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As a hobbyist, self-taught photographer, I find myself often wondering about the esoteric nature of photography and what it is exactly that separates the average photographer from the professional or even world renown photographer. Is it technical skill, creative expertise, some sort of profound psychological perspective, post-processing acumen or just plain blind luck? In reality, it is likely a combination of all these things, but recently I have become more and more interested in the more introspective nature of photography and how powerfully creative and self-expressive it can be in shaping who you are as a photographer and a person.
Recently, I read a fantastic article “5 Ways to Improve Your Photography Without Touching Your Camera,” by Richard Walker over on Lightstalking.com. When you get a chance you should definitely check it out. The article discusses the inferiority complex one gets after looking at amazing photos, once the feelings of self-doubt and negativity creep into your mind, as you ponder the fact that you could never take a photo as great as the one you are viewing. Now, I do not know about you, but this happens to me all the time. I am constantly striving to improve my technique and skill and wonder if there is some enigmatic factor that I am missing that is preventing me from really producing something magical. In fact, it has just been in the past two years that I realized the same concept that Richard Walker introduces in his article of “making a photo.” This is an important and elegant concept that we all need to learn and aptly apply to our photographic process.
So what does “making a photo” mean? It means to take some time and reflect upon that which your are shooting. Think about what it is you want your photo to look like prior to taking the shot. Pre-visualize the final product and refine your composition, lighting, angle, or background. It involves planning and thought prior to pressing the shutter so that you already have your personalized interpretation in mind. This is such an important concept. I cannot even express what an epiphany this was for me and have definitely been able to see my own progression as a photographer as I have transitioned from snapping photos and started creating them. So how does one start this process?
Know Thyself – The process of artistic creation starts with yourself. You need to really analyze what makes you tick and drives your motivation to be able to express it in your photography. Are you a hopeless romantic, edgy and adventurous, calm and serene, or just downright crazy? As you can imagine each of these personality types would create a different photo based upon what they find inspiring. Really turn the microscope onto yourself and start unravelling the threads of your emotional and psychological make-up. It is truly a fascinating process and will open up and expose that creative core that is necessary to start inspiring your photography.
Likes and Dislikes – Analyze your own photographic likes and dislikes. Keep a running file folder of photos that you have seen or found that you admire or that inspire you. Group them in separate monthly folders so that you can see how your likes change as you grow as a person. More importantly, and often forgotten, you should do the same thing (although to a lesser extent) with photos that you dislike. It is critical to understand what you do not like in a photo just as much as it is to comprehend what it is you like. Somewhere between these likes and dislikes is your own vision or desired artistic niche.
Visualization – Once you have an idea of who you are and what you like, use it to transform your photographic process. When you are getting ready to take your next photo, think about the shot for a few minutes and how you want it to look after post-processing. Consider the angle you are shooting at, the depth of field, available lighting and shadow, the colors involved in the scene and the emotive glimpse of self expression that you want to portray. If you are going for sad and lonely you might want a solitary subject with lots of dramatic soft shadows and a more drab color palette. If you want edgy and adventurous you might capture some action with harsh contrast and bring out the details of the scene with a lot of contrast added in post-processing. Basically, you need to know where you are going with the shot so that you can get there in the end.
Execution – The last step is the easiest and most gratifying of them all. By this point, you have a bit of a concept and feel for your shot. Now all you have to do is make the photo. Using your pre-visualized plan, start shooting. Take a few shots and study them and see if you are getting what you want. Refine the shot. Play around with white balance a bit a see how it changes your shot. Expose for highlight in the scene or for shadow and see how it changes the mood. Work the composition some and most of all enjoy the process and make sure you are accomplishing your goal for the shot.
When you stop taking photos and start making them, it is definitely a gradual process. You will not notice the results right away. In fact, you will likely try it a few times and want to abandon the process as foolish cause you find yourself struggling. Just remember, it takes time, practice, persistence and most of all confidence. It is not going to happen overnight. Stay positive and keep working at it. Analyze the problems you think you are having or how your vision is not being captured by your photos. Take your time and embrace the learning process. Soon you will be looking at your photos and start seeing a few glimpses of your vision. This will progress further and further and eventually you will have that one magical defining moment where you are looking through your viewfinder and you recognize your vision, your hope, your dream, and yourself in that one perfect click of the shutter. You my friend have just made a photo!