or vacation, and you are sure to return with a smaller batch of more impressive photos.
You might argue that we could restrict ourselves even more in this regard, to perhaps only 10 or 5 images. And this is perfectly valid. But I believe one of the skills a photographer also needs to develop is the ability to select their best images from a batch, i.e. to continually edit their portfolio. Taking more images affords one the scope to exercise this process, until with time one is confident enough to take fewer images in the first place.
Often on our photo challenges, we decide that our images must be black and white, either at the point of capture (if using a B+W filter on the camera) or later in the editing process. This makes us imagine the scene without the distraction of colour, reduced to its basic elements or shapes, and then consider its merit as a photograph. Does it offer something abstract with its shape or lighting? Or is the scene telling a story that would hold interest even without its colour?
All of these limitations serve to improve our visual radar for an interesting shot, hopefully revealing something new to us. While it is true that our photo challenges have mostly been street photography or cityscapes, the improved skills can surely be applied to any subject. Indeed, when photographing animals, either in the wild or captivity, I will take my time and patiently wait for an engaging moment. It is not enough to simply photograph the animal because it is there. I try to engage the viewer with the animal in a more intimate way.
I have shot around London countless times, and each time it becomes harder to reveal something new and original, especially when shooting somewhere I have shot many times before. But perhaps this is also part of the challenge. A good friend in New York, to whom I regularly send my photos and who has visited London many times himself, observed that I often make the ‘familiar unfamiliar.’
And perhaps this perfectly sums up the challenge we should all set ourselves. With the billions of images taken everyday of so many familiar places and things, we should all aspire to reveal something different about them, rather than simply capture them because they are there. And I am afraid that this is ultimately a skill only we ourselves can develop, regardless of our gear.