What Kind of Photographer Are You?

What kinda photographer shoots stuff like this, anyway?

At some point, you’ll find it useful to decide just what kind of photographer you are. Are you serious or casual? Plan on going professional, or content to remain an amateur? You’ve got money to burn, or you want/need to keep it on the cheap? Just as importantly, what do you want to shoot? Kids? Animals? Sports? Cars? Landscapes? Or do you have not even the remotest idea what kind of photographer you are?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions (far be it from me, the one-time English major…). They’re actually important for a number of reasons.

Not least of these is equipment. The requirements, usually in lenses, but sometimes also in bodies and accessories, will be much different for someone in the habit of shooting architecture than they’d be for someone who treks to the track every weekend for shots of the ponies or the stock cars.

But of course, gear only gets you so far. You’ll also need to do a fair amount of study and training. If you plan on being self-taught, your answers to these questions might guide you to one book or website over another; if you’re planning on learning from a human being, those same answers will guide you to taking certain types of classes, or in finding a photographer to shadow or take on as a mentor.

And even once you’ve got your gear and a fair amount of training/experience under your belt, you’re not done yet. There’s still the matter of developing your style. We’ll be taking up some tips on doing just that in the days ahead, but bear in mind that part of how we arrive at our own style, often as not, is by observing others who do what we’d like to be doing, and learning from them. So if you fancy yourself a fashion photographer, you might start with Herb Ritts; a street photographer, Gary Winograd; a photojournalist, Sebastiao Salgado. Others’ work can be an inspiration, a point of departure, or a series of object lessons in what we do or don’t want out of our photography.

Incidentally, if you’re not sure what kind of photographer you are or would like to be, or if you feel like assigning yourself a “category” is somehow pigeonholing yourself, know that that’s okay too. Just be aware that even being a Jack or Jill of all trades carries with it its own set of requirements, and sometimes even bigger challenges; you probably won’t be able to get away with having only one lens in your kit, for instance, and you may find it a bit more of a challenge figuring out from whom to learn. On the other hand, your options are limitless, since you’re free to just wander from day to day, pointing your camera wherever your eye leads you.

Regardless of where you fall on any of these criteria – and really, it’s got to be a plural, since all the different things we “are” as photographers end up looking like a really complicated Venn diagram with many, many points of intersection – don’t feel as though you need to explain, much less justify, it to anyone. This is for you, and you alone. Think of it as something that’s just one more thing in your mental toolkit. Your choices don’t make you a better photographer than the next person, but neither do they diminish you.

For a humorous take on this, check out Gordon Lewis’ What Type of Photographer Are You? on Shutterfinger (and check out the rest of his blog while you’re there… you’ll thank me later).

And by way of a postscript, what kind of photographer are you?

Rule 6: Tame Your Inner Critic

These flowers weren't shot out of a cannon, just through one.

If you take your photography even remotely seriously – and I hope you do – it’s likely you want to do it well. It’s also likely that you’re convinced that your photography, or at least a fair amount of it, is crap. This is true of many photographers I know (myself included).

In small doses, believe it or not, that can actually be a constructive thing. There are few things worse for your craft than assuming you’ve got it licked. Room for improvement? Pah! That’s for rank amateurs, not an artiste like mysel—oh, cut that out, already. However, it’s equally counterproductive to assume that you’re as good as you’re ever going to get and that, let’s face it, that just ain’t all that good.

That inner voice, your inner critic, when he or she is constructive, can be very useful. After all, that can be who keeps us from becoming complacent about our craft, and keeps us striving day after day to question the why and how of what we do. That internal monologue (or dialogue, if you’re given to replying to yourself) can motivate you, and keep you going on those days you’d rather just say the hell with it.

However, he or she isn’t always constructive. There are times we, and our inner critic, can be our own worst enemy. We find ourselves telling ourselves that our work is awful, which is bad enough; what’s worse is when we think that a bad shoot or a bad day is somehow reflective of who we are as people. At that point, your inner critic just becomes your inner bastard.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “my photography’s a big part of me, to a point where I identify with, and by, what I create.” Good. Just don’t let that identification be limited to all the times you picked the wrong shutter speed, or left the lens cap on. You’re better than your mistakes, and not yet as good as you’re capable of becoming.

Let’s step back from this for a moment. Instead of an internal discussion over your own work, let’s imagine for a second that someone was disparaging the work of an artist you really understood and respected. At the very least, you’d disagree with that person. You might even go so far as to point out where you think this person’s in error vis-à-vis the artist. You could also, if you’re feeling particularly feisty, tell said individual to get over themselves.

Now tell me: do you owe yourself any less compassion than you’d give, oh, Van Gogh?

If you’ve got work that you’re not happy with, hang onto it for a bit. I say this for two reasons: first, you may just come back to it later, and realize it wasn’t so bad after all. Second, let’s suppose for a second that you’re right, and it really isn’t so great. Go back to that same photo six months from now, and compare it to what you’re doing at that time. I promise you, it’ll be a great reminder of how far you’ve come, and how much farther still you’ll go so long as you stick with it, and don’t give up either on your craft, or (more importantly) yourself.

Rule 5: Unplug

Time keeps on slippin'...

One of the biggest challenges faced by any photographer has nothing to do with skills or settings. Instead, it’s the same challenge faced by anybody trying to juggle their passion (and/or profession) with the other demands of everyday life. At one point or another, we’ve all lamented that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all we have to do, much less to try and shoehorn in the stuff we’d like to do.

Okay, so not enough time. End of story, right? Uh, not so fast.

How much time do you “need” for your craft (because, really, this doesn’t just apply to photographers) on a day to day basis, or how much of it would you like to have? How much of a difference would one extra hour per day make to you, and to what you love to do?

There’s no magic involved here, just a little discipline and a pinch of time management. Cut out some of the clutter, and see what happens.

This has been a real issue for me lately. Between day-to-day obligations, getting The First 10,000 off the ground, and trying to learn (and then hopefully pass on) something new about photography every day, something – literally – was going to have to give. I’m sure for each of those things I just mentioned, you can think of one or three of your own. It’s not an insurmountable obstacle, though. If you need an extra hour a day, instead of worrying about doing an hour less of something (‘cause you can always find an excuse not to do that), do fifteen minutes less of four things. Then it becomes a lot easier to carve out two, sometimes even three hours of your day (you may decide there’s not much point in watching something if you’re going to miss the first or last fifteen minutes; there’s an hour you didn’t have before).

Turn off the television, the MP3 player, and the e-reader. From time to time, step away from the internet, the email, Angry Birds, and the text messages. Hell, if you want to stop reading this right now so you can turn off your computer and get out your camera, I won’t mind a bit (but may I suggest that if you come back tomorrow to read this again, you start at this bit, so you’re not re-reading the same several paragraphs for the next few days).

It’s hard to have something nattering in the background, whether it’s having your iPod on, or just the mental chatter set up by doing too many things at once. People pride themselves on being able to multitask, not realizing that all “multitasking” means is “doing a bunch of things half-assed simultaneously,” rather than devoting your full attention to something. But taking a few minutes’ time away from each of those things to devote to something you love is worthwhile. You’ll have more time than you did before, and the quality of what you do will improve as well.

Postscript: I started this post on the 21st and wrapped it up the next day. On the 23rd I came across something on David duChemin’s Pixelated Image that covers the same ground, and much more eloquently than I’ve managed. It’s called “45 Days,” and you can read it here.

Rule 4: The Photographer in the Sensual World

I can just about taste it (the lettuce, that is, not the turtle).

To start today, let me don my Captain Obvious uniform, right down to the special hat and epaulettes. Let’s begin with a blindingly obvious statement, and then work our way to the somewhat-less-obvious: photography, being a visual medium, relies a lot on the eyes, not only in its consumption, but also in the making of a photo.

Now the less-obvious bit. We spend so much time thinking about the photograph as pure visual that there’s a tendency to forget the other senses play a big part both in making a photo, and also in its eventual perception. You’ve got those other four senses lying around, as it were, so it’d be a shame not to use them just ‘cause there’s a camera in your hand.

Think about all the associations tied in with our senses. They aren’t just a way to interact with and process our environments; they’re a conduit to a vast storehouse of memories. All those tastes, smells, textures, and sounds are also how we interpret and understand the world and what’s in it. When someone looks at a photo – yours or anyone else’s – they’re not just looking; they’re unpacking all the other “stuff” that’s present in the photo.

Now, let’s look at it from the photographer’s point of view. The question becomes how to take all of that stuff – the associations that go with a lifetime’s sensory experience – and convey it in a photo. It’s one thing to snap a photo of, say, a Thanksgiving dinner; it’s quite another to be mindful of it to a degree that you can convey something of it through your photos. How do you take all those sounds, tastes, textures and smells and somehow squeeze them onto a 4”x6” piece of paper?

For practical purposes, it’s hard to get a single photo that’s going to impact all the senses equally. Since we all perceive things differently, one person looking at a picture of a Thanksgiving dinner might be drawn to the texture of the cranberry sauce, while another might be “hearing” one of the guests saying grace over the meal. I’ve mentioned being present in the moment when you take a picture, and here’s another reason to do that: besides the visual, what’s the next thing having the biggest impact on you right then, and how might you incorporate that into the photo? Challenge yourself; how can you convey those non-visual elements of your scene? How do you pick up on the stray bits of conversation, the feel of a linen tablecloth, the taste of the turkey and stuffing, the bouquet of the glass of wine you just drank?

Brian Eno once lamented that too much of music comes from, and is aimed at, the head. It neglects the feet, the heart, and so much else. He said that music should never make the listener ask, “Well, that’s nice, but what’s the rest of me for?” Photography’s like that, too, both for the person viewing your work, and also for you as you’re making the photo. Giving your other senses a space in the photo, even if you just choose one other sense on which to focus for any given scene, adds a dimensionality and depth that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Photography can be a wonderful feast for the eyes, but it shouldn’t starve the rest of you.

Postscript: As I was milling over the ideas for this post, researching, writing, and rewriting, I came across two great articles that I’d like to share with you. The first comes from Sara Healy, whose writing and “story photos” are great prompts for art, writing, and just thinking about creativity. The other comes from Mel and Philip Tulin’s Outdoor Eyes, a ridiculously comprehensive site for outdoorsy types, some of whom may also happen to be photographers. “Seeing With Outdoor Eyes” says some of what I’ve said above plus a whole lot more.

The Mindful Photographer, Part 2

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his wonderful book The Miracle of Mindfulness, tells a story about eating a tangerine with a friend. To paraphrase: the friend was wolfing down the tangerine, not giving much thought to the simple act of eating a tangerine. Thây goes on to say that if you’re not eating the tangerine mindfully–thinking only of eating the tangerine as you eat it–then you’re not eating the tangerine. You’re ingesting whatever else is “on your plate” at the time. So you could be eating The Real Housewives of Azerbaijan, or drinking rush-hour traffic.

The same thing applies to photography. Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m some kind of Zen master. I’ve got monkey mind that’d do Curious George proud. I’d love to say that every time I leave my apartment with my camera, there’s an immediate and intense level of focus (that’s me, not the camera) on nothing but the myriad of sights around me, but I wouldn’t even fool myself saying that. It usually goes a bit more like this:

“Okay, that chipmunk’s a bit overexposed. Do I go with a faster shutter speed, or just use exposure compensation? Tweak the shutter speed. Nope. Still overdone. Overdone? I’m hungry, that’s what it is. Turkish? Is that Turkish place still – what, they serve pizza now? Okay, Greek?”

I’ll spare you the other 3,257 steps in the process. Suffice to say, I’m surprised that some of my flora and fauna don’t come out looking like kebabs, or newspapers, or whatever other digression wanders across my mind at any given time.

Speaking of digressions, let’s get back on topic. It isn’t just the distractions of everyday life. Sometimes, paradoxically, photography itself can be the distraction in your photography. If your last session didn’t go well – you were distracted, you couldn’t find anything that caught your eye, everything came out blurry, your batteries ran out in mid-shoot – it can be very easy to carry those frustrations into your next shoot. This doesn’t mean that you’re a lousy photographer; it means you’re a human being. We all do it. Try, though, to be mindful of it, and to cut it out when you find yourself doing it; it’s one thing to be diligent about avoiding the same mistakes, but it’s another to repeat them, or trade them for new ones, because you obsess over them.

And, strange as it may seem, your photos will look different if all you’re doing is paying attention to where you are and what you’re shooting. Being mentally absent from the process means you’ll also be absent from the end result; your photos could’ve been taken by anyone, with no particular skill or attention. But being present for your photos, and especially for your subjects (whether or not they’re human), means having more of yourself – your individuality, your unique “voice” – present in your photos. Stop shooting last night’s argument, tomorrow’s dinner date, the phone bill, or your uncomfortable shoes, and just be fully where you are in that moment.

Adapted from my other/earlier blog, A Slight Delay.

Rule 2: Always Have Your Camera

You never know when a photo opportunity will present itself...

Sooner or later, it’ll happen — if it hasn’t already. Maybe it’s a gorgeous sunset, maybe it’s a funny-looking beachgoer, or your kids/nieces/nephews/grandkids doing something silly or adorable… and you think to yourself, “Y’know, I really wish I had my camera.” And you might even try to recreate the image for friends and family, telling about the vivid colors, the breathtaking lighting… ’til you sound like someone trying to describe this great song they heard, only they can’t remember any of the words or hum any of the melody.

While it’s better to be mindful about your photography, and to take the time to properly frame and expose a shot, you can’t even do that if you haven’t got something with which to take the picture. This should be too obvious to have to mention, but anybody I know who’s even halfway serious about photography (including me) has missed one or more great shots because they didn’t have their camera with them.

And listen: we’re photographers, not fishermen. Fishermen have it easy (seasickness and the occasional accident with fishhooks aside); they can always talk about “the one that got away.” It’s part of the allure (pardon the pun) of fishing. But if you miss enough photos, after a while it feels less like something to brag about than it just feels like a drag.

There’s really no excuse for you not to have your camera with you. As I mentioned last week, nearly everyone has a camera now, whether it’s on your Crackberry, it’s an automatic compact, or it’s a DSLR. If you’ve already got the camera, have it with you.

As an aside: if your only camera is a DSLR, do yourself a favor and invest in something smaller. It doesn’t have to break the bank, nor does it even have to have all the bells and whistles. It just needs to take a good photograph, and be reasonably portable, since you’re not always going to want the bulk of a system camera hanging around your neck, tiring you out or drawing attention to you at times you may want to be a bit more discreet.

Just the same as a writer should always have a pen (you can always find something to write on) or an artist should always have a sketch pad, don’t wander out into the world, where all those photos are just waiting for you to notice them, without something — anything — to capture them. If you allow them to, images will never fail to sneak up on you and surprise you. But if the only place they exist is in your memory, it becomes much harder to share them later… and after all, the sharing’s the point, isn’t it?

Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand

Not exactly my best work.

“Your first ten thousand photos are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson knew a thing or two about good photography. From the late 1920’s ’til his death nearly eighty years later, he was responsible for some of the most iconic images in photographic history… all of which is rather a longish way of saying, the man knows whereof he speaks.

Your first several (thousand) photos won’t be your best work, and that’s okay. Photography, from the act of making an individual photo, to the learning curve associated with being a photographer, is a learning process that, if you’re lucky, never ends. That’s not to say that you won’t have some keepers, and maybe even an image somewhere in that batch that knocks the socks off nearly anyone who sees it. What it does speak to is the discipline and sheer repetition you’ll have to go through to be any good at photography.

That’s the good news. The better news is that technology is still growing at a dizzying pace (well, it’s better news unless you’re the type who absolutely must have the latest and greatest everything; in that case, prepare to be broke more often than not), with the end result that photography is now a more democratic medium than it’s been at nearly any point in its history. Continue reading “Rule 1: The First Ten Thousand”