What makes a good photographer?

_M9P2_L1001055 copy

Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is ‘what makes a good photographer?‘ In the first place, does it matter? I think the answer is yes, both because of the importance of self-assessment in the grand scheme of things if you want to continually improve as a photographer, and because we can all benefit from a goal to aim for. Obviously, the answer to this question is going to depend very much on the type of photographer you want to be; being loud, brash and in-your-face might serve you well as a paparazzo, but it’s almost certainly going to result in early retirement if you’re a war photographer.

However, before examining those details – and I’m only going to write on the genres of photography I’m somewhat familiar with (please feel free to weigh in under the comments section if you have any further thoughts or experiences to share) – there are definitely some general traits that are beneficial to all photographers, and we’ll examine those first.

Curiosity. Fundamentally, photography is about conveying a vision – your vision – in a way that it may be appreciated by an external observer. The best photographs tend to have an original and/ or unusual vision that differs from the norm; in order to see this in the first place, the photographer has to have the wherewithal to pause and want to look in the first place. They have to be willing – at least subconsciously – to be question why things are always seen a certain way, and if there are any other possible ways of seeing that might be interesting. He or she should be open to exploring other styles, subjects and methods of photography – even if only vicariously through the work of others; inspiration can come from anywhere.

A heightened consciousness of the quality of light. If there’s no light, there’s no photograph; it’s that simple. One of my biggest creative shifts – and subsequent improvements in my photography – came when I started looking for light instead of for subjects: find the light and let the subjects come to you. Now I don’t even bother taking out the camera if the light is flat; instead, make a mental note to come back later at the right time of day. (Oddly, I do sometimes get minor attacks of anxiety when I see fantastic light but don’t know what to shoot with it – you can a place dry if you pound its streets for years.)

High observantness, but low observability. It’s important to keep your eyes open; you never know where your next portfolio frame might come from. Though all of my commercial and product photography work is set up and staged, a good portion of my personal portfolio – including reportage, portraits and to some extent, architecture – is entirely spontaneous. The reality is that if you’re shooting in a scenario where you can’t control all of the elements, then chances are you’ll get a shot when and where you may not necessarily expect it. Low observability is the ability to get the shot without being noticed or drawing attention to oneself; this is especially important for any sort of reportage work where interfering with the scene will almost certainly change the outcome of the image. It’s of course much harder to do if you’re say shooting medium format…but it’s still doable.

Preparedness and the ability to work fast. Tied in to the former property is the readiness and ability to make the shot in the first place; there’s no point in seeing a frame but not being able to capture it because you forgot to take off your lens cap, or the memory card was full, or the back wasn’t loaded. Associated with this is anticipation: the second or two it buys you can make the difference between a shot or no shot. It can also make the difference between camera shake from rushing and nervousness or having a moment to take a breath and calmly release the shutter. Working fast means not missing the moment – even in situations with relatively static subjects (like, say, the trees and mountains in a landscape) you still need to move fast – take too long, and critical light changes and disappears very fast.

The ability to abstract a scene down to its constituent forms. This one is a bit harder to explain and less obvious. It’s about compositional balance: if you can decouple your conscious mind from the subject and see it as a series of geometric shapes and forms instead, then you’ll find it much easier to natively balance out those shapes in a composition and ensure that they all have enough space to be highlighted or framed by the neighbouring empty space, as well as be sufficiently isolated from the other elements (i.e. secondary subjects) in the composition. This applies whether you’re dealing with a still life (random assortment of shapes), minimalist architecture (one or two simple geometric shapes on a relatively plain background) or a portrait (a circle sitting on top of a square or trapezoid, with some other rectangular shapes coming off the trapezoid. Maybe another square on top of the circle if your subject is wearing a top hat).

Good shot discipline.  I can’t think of too many things more frustrating than catching a tricky moment, but missing on exposure or being slightly off with focus, or nailing both but then finding the frame is ruined by camera shake. The only way around this is practice, practice and more practice: good shooting habits should become second nature. Stability and minimising shake should be very high up on the priority list; proper focusing and exposure should be hot on their heels. If you’ve got shaky hands, then brace against something, or get a tripod. The self-timer and mirror lockup can help too, as can various camera or lens-based stabilizers. Leaf shutters, stabilizers and bracing the camera against your face are about as good as it gets.

Familiarity in the operation of one’s equipment. Being confident in using your camera both inspires confidence in your clients, as well as keeps you calm while shooting. It also means you’re less likely to miss a shot because a button does something other than expected, or the camera started up in the wrong mode. Of course, the more cameras you have, the more difficult this becomes, as you simply have to shoot more to keep everything familiar. There’s a reason why many pros are reluctant to change system; the configuration and setup has become muscle memory. I’m probably one of the few people who doesn’t decouple AF-ON from the shutter button; I tried this way of shooting recently and simply couldn’t make it work because I’m so used to using the AF-ON button to lock AF instead. (My rationale for this is you only have to press one button to activate the meter and AF, leaving one less thing to do in critical situations or your fingers free to operate other controls. When you’re sure you have the shot, then it’s easy to hit any one of the three buttons I’ve got configured for AF-lock.)

Some familiarity with classical art. Painters in the old school not only had a large amount of time to perfect their craft, but also severe limitations in technology. This gave them the freedom to observe and practice; how many photographers make conscious decisions on their use of color to create emotion, for instance? Or control lighting to a sufficient level of precision such that all portions of the image are lit as desired and require zero postprocessing? The technological limitations forced them to think: in not having any easy means to reproduce reality perfectly, they were forced to understand and deconstruct it in the process of recreating it.

A good understanding of their own personal style.  Play to your strengths, but first, you need to understand what those strengths and preferences are in the first place – and there’s no way of doing this without knowing what you like, and why you like it.

The ability to create light when needed. We’ve now come full circle: To make a good photograph, you must have good light; to find good light, you must be observant; you must have the skills to capture it as envisioned, and not run into snags with technique or equipment. But there are times when you can’t find the light you want, or you have something in mind that doesn’t exist naturally; the only solution is to have power over your light; envision what’s required, and how to engineer it. (I recommend this series of articles on lighting as a good starting point.)  A good photographer can both capitalize on found light, as well as mould it to suit his or her vision when the necessity arises.

And now for some related light humour, in no particular order:

  • Macrophotographers need an eye for detail.
  • Wildlife photographers must blend in
  • Sports photographers and reportage photojournalists should have itchy trigger fingers; more is better than less, and there are no do-overs.
  • Celebrity photographers would do well to also have good memories for faces, and inherent voyeuristic tendancies.
  • Child photographers need to have the patience of a saint, and the persuasive powers of a snake oil salesman.
  • Food photographer-stylists should also be neat and precise, but it’s by no means a requirement.
  • Landscape photographers must be willing to walk long distances and wake up at unsociable hours.
  • Party, event and nightlife photographers probably shouldn’t partake of the refreshments.
  • Wedding photographers must be aware of the handful of critical moments, and ensure that there are good images from all of them.
  • Product photographers must be able to see some beauty or attraction in the product, somewhere. You have to want to buy it after looking at the image.
  • Medium, large format and film photographers (or any combination thereof) have to be a bit masochistic*

*Inexplicably, for my personal work, I’ll gladly use a tripod, lights, separate meter, mirror lockup and cable release if I’m shooting with medium format, but if I’m using a digital, my patience decreases with the size of the format – to the point that if I can’t get a satisfying grab shot with my iPhone, I won’t bother at all.

What kind of photographer are you? More importantly, what kind of photographer do you want to be? MT

____________

Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from Amazon.comhere. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!

appstorebadge

Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Graham Thomas says:

    Cracking article, totally correct. It is an inspiring approach to concentrate on the art maker, rather than the necessary machine.
    Cracking guy too, and exceptionally patient. …
    My best regards

  2. Excellent post. Excellent site overall and amazing photography. Thank you.

  3. It is curious that you put curiosity on the first place, but I completely agree. It is something that we photographers are often very afraid of, especially when we are working on tight schedule. We are afraid that trying new things could not lead to a consistent result and come home with mediocre photos. But being curious allows you to look for aspects that other photographers are ignoring and it allows you to be different.

    How about the human aspects, the qualities you need especially when working with people ? For me they are way more important than any other skill related to photography. That’s the reason why I insist on connecting with the subjects as the single most important skill a portrait photographer should have: http://www.theparisphotographer.com/what-makes-a-great-paris-photographer/

  4. Great post. Great site overall and stunning photography. Thank you.

  5. I don’t agree with statement: “A heightened consciousness of the quality of light” I shoot in at night which is the absent of light, but what like I get can create emotion and even bad light can be good if it works with the composition and creates a feeling.
    IMHO … The “quality of light is a red heron and a truly great photographer can work in any light. Its the moment not that light that’s important.

  6. A tangent to your medium format and tool use footnote: One thing I have noticed using DSLRs; I become frustrated *with the camera* if it blows auto focus or exposure. The result is that I don’t completely trust the camera and this distracts me.

    With my simple, manual cameras, *I am responsible* for my mistakes, which may result from a lack of skill or not being prepared. These mistakes don’t bother me much at all. I made the mistake, not the equipment. There is no false reliance or expectation of the equipment to save me and I trust the tool to do what it is (more narrowly) designed to do.

    This is a separate “equipment that gets out of your way” or tool selection topic, but it supports the focus on the creative image process you describe above.

  7. Linden Wilkie says:

    Another great thoughtful piece Ming, thank you. There’s a “being ready” theme running through some of your key points, but I think a simple element in this needs separate emphasis: you always need a camera with you!

    • I guess it’s something so obvious that I overlooked it as a separate item – goes without saying that photographically valuable moments are both fleeting and generally never repeated – readiness is paramount. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I’m increasingly liking fully mechanical cameras that require no batteries and have no lag; they can be kept in a state of perpetual readiness with no penalties.

  8. Back years ago when I started working in engineering, someone said to me, “You know, learning this job isn’t really much more than having a heightened awareness of what’s going on in your surroundings.” The core of that was truth and holds even today. Anticipate. Know what that light is possibly going to look like in 3 hours. When you learn to embrace the light, there will come a time when you can feel it. Granted every day is not perfect (for outdoor shooting), but if you crave the light and submit to it, you’ll improve outdoor work tenfold. Otherwise, you’re pretty much just roaming around with a camera.

  9. Ming, I always have a camera with me and will capture anything interesting but I’ve gravitated to landscape as my favorite. I like the ability to plan in advance by visiting a potential site, watching the light early and late, and seeing the differences the seasons bring. It also makes travel and vacations much more exciting and interesting too. I grinned at you last comment about film having just started trying it.

  10. Faruk Senoglu says:

    Aah, by the way, I forgot: your color shots from the Hong Kong workshop are great!

  11. Faruk Senoglu says:

    I love your reflections on such themes Ming. Just yesterday I was in a situation that there was an unreal light when the sun broke through the clouds and I was hectically searching for a proper motif around me to capture this situation. As I’m still in the beginning of photographing I realized that it’s better for me to focus on few parameters to improve my photography. In the moment this is intentionality for the subject and composition like framing and putting the subject into context. Then sometimes I’m forgetting to pay attention to the settings like ISO and exposure rate etc. I’m realizing that you’re completely right saying that knowing your equipment is for sure very important, so that one can leave these technical things for the subconciousness and thus can concentrate on composition. As you say it’s a matter of shot discipline, I’m sure not different from ZEN, Sufism and other religious practices where the continous exercising of the same rituals, mantras or dhikr is the fundamental base but not the goal in itself for the breakthrough in realization not when you want it but in the right time …. I made one big discovery for myself during this beginning process: When I’m looking to the images of some great ones of photography I found that their mastery often shines through best when they are using the focal length of wide angle lenses. I suspect that the wide angle let’s say between 21 and 28 mm is more difficult to handle for a beginner but easier for a pro because it gives you a wider field and more control over the composition than what the natural human eye perspective with its 50mm view can provide. For my m43 equipment I’m thinking now wether the Zuiko 9-18mm zoom or the 12mm prime would be the better choice. However this inspiration came to me especially when I recently discovered the masterly photography of Daido Moriyama and the turkish photographer Ara Güler who was also called photographer of the century. Thanks again for this wonderful article!

    • No problem. That zen state you’re referring to needs practice and familiarity with equipment to achieve, but also a sort of endless wonder about the world around you so you’re not looking at things with jaded eyes. It’s interesting that you mention it because I do feel like that sometimes: if I’m using a digital, I’ll worry about exposure comp and focus and not really pay attention to shutter speed and ISO because I know it’s set on auto within an acceptable range; if I’m shooting film, then I’m acutely aware of ambient light and can judge shutter speeds to the nearest half stop or so. But not if I’m using the GR1v, which has its own meter. Hmmm…

      As for the use of wides, the wider the lens, the more control you have over exaggerated perspectives; however, you now either have to get very close, and/or lose subject isolation through depth of field. Such images only work with really strong compositions, or with excellent light – mastery of these things tends to take time.

  12. “Fundamentally, photography is about conveying a vision – your vision – in a way that it may be appreciated by an external observer.”

    Ming, I would love to hear/read whether you believe that such a vision is a simply a gift or whether it can be acquired and developed – and crucially, how. Maybe a blog post topic?

    Best, Christof

  13. Fantastic read as always Ming. I would probably add that *any* other expertise also helps, like being a technician, mathematician, etc. Some of the best musical composers for instance also had a good understanding of maths. But that said, it helps more to *feel* what’s right, and to turn off most of your intellect while watching. And when the moment comes, I’m often glad if I only was thinking about the aperture and time settings on something like an OM-2N, rather than thinking of too many things. Being able to look and listen seems to be it.

    • Thanks Wolfgang – yes, I think you have to be observant but not just in the visual sense – sometimes your other senses can give you useful clues when there might be something worth photographing too…

  14. Great article. I especially agree on #1-4. One thing that needs to be added (for my case) is to learn how to switch the photographer mode on and off. It’s always on most of the time, but there are times when I shouldn’t have such mood or visualization — like when having romantic dinner with my wife, or driving a car, etc… :-).

    OOT question: is this Starbucks Shinjuku?

    • I don’t think you can switch it off. I certainly can’t. So I just make the most of it…I think fortunately the wife is used to it.

      Yes, I think that was Starbucks shinjuku…

  15. Ditto with what you’ve written except the last one.. Since sometimes, creating light interferes with the authenticity of the photo i.e. reportage, street, etc.

    I’d add an additional point to the list though, which is knowing the basics of composition. Composition as in light and its different shades, geometry and placement (golden ratio and whatnot), etc. Knowing why something should be placed “here” and not “there”. I wouldn’t make it as much of a requirement like how knowing one’s gear is, but I believe it’s good for a photographer to know why he/she composed in a way, knowing why it feels “right”.. That said, a photographer who knows all these, should also know to break them as well. Breaking the norm is, after all, how new things come about.

    • Good points. I do know there are people who can compose but don’t know why an object should go here as opposed to there, much less communicate it. I suppose this is one level of consciousness, but understanding why is probably better since it allows you to decompose and explore this in a controlled manner. To be honest, I can’t easily explain why I put the subjects in the places I do, or why I choose composition A over composition B if both work – at some point, you satisfy the ‘good housekeeping’ rules and pass into a realm where differentiation is made based on personal feeling and impressions…

  16. Great summary of attributes for a photographer with which I agree completely. Some knowledge of art is more useful than most people would recognise. A few years back I studied furniture design for a couple of years; art was part of the sylabus. My knowledge of art previous to this was zero and the course literally opened my eyes to everything around me. Learning to draw was another useful experience that aids the seeing process.

    • Thanks Jan. I’ve found that art and design have helped my own work progress immensely – there’s a reason why these images survive and are part of our conscious societal memory; understanding some elements of that why and applying it to one’s own work can be insightful.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Last Monday night the 2/12/2013 I got a text message that I had won shot of the year in my local camera club. I was quiet surprised as I had only entered 4 out of 10 competitions last year due to college commitments. When I was told what shot of mine had won I was a bit surprised as personally I don’t rate this as one of my better shots. Fair enough it is quite a good candid shot but technically one aspect of the shot sticks out like a sore thumb, can you spot this? The man on the left has a lamp post growing out of his head which is a definitenegative for me. Other member’s in the club feel this doesn’t take from the shot but it really bugs me and to be honest I should have just gone into Photoshop and got rid of it in post-production. I will have to revisit this shot over the Christmas are work a bit on it and get rid of that dammed lamp post. Finally what makes a good photograph, they a look at these links below. http://andyslens.zenfolio.com/what-makes-a-good-picture http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/basics.htm http://blog.mingthein.com/2013/02/09/what-makes-a-good-photographer/ […]

  2. […] going to be overlooked in favor of something different that stands out from the crowd. Part of what makes a good photographer is the ability to see things differently, and then communicate that visually to your audience: this […]

  3. [...] What makes a good photographer? mingthein gives his answer to this question here in his blog. An original, unusual vision, inspiration, high observantness, but low observability, curiosity, [...]

  4. [...] Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is 'what makes a good photographer?' In the first place, does it matter? I think the an…  [...]

  5. [...] What makes a good photographer? –> read it here [...]

  6. [...] Photography News: What makes a good photographer? Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is ‘what makes a good photographer?‘ In the first place, does it matter? I think the answer is yes, both because of the importance of self-assessment in the grand scheme of things if you want to continually improve as a photographer, and because we can all benefit from a goal to aim for. Read full story => Ming Thein [...]

  7. [...] Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is ‘what makes a good photographer?‘ In the first place, does it matter? I think the answer is yes, both because of the importance of self-assessment in the grand scheme of things if you want to continually improve as a photographer, and because we can all benefit from a goal to aim for. Obviously, the answer to this question is going to depend very much on the type of photographer you want to be; being loud, brash and in-your-face might serve you well as a paparazzo, but it’s almost certainly going to result in early retirement if you’re a war photographer. However, before examining those details – and I’m only going to write on the genres of photography I’m somewhat familiar with (please feel free to weigh in under the comments section if you have any further thoughts or experiences to share) – there are definitely some general traits that are beneficial to all photographers, and we’ll examine those first…..  [...]

  8. [...] Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is 'what makes a good photographer?' In the first place, does it matter? I think the an…  [...]

  9. [...] Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is ‘what makes a goodphotographer?‘ In the first place, does it matter? I think the answer is yes, both because of the importance of self-assessment in the grand scheme of things if you want to continually improve as a photographer, and because we can all benefit from a goal to aim for. Obviously, the answer to this question is going to depend very much on the type of photographer you want to be; being loud, brash and in-your-face might serve you well as a paparazzo, but it’s almost certainly going to result in early retirement if you’re a war photographer.  [...]

  10. [...] Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is ‘what makes a good photographer?‘ In the first place, does it matter? I think the answer is yes, both because of the importance of self-assessment in the grand scheme of things if you want to continually improve as a photographer, and because we can all benefit from a goal to aim for. Obviously, the answer to this question is going to depend very much on the type of photographer you want to be; being loud, brash and in-your-face might serve you well as a paparazzo, but it’s almost certainly going to result in early retirement if you’re a war photographer. However, before examining those details – and I’m only going to write on the genres of photography I’m somewhat familiar with (please feel free to weigh in under the comments section if you have any further thoughts or experiences to share) – there are definitely some general traits that are beneficial to all photographers, and we’ll examine those first…..  [...]

Thoughts? Leave a comment here and I'll get back to you.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,972 other followers

%d bloggers like this: