Getting Better at Photography

Are you ready for your closeup?

I received an email that had a deceptively simple question in it: "What's the most efficient way to go from amateur to professional photographer?

Short question, long answer.

I'm not going to start where you think I might. Before we get to the photography side of things, there's a different question you need to ask yourself: "how do you learn?" 

As any teacher can tell you, different people learn in different ways. Some folks have to read the answer, some learn best by hearing the answer, others have to see a step-by-step demonstration, a few learn by trial and error, while still others learn by memorization and repetition. It's actually important that you understand which type of learner you are. For example, at a workshop if I have a learner who learns through hearing, then drawing the answer on my ever present whiteboard is not going to help that person much. I may still draw my answer because my teaching style tends to be visual, but I know that with that person I need to be talking through what I'm drawing much more carefully. I can't assume that something I see as obvious will be recognized by the learner-by-ear student.

But you, the student can help a teacher out a lot. If you know you learn best by seeing then you simply have to learn to say "can you show me what that looks like?" If you learn by hearing you have to learn to say "can you explain that to me in words?" So, take a moment and think about how you learn best. 

Okay, moment over. Now, think about any learning situation you've been in lately. Did that situation complement or contrast your learning style? If it complemented your learning style you probably picked things up fast. If it contradicted your learning style you probably felt lost or behind at the end of the session.

So the first part of the answer to the question I was emailed has to do with the learning part: know what kind of learner you are and make sure you're exposing yourself to that kind of learning and not others that don't work for you.

That brings us to the other parts of the question. There are two key components to the question as I see it:

  • Amateur to professional
  • Photographer

Let's start with the photographer part first: photography is both a craft and an art. The craft part comes in the long decision tree of settings you must master to optimize the capture of data and then reproduce it. The art part comes in the composition and the abandonment of cliche or traditional decisions in capturing data and reproducing it. 

The craft part—the technical part if you will—is widely documented and virtually every aspect of it can be studied in detail. There are books and courses on just exposure, for example (heck, there are even books on just spot metering). You can find books and courses on workflow (just moving the data from capture to print). There are books and courses on color management. You're probably getting the idea: the craft side is well documented and provides plenty of learning options. On the book side, you can find a number of recommendations here in my recommended books page <tk> (and I suggest that all photographers ought to go back and re-read Ansel Adams' basic set of books, even though we're dealing with digital bits instead of film emulsions—the basic information he steps through and the tenets he formulates all still apply). 

In terms of courses, take a look at Shaw Guides' Web site for an idea of what is available near you (or where you want to shoot). (People ask me all the time about what instructors they should sign up with. I have a policy of not recommending anything I haven't used—or at least had some experience with—thus, I'm not the person to ask. There must be thousands of photography instructors here in the US right now teaching classes and workshops, and I have recent experience with exactly two of them. Both are recommended, by the way. Charles Glatzer and Ralph Clevenger. Also strongly consider joining NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals), going to Photoshop World, and using their Web tutorials and other resources. If you look closely, you're going to find an almost infinite selection of resources on the craft side, in almost every form of teaching (personal, seminars, workshops, video, books, on-line tutorials, etc.). 

The art side is a different story. I've read dozens of books on photographic composition, most of which never get much beyond rule of thirds (which I don't believe in, and certainly would never posit as a "rule"). Some are of the "know it when I see it" category and are mostly just either just "here's what I like" expedititions or simple encouragement ("yes, compose!"). The funny thing is painters and sculptors don't have this problem--the classic art world has a great deal of deep discussion about both composition and style that is absolutely applicable to photography. Artists talk of line, shape, value, texture, hue, direction, perspective, proportion, balance, harmony, negative space, contrast, repetition, depth, and a host of other terms that have specific meaning and long histories of development.

But because that knowledge is mostly talked about only in BFA and MFA art programs, many photographers don't ever get exposed to it. But here's a little motivator: do you like Art Wolfe's work? He's classically trained in art, and it shows in his photography. Almost every concept I've ever heard taught in BFA programs to artists shows up in his work if you know how to look for it. Sign up for a class on drawing and you'll see what I mean. If the class is any good you'll be exposed to more useful photographic composition concepts in the first weeks than you'll get from any book on composition. If you want the short version, get Molly Bang's Picture This, How Pictures Work book [affiliate link]. One of the most important aspects comes right in the name of the first chapter "Building a Picture." Yes, build.

Want to go further? Another area of study that rarely makes it outside the University is that of Semiotics (the study of signs and symbols in communication, or as some put it "the meaning of meaning." (Technically, the study of how meaning is constructed and understood, but I like the shorthand version.) A sub-component of Semiotics is Visual Rhetoric, or describing how visual images communicate. Hey, isn't that composition? Still, my point stands, most photography-as-art books are shallow and incomplete compared to the technique side. You'll have to look harder and dig deeper to improve on the art side than you will on the craft side.

So, you need to learn both the technical side and the artistic side to be a better photographer. How about that amateur-to-professional thing?

Actually, I've been dealing with a friend who's in that strange place that occurs somewhere between "picked up a camera to just have some fun and do my thing" and "I use my camera to make money and it's now the center of my career." She's been offered an "official photographer of MUSIC EVENT X", but neither she nor the music event seems to know whether that's an official arrangement or not let alone whether she's shooting work for hire or owns the Copyright on what she shoots. In other words, she's found out that there is a world of difference between running around with a camera shooting what she likes and doing private things with those photos versus the world where money changes hands for photographs. I've actually tried to scare her into acting ("what happens if U2 is on stage and Bono gets struck by lightning and you're the only one who pressed the shutter release at that dramatic moment? If you're the 'official photographer' of the event, do they sell the photo to Time and Newsweek or do you?"). 

Frankly, the business side is the toughest aspect of professional photography, and it's gotten much, much tougher in the past decade. On the one hand a big time advertising campaign can result in photographer fees into the six figures, while on the other we have free or nearly free stock photography readily available on the net. Napster unleashed an army of people who no longer value intellectual property and have effectively devalued it. Shooting for stock is no longer something you can count on to bring in a reasonable income. Magazines have had dramatic cutbacks in photo acquisition purchases and now want you to sign contracts that give up most if not all of your rights. The "day rate" for photographers at major magazines in the US has not risen much at all in the last ten years, and is well behind the inflation rate (but you still have to bring your own equipment ;~). The emergence of digital photography has given us a new influx of "I can do that to" wedding and event photographers who will undercut your price. Moreover, digital photography has re-enegized the amateur market so there are now more people roaming the cities, wilds, parks, and events where pros used to make their money. 

Consider this: let's say that there is an amazing spontaneous event that happens somewhere. For our purposes we'll use something near and dear to my heart: a bear and wolf fight over a kill with Denali in the background. As everyone reading this should know, I go to Denali regularly; it's one of my favorite places to photograph. Now, what are the odds that I'm there when this event happens? Well, the odds that I'm even in the park are probably something like one in fourteen (that's one week in a fourteen week season). The odds that I'm at or near the place where the bear and wolf are one in a hundred (92 mile road with maybe a half mile visibility either way to see what's going on). Now, what are the odds that there's someone with the same equipment I'm carrying is at that spot at the right time? Near 100%. Indeed, there's likely to be multiple folk with the right equipment there, and the odds are that they're not professionals.

For nature and wildlife photographers, therefore, the huge presence of other photographers in the known places forces us to do one of two things: pick a place and be there all the time hoping for serendipity, or seek out wilder and less accessible places so as to come back with images others can't get. Either is costly.

Wonder why you see pros doing workshops, endorsing products, doing video training or inspirational DVDs, and other things that aren't "selling photos"? Well, that's because "selling photos" is a lot harder than it used to be, doesn't pay the bills as well as it used to, and is highly subject to fluctuations in the economy. They're looking for other ways to provide steady income so that they can do what they enjoy. The sale of photos is becoming less their primary business and more secondary. 

All isn't lost, though. What's happened is the same thing that happens to any type of business. Over time, competition increases and you have to get tighter and better to succeed. That means getting everything under control. The craft and art part should be obvious. But minimizing expenses and maximizing income is important, too. And that means not signing away your rights just to get access to something. It means not replacing your equipment just because something new came out (unless it is going to goose your income). It means discipline to stay on track and stay focused (pardon the pun). That last part is important. There's no such thing as a "general photographer" any more. Even in a particular genre there are genres now. Sports photographers now have broken into golf photographers, football photographers, etc. And it's the same in every area of photography. We've got black and white wedding photography specialists, for heaven's sake. 

But that's a good thing. It makes it clearer what you must do to succeed: you must become the best at your niche. Period. But that brings up the innevitable question: do you know what your niche is? 

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