Important Lessons in Photography

What are some important lessons to learn in photography?

I have been contemplating this question since I started photography as a hobby. I don’t claim to be an exceptional talent or an authority in photography. What I want to highlight are key lessons I’ve learned over the years and synthesized into this post. This won’t be about technique, editing, tips or tricks, there are plenty of resources out there that already cover that.

When I first started out in photography I had it in my mind that learning about the camera, composition, and exposure were the necessary ingredients to be “good” at the art of photography. Countless hours were spent poring over resources and going out to shoot for that end.

After picking up the basic skills I began experimenting and pushing my boundaries with a 365 photography challenge, where I posted a “good” photo a day for a year. I was still obsessed with capturing sharp, well coloured, and well composed photos. To me the perfection of the technical aspects would allow me to get better at the art of photography.

There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of technical proficiency in photography, after all digital art is a fluid mix of technical and artistic skill. However, there are elements that reside outside of the immediate creation of photography that can significantly influence and improve your photography.

These elements are:

  1. Seeing
  2. Storytelling
  3. Emotion

You may be thinking these are vague terms that are difficult to apply to photography but it is much simpler to than you think. What I am proposing are thought exercises that will aid in improving your photography.


Seeing
Too often I see photographs being taken at random, as if the process of seeing did not occur before the shutter was pressed, leading to meaningless photographs (both to yourself and to your audience). Before snapping away haphazardly for the sake of it, stop and look, process and think through what you are about to photograph. Does the photo have any meaning to you, to your audience? As you start answering these questions for yourself you will find (like me) that many of the photographs you took in the past were for naught. You will be reflecting and learning from your mistakes as you turn a critical eye over your photos.

I am firm believer in learning through feedback and failure. Your mistakes or ignorance will help inform your photography as you open your eyes and try to understand all the components required for taking a photo.

Storytelling
A natural progression in the process of seeing or analyzing is storytelling. Without making sweeping generalizations, storytelling is a very important part of how we engage with each other. Think of the last time you heard, read or saw a great story, what sort of feelings did you have? You as a photographer are also a storyteller, so you should also strive to tell some great stories.

As they say “a photography is worth a thousand words”, this is entirely not the case if there isn’t any story to your photographs. Along with understanding the scene, you need to also think about the story that is unfolding and your perspective. The beauty of photography is it’s ability to freeze time into moments but if you freeze a moment with no story was it worth it?

Emotion
In the quest to reduce thoughtless photography I propose another element that should be carefully considered while creating images, emotion. Regardless of the subject matter that you are trying to photograph, capturing the essence of that subject is paramount. Emotion is a feeling you give to the audience as well as doing the subject justice.

Let me give you an example, when you photograph a landscape at golden hour you ideally want to capture the warm glow of the sun bouncing off the environment (amongst other things). This can invoke feelings of warmth, beauty, calmness and a sense of relaxation. I am over simplifying the actual photo creating process, however the goal is to not only photograph the scene in front of you but to capture the emotions so that you can relay it to your audience and give them the same feelings you experienced while photographing.

Now let us to put this all together.

When you see a scene that you want to capture, begin by exploring and analyzing it so you actually “see” the scene and understand it. Then figure out what the story is you are trying to tell, and while you are determining the story make sure you are also able to bring a little piece of the emotions in the scene along with you. Again, an oversimplification, but creating a photograph should be much more than snapping away without any thought.