It has always been very hard for me to judge my own work. No matter what I do, more often than not I end up not liking it. I find flaws, things I could have done better, almost all the time. The worst sort of case is when I just feel there is something missing, something I can’t quite put my finger on. But here’s the funny bit – I am betting you feel me. Because it’s the same with most photographers. I often ask Nasim if he thinks the photographs I show with my articles are “good enough”, he does the exact same thing, too. Self-critique and uncertainty is a very important and inseparable part of being a photographer, a sort of an “engine” that drives us forward. Or stalls us.
Now, uncertainty is one thing. Whenever I am not sure about my work, the people around me who get to see it before anyone else does quite often tell me I am being silly and it’s all actually rather great, no matter how hard it is for me to believe. Behind every photographer, every artist there is a person who quietly pushes them forward and helps them believe in themselves (are you reading this, honey?). But there are certain cases where I know I am weak. Compositions and techniques that I know I can’t pull off. Tight, close-up composition is one of those areas, in fact – it has proved to be the most irritating for me, because no matter what I do, it almost never works. And that’s a pity. Because the oh-so-difficult-to-compose-properly close-up portraits… well, they rock.
When you hit this sort of a ceiling in your growth as a photographer and realize there is an area that you are particularly poor at, there are two paths open for you. The first one is very, very simple, but no worse for it – play to your strengths. You can’t learn everything, can’t be good at everything, nor perhaps should you. A friend of mine, who is perhaps one of the best bird photographers in Europe (I plan to introduce him to you at some point in the future), has once told me just how rubbish he is at photographing people. He told me, “I can sense what a particular bird will do. I know where it will land, I know what attracts it, I know how to make it feel safe with me around. And birds always know when you are around. But I have no idea what people are going to do when I try to photograph them. I take the image at the worst possible moment.” Knowing how in tune he is with nature, I was surprised to hear him say this. I just thought at the time – if you are so good at photographing specific subjects, you must be good at photographing, period. I could not have been more wrong. And you know what? He left portrait and documentary photography to those who can do it. He is sticking to his strengths. And if you decide to do the same, you might realize that which you thought to be a ceiling is actually a canopy, a rain cover, nothing more. Take a step sideways and continue growing.
But there’s a condition. The ceiling is in fact a canopy only if you don’t want to resolve that particular weakness of yours, only if you are not interested in that composition or that genre of photography. Because if you, like me, can’t shoot landscapes properly, but would like to learn to, the second path is the only one you should ever take – punch through the damn ceiling till it shatters. Will you succeed? Most likely, yes. Eventually. But I can promise you something you will not like very much – it’s going to be very, very difficult. And also rather fun.
Alright, so I’ve said this much, but here’s the important metaphorical question: how do you punch through that ceiling? And the answer to that question is very simple and straightforward – you practice. You force yourself to do that which you have a hard time mastering. Is there a particular piece of equipment that, whilst great on paper, you’ve not managed to use creatively yet? Take it and use nothing else for a week, a month, a year if need be. You like landscapes, but have never taken one you would actually be proud to show a fellow landscape photographer? Go and take a landscape photograph every day. Set a task, a game of sorts – do a 365 project for just landscape photography. Or portrait photography. Would you like to learn to approach people on the street? Do what Ted Kozak does – simply approach them. Force yourself. Bring a friend if him standing somewhere close and pretending not to look will make it any easier for you. Do you enjoy focusing manually, but are not very good at it? Turn off AF and focus manually only. No matter the situation or subject, just do it manually for several months.
I learned to focus manually with a faulty 18-135mm lens on a Nikon D80, because it was faulty and I was forced to. About a year later, I was able to catch moving subjects at the telephoto end even though neither the camera nor the lens itself were exactly perfect for the task. Now, I see I am not very good at close-up, tightly composed portraits. It is a ceiling I would like to break, and I will. During the last several weddings that I had, I would always attempt to do it, and more often than not I failed. Really, I almost always failed, and those times that I did not I am not too happy with, either. Am I going to stop, give up? No. If anything, I will put even more effort into it.
Close-up portraits… well, they rock. I want to learn them, master them, and I will not put it off any longer. Because, you see, I’ve still got landscapes to start. What about you?