Two Things Photographers Can Do to Make Their Work Better
If you have an iPhone, the start of this story should sound familiar… I was having an argument with Siri. It was about trying to get Siri to play some music on my phone. After I asked Siri to play a certain artist/album combination, first without, then with, profanity, for a moment I imagined that I might never hear music again.
That got me thinking about my desert island disc (or I guess, download, these days). The one or two albums that you would want to have if you were stranded on a desert island. On the surface, it seems like a pretty easy thing to do. Just think of your favorite music/artist/album and pick. Of course, it is never that easy. Too many choices. Jazz, Blues, Rock, Indie, Hip-hop… Not to mention which artist or album.
As I sat pondering what my selections would be (at least what they would be today), I began to think about how this relates to photography. I’m lucky to be able to not only be a full-time photographer but to also have the privilege of getting to teach and mentor other photographers. In almost every workshop or class I teach, I’m asked questions that I think of as desert island photography questions. If you could only have one, which camera would it be? Other than palm trees, what would you want to photograph? What software program would you want to have? What light modifier would you want? And the list goes on.
At one point I posed the question: “If you could only do one thing to improve your photography what would it be?” The responses are as varied as people’s taste in music. Get a new camera. Take a particular class or workshop. Get a new lens. Make more time to shoot. And the list goes on.
I’ve found that my own answer to this question hasn’t changed much over the years. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching a Lightroom workshop or about to create images with alternative processing. These are the two things that I think every photographer can do to make their work better.
#1 Learn and Apply Lessons from Photographic History (and not just the textbook version)
I got my initial interest in photographic history researching how to print old alternative processes (wet-plate, platinum, salt, etc.). I was looking into how to combine modern digital technologies with processes that were there at the very beginning of photography.
Some of the earliest indicators of people working with a camera date back as far as 400 BC. Mozi in China and the Greek philosopher Aristotle both made references to the concept of a camera obscura. In case you aren’t familiar with such old technology, a camera obscura is the precursor to the modern camera. It is a box with a hole on one side, and as light passes through the hole, an inverted image is projected onto the back of the box. You find this same technology being used in pinhole cameras today, and this same principle is used in modern day digital cameras too.
Photography, as most of us know, it also has its roots in France. In 1816, Nicephore Niepce successfully coated a piece of paper with silver chloride and created one of the first latent images that we would consider a photograph. Over the decades that followed, Daguerre, Fox-Talbot, and others pushed the chemistry of photography forward ushering in the age of photography. From my perspective, the biggest change was created by John Herschel. He not only coined the term photograph in 1839 and created a number of advances in photography, such as cyanotypes and the foundation of platinum printing, but he figured out how to stabilize those latent images so that they would last. By “fixing” Talbot’s and Daguerre’s processes, he made it possible to create lasting images. This process of fixing, by using hyposulfite, is why we still use the term fixer when working in the traditional darkroom to stabilize film and prints.
From the beginning, photography has been used to tell amazing stories and record the history of everyday life. Even before George Eastman released his Brownie camera in 1900 making it easy for anyone with a spare $1 to have access to create a picture, photography was changing the way we saw the world. With an ever-increasing number of photographers with access to cameras, film, and printing supplies, the moments, objects, and people of everyday life were put in front of a lens.
We became able to capture and share amazing things and amazing moments in everyday life. Not only could we record them, but we could infinitely reproduce the captured image, which in many ways separated it from painting. Photography was really something special.
Beyond capturing the everyday, photography was, and still is, used to explore areas of culture, race, gender, and social status in ways that weren’t possible before. From the essays written by Frederick Douglass in the 1800s―who was the most photographed person of his time―on the equalizing power of photography to deal with racism and civil rights to Lewis Hines’ work with child labor issues in the 1920s to Diane Arbus’ willingness to examine the issue of mental health in the 1960s to Florian Schultz’ work on environmental issues of today, photography has allowed us to see, share, understand, and experience the world in ways we didn’t, or couldn’t have, before.
Although photography is a relatively new art, it has had immeasurable impact. When you broadly study photographic history, you learn about more than just one way of seeing. You can learn so much how photographs have been able to shape our understanding of who we are as a society. As you look at photographers from current and past times, you can see how aesthetic, social issues, storytelling, and passion all come together.
You also have a chance to expand your own understanding of how events from the past have been seen through the eyes of all the photographers of that period. Much like the rest of history, you won’t necessarily find the best of photography in popular history books. Recorded history has often glossed over or entirely ignored people because of race, culture, social status/class, gender, and so on. However, because photography as a tool is so accessible, if you take the time to look, you can find amazing photographers who have/are making a difference in all aspects of life.
Several years ago I had the privilege of getting to meet the amazing photographer Matika Wilbur. If you’ve met her, you know that she is 100 percent high octane. Matika is a Pacific Northwest photographer and member of the Swinomish and Tulalip tribes. She is working on project called 562. Matika has taken on a project of huge scale. She is photographing the people and cultures of all 562 registered Native American tribes. Her work is important for so many reasons, but in the context of history and photography, the work is even more significant. Most of the images that you have seen in history books and stories of Native Americans are images taken by Edward Curtis in the early 20th century.
Those images have—for good and for bad—shaped the stereotypes, identity, and cultural awareness of Native Americans for the past 100 years. At the core of Matika’s work are wonderful stories about Native cultures, traditions, and opportunity. Through the use of photography to educate the world with new Native-created images that aren’t 120 years old, she is able to help redefine and reshape Native cultures and the broader social culture in ways that are more relevant today. If you understand the history of the portrayal of Native American cultures in photography beyond even just Curtis’s work, you can better understand her work and its context in the broader photographic community.
She is just one example of the thousands of photographers who have looked at the history of photography and used what they have learned to shape and direct their own work. Beyond the technical information, by digging into history we learn how photography shapes ideas and values. The history of photography re-teaches us the power of the photograph and its ability to shape how we think, what we know, and how we respond to the world around us. It always expands us when we look at those who have found a passion, and through research, dedication, and hard work are making photographs that will last long into the future.
We have to break out of looking at the same things over and over to find how all the voices of photography have shaped who we are. Look at the work of Magnum photographer Eli Reed and see who influenced him. Who did he influence? Same goes for Alec Soth, Lorna Simpson, Matika, Helen Levitt, Berenice Abbott, Stacy Pearsall, and countless others. You likely already know the work of Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Weston, Frank, and the other well-known photographers in history, but I challenge you to find the amazing photographers whose work you don’t know. Study their work. You will be surprised by what you learn.
#2 Print Print Print (Did I mention print?)
A few years ago, I was watching a movie with one of my roommates, and she said that she was going to make cookies and asked if I wanted some. I love fresh-baked cookies, so I was like “Oh HELL yeah!” Ten minutes later she walked into the living room, handed me a spoon with cookie dough on it, and said “Here’s your cookie.” With a blank look and totally confused, I said “Uh, this is cookie dough. Not a cookie.” She said “Same thing!” and proceeded to eat a bowl of cookie dough. In my world, cookies are like photographs: if they aren’t baked, they aren’t done.
For me, the print is the photograph. It is the final stake in the ground that says “This image is done. I am finished editing, changing, and adjusting.” I am willing to say that I am confident enough in the work to make an artistic commitment. Part of photography is about your commitment to sharing your way of seeing the world. Only after you capture an image, make all the edits (from none to full-on compositing), and are willing to say that the image is done does your way of seeing the world or being in the world become realized.
In the old days (forever ago, like before Game of Thrones, Facebook, and fancy Greek yogurt), if you weren’t shooting slide film, you had to print. It was the only way to see the positive version of the negative. However, as digital became the norm, we moved to images being on the screen. In that transition, amazing tools have come along that allow us to make never-ending changes to the negatives. Some of those changes might be small and others huge but this transition also allows us to experience our work without having to ever be done with it. We never have to put a stake in the ground. It never requires that we commit to being done enough to create a physical object.
Now you might be thinking “Daniel, I don’t print because my work IS digital. It is my way of being in the world.” That’s great, and I would still postulate that printing on occasion will help you see behind the camera better, understand color better, understand composition better, and help you understand how others might see your work. It is a big piece of the feedback loop that tells you how you are doing behind the camera.
Another reason to print is that when we work with tangible arts, we respond differently than we do photons and electrons. The brain relates to the information in the print differently than on the screen. We see differently. This is no different from any other art form. It is always a different experience to stand in front of a Monet or Van Gough than to look at a reproduction. Photographs are no different. As photographers, we are all about seeing, and seeing differently can help push you forward.
When you print an image, you can look at it up close and from far away. You can see how it looks under different light. You will start to see things that you didn’t see in the digital file. Relationships between objects and subjects. How color shifts across hues and tones. When you are not worried about hi-pass filters, noise reduction, and masking, what do you actually look at first in an image? How does your eye move around the frame?
When you have to look at an image that you can’t immediately edit, it requires you to really think about what is working and not working rather than just reacting. Having a print allows you to see the same image over and over again over time. The image isn’t lost with the closing of a window. The more time you spend with the image, the more it will teach you. In this way photographs are superior to cookies because they never last.
Getting to look at your images at the actual size you imagine is another advantage of printing. I work on 27-inch monitors (13×23-inch screen size). I am limited to seeing my images at that size. Printing allows me to experience the images at the size that I imagine. I can’t fit that 24×26-inch image on the screen.
Printing also forces you to think about how you want your images to be seen and experienced. Do you like a matte paper or luster paper? What does the paper do to the saturation of the colors? How are gradients shown? What does the texture of the paper do to your feelings about the image? What if you print the image big? What about small? How big should the border be? How white should the paper base be? All of these issues matter in how your audience will ultimately experience your image.
Printing also ensures that the image looks exactly how you want it to look. If you have ever sent an image off and looked at it on another computer screen, you know what I’m talking about. You do not get to control the brightness, contrast, or calibration of someone else’s monitor. Things can go wrong in a hurry. Think about how much your monitor shifts when you calibrate your own monitor, and imagine monitors that have never been calibrated. After you get your final print, you don’t ever have to worry about the print going out of calibration.
You might be thinking that it costs too much to print. I can tell you that at a place like Mpix, Bay Photo, or Costco, an 8×10 print is about $3. That means that for the price of that new $1500 camera you can get something like 500 prints. I can promise you that you will become a 1000% better photographer by looking at and learning from what you see in those 500 prints than you will working with a new camera and creating the same errors over and over again.
So there you have it. My two desert island tips for photographers. Print your work. Commit to finishing the work. Learn your history. Not just the textbooks, but really learn everything about the photography you love. If you love street work, find every street photographer and learn from them. It doesn’t matter what type of photography you love: if you study beyond textbooks, you will fall more deeply in love with it.
Thanks to Scott and Brad for allowing me to come back and do another guest blog post. It’s always fun to get to be a part of such a great community. If you are heading out to Photoshop World (and why wouldn’t you?), I’d love to see you in one of my classes. Or just stop and say Hi. Hope to see you in July.
Oh, and assuming that Siri and I ever get our differences worked out, the music will be some Miles Davis and the Beatles.
Editor’s Note: there are still a few spots available in Daniel’s Photoshop World workshop: Hands-On Portfolio Prep. In this workshop, you’ll have one-on-one time with Daniel where he’ll help guide you in discovering your own motivations for selecting what you photograph and why. You’ll also learn how to sequence your photos for the best possible presentation of your images.
Daniel j Gregory is a Whidbey Island, Wa based fine-art photographer and educator who often creates images using modern digital tools and historical processes. You can see more of his work at DanielJGregory.com, listen to his podcast The Perceptive Photographer on iTunes, his KelbyOne class Visual Literacy, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. You can also see him live in person at Photoshop World in Las Vegas from July 18-21!