(The deeper I get into writing-up these Ways of Working, the more I realize that in addition to being repetitive, I really don’t know much at all about photography; I’m learning, too, every time I take a picture. Given that, here’s a few words on themes: Develop.)
Shooting digital allows you two things; it gives you the latitude to make mistakes and develop skills, or it lets you take thousands of crappy pictures. Quality vs. Quantity. One or the other.
The oft-discussed long-term benefit of digital photography is that people who may have never attempted traditional photography (because of the price of film or equipment) will make great photographs with their digital cameras. The same thing’s been happening over the last ten years with cinema. But has the quality of movies improved (thanks to the ease-of-use and relatively low-cost of digital video cameras)? We can thank small cameras for the explosion of documentaries, but are there better feature films?
As with any practice, or hobby, you usually want to get better and iron out the kinks. Your particular process for getting better is as unique as your attraction to photography. You’ll figure out how to mitigate risk with your equipment, increase your luck by being in the right place at the right time, gird your chances, and generally make things better for yourself.
A great way to kickstart and observe your own improvement is to develop a theme. A location. A subject. Visit it; revisit it. (This is covered in “Repeatability“.) If you’re out on the town with friends and you don’t have your camera and regret it – bring it with you next time. Make notes of your missed opportunities so they won’t happen twice.
But getting better as a photographer has as much to do with not taking pictures as with taking them. Just because your digital camera gives you the freedom to take pictures of everything doesn’t mean you have to. Developing a theme (as well as your skills) requires discernment, an editorial touch. Everyone likes to do their editing later, at home, but you can save yourself an organizational headache by doing some editing on location, on the street.
When you get home, learn how to take a look at your own photographs and be critical. If you’ve taken a picture that you really like, try sitting on it for a few weeks, then take another look and see if your feelings have changed. (I find it hard to appreciate anything I took more than a year ago.) Most important, try to divorce yourself from your own emotional connection to the set/setting/subject and try to look at your shot with the fresh eyes of someone who doesn’t know anything about you or photography. Still like it?
A little more on not taking pictures. There are great pictures all around you. If you let a few go, it’s kind of like fly-fishing – you know where the hole is, and you can trust that the fish will still be there tomorrow. Street photography is satisfyingly infinite that way. The pictures are always out there, even if you’re not.
And just because you’ve brought your camera and raised it to your eye doesn’t mean you have to take the picture! Even if you have your finger on the shutter and everything perfectly framed doesn’t mean you have to take it. Sometimes (somewhat inexplicably) I’ll let the good pictures go. I’ll have them framed and focused and then boom, I won’t trip the shutter and the moment’s gone. But the moment’s with me – it’s in my head; I’ve taken a different kind of picture, one that can only be remembered. Sometimes those are the best kind of pictures to have.
Back to themes; take a look at the entirety of what you’ve been doing and see if you’ve developed a series without realizing it. Last week, I discovered I have lots of pictures of people walking down the street with balloons, and I have pictures of kids riding piggyback or on the shoulders of adults. Neither interest me much as a series, but they’re something, which is a place to start.
Photography is a way of learning how to see. If you can learn how to look (or see) without your camera, all the better. Sometimes I’ll visit a place without my camera just to survey and see how I’d approach it when I’m with my camera. I have a habit of clicking my fingers together every time I see something that I’d like to photograph. That way, I can walk down the street and have a normal conversation with someone while interacting visually with my environment, from a photographer’s perspective.
If you’ve discovered a location where people are involved and pre-approved access is required, all the better. Show-up, tell them you’re a photographer, be honest (or not!) about your intentions, and see if they’ll allow you to shoot on a later day.
Best of all, themes and recurring ideas give people a hand-hold when looking at your work. We’ve all seen great street photography before — how are you going to stand-out, or differentiate yourself from what’s come before? Defining your own unique approach by developing themes based on subject matter or location is a great place to begin.
Henri Cartier Bresson never took pictures at Mall of America, so get to work.