If my childhood exposure to Star Trek taught me anything it’s that you can’t mess with the time/space continuum without seriously screwing things up for everyone. Still, the reckless part of me would love to go back and have a heart-to-heart with the fourteen year-old version of myself as I fell in love with photography and began what has been a 23-year passion. Last weekend thousands of photographers converged around the world to walk and shoot, most of them hobbyists still aflame with an enthusiasm for their craft that would humble many professionals. It reminded me of those early days, made me a little nostalgic.
Still, if I could go back, give the young me some encouragement and direction, these are the things that I suspect would be foremost in our conversation. We’d probably also have an awkward chat about dating, but that’s between us.
1. Learn your craft.
In the early days you’re laying a foundation on which the rest of your photographic pursuit will be built. So dig in now. Now is the time to geek out to the limits of your ability, but make it well-directed geekery. Learn the ins-and-outs of exposure, learn to handle your camera like it’s part of your body, learn to read a histogram, and learn to competently post-process your images. Shoot, and shoot, and shoot some more. Go to the library and expose yourself to as many of the past masters of photography that you can. Get online and look at thousands of photographs. Soak in them. Immerse yourself. Read books, watch videos. Study your craft intentionally.
2. Find a mentor.
Find someone you respect, someone honest enough to productively critique your images, but kind enough not to discourage you along the way. We all take thousands and thousands of lousy photographs, it’s the dirt you have to dig through to get to the jewels. It’s the shots that work, the ones you love, that matter. The others are just the path to getting there. If we gave up the moment we took some lousy photographs, none of us would get where we’re going. A good mentor will help you navigate that. Look for gentle critics, not fans. A good mentor, or a series of them, is a priceless asset.
3. Don’t compare yourself.
Especially to the so-called pros. Being a pro doesn’t mean you’re better. It means you get paid. Being a hobbyist doesn’t mean you’re not good enough. I intentionally avoided doing this professionally for years, scared that doing it as a career would kill the passion. Eventually I found the stories I wanted to shoot so badly that I changed my mind. But in the in-between years I was no less a photographer for my lack of a pay-check. The goal of photography is not the transformation from hobbyist to professional. That may be your goal, but photography itself, the craft, has no such aspirations. It’s about expression and vision and you can do that no matter how you make a living. In fact, the hobbyist may be able to do that with fewer obstacles than the pros.
Comparing yourself to others is wasted energy and it generally only fuels the voice in your head that tells you one of two things, both of them harmful to your vision and your soul. The first message is, “that guy’s work is so much better than mine, I can’t possibly shoot that well. I will never be that good.” The second is its evil twin, “that guy’s a hack, I’m way better than that. Why is his work in National Geographic? I could shoot that stuff blindfolded.” Both comparisons will stall you in your creative tracks. And you’ll be missing the point. The point is not where you are on the ladder, it’s how true you are to your vision and whether your craft is equal to the task. It’s a journey. Compare yourself to others and you’ll miss the joy this craft can bring.
4. Become visually literate.
Photography is a unique visual language. Learning it is like learning French. It has nouns, verbs, grammar and syntax. The more fluent you are the more subtly and powerfully you can use your language skills to communicate. Composition is not something that accidentally happens as you go about making photographs, it’s the language through which photography speaks. Master composition. Learn about balance and tension, light, gesture, colour. Learn how elements relate within the frame, and with the frame, to tell your story. But learn it. I strongly recommend reading Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye.
5. Chase your vision.
At the beginning and end of photography is vision. Jonathan Swift said, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” It’s a personal way of seeing, it makes you see ordinary things in a new way and go, “A-HA!” and the camera allows you to interpret that moment and make others go “A-ha!” too. There’s a great deal to be said for the craft of photography, but unless you have something to say, it’s like learning a language with nothing to say and no one to talk to. Author Anne Lammot says that to be great, art must point at something. What you decide to point at – whether it’s the ugliness of injustice or the beauty of Vermont in the fall. is your vision. How you point at it is your craft. The more unique your vision, and the more practiced your craft, the more powerful your art.
Of course, if I were saying this to a fourteen year-old version of myself he’d be staring at me with his eyes glazed over by now, he’d probably respond with, “but I just want to make photographs.” And that’s ok too. That’s where it all starts and ends. The need to express yourself in increasingly clearer ways .The advice, that just smooths the path, takes out some of the unnecessary bumps and discouragements as you learn to put the world into the impossible constraints of the frame.