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
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