Five Things Every Photographer . . .

Tips from a guy who has made more mistakes in photography over the last 20 years than most would like to admit.  

The five major lessons I learned in my 22 years of photography that cannot be taught overnight, and some assignments to help you learn these things.

I have been at this a while, in fact, I have been at this far longer than most have.  I have had a camera in my hands since I was perhaps 11 or so, young anyway.  I have photographed and filmed in 20 states or more, 13 countries spanning 4 continents over those years.  I have been in conditions ranging from 120 degree days to torrential downpours all the way to -27 degree treks. I have photographed oceans and deserts, jungles and snow.  And everything from people to dangerous animals to waterfalls and seascapes.  Over all of this, I have learned a great deal of stuff that most people cannot learn overnight and I figured it best to share them, it makes learning them on your own a little less painful when you know its possible.

A side note, I have been accused of having topics lacking true technical details.  If you are coming here for information on what I learned about my camera, and how it works, you are in the wrong place.  I am here to share with you what I learned about myself as a photographer, whether it helps anyone or not, I don't know.  

Also, this article lacks humor, that bothers me, but I feel committed to it, and am really simply too tired to change it now.


1)  Your best images rarely come on perfect days, and the pieces rarely fall into place.  

We were here to photograph the stars . . . instead we hit a horrid downpour and ended up with images unlike any I could have imagined

We were here to photograph the stars . . . instead we hit a horrid downpour and ended up with images unlike any I could have imagined

If they do, often it means your aren't earning the photo.  Truly great photography takes time, patience and practice.  It takes long hours and sleepless nights.  It takes failure and heartache.  It takes disappointment and frustration.  Your best work will not come on a clear day or on your first attempt.  They come during the storm.   As you sweat and pour over the frame to compose it properly.  They come in the rain, only after multiple attempts at getting the image correct.  Your best work comes when you give into the reality of what you are there to do and instead understand how you want your image to feel.  Don't look for clear skies, look for something more.  

Ask yourself this, if someone else can walk up and take the exact same photo regardless of when it was taken, what makes this photo mine?  If you can't make the photo yours, it never will be, it will be everyones.

Assignment #1 - On the next rainy day, one that you would NEVER usually go out on, bundle up, protect your gear (seriously, make sure your gear is water tight and safe because there is a risk to photographing in the rain) go out and shoot something that you have shot before.  Something that you love to photograph but never have in the rain.  Do it at the right time too, either as the sun comes up, or as the sun goes down.  Compare the images to the others that you have . . . and share some results below, I would love to see some results.   


2)  Remember what you are there to do, and what you are there to capture.  

This is not as easy as it sounds however.  What do you want to get out of it?  Are you their to create a unique fine art print to sell?  Are you looking for a beautiful sunrise to share on Facebook?  Or are you there to simply share with the world that you are there?  What are you doing it for?  For me personally, I am there to capture emotion within a subject, human emotion in an animal.  Its a flash, gone in a second, but it exists.  Spend enough time and these little moments reveal themselves.  Showing up to simply capture another photo is doing exactly what everyone else is doing.  Why climb a mountain to take a photo of the sunrise unless you know you can create a unique experience?  Why go through the work and effort?  What can you add to the scene that someone else cannot?  If you can't answer these questions, why are you doing it?  Understanding this process is a big key to personal photographic growth.  

I flew across the globe to see this simple sight, lions that swim.  Four days was long enough to know that I could spend the rest of my days there if given the chance.  

I flew across the globe to see this simple sight, lions that swim.  Four days was long enough to know that I could spend the rest of my days there if given the chance.  

It may not seem overly necessary, and if it doesn't thats ok.  But in my 22 years at this, I have found that there are, at the base level, two types of photographers.  Those that care what others think, and therefore put value in how their work is perceived, and there are those that do not, and create work based on their own idea of value.  I firmly fall into the latter.  I don't take images for anyone other than myself.  I don't wake up early and stay out late to post my adventures on Facebook or Instagram in the hopes that it will make me famous.  An Instagram or Facebook page will never make me famous, my work will.  I do all of this because I love to find something unique and beautiful in those moments that I experience.  I do it because I love it.  Neither is right or wrong, but knowing which you are goes a long way to helping you understand what type of work you will be creating your entire life.  I refused to share my work for 17 years because I was horrified people wouldn't like it.  That I would be viewed as "just another photographer."  It was when I stopped caring and started creating that I realized that loving my process, my subject, my work was all that mattered.  If you truly love what you do where you are, and what you are sharing, that will always come out in your final product.    

Assignment #2 - Before going out on your next shoot, visualize what you want to accomplish, write down a few words or phrases to articulate what you are looking to capture.  Express the mood you hope to achieve, the view, the vision.  Why are you going to this particular place?  What can you maybe bring into view here that someone else has not?  What do you want the work to stand for?  Can you describe what you are out there to capture in two sentences or less?  Be specific, be very specific 


3)  Experience more, talk less.  Take more, share less.  

In my honest opinion, with the explosion of social media and the ease at which an individual can produce a decent image, separation needs to be created between those that want to be known for taking good photos and those that want to be known for creating exceptional work.  In other words, talk is cheap, and so are thousands of digital images.  

The standard response to a little good publicity is to flood the world with your work, talk about it constantly and fall back on it as the basis for why people should like your stuff.   What this does, contrary to popular belief, is devalue your work.  Don't get me wrong, a good share goes a long ways and it is always a good idea to let everyone know of a big use of an image, but in the end, its only one day, one photo and one share.  One of my favorite life lessons from years of football, is simple, "Act like you have been there before."  I don't care if its a national gig, a huge published photo or your first sale, a calm, cool demeanor with respect to something makes people wonder what they have been missing all this time.  Flooding every media channel with the information for weeks on end, mentioning it to everyone and referencing back to it months later presents a feeling of simple luck and right place right time.  Make the world want to see more of your work, create value in scarcity.  I took photos for 17 years before I started to share my work and to this date, including fine art prints I sell and images I use for publication and social media, it attributes to about .0015% of my total body of work.  Another way to look at it, I will share or print about 1 out of every 700 photos I take.  

Assignment #3 - Take 1,000 photos, go through each and every one.  Pick your top 20.  Narrow that down to your top 10.  Edit each of those out, share your best two and see how people respond to your work.  


4)  Your gear is a tool and nothing more, and yet it is essential to capturing your view of the image.  

I often prefer fixed focal lengths to zoom lenses as it forces you to change your mindset, not change the zoom.  Sometimes limitations can set you free

I often prefer fixed focal lengths to zoom lenses as it forces you to change your mindset, not change the zoom.  Sometimes limitations can set you free

While I am a big proponent of the image being in the mind of the photographer, your gear needs to be able to capture what you can see.  Not all gear can do that, its simply the hard truth of it.  I can do more with my 1Dx than I can do with my Sony a7r.  I have more to work with on a Medium Format sensor than I do with a 1.6x crop.  Knowing your gear, and their limitations will go a long ways to easing your expectations on what you can do, and what you should be able to expect.  

But at the same time, don't use this as any sort of excuse.  Often times, limiting your ability to adjust, and corning yourself forces you to create more unique images.  Try this for example, next time you go out for any type of shoot, stay at one particular focal length the entire time.  Use your feet, move around, change your angle and perspective to make the scene more interesting instead of simply zooming in and out.  Better yet, limit yourself to this for a month.  I promise you will learn more about your skills in that month than you have in the last 5 years.  

Assignment #4 - Set your focal length, and commit to not zooming.  Leave your camera this way and start over at #3.  Do that assignment again.  Share the results and see how you feel about your work.  Love it or hate it, it will make you better.


5) A piece of you is left in every image, what piece do you want that to be?

I wrote and re-wrote this paragraph multiple times but could never get the right words out.  I never could fully express both the complexity, and the shear simplicity of this topic.  It is as simple as this.  

You are you.  You are not me.  You see the world in a beautiful and unique way in which I do not see the world.  I have seen the world through my eyes and I strive to share the world the way I see it and you need to do the same, because the beauty in this world that you see is what is worth sharing.  You cannot share someone else's vision of this world, only your own.  In short, be you.  

Assignment #5 - This one is going to seem a little counter productive, but trust me.  If your are landscape photographer, photograph in the city, do streetscapes and architecture. If you love wildlife, photograph people, do street photography and portraits.  Try fashion photography, work in different fields, work with friends.  Do studio shoots.  Photograph outside your comfort zone and be OK with it.  Do this, and do it while repeating #4 (paired with #3).  Learn what you love, but more importantly, learn truly why you love it.  Learn different ways to share that work, learn how to view your subject like few others do.  

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