Most of this blog is about the professional side of photography but, like a lot of people who make their living taking pictures, there is a passionate enthusiast inside me too. From time-to-time I get a lot of emails from keen amateurs asking me how they can improve their photography. The first answer is always “take more pictures” but beyond that it really helps to know what you are taking photographs and who the audience for those pictures is.
Defining who your audience is and realising what their requirements are is a huge step towards becoming a better photographer – especially if you care about what others make of your work. Of course there are many among us who would profess that they only take pictures for their own enjoyment and who don’t really care what other people think. I’m sure that those people exist but they are an incredibly tiny minority. The rest of us want to share our work, get feedback on it and (hopefully) have praise heaped upon it.
A few years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Commission Yourself” as an early attempt to give some direction and purpose to photographers who had a desire to be out there taking pictures but who struggled with what, when and why they were doing it.
It doesn’t matter if you are a professional photographer, a keen amateur or a weekend and holiday compact user – shoot the best pictures that you can. It is all a matter of approach so here is how I suggest you try to take pictures. There are a number of things that a professional photographer knows long before he or she starts to take pictures. The pro knows who the client is, what the end use of the pictures will be and what they will be taking pictures of. This enables them to “focus” on the job ahead, an approach that can easily be translated into the type of photography you do.
The “client” could be your partner or your children and you know that the pictures are destined for the family album. The pictures might be of a child’s birthday party. Already you are starting to think in a far clearer manner and you can concentrate on making a list of the important images. You could, for example, need a range of images that would fit accross a double page in the album. You need a shot of the birthday boy – maybe a nice tight one. You need some pictures of the guests – perhaps a wider picture with three or four revellers in it. Some smaller images of a cake and other guests and something with a bit of humour. A total of five or six images, shot from different heights and some tight, some wide. To get five or six good images you will need to shoot at least thirty pictures and on a digital you have wasted nothing by trying different things. You can print images to different sizes and edit on screen adding captions as you go.
By deciding what your goals are in advance you will actually spend less time just snapping and hoping. Next time you will know how well you did and what worked in the framework you set yourself and adjust your self-commission accordingly. It is one of the great ironies in photography that tighter briefs often make better pictures. I have never been able to just “go and take photographs”, but if I am looking for a something specific I nearly always get what I want.
As you become a better photographer you can learn to recognise what you like about certain images and trying to shoot in a given style becomes a great way of finding your own. So go out and commission yourself tomorrow and if nobody is having a party try to document your garden or street. Pick out details and shoot the wide picture – you’ll soon have your own photo story in the can.
Of course it is equally true that there are people out there who don’t really care about what they shoot; they just want to own and be seen with some very cool and expensive gadgets. I have met so many people with cameras over the years who can quote the features of their kit as if they had learned the brochure by heart but who don’t actually like taking pictures. Each to their own.
Another tactic for becoming a better photographer is to analyse and even mimic the pictures that we see from other photographers. Shooting street scenes in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson or portraits in the style of Terence Donovan can be a real creative spur and sooner or later you will develop your own spin on those styles and start to move towards having your own way of shooting. There are fashions in photography related to specific lenses that you can follow and there is a constant cycle of effects doing the rounds that you can analyse and adopt if you need more inspiration. It’s all out there waiting. Light, subject matter and composition – master being able to assess those three elements in other photographers’ work and you will be well on your way to being a much better photographer.