The More You Shoot, the Better You Become


One of the most frustrating feelings for any artist is when there is a disparity between your initial creative idea and the final result—when the result isn’t able to convey the vision you tried to express. Talking in photographic terms, it’s the disappointment between the image your thought you got and the one you see on your computer. Quite often the reason for the disparity is lack of experience. The more experienced you become the smaller this gap between vision and result will end up being. It simply takes a while to get better, and there is no other way around it than having to fight your way through it.

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson «your first 10,000 photographs are your worst». When we take into consideration that he used a film-based camera, inherently much slower than today’s digital cameras, maybe we need to update his quote to your first 100,000 photographs. Or maybe even better to use the so-called 10,000-Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book Outliers. The rule basically says that if you do anything for 10,000 hours you will become an expert at that task. Put in a different, simpler and maybe more obvious way; it comes down to the fact that—as a photographer—the more you shoot, the better you become. As simple as that.

Perhaps the ultimate shooter when it comes to volume was street photographer Garry Winogrand. When he died of cancer at the age of 56 in 1984, he left behind 2,500 undeveloped rolls of 36-exposure 35 mm film (mostly Tri-X), 6,500 rolls of developed but not contact-printed film, and another 3,000 apparently untouched, unedited contact sheets. Colleagues, students, and friends talked about him as an obsessive picture-taking machine. We can all learn from his industrious approach to photography. If we want to become good at what we do, we need to put in enough hours photographing. With enough practise comes confidence, skills and mastery.

If we want to excel as artist we need to do the work, we need to be working continuously over a long period of time. As I wrote in my post Creativity is Work (back in 2011): «You can talk or think all day about photography and creativity, but if you don’t actually perform, nothing will ever come out of your desire to express yourself». Are you willing to do the work necessary to become the photographer that resides in you—or whatever art form you are working with?

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It’s What’s Inside That Matters


You know best what triggers you when you are out photographing. It can be light, it can be forms, it can be beautiful landscapes, it can be ugly, rundown buildings, it can be strong, characteristic faces, it can be cityscapes in twilight or it can people jumping in the air. I don’t know what it is for you. For me it’s certainly people living their regular lives in combination with good, natural light. That is what triggers my index finger more than anything else.

But here is a twist of thought: It’s not what’s in front of the camera that matters – it’s what’s behind. Or to be more specific; it’s what’s inside you as a photographer. Now, how is that for a thought?

My point is; any situation, any subject matter, any moment holds infinite possibilities for creating strong and engaging photographs. Maybe – or surely – you don’t always see them, but someone would. Haven’t you come across a photographer who is directing the camera towards something, and when you look around to see what it is, you think by yourself that’s gonna be a boring picture. It’s no picture at all as a matter of fact. Or so you think – at least I have done it numeral times. But I have also been fortunate enough sometimes later to be able to see the final result from something I first thought would never make a decent picture. And I was no less than astonished. The photographer had seen something I was not even able to get a glimpse of. His or her vision had been able to turn that boring subject matter into a photograph that blew me off my ignorance. Maybe the way the photograph was processed after the fact or maybe just by the way it was framed and focused.

I have come to learn that nothing is without photographical potentials. I have seen it again and again. Throughout my photographic career I have attended many a workshop and taught numerous workshops myself, too, and every time I notice attendees of those workshops coming back with photographs from situations no one would think would be worthy a single capture. What more is the photographers are able to show some amazing results. And they all come back with photographs taking in a variety of locations and in a variety of situation.

What has this taught me? First of all not to judgementally write off any photographer I come across shooting something I can’t see the point of photographing. Ignorance and condemnation has never been positive sentiments in any given situation. Secondly I try to expand my own vision; I try to see pictures where I before never thought a picture excited. By that I am forcing myself to go outside of my comfort zone; I try to challenge myself – which is something any artist wanting to develop his or her artistic expression ought to do.

Space to Breathe In

Space is one compositional aspect I find is often not talked a whole lot about in photo literature. Yes, indirectly as part of the composition, as the point-of-view you choose when taking a photo, as in how you build a photo with for instance a foreground, a middle ground and a background, and sometimes as something called negative space, which is just another word for emptiness, to put it somewhat bluntly. The actually feeling of space, of openness or the room in which the photo resides in, is hardly ever addressed as such.

For me this feeling of space is tremendously important in any picture. It can make or break your photo. Space makes the eye and the mind come to rest in a photograph. If you are able to capture a feeling of space, you open up the viewer’s perception to explorer what lies within and beyond the obvious. Even in an otherwise cluttered composition, space and a feeling of room encourage the viewer to breathe and slow down and spend more time within your photo.

As I mentioned in my post two weeks ago, Some Things Never Change, space along with time are two factors that are completely camera independent. No matter how advanced the camera you have is it cannot pick the space you choose to photograph. Space is yours to handle, whether you use a cell phone or a professional DSLR- camera.

Try to open up the space. Move around the subject and see if you can open up the space that surrounds it. Move out from enclosed and cramped positions and bring space into your photos. Of course, sometimes you want to create a feeling of tightness and constricted boundaries. In that case you might not want to open up the space in you photo, but in most cases, a feeling of space is good.

Think of your subject as been placed on a stage. You have been to the theatres, no? Maybe then, you have noticed how the stage has carefully been arranged to give a feeling of space and depth. You have backdrops placed at different distance from front to back on the stage. And you have an open space where the act itself can develop. It is all done to create a three-dimensional impression and of course a place for the play to be acted out.

That same impression you want to create in your photos, even if they are nothing but two-dimensional and flat «stages». Try to create a perception of an open space where the story in your photo can unfold and try to make it feel three-dimensional. Part of this is the classical compositional advice, which is placing various elements in the foreground, the middle ground as well as the background, just like backdrops on a real stage. For instance framing the main subject with an opening through some trees or through a doorway will emphasize a feeling of depth. If you add some mountains or a city in the background, you go even further in creating this feeling of three-dimensionality.

Of course, on a real stage in a theatre you literally create the backdrops and place props exactly where you want them to be. When photographing real life you cannot really do so. Instead, you need to move yourself around to find a point of view that brings available «backdrops» and «props» into your viewfinder. It does not necessarily have to been more than a step or two to one side or the other, and suddenly the stage falls like magic in place. Or you may just have to turn the camera in a different direction—or a combination of the two.

Along these lines, see how you can open up the space and really create a feeling of a wide stage. In a cramped room, you may not have many options, but in most places, you can easily open up the space, again by either moving yourself and/or turning the camera.

If, for instance, you are taking a portrait on the street, maybe of your family on vacation somewhere, do not place the family members up against a wall; do not even shoot them with a simple wall as a background a bit further back. Yes, that does create some feeling of space and depth, but still nothing compared to if you turn yourself around 90 degrees and instead of a wall have the whole street running into the background. Now place your family in that stage and your photo suddenly tells a much more in-depth story, literally.

However, keep in mind, in doing so you do run the risk of creating a busy and cluttered background, simply because you fill it up with more elements. So while expanding the stage this way, you still need to make sure to clean up the background. Things become a little more complicated, but you will see that after some practise, the open space you capture this way, will give your photos a different boost.

We human beings like space. Nothing is quite as calming and arousing as standing at the boundary of the ocean and take in that open space that curves around the earth. Or standing at the top of a mountain range and literally feel on top of the world and all there is, is space above and abound. That feeling that is so alluring is what we want to bring into a photo, at least to some extent.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon EOS-1D and a 28-135 mm lens set at 28 mm. Shutter speed: 1/50 s. Aperture: f/20. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Some Things Never Change

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In my post A Delicate Balance last week, I wrote about the dialectic process that photography is. On one hand, you have the technical foundation, that a photograph comes into being by technical means; and on the other hand, that for a photo to capture its audience it needs to hold some emotional content. I also stated that the later is the more important factor. As I wrote, an emotionally loaded but technically poor photo trumps a technically perfect photo lacking emotional content—any time.

What I find interesting is that today it seems like it’s easier than ever to take photos. Present days cameras have become so advanced and at the same time so easy to handle, that everybody can make a technical well capture photograph without knowing much about the technical part of photography at all.

I want to underscore that I just wrote that it seems easier than ever. Because it still isn’t easier to capture the emotional content—and not even technically is it easier, really, with respect to using technique to emphasize a photograph’s content and story. Yes, it is easier to get a perfectly exposed and focused photo, but technique is not only about this. Technique has a far more important role to play—at least if you take your photography serious. You want to understand how you can use for instance shutter speed and aperture visually and how they impact the visual language to substantiate the story you are trying to tell.

The reality is that taking photos that both engage and capture the essence of a moment requires more than just having a advance and intelligent camera—no matter how much of a technical wonder it is. As much as any camera today operates stunningly well under most conditions—and their capabilities keep improving every year, they cannot make the decisions that result in great photos. Only you can. No automatic setting can determine how you want to frame your subject. No automatic camera can decide the best moment to press the shutter button. No camera can choose what you want to photograph. Only you can.

Photography is a skill and a craft. Yes, the technological development has, on some levels, made it easier than ever to take photos. But if you desire more than just perfectly focused and exposed photos—which, by the way, is not guaranteed in and of itself even with today’s cameras—you still need to learn the craft. The camera cannot think for you or distinguish between a terrible photo, an ordinary photo or the masterpiece. You still have to take command of the photographic moment and the camera—whether it is a cell phone, a point-and-shoot camera or an advanced DSLR you use.

Two very important factors that has a huge impact on the visual expression of photography is complete independent on the camera you use and how advanced—or not—it is. The fact is, these two factors are all yours to decide and this has not changed a bit since photography was invented in 1826 when Nicéphore Niépce captured the first ever photograph.

Your choice of space and time when you take a photo will always be independent on the camera and camera technique. If you want to take photos that respond with an audience, you will need to learn how to use both space and time to capture those telling images. In many ways, this is the classical time-space continuum. This space-time continuum is a mathematical and physical model that combines space and time into a single idea. We all exist in this continuum, whether we are aware of it or not, and every photo captured will relate to it.

Don’t let me over-complicate things, though. Understanding that a photo is taken in a certain place and at a certain time is easy enough to grasp. That in itself will have some historical value, but the space-time continuum has far wider implications on how a photograph is perceived.

Space, for instance, as a primary consideration, goes to what you point your camera at, your choice of subject. You need to be in the same space as the subject you want to photograph in order to be able to photograph it. Maybe one day you will be able to capture images formed in your mind without having to direct a camera towards a physical object. However, as I see it, it would no longer be a photograph.

Therefore, you need to pick a space that coincides with the subject you want to photograph. Furthermore, once you have decided on what you want to photograph you also have to decide how you want to frame it. This is clearly space related, too. Which point-of-view you decide on will have a huge impact on how your story in the photo is told. Then finally, you have to decide how you want this stage to be built. What do you leave out and what do you keep in? All these considerations are related to an understanding of space.

Time, on the other hand, is a variable that has other implications on a photograph. First of all, you need to consider when you want to take a photograph. Traditionally, most photographers know that taking a landscape photograph when the sun sits low on the horizon creates a very different result than a photograph of the same landscape taken at midday when the sun is in zenith. Time has also to do with your choice of moment, when to push the shutter release. In a landscape photograph just mentioned, the exact moment will not be as critical as when you a shooting some sport event in which a fraction of a second between two photos can make a big difference in the end result. Finally, time is also a cause for consideration as to what shutter speed you want use to render your idea of the subject. This later time factor is of course a little more technically depended, as you will have to choose a shutter speed that the camera lets you use.

Being consciously aware of space and time will make you a better photographer. The good part of learning to navigate them? You will never have to relearn how to use them if you want at some point to change your camera, because these factors—which have a huge impact on the visual expression—are complete camera independent.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with a Canon EOS-5D and a 24/105 mm lens set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/5.6. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Float Like a Butterfly

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What we photograph is never the same as what is capture in the photo. A photo is not reality (except as the reality «photo»). A photo is never the truth. A photo is never objective. Many will even say that a photograph is not a representation of reality. Of course, this quickly becomes an intellectual and philosophical discussion, and maybe not of much value for any practical uses.

Still, understanding what a photograph is does have quite important for anyone working with photography as an artistic or visual expression. However, it’s easy to disconnect from an abstract discussion about some intangible characterisation of the inherent properties of photography. Here is an attempt to maybe make it more tangible.

I have a couple of times in this blog mentioned the book The Photographer’s Playbook. One of the contributors is Will Steacy, a photographer who’s work has been featured in publications such as New Yorker, Esquire, Time, Wired, The Guardian, just to mention a few. In The Photographer’s Playbook he has written a little piece about a really fundamental understanding of photography, which I want to quote fully and unedited:

«It’s all a big lie. All of it. The sooner you know this and accept it, the better off you will be. We, as artists, photographers, writers, academics, etc., spend our whole lives and careers devoted to the impossible task of chasing truth, a fruitless attempt to translate life into a tangible commodity.

A monarch butterfly flapping its wings in frantic spasms against the window of an uptown A train at 1:47 am on a Tuesday night in July.

Sitting there on that train with exhausted workers and drunks waiting for the next stop—when the doors will swing open and that trapped butterfly will have twenty seconds to make its escape. That is art, that is life, and it will never exist as you experience it on a canvas, in a photograph, or in these concoctions of letters we call words. The best you get is a memory.

Never forget it. Never stop allowing yourself to be there on the train and notice the silent struggle of a caged beauty flapping its wings in a desperate fight for survival.

And never forget, that despite our best efforts—despite the tireless fight to capture the details and tidbits of life and attempt to share these experiences with the world in some abstracted form, from which the world will know exactly what it felt like that night in July on the subway—nothing will ever compare to the feeling of being there. Just like the hopelessly optimistic butterfly flapping its wings, the artist in us will never stop trying to capture and share the world as we experience it. Your greatest asset is an endless inventory of Tuesday night train rides. This is the only morsel of truth in the big lie.»

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Canon EOS 5D with a 28-135 mm set at 75 mm zoom. Shutter speed: 1/60 of a second. Aperture: f/5,0. The photo was processed in Lightroom, Photoshop and with the apps On1 Effects and Niksoft Color Efex.

Invent the World

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I have written about this many a time: If you want to captivate viewers with your photos, you have to invest yourself in the photos you take and in the whole photographic process. It’s paramount that you feel the photo is necessary for yourself to capture, that whatever you are capturing you have to capture. It may sound strange and quite intangible, but without your feelings and sensitivity invested in the photo you take, it will never become a photo that will interest others. It may look nice, it may be well compose, it may be lit beautifully, it may have some strong content, but without yourself present in the photo you take, it’s never going to become a meaningful photo—for others.

If you don’t care about the photo you take, from the bottom of your heart, why do think others would or should?

I, for one, have many a time been guilty of just taking a photo because it looks like a photo worth taking. You know, you learn from photo books, from peers, from discussions on internet or in camera clubs what a good photo is suppose to be. And you start looking for those kinds photos. You see photos in terms of «perfect» compositions, in terms of gorgeous light, in terms of beautiful graphics or even in terms of what you think is interesting content. However, if you aren’t able to invest yourself, your feelings, your commitment, your enthusiasm, in whatever you are shooting, it becomes merrily an exercise. Instead of being honest with yourself in the photographic process, showing your face so to speak, you enter into what could be called an intellectual game. You reproduce what you think others would like, where instead they want to see what you like.

Photographers who do invest themselves in the photos they take know exactly what I am talking about here. But those photographers who still haven’t gotten to that place often have a hard time grasping the meaning. I know because I have been there myself, thinking this all appears so fuzzy and convoluted. Sure, on some level it does sound nice and snug; but what does it actually mean—to invest yourself and your emotions? This is one of the hardest parts to convey to participants in my workshops that are still tied up in a believe system based on visual rules and what they think is a good photo.

In the book The Photographer’s Playbook, the photographer Ken Schles (as one out many writers in the book) maybe comes up with one of the best descriptions of what it means to invest yourself in your photos. He writes: «Take me on journey as best you know how. Investigate the things that trouble you or show me who you love. Tell me what you think you know or are discovering for the first time. Most important, show me what you have seen as you have seen it. Invent the world for me. Reveal the nature of your curiosity. Go forth and be as convincing and compelling as possible. Muster your best argument. Go deep and go with conviction. Show your renderings in a way that I may be convinced of your vision and so that no other rendering would be as convincing or as compelling in their place. Show me your images so they enter my consciousness and I may dream your ideas anew. Change me and change yourself through your discoveries. And do this without artifice or pretension. Do it simply in a way that I can clearly hear your voice and know the power of your mind through the choices you present in the practice your have chosen to share.»

I have mentioned the The Photographer’s Playbook in previous post. It’s a book published by Aperture, subtitled 307 Assignments and Ideas. It’s a book I truly recommend for photographers looking for inspiration.

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX7 with a 4.7 mm zoom setting (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed: 1/80 of a second. Aperture: f/1.4. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Averted Vision

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Sometimes shooting a subject straightforward simply gives the best representation of the subject in combination with the photographer’s intent behind the photograph. In many ways that’s often the journalistic approach, although increasingly we see more personal interpretations also in traditional journalistic media.

Shooting something head-on will often be the first thought for most photographers. Besides being an obvious—and unfortunately sometimes also a lazy—approach, it suggests the obvious significance of some discrete thing to be shown in the photograph, something that would be self-evident in a clear, straightforward rendering. The most extreme of this would be as evidence in a photographed taken at a crime scene.

But then again, sometimes, a more playful, less obvious and straightforward approach might produce a more interesting and captivating photo. As a photographer it means taking your time when approaching the subject. Maybe shoot the straightforward photo, but then ask yourself how you can shoot it differently, how can you bring an element of surprise into the narrative of the photograph? «Tell the truth, but tell it slant,» wrote Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth century American poet. Emily had a brother who had a mistress. The astronomer husband of the mistress would have known that looking directly at a faint object, is not the best way to see it. The reason lies in the fact that the centre of the retina is not the part most sensitive to light; there is actually a blind spot right there. So instead of seeing straight onto a star far away in the night sky the astronomer would be using a technique caller averted vision, looking a little off to the side. This technique will make it possible to see a faint object better.

If we transfer this into a photographic understanding it would mean to look anew at the subject. Frame it differently. Focus differently. Find another viewpoint that isn’t that obvious. Move around. As I just wrote; trying to find the unexpected approach. Take the photograph above. I was doing a story about the booming economy in Ethiopia (right now, by the way, there is a massive hunger catastrophe on its way to the Eastern parts of Ethiopia, affecting all countries on the Horn of Africa). In Addis Ababa this was evident everywhere in the newer parts of the capital. Modern office buildings and high rising constructions were popping up almost all over place. I went around shooting the construction sites and buildings in steel and glass, but at some point I looked for a more averted approach. I went inside a shopping centre and started to shoot out through the windows and got quite a different perspective. I waited for people to pass by in front of the windows to create some life and not only showing architecture and cars. The picture made as one of the main photos in the story.

Do you deliberately think of using averted vision when you shoot (even if you don’t use the expression)? If you do, let us know how you use it. I think it’s always interesting to learn different approaches how different photographers see the world.

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Lumix LX-7 with the equivalent of a 24 mm lens and the aspect ration of the frames set to panorama (16:9). The photo was processed first in Lightroom and then in Snapseed for a heighten boost. Captured at 1/1250 of a second and f/2.8.