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In my work as a teacher – and as an artist – I have noticed something that might sound very obvious but is rarely talked about in our journey to become better photographers. That is, how we live our day-to-day lives will show us where we are going wrong in our photography. Figuring out your shortcomings is the only way to overcome them.
Let me explain.
“Creativity takes courage.” – Henri Matisse
Photography is an inner game. Everything about who we are is expressed in our photos. You can ask 100 photographers to photograph the same scene and they will all pick out different elements, they will all work on different parts of the scene and they will all end up with different images.
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas
What we respond to as a human being is filtered through our experiences and thoughts and for a huge part, through our personalities.
So if you are unhappy with the photos you are taking, as well as looking at all the usual suspects – technique, composition, etc. – I would take a close look at how you do things in your life and what that says about your personality.
Look at the strengths and weaknesses in yourself – you can then work to balance them and become the very best photographer you can be. Let’s take a look at a few (stereotypical) examples:
This first stereotype is of someone whom I have met several times on my workshops. There are many of these people about. Let’s call them Person A.
Person A lives very much in their left brain – the home of the analytical mind. Person A is great with detail-oriented, academic tasks.
I am going to bet that because Person A is so strong in this area of analysis, they have lived in that side of their brain for a long time, and become better and better at tasks associated with that. But they have neglected their right brain, their more creative side.
Your right brain is the home of creativity, of ideas, of inspiration even. At least that is what science is saying at this point…
Person A is often amazing with their camera – they either know or are working on knowing, a lot of camera techniques. Technically their photos are excellent, which sounds great, right?
But their photos are boring! Their photos lack feeling. They can see it themselves. They look at their photos and wonder why they lack that certain “Je ne sais quoi” – that certain something – that takes a photo from good to wow!
Their photos are decent, they work technically and/or compositionally. But they aren’t memorable, or particularly unique looking. People don’t look at them and feel something deep in their souls, they don’t feel stirred by them. Worst of all, they don’t remember them.
What’s the problem? And what is the solution? My number one diagnosis is that this person finds it very difficult to be present, to live in the present moment and to just “be”. They find it very hard to daydream, to drift, to explore and get lost. They have lost touch with their imagination.
Person A is drawn to interesting looking subjects but they don’t feel much when they are taking photos – so their images end up looking a bit cold or soulless.
Now person B is very different. They are very good at inhabiting emotional states, they are drawn to mood, feeling, and atmosphere. Capturing subjects that move them and fill them with wonder and awe is their forte.
They have so much passion for photography, and constantly seek out locations and subjects that really excite them. The process of being creative is exciting, inspiring, and gives them so much joy.
The problem here, though, is when they look at their photos they are rarely, if ever, what they pictured in their head. They may see the feeling and atmosphere but in reality, if they are being honest, they don’t capture the feeling or mood of the subject in their images. The images don’t ooze with atmosphere in the way they want them to.
Person B is thinking – why aren’t my photos better!
Now the creative solution for these two people would be completely different from each other – right? What person A has to do to create better photos is not what person B needs to do to create better photos.
This is why you need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can work to balance them out. Learning is not a one-size-fits-all journey.
I have students who pick up using Manual Mode in 2 weeks and some who take two years to master it. Others take two years to feel comfortable shooting strangers, whereas some are relaxed and confident after one afternoon’s instruction and shooting.
But it’s not how long it takes – it’s the fact that you are working on improving all aspects of your photography.
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius
In fact, it’s more impressive to me that someone continues and perseveres than just focuses on what is easy for them. That’s how you improve.
Now back to our example people. I wonder if you can imagine what solutions I’m about to suggest for each to help them develop their photography.
If this sounds like you, what you are doing, for the most part, is focusing on the technical execution of the image, not the real feeling behind it. And if you can’t feel anything when looking at an image – then what’s the point? You might as well as just stare at cereal boxes.
So you need to work on inhabiting states of emotion, wonder, and awe whilst shooting. To notice atmosphere and to then translate that into your images.
For Person B: There is a definite lack of technical skills – and this translates as not being able to capture the vision in your head. You could see a life-changing sunset, but pointing your camera at it will not capture the real vision of what it looks and feels like to be there. You have not learned to translate emotion via the technical.
If this sounds like you, then you need to get a better understanding of your camera and the technical possibilities. An understanding of composition is also helpful. By learning and utilizing the potential of the camera you will be able to create the photos within that you so desire.
Can you see that I have taken two extremes and that in an ideal world they would both get a little of the other’s natural tendencies? By doing that we can then create balance. And nature thrives on balance and harmony. Not too much of this, not too much of that.
Salt is essential to bring out the flavor in cooking, but if you add too much it’s gross…you get what I’m saying.
These examples may seem extreme but I do teach many people who fall into either one of these camps.
So instead of just focusing on learning more, I encourage you to take a long, long look at what your personality is like – and work out where you need to focus.
The way that I have thought about it for myself is that I am very good at being in the moment. It’s a skill I’ve developed over 30 years of shooting. I also love the technical part of photography (never met a user manual I didn’t want to read).
So what’s the personality issue that affects my photography?
Well, I am so in the moment, so wrapped up in light and mood and atmosphere that the big challenge I’ve had in my career is to not get stuck into taking singular great images. One of this, one of that.
My weakness has been the inability to create and sustain a varied collection of photographs. It took me several years to realize that I was reacting to the world, rather than going out and seeking what I wanted.
I would just wander and drift, and see where my interest and attention led me. I had to work hard on becoming much more proactive – instead of I’ll wait for the shot, I had to become open to the idea of I’m going to find the shot.
Now, keep in mind that I don’t always do that. Again the key here is finding a balance. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; build on your areas of weakness, but still, celebrate your areas of strength.
I am now a much more proactive photographer – I don’t confine myself to singular, wicked shots. I build projects, and I sustain them over time, and I work hard to make incredible images that work together as part of a story.
All the photos in this article are from a series of projects I’ve been working on for several years of cities at dawn. I love photographing the beauty of dawn light, the emptiness of the streets and the odd snippet of early morning life. The cities in these photos are Paris, London, and Istanbul.
How do we overcome our weaknesses?
To start – you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of your personality. If you don’t already know then ask your family or friends, I’m sure they would be more than happy to tell you!
You might think of concerns like:
Issue: You’re very shy and you find yourself holding back when you really want to grab a shot.
Solution: Do the thing that you fear! Perhaps it’s some street photography or portrait work to build your confidence with people. Or wandering off up that cool looking mountain.
If you don’t overcome your fears, you will always be holding yourself back from what you love to photograph. Great images rely on jumping into the process with your whole being, your whole heart.
Issue: You are better at talking about what you’re going to do than actually doing it. You alternate between perfectionism and procrastination.
Solution: Focus lots and lots of effort on getting started and work on producing a project. Don’t worry about it being perfect, or waiting for exactly the right time, because as someone with procrastinator to perfectionist tendencies, this could mean that the perfect time will never happen.
For this issue, start to work on producing something, anything, just so you can move through that block of never doing something. Then once you’ve got some work under your belt, you can then start working on making the photos or project you are involved in, better. Getting started and staying with something is the thing to focus on initially, though.
Once you know where your weaknesses lie, then you can start to look for ways to overcome those issues. There are always solutions. When you are not afraid to look at the weaknesses in your creativity and to work on them, then you create so much more freedom in your photography practice.
If you feel like you can go anywhere and do anything, then your photography will grow exponentially.
Shake things up a little. For example, if you’re a big planner in your “real life” – maybe you want to begin by not planning. Go out, drift around, get lost, and just explore. Move away from all the planning.
Or if you are like me – doing more planning has been essential to being a better photographer. I am so used to exploring with my senses rather than doing lots of research. While that is great and has served me well, a little planning has made me much more effective on my shoots.
We tend to live our lives going from one fixed activity to the next. Whether that is at work, driving home, shopping, cooking, emailing or sorting out the myriad of problems, issues, and conflicts that pop up every day.
We end up flitting from one thing to the next, mostly concentrating in a narrow focus on one thing at a time – which is obviously very helpful when we want to get things done.
If, though, you want to develop new ideas and get good insights about yourself or your photography, then having an open – rather than focused – awareness is key.
Open awareness is being aware of your thoughts, but not paying too much attention to them. Allow for some space to enter and open up to the world around you. So you are letting thoughts drift through but you are still noticing other things – the weather, the clouds, the birds – but not letting your attention focus on any one thing in particular.
This brings tremendous space to your mind, space you need for new ideas and insights. If you are always thinking, thinking, doing, doing; you won’t have space for inspired ideas or amazing insights.
When you develop open awareness you have the ability to see your thoughts, your ideas, but also allow space for other things. You start to observe the world around you, to pay attention to your thoughts and habits and tendencies without getting locked into them.
“We are what we believe we are.” – C. S. Lewis
I know so many people who are scared of their cameras. They are intimidated by learning the technical aspects of photography. They tell me it’s impossible to learn!
Yet I know that as humans it’s possible to learn anything if the desire is strong enough.
You don’t have to confine yourself with your photography just because you can’t do something. As Picasso said:
“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso
Science is also telling us now that what we previously thought about the brain – that it was a set, fixed entity that stops developing as we become adults – is in fact not the case.
We can develop our brains at any point by having new experiences and learning new things. We can cultivate new skills, we don’t have to stay in this fixed idea of what we are good at and what we aren’t good at.
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” – Pablo Picasso
I cannot stress the importance of this idea enough. If you feel the urge to create in your life – with photography or any other medium – it’s a beautiful calling.
In my life, there is nothing more important than taking photographs. I know what it brings to my life, to ideas about photography and how I’m able to light little fires of inspiration in other people.
When you are being creative you are putting down your smartphone, the to-do lists, the emails and the shopping lists. Instead of looking inwards at your life – you are looking outwards at the world. You are committing yourself to the deeper, more interesting, more beautiful parts of life.
You are connecting to other people and to the world around you. Surely, paying more attention and creating connections to others is an incredibly important thing to promote in this day and age.
“Photography in our time leaves us with a grave responsibility. While we are playing in our studios with broken flower pots, oranges, nude studies and still lifes, one day we know that we will be brought to account: life is passing before our eyes without our ever having seen a thing.” – Brassai
Photography is such an exciting way to be creative, I hope I’ve given you some ideas on how to challenge yourself to keep improving and growing as a photographer.
We all have it in us to create memorable, unique, and interesting images. I’d love to know what you think of these ideas – please comment below.
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