Are You Willing to Put in The Work To Make Great Photos?

Last week on “The Grid” (our weekly photography talk show) was our monthly “Blind Photo Critiques” episode where we ask our viewers to send in their images for a live on-air critique. We call it a “blind” critique because we don’t mention the photographer’s name on the air (in fact, I don’t even know the photographer’s name whose images we’re critiquing). That way, we can give an honest critique without publicly embarrassing someone’s whose critique didn’t go the way they were hoping.

That’s Erik Kuna and Me on the set of The Grid. It airs live Wednesday’s at 1:00 PM ET.

Making “Average” Images

One of the photographers whose images we critiqued last week was just kind of “meh,” and we said so. They were properly exposed, well-composed, no technical issues really at all — the photographer knew what they were doing, but the images themselves were just…boring. It was regular photos of regular stuff. A glass bottle on a table late in the day. A horse drinking water from a pond. They were “meh” shots. Average at best.

A little later in that same show, up comes a photo of the beautiful Hungarian Parliament House along the banks of the Danube river, and we were all like, “Oh yeah, now that’s a nice shot!” It wasn’t that this photographer’s shot was better exposed or masterfully composed, but it was the fact that it was an image of an architectural masterpiece in an idyllic setting and something we don’t see every day, and that right there makes it special. It got an emotional response from us. Maybe it’s because we long to travel there ourselves, or we’ve always loved that building, or maybe we’ve never seen that building before. Whatever it was, it moved us. It didn’t bring us to tears or have us jumping for joy, but when we saw it, we instantly had a positive reaction to it. One we didn’t have to the bottle or the horse or their third photo, which I can’t even remember what it was.

Luck isn’t a reliable photography strategy

Every once in a while, we all get lucky, and a get a great shot that just falls in our lap. Sadly, that’s usually not the case. But I hear people say things like,

“Well, sure they got a great shot — it’s easy when you’re standing in front of something like that Parliament building.”

Though I would argue I’ve seen lots and lots of shots of that building that are far from great, they’re still missing the point, and it’s one that was brought to mind by the great Joe McNally. I was at a workshop with Joe where he said something that always stuck with me. It was something his Photo Editor said to him while he was shooting for Life magazine many years ago. His Editor said:

“If you want to take more interesting photos, stand in front of more interesting things.”

—Joe Mcnally (paraphrasing his life magazine editor)

Nailed it. That was it, and that was what this photographer taking the bottle shot was missing. They need to stand in front of more interesting things, and that means putting the work in.

One of Erik’s shots taken here in Florida, which is not a place anyone who shoots lots of night sky images thinks to go shoot Milky Way shots. Yet, here it is.

I used my Grid co-host, Erik Kuna, as an example to this other photographer. Erik drives for hours on end to get to parts of Florida where the light pollution is low enough for him to make some really great Milky Way pictures (see below). Sometimes his driving round-trip alone is six or seven hours. Once he gets there, there’s often an hour or two of hiking in pitch darkness, and hours of planning beforehand, and shooting in some swampy yucky areas most of us wouldn’t consider hiking two hours to shoot in (much less stand in). But he gets the shot because he’s willing to put the work in.

Same thing with Erik’s rocket photography. He drives hours over to the Cape, often winds up having to get a hotel room for the night (on his own dime), ends up waiting hours for NASA to shuttle them out to the pad to set up the cameras, and there’s a 50/50 chance (or more) that they scrub the launch due to whether or technical issues and he never even gets to fire off a single shot. He often has to wait until the next day to go tear down all his gear just to come back, sometimes days or even weeks later, to try it all over again on another day (long drive, hotel, and all). It’s a lot of work, especially with the chance the launch might get scrubbed, but he wants the shot badly enough to do all the work it requires, and it pays off — he gets shots that not only get an emotional response, people like them enough that he regularly sells prints (helps pay for all those hotel nights).

It’s Decision Time

Are you willing to do the work, to travel, plan, or find a way to get access or permission and maybe rent the gear you need to make the type of images that move people? Images that get an emotional response? Honestly, learning how today’s cameras work is easy. They’ll almost take a great shot for you. Heck, our iPhones take great photos with little input from us other than pressing a shutter button. It’s not the gear. It’s whether we’re willing to put in the work to make those kinds of shots. It may be all that’s standing between you and the types of images you really want to make.

I’d love to hear your stories of times when you put the work in and how it paid off for you. Drop me a comment below with your story.

Here’s wishing you a week of good health, happiness, and great images. :)


P.S. We’re just a week away from our online two-day Wildlife Photography Conference. Details and tickets here. It’s going to be something special, both educational and inspirational, and I hope you can join us.

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