Photography, like all other creative endeavors, has a lot of hidden ‘rules.’ You don’t have to follow the rules, or even know what they are, but if you do know the rules then most of your pictures will be compelling, or at least interesting. If you don’t know the rules then the odds are against you. The same thing holds true for music, which also has some pretty definite rules.
I’m reminded of this because I find myself getting deeply interested in photography again. When I take my camera around it encourages me to see the world more intensely. Similarly, having a blog causes me to think more about current affairs (but being subjected to moronic political discourse causes me to retreat from current affairs).
So, goodbye media punditry; hello Nikon D300.
How does one become a better photographer? There are so many books and so many tips that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and then confused. The first step, I believe is simple: learn to get rid of your bad photographs. Given that everything is now digital, and therefore the cost of taking pictures (at least ‘film-wise’) is zero, this should be a lot easier to do. But it’s not for the beginning photographer.
Here are my humble suggestions: (1) if the picture is really bad (i.e. out of focus, shaky, or poorly exposed) then delete it immediately from your camera; (2) later on when you’ve moved the pictures to your computer, again delete any photograph that isn’t perfect. But as you delete the photograph make sure you know exactly why you took a bad picture. Was the shutter speed too low? Was the sun in a position that created too much contrast? Did you use flash only to find out that it made the picture dull and flat?
There are some rules that you shouldn’t break, especially if you are starting out. Usually those are the ones that keep you from making a bad picture. The ‘rules’ that govern making a great picture are more subtle, but they’re there.
So when you find that one great picture, ask yourself what made it work? Was the composition interesting? Why? Was the background out of focus in a way that drew more attention to the subject? Did you accidentally use a slow shutter speed but found out that you were panning and that helped convey a sense of motion? Find out what technical elements made that great picture come out so well. And then remember that ‘rule’ for the next time you want to achieve that effect.
After you learn to toss out the poor photographs, and keep the excellent ones, your pictures will generate more attention. Oh, and if you look closely at some of your ‘marginal’ photographs, you may find some worth saving. For example, a poorly composed photograph can sometimes be cropped in a way that makes it more compelling. So as you review your ‘bad pictures’ look closely to see if you find ‘the good picture’ hidden inside the bad one. Like the title of this post suggests, photography is all about seeing things in a certain way. You need to train your eye to be more discriminating.
One of the best books to start with is John Hedgecoe’s Photography Basics. Yes, he’s an expert and his photographs are all absolutely compelling. But the best way to train your eye to understand what makes a great photograph is to study great photographs.