Pictures — How to Make Them (Intro)
Note: My new book, Pictures — How to Make Them will be available on a chapter-by-chapter basis on iTunes. Below is the introduction to the book. Chapter One is now available.
This book, Pictures — How to Make Them, looks to explain the process needed to create lasting images with a camera. To do so, I will address the subject in a general manner and then break it down into it’s particulars. However, this won’t happen linearly. Which means at times I’ll be talking about the whole and other times I’ll be talking about the little parts that make up the whole, but I’ll do this in no particular order. So good luck with that.
This approach might sound a bit haphazard, but I believe it’s the only way to fully explore and explain the creative process.
I’ve been a photographer since the age of sixteen. This is how I’ve earned a living since I was eighteen. During that time I’ve made a couple of nice photographs and committed every possible photographic mistake. And yes, you’d be right in assuming that I’ve never had a real job.
At sixteen I didn’t know much about anything, let alone photography. Like every young photographer, I figured all I needed was better gear, a little more practice, and a lucky break or two. I had no doubt that if I was given these things, I would immediately be serving up world-class images from which fame and fortune would soon flow.
Like I said, I knew nothing. I was the Jon Snow of photography.
It’s easy to call oneself a photographer. Heck, in these multi-slash days (as in, I’m a model/actor/writer and photographer) it’s almost mandatory. Photographer is the easiest of all slashes. With an iPhone and an Instagram account, you already have everything you need.
I suppose if you’re good or quirky looking enough, becoming a model might be easy too, but even then it’s not like those Marlboro Reds are going to smoke themselves.
Making an acceptable photograph is easier than it’s ever been. Cameras are simple to use. They focus themselves. They automatically make the technical choices that many of us don’t understand. They’ve only got one conveniently located button you need to push, not the twenty-six or so I’m currently dealing with as a writer. Best (or worst) of all, getting paid as a photographer today depends more on who you know, or how recognized you are for the other slashes in your profile, than what you can do with a camera. If tomorrow Giga Hadid decides to move to the other side of the camera, she’ll make more shooting her first gig then most photographers will bill in a year.
And that’s okay. The woman has needs. Relax. Gigi can’t be everywhere. There will still be plenty of work for you.
My parents went from being school teachers to real estate brokers. One career change for an entire life, that was it. The slash culture isn’t like that, it’s fluid. They say young folks today are likely to have five or six career changes throughout their lives. Which means you too could find yourself both in front of and behind the camera. Along with the fun stuff, you’re going to have to work the keyboard as well. Everyone is a multi-talented creative today, and to financially survive you’ll need to make some money doing all the expert(y) things you claim to be able to do.
I’m a slash too. I still make money as a photographer, but I also write, publish (both words and pictures), produce films, make prints and do whatever else that comes my way. This means that I’m also a marketer, a distributor and something else that sounds better than a flack. A generation ago, I’d have just be a photographer and all those other jobs would have been done by other professionals. That’s no longer the case. Just as I make most of my own prints, the fine printmaker covers her own photography needs. She’s not going to hire me to make pictures of her business. She does her own marketing, her own web design. She’s got just as many slashes as I do.
Steady my friend, there’s still hope.
Making a photograph that stands the test of time. An image that fully captures what you are trying to say, but also has a little magic to it that you can’t fully articulate? That’s tough. That’s kind of like art. The fine printmaker probably doesn’t need a photograph like that. A jewelry designer (for example), someone trying to sell a high dollar piece to an exclusive clientele, just might. In marketing their jewelry (and themselves) they need to create a facade or capture a mood that will appeal to people who can afford that kind of product. Making images which can do this usually requires outside help.
That, or maybe my lifelong quest to become the best photographer I can possible be was a total waste of time. At this point, we just don’t know.
This I do know, in the future, I’ll need to hire a real designer (again). My design skills only go so far. I won’t hire one for the digital version of this book (or a proofreader), but if I ever take it to print I certainly will. In the same vein, I’m not going to hire the fine printmaker to make a print I can do myself, but if I need to make a wall size print, or output to a medium I’m unfamiliar with, you bet I will.
So maybe it’s more accurate to say that we’re now all semi-pros. We can do a number of things well, while at the same time having above-average skills in others. In other words, we can handle a leaky faucet, but are smart enough to call a real plumber when the water in the basement rises above our ankles.
Most “professional” photographers are consistent more than anything else. If they’re shooting a simple head shot, it’s going to be good. If a client has a specific need, they can produce a photograph that meets that need. Their image files are delivered on time. They have technical and professional skills that don’t create more work for the people who hire them. They don’t normally get rattled. In short, they know that one needs to shut the water off before they try to fix the sink.
The person who is primarily a photographer can consistently deliver an image that the multi-slash can only deliver every third time. Maybe the slash needs two days to produce the desired image when there’s only a budget for six hours. Who knows? You get what I’m saying. We’ve all have our strengths and weaknesses.
That’s why the first goal of this book is to share my knowledge to help you become a more consistent photographer. Lack of consistency, the fear that a photographer can’t deliver a usable image on time or on budget is one of the biggest concerns clients face when hiring a photographer. The more consistent you are, the more likely you are to win the job and have the photographer part of your resume contribute more to your bottomline.
Another one of my goals is to help you become a more professional photographer. In our modern economy, you probably know how to send an invoice, but do you know how to bid a job? Do you know why photographers license images instead of selling them? Being smart about the business side of your photography is crucial to your survival. Knowing your costs and how much you should be charging clients makes both you and the creative market you depend on stronger.
The final goal of this book is to help you become the best photographer that you can possibly be. This is the fun part. This is where definitive answers are hard to come by. This is where you’ll learn the important things, the “art” and philosophical things that don’t have anything to do with making money. Consistency and professionalism are practical pursuits. These skills will serve you well. However, being the best you can be, although a worthy and honorable pursuit, is an impractical goal that usually doesn’t pencil out. You’ve got to want it.
Being a consistent or professional photographer doesn’t mean you’re a good photographer. It just means that you’re more likely to be a paid photographer. Being the best photographer you can be is about desire, not money.
People often confuse talent with luck. A photographer is considered lucky if they make a few great photos over a lifetime. Photographers themselves are quick to spread the lucky narrative, but there’s really not a whole lot of luck involved (except when there is). If it was only luck, how do you explain the fact that some photographers seem to be so much luckier than others?
Don’t get me wrong, we all have different gifts, and some people have been gifted with an extraordinary photographic “eye”. This means that seeing wonderful images comes easily to them, but there’s more to it when it comes to being a good photographer. Seeing is one thing, making is another.
Making great pictures and getting the most out of your eye takes work. You need to learn the technical side of things to get the most out of your camera and you also need to train and work your eye to make it as strong as possible. This means that both using a camera, and seeing are skills that can be taught and learned, and skills can be improved.
Being born with a great eye might give you a head start, but using that eye to make good pictures depends entirely on how hard and smart you work.
The “luck” enjoyed by great photographers is really a skill that they’ve perfected.
So yeah, this book will use focused study to develop your photographic eye.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked mainly as a journalist. I’ve photographed pretty much everything. The rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, good times and bad. My work has been widely published.
Since 1985, I’ve been a member of Contact Press Images.
I’ve won a few awards, but not half as many as I think I should have.
I’ve been blessed, or cursed as the saying goes, to have lived through and witnessed some interesting times.
On occasion, my photographs have slipped through the gate which separates craft from art. At least in the sense that they’ve given my audience a glimpse of what it means to be human.
If I had to define what I do, I’d call it “reportage photographique”, which is French for, “I saw this, I found it interesting, I think you might find it interesting too”. Which is why we use the French.
At it’s heart, photography is about jumping in and experiencing life (even if you’re looking through a viewfinder as you do so). If this is something that interests you, we should talk. Well, first you read, then maybe we’ll talk later. Still, if you’ve got a healthy level of curiosity, and are passionate about becoming a better photographer, then this is the book for you.
If you just want to be a more consistent and professional photographer, then this is the book for you as well. One of the nice thing about offering this book as a series is that you can pick and choose for yourself what chapters you’re interested in reading.
I’ve spent about forty years working to become the best photographer I can be. I believe the lessons I’ve learned can help you to become a better photographer. Not that I’m offering any shortcuts or easy fixes. That would be a little creepy, arrogant and an outright lie. Your path is yours alone. I think you’ll find some of what I share helpful in regard to your own personal growth. Think of this as more like a series of road signs along your journey, but be warned, there will be no cheerful voice announcing “You have arrived” at the end of this book.
I’ll use real world examples and personal stories to share how I learned to see and how I approach my work. I’ll share the good habits I’ve developed over the years to help me find pictures (often hiding in plain sight). I’ll help you to refine your eye, without destroying what’s unique about it.
I believe there are four key ways that photographers become better.
First — Photographers become better by studying other photographer’s and their work. Photographers who have come before you have already solved many of the problems you’re facing today. Sadly, much of this knowledge has been lost, forgotten, or simply overlooked. In the following pages I’ll share my thoughts on photographers you should study to help improve your own work.
Second — Photography is a visual art, but it’s learned largely through oral tradition. Most of us are mentor poor these days. The photographic herd has left their past watering-holes and migrated to a digital pasture. In doing so, we’ve lost much of our institutional knowledge. We no longer sit down together and talk. Which is ironic because (theoretically at least) it’s much easier to communicate with others today. We don’t absorb knowledge like we should. Instead we get caught up in undue (largely anonymous) criticism, or worse, undue praise. I’ll try to be a good mentor through the pages of this book. I’ll occasionally bust chops and I’ll give praise when it’s called for. It is not a substitute for spending five hours printing in a darkroom with a person, but really, nothing is.
Third — Photographers become better by having the “why” explained to them. Like, why did you choose to stand here? Why are you using that lens? Why are you shooting at that iso? There are reasons behind these whys. Understanding those reasons is crucial when it comes to becoming a better photographer, developing your personal vision and capturing images which support your vision.
Fourth — Practice makes perfect. Duh. Not that we’re striving to be perfect. Perfect, is the enemy of great, but now I’m getting sidetracked. That’s an entirely different conversation that I promise to address later in this book. Shooting pictures as often as you can is crucial to becoming a better photographer. Yeah, not exactly a revelation, but like so many things there’s much more to it than that.
I absolutely love walking around with a camera making pictures. Pictures of nothing. Pictures of people, shadows, trees, all three mixed together… it doesn’t matter. But that doesn’t mean I do it everyday, or even as often as I should. Sometimes I’m busy, other times I’m just lazy.
For me, making pictures is a joyful experience. The problem is, it’s not like the joy that comes from vegging out and eating popcorn in front of the TV. The joy I’m talking about comes with the satisfaction of working hard to become better. I suppose I could just give in, snap away and let the camera do the work, but snapping away without thinking doesn’t help me to become a better photographer. There’s also no satisfaction in making a good picture by accident. Practice only helps when you’re fully engaged. You’ve got to be there 100% and that’s exhausting.
How hard you practice is completely on you. Nobody can force you to go at 100%. My hope is that you’ll find some inspiration in this book that will help you, maybe inspire or motivate you, to get the most out of your practice time. Getting a little direction from a book like this is a huge advantage in that regard.
When I started out everything I read seemed to pull me in a different direction. It was frustrating because I couldn’t seem to find a common denominator shared by the different photographic disciplines. The high school portrait photographer worked in a studio and used lights, but they didn’t have much in common with the fashion photographer, who could have set up shop in the exact same space. Reading books about different kinds of photography gave me contradictory information. The specific techniques and the goals of the photographers working in different genres didn’t sync up. There was very little common ground.
It’s easy to codify the rules when your talking about a specific type of photographer. Landscape, sports, wildlife, they all have their different rules. Unfortunately, these rules typically don’t lead to the making of good pictures. In fact, the opposite is more likely.
Normally these rules will teach you how to make pictures that are acceptable to the standards established within a specific genre. There’s a certain comfort given to the individual photographer who is nestled inside these artificial boundaries. That’s why photographers are often quick to identify themselves as a member of a certain group.
Self -categorizing is a popular practice among photographers, and it’s highly recommended within the photographic community. Supposedly it helps a person to stand-out in a crowded marketplace. To me, pigeonholing oneself is never a good idea, and letting others pigeonhole you is even worse.
Sure, it may simplify the conversation, but it also stifles any hope of innovation and turns original thoughts and ideas into a bad thing.
I hate it when people ask me what kind of photographer I am. Honestly, I’d like to think a good one and would be happy with that, but the jury is still out.
True, I’m better at working in some genres than others. Magazine editors, God bless them, have tagged me with any number of prefixes to help them understand me and how I might be useful to them. I’ve been called a sports, news, conflict, color, black & white, political, photojournalists, essayist, and difficult photographer throughout my career. I’ve never been labeled a portrait or fashion photographer, though I’ve been hired to do both.
I don’t know the difference between a documentary photographer and a photojournalists.
I don’t know exactly what makes one a travel photographer. How far do you have to travel? Are you a travel photographer if you happen to live in the place where you’re shooting? Is there such a thing as a local travel photographer?
If a documentary photographer likes to shoot backlit, does that make them a lifestyle photographer?
To me, it doesn’t matter what I’m shooting. My goal is to try to make the best picture I can. Something that I can be proud of, maybe hang on a wall some day. I figure if you’re always aiming to do your best, think and work hard, you’ll make some good pictures and if you’re lucky one of those good pictures might turn out to be great.
Which brings up the uncomfortable question of what makes a good or great image. These are subjective terms that everyone defines differently. It’s silly to even try and define them, so of course I will.
Good is when you meet your expectations and exceeds the viewer’s (whether that’s a client, a gallery goer or someone browsing through your Instagram feed). A good image fully realizes your vision. A good image has some staying power. A good image will be better in thirty years and might someday even become great.
A great image might not be a good one. Chances are the viewer might not even like it. A great image has some real magic about it that you couldn’t have foreseen, planned or controlled. A great image is not perfect, but any flaws it has make it stronger, not weaker. Great images are given, not made.
Good, great, whatever… quid est veritas? It’s crazy to even think about, unless you’re goal is to become as good as you can possibly be.
When you throw subjective terms into the mix, you really need to have a conversation with a person to figure out what you’re both trying to say. That’s why most photography books are about lighting, posing or how to get the most out of a certain piece of gear or software. It’s much easier to talk about that kind of stuff.
Mike Disfarmer was a Arkansas portrait photographer. He made his living shooting pictures of his neighbors. The work he produced has more in common with that of Irving Penn than the portrait photographer working in your neighborhood today. The point being, when it comes to talking about photography (or any art) good or great is the only way to approach it. Maybe it’s the lasting stigma of being a scientific/mechanical process that has kept most photography discussions in the hobby zone, where technique, subject matter, and the size of one’s sensor are more important than what the photographer is trying to communicate.
That’s not to say that technique isn’t crucial to the process. From what I’ve read Disfarmer was a freak when it came to proper lighting and exposure. That’s what makes talking about photography so fascinating!
Photography, the scientific art, is a walking contradiction. Nothing is fixed in stone (let alone on paper). A great image can be made by an amateur photographer while the most skilled and hard working photographer can go a lifetime without making a single one.
How cool is that? That’s a conversation I’m excited to have.
So welcome aboard. I hope you enjoy the ride.
Thank you for reading. The first chapter is now available here on iTunes.