Guiding Principles for Improved Photography
When I first picked up my Panasonic FZ200, back in 2015, I had no idea what I was doing behind the lens. Well, that’s not entirely true; I knew how to turn it on and press the shutter. Beyond that, I was completely lost. I didn’t know anything about composition, the exposure triangle, white balance, focal length-anything! Even worse, I didn’t know how powerful an educational tool something like YouTube was, or where to even begin to look.
It was because of those factors that I was initially very intimidated by photography. Almost as soon as I turned on the camera and pressed the shutter button, I put it down and let it sit for a year. It only took very little trial, and what felt like a ton of error, to scare me into feeling like a complete fraud and failure. What I now understand is that it was those initial experiences that would serve as the foundation for my growth as a photographer and shape the fundamental philosophies that I continue to build upon to this day.
Here, I’ll share the philosophies, in no particular order, that I feel are important for my photography, and hopefully, you’ll discover something that might help you as well.
Enjoy, and Endure, the Process
As mentioned, photography can be pretty intimidating when first starting. You have this machine that you’ve spent your hard earned money on, and not only are you trying to figure out how to use your gear, you’re trying to learn the basic principles of photography along the way. All of this can lead to some frustrating moments that can be really discouraging. Having a healthy perspective and understanding that this is all part of the process can lead to some amazing growth.
I am naturally a stubborn person. Sometimes, that can be a great hindrance to progression, as I become stuck in my ways, but I’ve learned how to use my stubbornness as a motivating tool for improvement. After getting over the feelings of intimidation, I beat into my head that I was going to teach myself to be a good photographer, and I did not relent. I spent countless nights searching for editing tutorials and best practice videos, learning my camera, and finding my eye.
If you can find your motivating factor and a little patience, you’ll be comfortable within the process. To put it in terms that (maybe?) everyone can understand, it took Michael Jordan nearly a decade to win his first championship, and he endured some heartbreaking losses along the way. So remember, nothing worthwhile comes easy.
Prepare and Do Your Homework
It’s not an overstatement to say this has been one of the most helpful things in my photography. If I’m wanting to get out for a hike and some landscape photography, the first thing I’m doing is thinking about the time of year, which will determine what kind of landscape I want to shoot. From there, I’ll decide the area I want to shoot - I have my pick from Pisgah National Forest, all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains - and find a trail or hike that suits what I want. Then, I’ll start checking the weather religiously a week out. Search reviews and photos from wherever I’m going, and get a good idea of the lay of the land. I don’t think I’d want to attempt a creek crossing at 7am on a January morning in 15º weather. I could slip on an icy rock and break my neck, or worse, break my camera.
Everything I do to prepare for a day of shooting in nature could also be applied to my portraiture, street, and event photography. If I’m shooting portraits for someone, I start a dialogue early so we can be a little familiar with each other the day of the shoot instead of trying to break the ice while we’re working. For events, I’ll try to go to the location a few days before, ideally, or a couple of hours prior at worst case, to get an idea of the conditions I’ll be shooting in.
All of this homework means I’ve done my part in ensuring that my day of shooting will go as smoothly as I can control for. If it’s for an event, it lets the client know that you take your job seriously and conduct yourself in a professional manner. If you’re shooting a sunset on a muggy summer evening, you’ll know how to dress, what supplies you need to stay comfortable, and when to arrive in order to give yourself the time needed for setup. But no matter what I’m photographing, the more I’m prepared, the more comfortable I am, the easier it goes, the more I enjoy it.
Whenever I pick up my camera, I try to take the most thoughtful approach to whatever I’ll be aiming the lens at. If I’m in nature, I’m not damaging the habitat just so I can get a better image. I’m not leaving scraps of food behind for wild animals to find, and when I can remember, I bring a garbage bag with me to clean up after other people. And going off trail might seem fun, but if you’re hurt or lost, rescuers are put at risk because of you, so I’m doing anything that’ll put myself, anyone else, or any living thing in danger
When shooting street, I ask people if it’s okay to snap their photo if I’m able to get their attention, and I never shoot children without 100% consent from the guardians. I’m especially sensitive to the homeless. I’ve wrestled with the desire of wanting to put an emphasis on people who are homeless, with the hope that it’ll inspire those who have to take action and show our brothers and sisters some compassion and humanity. I realized that there is a fine line between performing a service, and being self serving. I never shoot the homeless unless I get permission, I never ask permission unless there’s a prior conversation being had and I’m actually giving them the time I hope they’ll afford me, and I always offer something in return, typically money or food. Just as a general rule of thumb, I won’t photograph anything that can be seen as a mockery.
Lastly, respect property. No matter what you might think of it, wherever you are belongs to someone or some entity. The last thing we should do as photographers is ruin the experience for someone else. Don’t do damage that’ll cost someone time and money, and don’t do anything that’ll give photographers, or the location itself, a bad rep. We all suffer because of that.
Hopefully, we’re all photographers because we love the artform, and not because someone strapped a bomb to our hand that’ll detonate if we shoot under 12 frames a minute (We wouldn’t be able to sleep. Also, heavy Speed reference)! If, we do in fact, truly love something, we should show it the respect it deserves in order to nurture that love. Photography is no different. Having respect for something can forge a sense of responsibility and deep connection, and when we feel that level of personal investment in our work, it’s that much more rewarding.
Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say
I don’t know where I heard that saying, but ever since I did, I have not forgotten it! To me, it’s a call to find your voice, the kind of photography that moves you, and stand strong. That can be easier said than done (Big Pun intended).
If you’re like me, you simply enjoy photography and will shoot anything you get the chance to. You might also watch a ton of photography videos or follow blogs that will tell you to find your niché and stick to it. If you’re even more like me, you might think a niché is counterproductive to your own personal growth as a photographer, limits your overall progress, and could possibly allow for the trappings of a trend to take hold.
I found my voice and “niché” in the simple joy I feel in going out practicing photography and creating an image. If I consider the image to be good, I share it on social media, and that is my only prerequisite to publishing a photo. I don’t worry about it not aligning with what someone else’s idea of my work might be, as I’ve stated no limits on how I choose to define it.
That’s not to say there aren’t stylistic choices I make that present themselves throughout my photography. I like to shoot from certain angles, particularly low. I use trees as framing devices in my landscape. For whatever reason, I really like to have things come from the bottom right of the frame as the initial guiding line. There are certain colors I like to associate with the different types of photography I do. It just so happens I want to be known for being really good at those different types of photography.
That’s not to knock anyone who has a certain niché either. If it helps you, or you simply find practicing a specific niche is something you enjoy and want to master, more power to you. Remember, this is your journey, so say what you mean, and mean what you say.
I hope that you find this helpful, and you’re able to take something away from it that you might not have thought of. Do you have any philosophies that you want to share, or anything I mentioned that you would expand on? Feel free to comment and subscribe.