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Becoming a Better Photographer

Hi Folks:

I actually wrote and posted this yesterday, but I’ve felt compelled to come back and add an introduction to it (perhaps solely for my own edification) as to why I wrote it in the first place.  In a way it began when I read a comment on a photography forum by someone who said s/he could never use ‘Camera A’ because it doesn’t have ‘Live View’.  Now s/he has a valid point in how s/he sees photography and how it works for him/her, but it got me thinking… if you went back in time 10 years and said to the people at any of the major camera manufacturers that you wouldn’t buy their camera because it doesn’t have live view, they’d look at you funny and ask, “Live what?”  Now live view certainly has value and I’m not trying to demean it by any means, but it brings back to the surface the question of, “Is is the camera or the photographer that matters?”  Asking that question among any group of photographers will cause either discussion or riots depending on the group, and I’m not going to pick one side or the other because I think they’re both important.  On one hand, one can’t expect to make the same images with a Holga as with a Hasselblad.  That’s not to say that one can or cannot make good pictures with either a Holga or a Hasselbad, only that the type of images made with each will be quite different.  A photographer is not bound by his or her tools.  At the same time, if someone starting out were to drop $50K on camera equipment with no understanding of photography, s/he’d probably find it a frustrating experience getting the images s/he imagined making with this equipment. 

And that brings me back to my point…  I knew I’d find it somewhere if I searched around long enough.  I’ve read a number of books on photography; I have a whole library of them in fact, including both sets of the Time-Life photography series.  But of all of those, among the photography books that have had the biggest impact on me have been ‘Photography and the Art of Seeing’ and ‘More Photography and the Art of Seeing’, both by Freeman Patterson.  These books don’t discuss equipment, film/ digital/ MTF graphs, f/stops or pretty much anything about cameras, but they do speak to learning how to see.  Now some would say that we’re born seeing, even though the images are a little fuzzy at first, but at the same time, Tom Brown Jr. would say that most of us don’t see 99% of what goes on around us.  Then there are those who don’t see, or have limited vision but who still make photographs: blind photographers.  So this brings me to my impetus, that which follows below.  As a photographer I make photographs constantly, whether or not I have a camera with me, because being a photographer is ingrained into how I see the world around me.  Learn how to see your world and you’ll become a better photographer.

Here’s what I wrote yesterday:

It’s often been said that if you peruse the libraries of photographers you’ll find photography books (of course), but while they’re useful for explaining technique, more importantly you’ll find books of photographs.  With any photograph one will have a split-second reaction to it, somewhere between ‘I love it’ and ‘I hate it’.  However, to become a better photographer one needs to learn how to go beyond that initial reaction and delve into the photograph itself.  This is equally important whether reviewing one’s one or someone else’s work.

Take the time first to determine the reason behind the initial reaction.  What is it about this photograph that you like or don’t like?  Is it the subject matter, the composition, the framing, the colours/ toning, or the exposure?  Where is the main point of focus?  What draws you in, or puts you off?  Does the photograph draw you in, or does it walk you around the image?  Does it lead you out of the frame completely?  What about the lighting – is there one source of light, or are there many?  Natural, filtered, artificial, or some combination thereof?  Is there a great depth of field or a more selective focus?  Does the image follow the main rules of compostion, or does it selectively break them?

Now go beyond the technical aspects of the image and consider the more esoteric properties.  Does the image inspire, stimulate or motivate you or does it bore you to tears?  Does it leave you feeling hopeful?  Happy?  Angry?  Disturbed?  Excited?  Sad?  Stay with it until you’ve reached the end of what you feel, and then go deeper.  Look again.  And again.  Don’t give up on it until it’s wrung you out.

There is a huge difference between looking at prints of images and looking at images on the web – most people don’t have colour-calibrated monitors, virtually all monitors use sRGB colour space, somewhere around 72 ppi, and most monitors have much higher contrast than is possible in a print.  There’s more, of course.  Still, more and more photographers are using the web to showcase their work, and if you’re willing to work within the parameters and capabilities of the medium, I think reviewing photographs on the web can still lead to that same place of inspiration within.  It doesn’t matter if your main area of interest is fashion, advertising, landscape, sports, portraits or the family dog, in the end we’re all photographing light.

I have quite a number of websites for different photographers bookmarked, and all of them have a gallery or portfolio page.   I can’t include ALL of them so I’ve picked through and pulled out only a few.  Some of them I ‘like’ and some I don’t, but I find that reviewing them, trying to decide for myself (without the benefit of interacting with the photographer) what the intent was in making each image brings new areas of discovery and new depth  to my own work.  The following pages highlight different areas or genres of photography, but you can learn from all of them.

Update (January 31, 2010): It seems I’m not the only person who thinks this is true.  There’s an very good article by George Barr on this subject, here.

Update (March 19, 2010): A site where photographers talk about the images they’ve made: The Still Image with Crash Taylor.

In no particular order:

Okay, I think that’s 50 sites, so that’s enough to start.  If you want to add your own, feel free to leave a comment with the URL.  BTW, I put John Paul Caponigro at the end of this list because he delves more deeply into the creativity of photography than anyone else I know, and if you register on his site he has thousands of pages of .pdf files available for free download.  You know, in case you’re looking for more inspiration.


P.S.  Marcia suggested I add: Mike Nelson Pedde.  She’s my favourite editor so I have to keep her happy… 😉

March 18, 2011
P.S. II, the sequel: An excellent post by John Paul Caponigro on ‘Seeing With New Eyes‘, and one from Alain Briot on ‘Fifteen Thoughts on Composition‘.

P.S. III, one more: You can find more of our posts on photography and Lightroom tutorials here, and you can find links to over 200 other sites that have Lightroom tips, tutorials and videos here.


8 comments to Becoming a Better Photographer

  • Wow this post will keep me busy for quite awhile! I'm a very amateur photographer, but I love taking photos and always have. It helps me see the world, to notice what I otherwise might not notice. One thing I noticed while capturing fungi in the woods the other day (with the camera) was how differently the camera and I see. I won't go into the details here. I will say, I got a new appreciation for the difference and I think that may lead me somewhere. Thanks for this!

  • Mike I believe you have left out my name. As you have been commenting on my postings in Luminous Landscapes. I have been showing my work in major museums and galleries throughout the world since the age of 18. As you may or may not know, but I helped invent the Evercolor process. I also made the very first pigment inkjet and directed the movement of Pigment Inkjet process in the world. Anyway you cn see some of the things on my website and see the articles on there. Thanks Tim Wolcott

  • Hi Tim: Apparently my reply to your comment didn't get posted! Let's try this again. As I said originally, I certainly didn't leave you out on purpose. As I mentioned in the article, there was no way I could list all of the photographers that I have bookmarked, so I did my best to provide a wide cross section of work from landscape/ nature photographers to fashion photographers to wedding photographers, etc. After all, different people have differing tastes.

    Nonetheless, I appreciate your stopping by and adding your URL to this page!


  • A great list Mike, I am always blown away by people who see things differently than me. I look back 5 years and how I see the world as a result of photography has greatly changed. I always think of photography as seeing and capturing. There are times when I have a blast seeing but am disappointed by my ability to capture what I saw and how I felt. I guess that is what keeps me trying.

    Now that I found you musing I will be watching for new posts.

  • Hi Folks: Someone on the Luminous Landscape forum suggested I add Thomas Broening to this list – he's a photographer out of California. His website is:


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