:: photography

One camera, one lens, one theme, one year: one way to be less bad as a photographer.

This is a slightly indirect answer because it does not really say anything concrete about photography, but it is worth knowing I think.

There’s a well-known phenomenon which I am sure has a name, which is that a typical person tends to know people who are more popular than them. This seems odd at first blush, but it’s not: if a typical person knows, say, \(n\) people, then a very popular person might know \(3n\) people say. The statistics then work out that many of the people the typical person knows are more popular than they are, simply because popular people know so many more people than they do. And this can cause people to think that, because most of the people they know are very popular, they are failing in some way: they are worse than average, when in fact they are just average.

The same thing happens with photography, except in an even worse way. Firstly the photographs by other people you tend to see will tend to be the photographs that are popular, because that’s how social media works; Secondly, the photographs you see by someone else, are the pictures they like the very best, because those are the only ones they are putting up. But you see all your pictures, including the 90% of them which are just not very good.

So now you have three things working against you:

  • you see mostly pictures by photographers that lots of people like;
  • you only see the very best pictures by these people;
  • and finally you’re a beginner, so you are really are not very good yet.

The result of this is that you’ll just end up thinking that all your pictures are rubbish, and get demotivated, give up and become a dentist or something (well, now you can afford a very expensive camera, anyway, which you will eventually sell and I’ll buy cheaply: thanks!).

There is no magic solution to this, and in particular there is no quick solution: getting good at anything takes time. Here is an approach which works for at least some people.

The 1C1L1T1Y structure

1C1L. First of all pick a camera and lens: just one of each. It does not matter very much what you pick, but you might want to be informed by the next step. It is allowed to buy a camera and/or lens in this step, but you may get extra points for not doing so.

1T. Now pick a theme: something you are interested in taking pictures of. A theme might be ‘street photographs’ or ‘macro pictures of moss in walls’ or ‘nightclub photographs’ or ‘abandoned buildings’: it does not matter, but it should be something you actually want to do and something you can do — don’t pick ‘street photographs’ if you live 100 miles from the nearest city!

1Y. Now you are going to take pictures on this theme, with this one camera and lens, for a year, and you’re going to do it in a rather structured way. It doesn’t have to be a year, although it should be at least a month. You are allowed to take pictures which are not on this theme and not with this camera and lens, but you need to know very clearly when you are not working on the project, and catalogue the images differently. But, again, you get bonus points for working only on the project.

The structure. You should take some pictures as part of the project every day (it does not have to be every day, but it should most definitely be more frequently than weekly, and if the project is significantly shorter than a year it should be daily). On each day (or time period) you should take few enough pictures that you can look, hard, at all of them: this probably means no more than a hundred (traditionally this would have been a single 35mm roll, 36–39 pictures, and that’s a good number). There is no point in taking so many pictures you can not look hard at them all, because you are going to need to do that.

At the end of each day (time period) look, hard, at all the pictures you have made. You can tart them up if you want but you don’t need to do that. Make conscious decisions about which you like and which you don’t as far as you can: try and make conscious decisions about why you like & do not like them. It may help to write notes on this. Pick the one you like best, make a ‘final’ version of it and put it away somewhere. (Traditionally this means: make a contact sheet from your film, pick the frame you like best, make the best print you can, put it in a box). Once you have done this you should not look at either the pictures you did not select or the one you did again during the project. This is important.

Iterate this for a year (or however long you are doing it for). Just keep at it: it will sometimes be boring and you will feel you are getting nowhere, but keep going. Do not look at the selected pictures you made earlier in the project.

At the end of the project, do two things.

Get all the selected pictures, and look at them, one at a time, in order. You will (almost certainly) find that the earlier ones are rubbish, and the later ones are increasingly good. You may well find dips & peaks on the way where you got sucked in to something which turned out to be a dead-end and then found your way out.

Go through (not too quickly: remember humans can’t take in thousands of images in a short period of time, so you ) the images did not select, and see if you would select the same ones, or if there are things in there you did not even see at the start of the project: chances are there will be.

If you made notes as you went along, look at them along with the appropriate pictures and decide if you agree with your earlier self.

This approach is not going to make you a brilliant photographer: but the chances are very good it will make you a better photographer, and it will also help you realise that you are improving over time. Finally it may help you work out what you actually want to make pictures of.

Finally, this approach is stolen from various ideas by Mike Johnston who is very worth reading on this and many other matters (seriously: read his blog, it’s worth it). In particular see his Leica year article & related articles. It doesn’t have to be a Leica, and in particular, in my version of the project, you’re strongly encouraged to use the gear you have.