The Sleeping Giant's Sea Lion

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As a geek, photography is a great subject. Lots of gadgets, physics, electronics etc to debate, discuss and learn about. but how do you transition from being the guy who knows what all the buttons and dials do, to being the guy who takes great shots. Basically I'm asking how does the technophile develop a "style", "eye", or "vision"? I have always felt that my problem was one of lack of equipment. But I have spent a lot on film gear and even more on digital, but I still often feel like I have a point and shoot camera. Sure, I can get a perfectly exposed, sharp image. But they are usually flat & lifeless. I guess what I'm asking is what should I be thinking about when framing a shot other than f-stops and ISO?

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can you post some of your images? –  Alan Jan 14 '11 at 0:58
    
Alan, I'm asking this question not only for myself but on behalf of others out their like me who want to move to the "next level". I think I am looking for a general approach for improvement rather than advice for MY photography. BTW my photos are not always properly exposed and sharp, I just said that to avoid the more technical answers. –  Ken Jan 14 '11 at 13:02

8 Answers 8

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You, my friend, are staring down the barrel of four years of art school!

Not really... Though I do often recommend auditing an art history class to my own students and I've never seen a student that didn't improve as a photographer after taking one. But whether you take a formal class or not, you do need to become a student of art the same way you became a student of the technical aspects of photography. Studying the 'language' of photography, light, shadow, composition, subject, message... These are all aspects of photography that you'll want to delve into.

The books that mattdm suggests are excellent starting points, but I don't believe it's possible to become a really good photographer without frequent interaction with fellow photographers. I highly recommend finding a mentor, or a 'photography society' in your area. Ask for critiques- the more brutal the better. I know it doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, but believe me, the first time someone asks you "what were you thinking with that mess of a photograph?" you will be changed. And later when someone asks you "no really... what were you thinking" with a photograph and you actually have an answer, you will be changed again.

Give critiques. Even if you don't exactly know what that means. Learn to talk about what works or doesn't work for you when you see a picture. The more you interact, the faster you will become more than just a taker of snapshots with the most expensive camera in the room.

Or you can do what I did and... go to four years of art school. :-)

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www.meetup.com. is a great site to help you get in touch with groups of photographers in your area. –  kacalapy Jan 14 '11 at 2:38
    
I would love to go to art school, but who is going to pay the mortgage :-? But I think you are probably right, that I need feedback from people who know a bit more about what they are doing. –  Ken Jan 14 '11 at 13:07
    
If you live in a smaller town this may not be possible, but where I live there are evening art history classes at the local university that can be audited for cheap... It can be amazingly educational to start seeing the common threads in visual art through the centuries. The truth is that most of what you get in art school boils down to the repetition of taking thousands of photographs, and getting (and giving) thousands of critiques... Both of those things can be done without the nasty tuition hangover at the end of four years... It just requires being a bit more proactive on your part. –  Jay Lance Photography Jan 14 '11 at 20:13

It makes me so happy to see someone ask this question.

This might sound pretty artsy-fartsy, but my answer to "what should I be thinking about" is... nothing. Don't think about your image, try to feel it. Approach your photography not as a way of recording reality, but as if you were creating a painting. Go about creating your image as if it were on purpose, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Photography's siren song is that pushing a shutter release is so easy and so instantly rewarding.

That would actually my advice for a lot of photographers: study painting, especially the old masters. Everything on their canvases was placed there by them, nothing is there by accident. Every composition is perfect. The best technique I've ever used to develop my sense of composition was tracing over paintings. Just some tracing paper and a pencil, a couple circles and squiggles. "Through the arm to the eyes", as one of my lecturers used to say. Forget about "rules" of composition, they're for first year painting students. Composition is nothing more than creating a visual order, there are millions of ways to do it.

Other practical advice that comes to mind (yes, I went to art school):

  • The image is everything. Literally, nothing else matters, not the back story, not the context, not the accompanying paragraph of text. It's the image (or possibly, a series of images). Nothing else.
  • Shoot a series.
  • Try to develop some distance to your own work. Stop taking pictures of things you care about, emotion will cloud your judgment.
  • Pretty is not enough.
  • Work in black and white. Color makes it harder for you to judge your composition. Once you've nailed composition, you can reincorporate color into your work.
  • Look at light. If you find interesting light, study it, watch how it flows over whatever it shines on.
  • Study the best photography has to offer. Get off the internet, go to galleries, shows, visit the library to study albums.
  • Take bad pictures. You know how to take technically perfect images, that's great. Now experiment outside of that. Shoot handheld at 1/8, underexpose, overexpose, fall down while shooting, shoot drunk, shoot with your eyes closed. Try everything, you can always go back to taking well lit, tack-sharp images.
  • Shoot a wide angle at f/8. Shoot knowing everything in your frame will be in focus. Don't use shallow DoF as a crutch, compose with everything in the frame.
  • Ask people whose work your respect (not people you respect or people whose work is pretty) for opinions on your work. Don't listen to what people who are emotionally connected to your subjects think about the work though, it's completely irrelevant to your photography.
  • Banality is art's greatest foe.

Oh, there's so much more. Welcome to photography!

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Secret handshake to the fellow art school grad You said what I wanted to... But with much more style and eloquence than I managed. :-) +1 when I have points to give in a few hours. –  Jay Lance Photography Jan 14 '11 at 20:19
    
I never actually finished... ;) –  Jędrek Kostecki Jan 14 '11 at 20:38
    
Don't worry, I won't tell the membership committee. Your secret's safe with me. ;-) –  Jay Lance Photography Jan 14 '11 at 23:23
    
+1 for "The image is everything. Literally, nothing else matters, not the back story, not the context, not the accompanying paragraph of text." –  fmark Mar 30 '11 at 12:05

Just for a while, try taking photos with something cheap and lo-fi, like a mobile phone or a second hand Olympus Trip 35, and experiment with black and white. You might find this liberating - you won't be thinking about technical quality, just the image content, and it'll be a chance to be more playful. I'm not suggesting you abandon all your lovely digital equipment, just have a holiday from it for a while and then return to it with what you've learned.

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I've heard of 2 exercises that sound strange, but will exercise your creative brain. The first I have done, and it sure helped me!

  1. Take a letter of something that looks like every letter of the alphabet, the only rule being it can't actually be that letter.
  2. Take a picture from as many different angles, light sources, etc, of a basketball as you can.
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In the same vein as "one for each letter": dailyshoot.com –  Craig Walker Jan 14 '11 at 2:35
    
@Pearsonartphoto, "Take a letter" - surely you mean a picture? –  Michael Kjörling Jul 28 '11 at 8:26

Composition: the classic here is the rule of thirds which, in a nutshell, is envision the scene divided into thirds horizontally and vertically and then place the subject on one of the intersections. However, there are other compositional "rules" that can be ascribed to that have come about over time as a result of visual arts. Wikipedia has a great summary on a number of these with links into further detail.

The reason I bring up composition is that using these, consciously, is a great way to begin to frame much better, more dynamic, photographs. As you use them, and grow in them, you will eventually learn how and when to break them. That, I think, is when you achieve the real vision that you are after.

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Except that rules of composition are never more than reverse engineered examples of things that have worked for others before. That's fine for someone who treats photography as a craft, but for an artist it's chopping yourself off at the knees. –  Jędrek Kostecki Jan 14 '11 at 11:24
    
You can't break 'em, which I noted, if you don't know them. –  John Cavan Jan 14 '11 at 12:33

The way I see things being a "geek", "technophile" or other is not any sort of disadvantage when it comes to photography - don't let anyone tell you different or belittle you because you're from a technical background.

Art and science are really two sides of the same coin and at the most fundamental level they have the same goals and maxims, they are both concerned with abstraction, symmetries and beauty.

To answer your question on specifically how to develop an "style" or "eye" it's can be based on analysis and perseverance. I guess most people do this subconsciously but the best photographers will be constantly analysing what they see, what they shoot and what others shoot. This is where technical abilities can pay off as you may be able to consciously break down everything you see whilst others do it without thinking. At the end of the day it's a similar process. So I can't tell you what to do, other than to emphasise perseverance and self belief. Don't think of yourself as a mere camera operator, keep at it and it will happen, in your own way.

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I'm going to sound like a shill for Michael Freeman. But really, I think these two books are exactly what you're looking for:

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I've seen these books recommended in other places. I'll definitely buy them. –  Ken Jan 14 '11 at 13:03

You have to learn how to express yourself through the subjects you capture, to have a story to tell or a point of view to deliver. You have to empathize with your subjects, to overcome your rational side and trust your intuition. You have to believe that you do have something worth showing the world, and then determine if the shots you take adequately express what you want to show.

Art is a spiritual journey, not a technical one. Good art requires good technique (in my opinion, others will argue, probably), but good technique does not guarantee good art.

You can also look for art that is resonant with you. That could be picking up a copy of Vanity Fair and looking at their portraiture (that's what I did), going to a museum to see the work of others, or going online and looking at Flickr's 'interestingness' tags. Find the ones you like, and ask yourself what you can do to express the same sentiments, or to express your response to those pieces. Some art is clearly in response to other art, some art is wholly original, and most lies in between (for me, anyway).

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Flickr's 'interestingness' is an example of how crowdsourcing creativity leads to cliches and technical gimmicks. –  Jędrek Kostecki Jan 14 '11 at 11:37
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It can. But it doesn't have to. If you're starting from a technical background (and I did coming from programming, engineering, physics, and math), it's a good place to get the creative juices flowing. –  mmr Jan 14 '11 at 14:41

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