What brings this on, you ask? Having had power but no internet for much of last week, I set about cleaning up (read: getting rid of huge amounts of stuff on) my hard drive. Since most of what’s on there is photographs, I found myself going through lots of old — and sometimes not-so-old — photos, thinning the herd. And in folder after folder, I found bird shots galore.
I like birds well enough, provided they don’t poop in my general direction.* But, really, Hitchcock has nothing on my collection. I have scores of bird shots. No, scratch that, it’s probably closer to hundreds. And the thing is, I live in northern New Jersey. Around here, you get finches, pigeons, and sea gulls, and precious little else. I’ve never seen a heron or crane perched on the Hoboken pier (well, not that kind of crane, anyway).
Now, maybe you’ve never taken a bird’s photo in your life. But don’t go getting all smug just yet. My point isn’t (just) the birds.
Here’s the thing: we all have things that we’re drawn to, for one reason or another… things that we’ll instinctively photograph if they’re placed in front of us. For some things (our families, for instance) that’s not so bad. But for others… well, how many birds, or clouds, or sunsets do we really need to photograph?
“But it’s a gorgeous sunset/bird/hood ornament/Shriner’s fez,” you protest. Maybe it is, and maybe there’s a point, sometimes, in taking photos of those things. But if we’re going to go to the trouble of making a photo of something, maybe we should take an extra split second to ask whether it’s worth making the photo. And if the question isn’t worth asking, maybe — just maybe, now — the photo isn’t worth the space it takes up on your memory card or hard drive.
The point, after all that? Well, if you’re in the habit of shooting something just because, perhaps it’s time to rethink, and to come up with a better reason than “just because.” Find a new subject, or the discipline to find something truly different within your usual or favorite subjects. We don’t necessarily need to shoot as though our lives depended on it (hopefully it never comes to that), but it’s good sometimes to shoot as though something of our creativity and artistic sensibility depends on it, instead of shooting something “because it’s there.”
*Especially a bird with an outrageous French accent pooping in your general direction.
I’ve toyed with this post on and off for a while now, and I’m finally going to bite the bullet and just write the darn thing. The short version? By whatever means you can — websites, books, college, osmosis — learn yourself some artistic and photographic theory.
Since I can’t very well just leave it at that, let me elaborate.
There are a couple of acknowledged classics in the field, such as Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but the theoretical framework for photography exists from the medium’s earliest days. Some of this theory concerns itself with ground that’s already been trodden by other arts (you can recycle the philosophical questions around esthetics, for instance, ’til you’re blue in the face), while in other cases there’s more of a concern with how the photographer finds meaning in a subject, or how the resultant photo conveys meaning (or fails to). The one unifying thread through the 150-odd years of theory that’s out there is a desire to make sense of the inner workings of photography, and it doesn’t show any signs of abating as time goes on, since the advent of digital has only added not only more photos, but also more writing about them, into the mix.
So what’s the use of all this theory, anyway? For one thing, it gives us a different lens through which to view and interpret what the medium is about, and is capable of doing. In some ways it also fulfills the same role that literary theory does for the written word. Just the same as we can shoehorn language into stuff as mundane as shopping lists and as sublime as, say, Pablo Neruda, so too can photography be approached in as quotidian or as ambitious a way as you’d like. Reading Barthes, the Adamses (Ansel and/or Robert), Rowell or Sontag will not make you a better photographer any more than watching “This Old House” will make you a better carpenter, but using either of those things as starting points and incorporating them into your practice can lead to a different (and sometimes even better) understanding both of what you’re doing, and why you do it.
In closing, however, let me add two very big caveats, in flashing neon lights if necessary: Let me add to that the thought that the role of theory and the theoretician should be similar to that of the critic and their criticism; that is to say, theory, like criticism, is only useful insofar as it furthers your understanding of something. If what you’ve read only serves to confuse you, or to muddy the waters, you have two options: come back when your practice has taken you further (to see if the theory makes more sense, or holds more water, in light of what you’ve experienced), or decide that maybe that particular bit of reasoning just doesn’t resonate for you, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Second, and even more important, don’t — and I mean do not ever — allow theory to be a substitute for practice. All that theory, all the philosophizing and philosophy and rules and regulations, has its uses, to be sure, but it also has its limitations. Theory can only explain so much, beyond which point it falls (or should fall) silent.
Interested in learning more?
http://www.photographyandtheory.com/ (Photography and Theory) is a conference, now in its second year, that covers… well, you’d probably already figured that bit out, hadn’t you. The Photograph In Theory is an article by Elizabeth Chaplin that covers not only photographic theory, but also where it can intersect with the practice of other disciplines (e.g., sociology)… and there’s quite a bit more out there, if you’re so inclined.
I feel like I should be stepping into some kind of photographic confessional typing this. Come to think of it, I wonder if anybody’s done that? They’ve converted churches into other things, why not repurpose an old camera shop as a church, with photo booths as confessionals?
Ahem. Sorry. My mind’s off on a tangent. Let’s focus. Where were we? Oh, yes. Confessions. So here’s mine: I have shot in program mode. And sometimes — quelle horreur! — in full automatic. I have even been known, albeit rarely, to utilize my camera’s Scene modes. Forgive me, for I have sinned.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why all the wailing and gnashing of teeth? And could you please warn me if you decide to move on to rending of garments, that I may avert my eyes?” Alright, probably you weren’t, but play along for a minute.
The reason is this: I recently overheard someone declaring that so-and-so “only” shoots in Program, right down to shooting a wedding that way. As in, “That simpleton doesn’t use Manual, and ergo, is not a real photographer.”
I don’t know if writers get worked up over crap like this. I’ve never heard a writer declare that someone’s work was better or worse because it was written in longhand with a quill pen, or with a manual typewriter, or on a computer running Linux. I’ve never eaten a delicious meal and thought to ask about the pots, or looked at a painting and worked myself into a lather wondering whether the brushes were made of badger hair or nylon. And yet, for some reason, I’m supposed to look at photographs as though the settings used say anything about the quality of the photo, much less the quality of the photographer? Are you flippin’ kidding me?
Don’t get me wrong; if you’re buying a camera that gives you that degree of control, stretch out. Try it. The creative possibilities that open up for you by learning how to use your aperture and your shutter speed, by being able to throw ISO and exposure compensation into the mix, are vast. You’ll be able to do things with your camera that you may not have believed possible (or that you knew were possible, but weren’t quite sure how to do). But you are not a lesser photographer if the camera’s not set to A, S, or M.
And if you’re a photographer, try this on for size: the next time you see someone shooting in a mode of which you disapprove (and yes, you really are being as silly as I made that sound), instead of passing judgment and sniggering behind your counterpart’s back, you might consider asking them why they shoot the way they do. It could be someone’s first day with the new camera, in which case you probably have something to offer them; they may be experienced, but find themselves coming up short in some situations and they’d rather not miss the shot; they may also have been shooting longer than you have, and might rather put more thought into composition than settings just then. Don’t assume, ask. Barring that, leave the judgment to yourself, lest ye be judged… and I say that secure in the knowledge that each of our portfolios — yours, mine, and anyone else’s — is the artistic equivalent of a glass house. You may show your best work, but we’ve all got plenty of stinkers buried on (or quickly deleted from) our memory cards and hard drives. And some of them were taken, no doubt, in Manual mode.
Well. I feel better now. Question is, what do you think?
At a glance, that probably sounds like the most counterintuitive advice you’ve ever gotten. After all, we have it drilled into our heads constantly that knowledge is power. And as someone who seeks to spread knowledge and understanding about photography, even if it’s only in a small way, you’d think I’d be the last person to advocate for knowing less. But let’s go beyond the title, and the negative connotations of the word, for a moment.
In its most basic sense, ignorance is simply not-knowing. That lack of knowledge isn’t something to wear like a badge of honor, but it’s a necessary part of the process, something that’s worth honoring and putting to good use. As long as it’s a point of departure, it’s a phenomenal tool for growth and something worth having around if you plan to get any better at what you’re doing, whatever that may be.
Stripped of our ignorance, we’re stuck. We have nothing new to learn, nothing new to see, and nothing new to say. Think about it: some of the worst of what we’ve done, whether they were wars, race hatred, religious extremism, blinkered political systems, or any of the other myriad forms of hurt, hatred and stupidity of which we’re capable, came about because we “knew” something. We knew better than someone, or knew we were better than them.
What do we have to show for our ignorance? Landings on the Moon and Mars, the exploration of the depths of the sea, decoding the human genome, better understanding of our own minds and bodies… we’ve accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge, the net effect of which has been to further illuminate the depths of our ignorance, which in turn spurs us on just a little bit farther.
What we “know” as artists doesn’t turn us into genocidal maniacs, obviously. But it arrests us, stunts our growth as people and as artists. Knowing something, we put it off to one side; it loses its appeal and some part of its importance. It’s barely worth our attention, much less our continued effort. So ignorance (whether we’re calling it that, or giving it some other name like Zen does with Beginner’s Mind) is vital to our progress, our growth, and our joy.
If we can forget what we know — or begin to realize all that we don’t yet know — we have something to work toward. We don’t know it all. We don’t even know all of a little bit of much of anything, come to think of it. And we should probably be glad for that, because as long as it’s true, there’ll always be something new to learn, and some new surprise, awaiting us at each stage of our learning and putting what we’ve learned into practice.
I had a conversation with one of those life coaches a few years back that’s mostly slipped my mind, save for one thing she told me that’s always stuck with me: “Your biggest strength, or any strength if you overuse it, becomes a weakness.” Pause a second and let that sink in.
I thought about it, and realized that I’m a very analytical person by nature. You need something analyzed? I’m your guy. I’m great at gaming out a scenario — every last what-if, every contingency — ’til analysis becomes paralysis. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize when I’m doing it, and to remind myself to cut it out.
I bring this up for a reason. It isn’t just our personal or character strengths that can inadvertently trip us up. When you try something creative, it’s really easy to find your strengths and ride them ’til the wheels fall off. Photographers aren’t immune to this, so it’s probably a good idea for us to step back, take a look at our work, and figure out what it is we do really well so we don’t do too much of it.
For starters, it’s not just subject matter that starts to get repetitive. It’s also the ways in which we shoot what we shoot. If you’re an architectural shooter, you start to look for the same shapes and patterns, or relying on the same kind of lighting; if you’re a portraitist, it might mean relying on a set of poses that you know could flatter Quasimodo; if you do weddings, it can mean sticking to the same lighting setups and situations that’ve always worked for you.
To be clear, there’s a reason that people rely on formulas. Sometimes — especially when time is tight, or the results are critical — any artist has to know they’ve got things in the old kit bag that they can pull out at will, and that will almost certainly be effective. Once those things are done, they’ll use the time left for a bit of experimentation. So there’s a time and a place for formula, for going from strength to strength and playing it safe. Sometimes, we just need the safety net.
But let’s be just as clear on something else. Sometimes we need to forget the net. We can’t, obviously, just forget or unlearn all that we know (and it wouldn’t be a good idea even if we could). But we can, and sometimes must, at least set it off to one side for a bit. Yes, it’s a challenging, and sometimes even uncomfortable, way of working. However, the skills and ways of seeing that you pick up when you try something new — even if it’s not your usual subject matter or way of doing things — aren’t just about your new subject or the skills that go with it. Those things spill over even into your “usual,” giving you greater options and new ways of doing the same old stuff in a way that it doesn’t have to be the same old same old.
What would you like to do to shake up your photography? What would you like to strengthen, and what kinds of situations or subjects might help get you there?
Less than a week into 10,000/365, I’ve come to realize something that I think was always somewhere in the back of my mind, but which is becoming more and more a part of my photographic practice. For one thing, I tend to shoot without any ideas in mind, or any particular agenda. Setting myself a series of small projects as part of a much larger project has been helpful to keep me shooting, and to see opportunities in places I didn’t before.
There’s another side to that, one that can end up becoming a downside if you’re not careful. You think your shoot through; you have an idea of what you’d like to get, and how you’d like it to look. All well and good, because all you have to do now is proceed to make the photos that you set out to make, right?
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it will work that way. You will have planned well enough, and covered your bases well enough, that no matter what the day throws your way, you will be ready for it. But those days will, in the main, be the exception, unless your expectations or planning are such that you really don’t care what you get, so long as you get something.*
Let me give you an example. I thought out what I wanted to do for the third day’s assignment (the view from your window). I knew where my shot would be, the lens that I would need to get the shot I envisioned, and even what times of day would put my subject in the best light. I was, in other words, ready.
And then the subject wasn’t there. Rather than declaring the day ruined and packing the camera, I had a plan “B”, where I’d also decided on the kind of shot I wanted, the framing, the shutter speed, the lens… And then that didn’t quite work out, either. The idea was to use the shapes of my street’s brick crosswalks as a strong compositional element, and to have the lights of turning cars trace abstract forms over the crosswalk, neatly bisecting the segment I’d chosen.
Only that didn’t work, either, since no matter how I exposed, I couldn’t get the crosswalk to show properly while also catching the lights the way I wanted them. Time for Plan C, which involved the same elements from Plan B, but with a different compositional focus; this time I’d play entirely with the car lights, and make those the center of attention.
The photos that I made as a result weren’t anything like I’d envisioned, but they got made nonetheless. It’s easy to be frustrated when you plan something and it doesn’t go according to plan; we know what we want from our photos, and also what we expect from ourselves. However, I’d caution against letting the frustration be the end of it; let it, instead, be a starting point. Just as we talked last week about experimentation, a good part of photography involves being able to adapt. Sometimes that means changing your camera settings in a different light, seeing your subject in a new light, or realizing that what you had in mind isn’t working, so it’s time to get something new in mind.
*Not, as I’ve mentioned before, that there’s anything wrong with that.
Every once in a while, I’ll go over a day’s worth of shots (or will be looking over someone’s shoulder while they’re browsing theirs), and one or the other of us will comment that a shot was “lucky.” I got to thinking about this. What role does luck play in all of it, if any?
I hesitate to chalk it up to skill, after all. I mean, if you’re Joe McNally or Moose Peterson or whomever, then yeah, you’ve got oodles of skill and experience behind you. I’m none of those individuals, however, so I don’t have quite the same reservoir of skill and/or experience to draw from. So some shots clearly are luck, because they’re the convergence of just the right time, place, and subject, and you, or me, or even Joe McNally being there (I’m sure even he gets the occasional lucky shot).
So if it’s not luck, and it’s not skill, what is it exactly? Woody Allen once said* that half of life is showing up. Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee) said** something similar: “f/8 and be there.” So. Be there, and have your camera. The rest, at least in theory, will take care of itself. All the luck in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans if you don’t have your camera, though, so make sure you have it.***
Since I like to give examples, have a look at my neighborhood Jack Sparrow. I’ve seen this guy at least half a dozen times in the last year, and each one of those times, I haven’t had my camera. Can’t blame him. He was there, after all, dressed to the nines and being his photogenic self. I was there, too. But my camera’s not his responsibility, so missing the shot those other several times I can’t blame on anybody but me.
Any of those other times could’ve been a lucky shot, but wasn’t. It’s the preparedness — having your camera, knowing how to use it, and being ready to use it — that separates the lucky shots from the fish stories, the missed stuff and all that we wish we could’ve gotten but didn’t. There’s some truth in the adage that we make our own luck, but if we don’t have what we need to capitalize on it, it goes to waste.
*At least I’m pretty sure it was Woody Allen. I think from now on, I may just attribute everything to Abraham Lincoln, just on general principle. Sooner or later, I’m bound to hit on something he actually said.
**Yes, I’m sure this time.
***Why don’t we attribute this one to Yogi Berra while we’re at it? The “hill of beans” bit at least sounds in character.
If you’re a frequent reader of this blog (or if you’re here for the first time and just reasonably observant), you’ll notice that there’s no photo where I’d normally put one in this post. It’s not by oversight that there’s no photo, and it isn’t as though I don’t have a bunch just laying around. I bring this up, in part, so you don’t think it was an oversight on my part.
There’s actually a photo I would’ve liked to use. It would’ve been… well, not perfect (I don’t do perfect, sometimes to my chagrin). But at least competent, and I would, I’m sure, have found some lesson that I could’ve drawn from it and shared with you. It would’ve featured some interesting patterns, colors, or textures, or some particularly comely side-lighting, or some animal or human doing something particularly funny, odd, adorable or perplexing. Or maybe it wouldn’t have been all that competent — a mess of blown highlights, or a masterpiece of underexposure, or a composition that doesn’t quite work no matter how much I try to rescue it through postprocessing — but it would, at least, have been worth something as a snapshot… something that had sentimental value to me, if nobody else, because this place, or time, or person, meant something to me.
I have — or rather, I don’t have — a lot of those photos. It’s a catalog of missed opportunities, failures and frustrations. It’s the faded and peeling sign by the muffler shop that I passed by hundreds of times, knowing I really should go back there one day with my camera, only to find that it’d been painted over the next time I went past. There’ve been skies and sunsets, street scenes and parties, events of historical importance and events so trivial that even the people involved probably don’t remember much about them now…
It’s one of the reasons that I always encourage people to have a camera. ‘Cause, hey, you just never know. Some things — some scenes, some shots, some times — you only get but one shot. Do the best you can in the short time you’ve got. You, or it, or they may not pass this way again. Or you might, but something — a painted sign, the way the light falls just so, a fleeting expression, or even just that spark in you that told you that this was the time, this was precisely the right angle, the right photo — might have changed in some small but decisive way that makes that shot impossible the next time out.
And it’s also why I’ve taken so many pictures of you, and you, and you (the whole lot of you, some of whom may see this, others not, know who you are). Times change, we change. And maybe I didn’t always get your good side, or caught you with a goofy look on your face, or maybe that’s not the most flattering thing in your wardrobe. It’s one thing — and a silly thing, at that — to worry about missing a sign or a bird here and there. But the day will come, hopefully a lot farther off than not but probably sooner than either of us or any of us would like, that those pictures that you or I have taken may be all that one of us has left of the other, so I hope you don’t mind too much.
And if you’ve read this far, whoever you may be, I hope you don’t mind terribly either, and that you’ll take this one small bit of advice: Get the photo now. Sometimes that imperfect timing, that imperfect composition, and all those imperfect photos of all the things and people we love for all their imperfections, is the best we can hope for from this imperfect life we’ve got.
Chances are, only their mother called them Leonard, Arthur, Julius or Herbert. To the rest of us, they’ve always been the Marx Brothers. The brothers’ schtick had been refined by years of live work in vaudeville and on Broadway before they ever graced the silver screen, and that experience shows through in their movies’ fast-and-loose, anarchic spirit. It takes a lot of discipline to hone your timing to a point where things can look as though they might fly apart at any minute and yet be so incredibly tight; what looked so spontaneous was, in fact, scripted, repeatedly rehearsed, and — in the case of the earlier films, like The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers — worked out on stage in endless variations.
Part of the Marx Brothers’ appeal and longevity comes from the personae adopted by the three best-known brothers, based on ethnic stereotypes that were popular on stage and screen at the time (Herbert/Zeppo was the group’s straight man, a distinction he sometimes shared with Margaret Dumont until his departure). Leonard, better known as Chico,* was a wisecracking “Italian” pianist, while Adolph (later Arthur, still later Harpo, for obvious reasons) played a supposedly “Irish” type (though generally mute, in any case) and the wisecracking, guitar-playing Julius — that’s Groucho to you — was as likely to play something vaguely German or Dutch, at least until World War I era anti-German sentiment lead him to adapt something broadly Yiddish.
On the one hand, the movies are as effective as they are because the four (or later, three) cohere so well as a unit. This is especially apparent in scenes like A Night At The Opera‘s famous stateroom scene, or a particularly memorable bit from Horse Feathers that… well, watch it, and you’ll see what I mean. On the other hand, there are equally important and even influential scenes that rely on two of the brothers in tandem (Chico and Harpo’s “Tutsi Fruitsi ice cream” interlude, or Harpo and Groucho’s mirror sequence that would later be re-created on “I Love Lucy.” The brothers would also have set pieces in the films that allowed them to shine as individuals, whether they were musical numbers, or some of Groucho’s more memorable (and nonsensical) monologues.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with Magnum Photos, or with photography at all. I’ll get to that part in a bit. Meantime, let’s stop to consider Magnum. Magnum Photos was founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, and had as its founding members David Seymour, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and William Vandivert.*** From the agency’s earliest days, its photographers have been a diverse lot, in terms not only of their nationalities but also their distinct photographic approaches and voices. Capa was a war photographer, Cartier-Bresson a street photographer, and subsequent members have been a mix of photojournalists, documentarians, travel photographers… well, you get the picture.
For all the differences in their respective approaches, however, there are still unifying threads to be found among the hundreds of thousands of Magnum images. There’s an innate curiosity, a unique visual sense, and a consistent commitment to quality that means that there’s a house ethic, if not a house esthetic. It’s those things that unite the work of photographers like Franck, Parr, Haas and Arnold, despite their surface dissimilarities. It’s why the Magnum name endures, and it’s also what’s made the rare collaborations among Magnum members so interesting.
The members of Magnum greatly outnumber the Marx Brothers, and I don’t think they’ve been influenced by Vaudeville (I don’t think that Elliot Erwitt is given to sporting a greasepaint mustache), but I’d still argue that there are important similarities between the two. Collective work doesn’t necessarily have to mean the members of the group submitting to some kind of “house style.”
Sometimes, whether you’re part of a photo collective, an agency, a one-off collaboration, or just (in Groucho’s memorable words) one of “four nice Jewish boys trying to be funny,” a sense of common purpose — even if it’s arrived at in a cacophony of voices — is just as important as a sense of common style. The works of these two entities, the Marxes and Magnum, are the result of what each person brings to the table as an individual. What makes it all gel is that the overriding concern isn’t that everyone should sound, or look, alike; rather, it’s a matter of respecting the process, honoring the work, and allowing each to shine so that all can shine.
As with seemingly everything else, there’s a Wikipedia entry on the Marx Brothers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx_Brothers). You can also find a proliferation of fan sites, such as http://www.marx-brothers.org/ and http://www.marxbrothers.nu/ (Google will help you locate plenty more). When it comes to film, there’s The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection**, which anthologizes their earlier films (from 1929’s The Cocoanuts through their 1933 masterpiece Duck Soup), and an anthology of their later work, titled The Marx Brothers Collection**, which anthologizes their work at Warner Brothers. Of the latter set, A Night at the Opera (1935) is the unquestionable highlight. Given that their work after that film fell off dramatically in terms of quality (though there’d be moments of genius in each of the later films), you could just as easily pick up “Opera” by itself in tandem with the first collection and have all the essentials. In print, meanwhile, there are a few excellent options. Glen Mitchell’s The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia** was recently reissued and is a handy reference for all things Marx. Simon Louvish’s Monkey Business** is a good biography of the brothers as a troupe, while Stefan Kanfer’s Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx** is an excellent study of the most famous Marx Brother.
When it comes to Magnum, there are literally hundreds of options. After all, we’re dealing with an agency that’s employed some of the best (and best-known) photographers in the world over the course of its history. On the web, their own site (http://www.magnumphotos.com/) is the best starting point; from there, it’s relatively easy to zero in on photographers whose work you find particularly interesting. In terms of books, there are two recent standouts on the agency as a whole (you can certainly find plenty more if the mood strikes). Magnum Magnum,** by Brigitte Lardinois, is a fairly comprehensive overview of work from the agency’s entire history, while In Our Time: The World As Seen by Magnum Photographers** (William Manchester et. al.) actually picks up some time before the agency’s founding.
*Actually pronounced “Chick-o,” in case you were wondering.
***Calling HCB, Seymour and Rodger founding members gets into a bit of a gray area, since none of them were present at the initial meeting.
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Every once in a while, I’ll read over what I’ve written on this site and realize that my average post leaves out about as much as it leaves in. Sometimes, in fact, it leaves out much, much more. There are a few reasons for this, not least the fact that I’m covering something in blog form that has, often as not, been covered in a much longer article, a chapter of a book, or sustains a book all on its own.
More importantly, however, there’s the process itself. I think sometimes that it’s important to leave stuff out. For one thing, I don’t think there’s a single, objective way to shoot any given photo. Each step in the process — setting up the shot, choosing your particular combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed, whether or not to use flash, using a filter (or not) — can be taken any number of ways, some of which will expose your photo identically, but others of which will lead to drastically different outcomes.
I could probably give photographic “recipes,” along with very specific steps to arrive at that specific photo, but what use is that? I don’t even like taking the same photo over and over again, and I’m not sure that I’m doing you or anyone else any favors by showing you how to do that one thing. When it comes to my own learning, I’ve sometimes lucked out and found exactly what I needed in a book, on a website, or at the elbow of another photographer. Sometimes, though, I’ve been just as lucky to find out just by trial and error. Lots of trial, and — God knows — plenty of error.
I can hear the question coming, if it hasn’t already. Okay, your point?
Here it is. Experiment. Lots. Experiment with subjects, trying out as many different things as you can think of. Experiment with the rules, to see how they work and what happens when you break them. Experiment with your gear, seeing if you can find its limits and yours, and whether you can push just a little bit further.
Experimenting means that your process becomes your own. It also means that what results from your process won’t be mine, won’t be your friend’s, or that guy at your camera club who won’t stop yapping about his D4 and all his 1.4 glass, and that’s okay. It’ll be something that’s uniquely yours, which, at the end of the day, is rather the point of this whole thing.