Reality often isn’t as glamorous as the dream.
In the first part of this essay, we explored the dissonance between the photographer we are, the photographer we think we want to be, and the photographer we actually want to be; today, we’ll wrap up by looking at how you can get there.
Before actually getting there and experiencing the destination, it’s nearly impossible to say whether you’ll actually like it or not; worse if the destination is something individual – like a career, or a particular lifestyle, somewhere few or no people have ever been, or something full of lies and myths like being a Hollywood superstar. Not being one of those Hollywood superstar types, all I can say is that if you really want something badly enough, there’s almost always some way to get it – legitimate or not. (We are of course going to discuss only legitimate means of achieving goals here.) If decide you cannot live without that shiny new Superflex Pro-200 and f1.0 zoom, then you’d probably be willing to subsist on nothing but ramen for a year, sell your car and timeshare out your cat.
Personally, what I did know was that I didn’t like being a corporate type, and I needed to do something creative. Whether that was photograph, something else or some combination thereof would be impossible to say until I actually tried it. The trouble is, the more you experience, it also seems the less you know. I was convinced this industry was straightforward back when I first tried to turn pro in 2005; I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. By the time Attempt Number Four rolled around last year, I was seriously starting to question the long-term viability of the whole thing. But at this point, I was so invested into this – mainly in terms of turning my back on my previous career (at least in this country, which is a very small place at the top) in a very permanent way, that I had – and still have – no choice but to make it work.
In reality, this means turning over every stone, knocking on every door, taking every opportunity even if you know it’s unlikely anything will come of it, and eating humble pie; because if you don’t, you might well kick yourself for it later. The trouble is hindsight is 20/20, and foresight is pretty much blind. It means working a lot harder than you think you ever could (let alone did in the past) and still going to bed at night questioning whether you did enough to try to secure that job or deliver that pitch or follow up on that lead. With some time and experience, I’ve developed a much better sense of what will fly and what will turn out to be a waste of time, but even so, it’s a lot of effort. Some things work, some things don’t. Take this site for instance: it was born because I felt I needed a bigger online presence to give my professional work credibility. Turns out it’s taken on a life of its own.
Without turning this into a motivational essay, there are a few things I’ve found worked for me – perhaps the will help you in some way, too. And of course it applies to anything, even outside photography.
- Be clear about your end goal.
- Before you start doing anything, spend some time thinking and planning; common sense isn’t common.
- Break big things down into small pieces. This way, no task seems too impossible or massive.
- Be systematic: sometimes the key to making something work is small and easily missed.
- Do everything you possibly can; and try it again if the first outcome isn’t clear.
- Timing matters.
- Start while the enthusiasm is high: it’ll often carry you through the tough bits. Maintaining it can be tough, so make the most of it.
- What doesn’t work gives you information: look past the failure and formulate a new plan of attack.
- Keep trying: society is what I like to think of as double-damning: if you try 99 times, fail, then die or give up, you’re an idiot who never knew when to quit. If you succeed on the 100th attempt, that’s determination and hard work. Before you give up, make sure you know you’ve done absolutely everything you possibly can.
- If you find yourself asking why you’re doing something, try to remember how it fits into the grand plan: if it doesn’t, then it’s a legitimate question and you might want to stop.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The worst that can happen is the other person says no, and you’re no worse off than before.
- It helps if you have somebody who believes in you: they don’t have to do it all the time, just long enough for you to shore up your own confidence when things aren’t quite going to plan.
- Here’s the really controversial one: expect to fail. Plan to succeed. And don’t leave yourself a plan B: this makes it too easy to throw in the towel before you really get going.
In every single one of my previous attempts, I can identify one or more of the above list that I didn’t do. I strongly believe in the philosophy of doing something to the best of one’s ability or not at all; it’s not worth living with the ‘what-if’s’ and regrets otherwise. I don’t compromise. It’s probably not healthy, but I can say with confidence that I’ve always done the best job I’ve known how to do at the time.
Let’s bring this back into the realm of photography: for most, the goal is not to be world famous, or have your images on the cover of National Geographic, or even have books published; it’s almost always about being somewhere between stages two and three on the stages of creative evolution of a photographer. That is: you want to be able to see, and translate that into an image that’s strong enough that a viewer can see and appreciate what you saw at the time. Note how this actually doesn’t involve too much creativity: you don’t have to worry about product/ prop arrangement, lighting setups, etc. It’s often no more than preserving a moment.
To do this, we need a few things. Firstly, there’s some degree of understanding of basic photographic principles; this is what the shutter and aperture do, how various combinations of both affect output etc. in addition to understanding all of the nomenclature – in practical terms, what’s does what and what means what. This is relatively easy to pick up from various sources, and only has to be deep enough so you can move on to the second part, which is being able to control your camera. Together, these form the basis of the technical portion of photography, and can be made as simple or as complex as you like – think of it as learning how to drive. One needs to know the rules of the road, the basic laws of physics, and how to operate their vehicle. Whether it’s a moped or a Formula One car, the fundamentals don’t change that much.
All of those things are relatively easy to learn because they’re governed by simple physical rules that don’t change and have no exceptions: 1/100s is 1/100s is 1/100s. It isn’t right or wrong, it just is. If you go to f2 from f2.8, you have to double your shutter speed to maintain the same exposure. That never changes, irrespective of camera or location or photographer or film or digital. Much tougher is learning the artistic rules of the game: the trouble is, there are none; at least none that are hard and fast and universal. For every single ‘don’t do’ rule you might read in a beginner’s photography book – don’t put the subject out of focus, for instance – I can think of several examples of famous photographs that work precisely because they violate that particular rule. To some extent, the same is true when the technical affects the aesthetic – for instance, exposure is a creative choice, not a technical one. N, N+1, N-1 are all correct depending on what final effect you want to achieve.
I’m going to bring everything together now: you need to know the rules in order to break them. In order to make images that work, you need to know what you like, why you like it, and how to replicate it. And none of this is possible without practice; it’s certainly possible without guidance, but it’s a very, very long process, and requires a lot of determination and patience. My photographic technique is by and large self taught, but it’s taken me 13 years to get where I am now – I have no doubt that if I taught somebody with a moderate amount of talent and a large amount of dedication one-on-one for three months, they’d reach and surpass my skill level. If you want to shortcut the learning process, find yourself a good teacher (if you consider me a good teacher, I do have a couple of places left for the current Email School of Photography intake, and the European workshops in Sept/Oct of this year) – objective, consistent and critical feedback is the key to correcting mistakes and putting yourself in the position to ask the right kinds of questions of the creative portion of your work – but above all, keep going and don’t give up. MT
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