Lindsey On: Learning Photography

I was recently asked a question through email that put me off guard. In fact, I laughed. Out loud. Peach Mio flavored water ALMOST came out of my nose. The question was sent from my website contact page. It read:

“Lindsey, have you always been such a great photographer? I am trying to learn photography. It seemed so easy, but it’s getting really hard. So I just want to know if this is something you knew how to do naturally or if you have to work at it. Because I’m really struggling.”

First let me address that first sentence. The squirt-gun nose sentence. Greatness is something we photographers aspire to become, but rarely ever truly achieve. Why? Because being a “great” photographer is highly subjective. And photographers (like authors, models and artists) are our own worst critics. I LOVE Helmut Newton. To me, he is the definition of greatness. But I bet if you google Helmut Newton right now, you are going to see some VERY weird photos that make you wrinkle your nose and say “uuuuhhhhh…..???”. Why is he great? He DEFINED fashion photography. He gave it it’s sexy, hard lit, brutal, crisp edge that we know today. He also helped define his generation. He took photos that spoke strongly of his times economic, political and artistic viewpoints. And he did it all without claiming greatness. “Look, I’m not an intellectual. I just take photos” he once said. He was his own worst critic too, and while the world was looking at him with goo-goo eyes as the god of fashion photography, he was looking at his photos saying “I had to pay my rent. And anyway, look at this one? The horizon is crooked….”. So even if the world someday (I can only hope) thinks I’m great, I will probably never believe it.

Next, photography is hard. If you think anything else, you are highly delusional and should seek help IMMEDIATELY. Photography involves a highly specialized skill set that goes beyond setting your mode dial to AUTO, buying an external flash and BOOM! Charging for portraits. Photography is like anything. It takes YEARS to learn and perfect a single aspect. You can’t expect to take it up and a month later, or a year later, or 10 years later, be the next Ansel Adams. And you can’t expect it to come easy. My learning photography was a bumpy, hard road. I was made to cry by a photographer I admired because he critiqued my photo in a (very) rough way. Ok, his exact words were “This is the worst photo I’ve ever seen. It’s total crap. There are no redeeming qualities here. You should give up and save yourself the embarrassment.”. I have entered, and not won, more contest than I care to count. I’ve given money back to clients because I didn’t like the way the photos turned out. I’ve read more books on photography than I’ve read novels. Books about how my camera works, so that I can take better photos by compensating for situations I may be in that trick my camera. Entire encyclopedias on exposure and how Reciprocity works. And since it’s math, I STILL have to really think about it. Repair manuals so I can trouble shoot if something goes wrong. Websites by photographers I admire to learn how they get their shots. Websites by photographers I dislike so I can learn how they get their shots, too. Photoshop editing books. Outdoor magazine. Shutterbug magazine. Pop Photo magazine. E-zines…. every time I learn something new, I go outside and practice it. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes it takes a year. It took me 3 tries figure out how to photograph backlit leaves properly. I still can’t take a good landscape shot.

So when I’m asked about learning photography, all I can say is, whatever you do just LEARN. Don’t assume that because this is the age of digital, it’s easier. All the same rules still apply, and you have to understand the rules before you can break them. Also don’t assume that it will be easy. It WILL take you more than a year of owning your first DSLR before you can shoot for money. You probably won’t understand things right away, so practice. Become an assistant for a pro. Their experience and knowledge will be INVALUABLE to you. Read as many books (or look at the pictures) as you can. Not just books ON photography, books about photographers. Books about PHOTOGRAPHS. Practice on everything and everyone you can get in front of your lens. Try to join a camera or photography club, because those people are full of knowledge and are the kind of people who are willing to share it. Take classes… WHATEVER! Just learn!!

Be prepared for rejection. Be ready for disappointment. You will get laughed at and you will feel inadequate. But the truth is… these are all things that go with the territory. As hard as it is, never take it personally. These are not personal attacks on your character. Most of the time, the people who make you cry and feel like dirt honestly have forgotten what it’s like to be the new guy. Don’t get excited if someone tells you that your photo is great, unless they are a fellow photographer. Your mom, husband and bff are not photography critics and probably don’t know what a good photo looks like. They just know you took it and so they instantly love it; it’s their JOB to tell you you’re great. Learn all you can, from whomever you can, whenever you can. You will always have something to learn, and it may come from an unlikely source, so never assume you know more than someone else. Even if they’ve only had their camera a month and you have had yours for 3 years.

One final thing. Remember that every single photographer has started out right where you are. Keep aspiring to greatness, and you will go as far as you want to.

And, just so you know I did not just pick up a camera and suddenly know photography, I bring you… one of my first digital portraits. In fact, this was my second portrait attempt! Circa 2005!

Selective color!? WHY!? And I guess getting her in focus was a bit above me as well. And I had yet learned about lossy compression and editing. At least I knew she shouldn't have a shadow and ATTEMPTED to clone it out. Poorly. >.<

(C) Lindsey White. Check out Lindsey’s website and blog, Color in Black and White.

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