I know the title sounds a bit like clickbait, but stick with me for a bit and I’ll explain.
Along with Christmas comes the inevitable gifts of fancy new cameras and a whole slew of brand new photographers who will eagerly be trying to take their own highly polished photographs. I was one, too.
Now that I've got a bit of experience under my belt, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say some variation of “your camera takes such nice pictures!” It’s so common, in fact, that it’s practically proverbial amongst seasoned photographers. Somehow people got the idea that, because cameras have advanced so far, the nicer the camera is, the better the photo will be. Even cell phone companies like Apple and Samsung make the quality of their cameras one of the biggest selling points; what they’re doing is taking advantage of a common misconception. Let me explain.
If you met Leondardo DiVinci, would you compliment him on the quality of his pencils and brushes? Would you applaud Michelangelo for buying the most expensive chisel? Can you even imagine that? I can. The conversation goes something like this:
“Oh Mikey, that Sistine Chapel is absolutely amazing, I can’t say enough about it!”
“Why, thank you. It took me years to…”
“I’d like to paint something similar on my bedroom wall. What kind of brushes did you use?”
Yes, if you are taking photographs, that makes you a photographer…but it doesn’t make you a good one. Not yet. It takes work.
That is one of the biggest hurdles new photographers face when they begin trying to make purposeful photographs. One of two things happen: either they think ‘damn, I’m good!’ or they think ‘wait, why doesn’t it look like the picture I had in my head?’
The photographers who never recognize their need to improve most often don’t develop very far artistically. Those photographers who have better taste than skill are now recognizing that age-old truth…the chisel doesn’t carve the sculpture, and the brush doesn’t paint the painting.
If you’ve ever seen photographs that you idolize, I can easily tell you the secret to how they were made. Are you ready?
The person pushing the shutter had a deep understanding of light, form, composition, color theory, etc. and how all of those things work in together to touch viewers in a visceral way.
Professional Photographers used to be valuable in part because using a camera properly was hard, and they knew the technical aspects of creating properly exposed photographs. Todays cameras have taken much of the technical aspects of out of the photographer’s hands, though. No more memorizing formulas to calculate exposure values. Point a brand-new camera at a scene and it will give you a decently exposed photo almost every time.
Unfortunately for the person who bought a $700 phone simply for the quality of the camera, they likely missed the OTHER aspect of what makes professional photographers valuable: the creative mind and well trained eye.
Just like Leonardo and Michelangelo, a photographer only relies on their equipment as the tool used to breathe life into what is inside their imaginations. Without their creativity, their understanding of light, form, composition, color theory, and so on, the finished work will be no more than a snapshot.
I can’t play the violin, and not even if you put a Stradivarius in my hands will I make any kind of music. I would need someone to train me, not just on how to pull and push the bow across the strings, but how to hear and interpret and bring the music to life.
I don’t say any of this to discourage any of those new photographers out there, because we all started out not knowing and we are, all of us, on a constant journey of learning. I say it because I want you to understand that it is not your gear that creates images. True photographers don’t take photographs, they make them. It wouldn’t matter if you had a point and shoot or a Hasselblad, without understanding the aspects of what makes a well taken photograph, you’ll still just be taking snapshots.
As proof, I’ve asked a few friends of mine to donate some of the first photos they took with their “fancy” new cameras, and I’m going to juxtapose them against photographs taken with much simpler gear but a more experienced eye. One of the biggest things you’ll notice in the “new fancy gear” category is a lack of purposeful use of light and composition. Most of them are technically fine, in the that they’re well exposed and mostly sharp, but they all have an almost complete lack of purpose and finesse.
To be fair to these brave photographers, go have a look at their latest work and see how far they’ve grown in skill. They deserve a hand for being brave enough to share their first attempts.
To see how far Katie has grown since she snapped this shot, go to
To see how far Katherine has grown, head to www.kataxonphotography.com
To see how far Kathy has grown, go visit www.kathyrogersphotography.com
Have a look now at the camera phone work of Michal Koralewski. Notice that these are not the snapshots of an inexperienced eye, but that he’s carefully using shape, rhythm, contrast, and repetition in his work.
To see more of his work, follow the link to www.michalkoralewski.pl
Finally, even if you don’t know his name, chances are you’ve seen the work of Henri Cartier-Besson. He used a Leica Rangefinder, a film camera, during the early to mid 1900’s, to capture what he called “the decisive moment.”
Comparing the capabilities of an old film camera to the new, high-end DSLRs is like comparing the Flintstone mobile to the Starship Enterprise. And yet…look at the beauty of the images he created. He was a classically trained painter before he became a photographer, and it’s easy to see where his well-trained eye and creative mind have taken what he knew about great art and used those principles to make captivating images.
It's clear that even high-tech equipment can't replace the mind of a creative artist, and that the lack of high-tech equipment doesn't limit it.
Yes, if you have a camera and you’re taking photographs, you are a photographer. But it takes much more than gear, and it goes much deeper than the ability to program a good exposure, to be a good photographer.
There is light at the end of the tunnel: if you’re a beginning photographer, you can shorten this long journey by training you eye. Cultivate what art you take in, find only the good stuff, and start picking it apart. Look at the light, the quality of it and where it comes from. Pay attention to the composition, find out where elements are positioned inside the frame of the image, and how they relate to each other.
If you aren’t sure what constitutes good art, Google that shit and study it. Don’t get stuck on the biggest social media stars because the art isn’t always as good as the marketing skills.
And please, please, please, don’t get stuck on asking “what gear did you use,” “what were your settings,” when looking at work you like. The answers to those questions won’t make much of a difference to you until you get to the point where you don’t need to ask them anymore.
You wont understand the reasons a photographer chose certain settings unless you understand the principles behind why they wanted that artistic result. You have to understand the WHY before you can implement the HOW. One of the very popular aspects of portraiture at the moment is a shallow depth of field. But, if you want to use a shallow depth of field in your own portraits, you need to be able to answer the question “why does this work” before you can use it to the fullest extent. In a similar way, there are portraits that are strongest when the depth of field is deep and the surroundings are vividly captured. Why is that? It all comes back to the creative mind behind the camera and the creative decisions they’re making in order to say something about the subject they’re photographing. Those creative decisions influence what numbers they plug into their cameras.
Start training your eye to see and your mind to create, and you’ll find that choosing the gear and settings will become a natural extension of your artistic choices. Learn to use your technical knowledge and your gear in the service of your artistic vision, and you’ll be on the right road to ‘great photographer.’