Lessons from Photography: Art and Life

(Image Credit: Unsplash.com)

I’ve been practicing photography for several years now. In that time, I’ve transitioned from being an amateur, pointing and shooting without much consideration for composition to being significantly more compositionally assured and intune with what I’m creating as I look through the viewfinder. My taking up of photography was born from my interest in cinema — being unable to afford to make films at that point, I took on a somewhat more affordable medium to hone my visual eye.

Photography has been a part of me for almost a decade now. My nikon is a companion, an old reliable friend. It’s a process that I’ve nurtured throughout my twenties, as I’ve grown and changed and challenged myself as a person, I’ve done the same with my photography. As I’ve developed as a person, I’ve developed as a photographer.

  1. Patience is Essential
All photos taken by me.

Patience is one of the fundamental qualities for a photographer. Solid pictures often don’t just ‘come’ and it can take years of study and practice to begin snapping them with relative ease, to have that sense of composition and technical understanding ingrained as you pan the area before you, framing the images. Patience is especially important as a lot of photography comes down to waiting for the right ‘moment’ to get the best images, such as the sunrise or a change in the shape of the shadows on the subject. During this period, impatience grows. It can be easy to want to give up and go home. Sometimes the waiting can offer no results, like trying to frame wildlife in an aesthetically pleasing way, only for the creature to scurry off without giving you any decent angles. Patience is vital in these processes, when chance can be the deciding factor in a good picture. Likewise, it has its importance in the learning process as well. Things seldom come into place immediately, neither in art nor in life. In regard to our own abilities, it can take a long time before things seem to advance, before we really notice improvements in ourselves.

A lot of photography is about developing confidence and speed. If you fail to capture, say, a flock of birds at the right moment, you may need to wait a good while before another opportunity arises. This is an undoubtedly frustrating element of the art — the loss of a chance. It takes time to learn how to capture those moments, to see the opportunity for good pictures as they unfold before you in those sudden outbursts.

Part of ‘getting good’ so to speak is by discovering a love for the growth process itself, even when it appears to slow or stagnate. Loving the long waits, the cold and wet days, travelling around for a few hours to find interesting photographs. I found, when it comes to practicing as a photographer, you can have many adventures and see many things, meet many people, during your hunt for the photos to take. Part of any process is finding success, challenges and most importantly, love, for what you’re doing: if you don’t love the process, you cannot keep up with the work it will take to improve your results. It can be a long journey, so learning how to wait and take time is always worthwhile.

2. Consistency is Key

In order to improve at something, we have to persist with it.

An important step in photography is to always be snapping, to always have a camera (of some sort) with you — even if it’s just a camera phone. The guaranteed way to improve at something is to keep at it, to continually practice it. Even on the way to work or classes it is useful to at the very least consider (if you’re not running late!) to snap a few pictures of potentially interesting sights or objects. Developing it into a habit means that fewer opportunities will be missed. In order to improve at something, this consistency needs to be obeyed. Whatever it is — photography, an instrument, confidence building, social skills — there has to be a dedication to working on it day-by-day. We rarely experience improvements in great sudden waves, but rather as small building blocks that add up over a considerable amount of time. Our advancements and improvements are stages that we can look back on, from one period in time to another. It’s not usually something that we even really noticed changing, it happens so gradually.

It’s easy to feel like giving up, to feel frustrated that we’re not improving at all. When we look at others and the work they do, we can feel inferior: a dreading sense that we’ll never accomplish what they can, that we’ll never be as good as they are. In an insecure state, we construct the idea that these people are ‘naturals’ and that their talent or skills must surely be innate. What looks easy or natural to us, as we begin our journey into something, is commonly the result of years of consistent work, practice and study, and of self-challenge that we have not observed. It’s important to remember that ‘getting good’ is a long road, one of continual development; not a sudden burst of unprecedented skill.

3. New Perspectives on Old Ground

I’ve shot in some of the same environments time and time again. One of the challenges shooting in a known or previously-shot place is that it allows you to experiment a bit. It offers the challenge of finding new ways to look at things, new angles, new compositional ideas:“What if I frame this more off-centre?” “What if I go lower and point up at this?” “What if…?”

Doing this kind of exercise, you push yourself to explore something more thoroughly, to try to find points-of-interest that may not be readily apparent. Covering old ground can also be comforting as you know it well, it brings to mind old experiences or interesting events from previous shoots. You may feel less overwhelmed by the area than you do when shooting an unexplored terrain. Of course, the familiarity can feel stifling as well, which leads to a sense of artistic limitation. But this in itself can sometimes become a feature: by retreading familiar territory, it can push you to find what’s unfamiliar with it, whether that is differing lighting or more abstraction in the images, or it may teach you to observe what kinds of locations are ripe with potential images and which are more scant.

Setting these types of challenges improves one’s visual eye. You train yourself to re-examine something or somewhere, to really push yourself to explore it fully and find new elements within it. Of course, there are such areas that yield very few new interests — or even none of all — but even that is a bit of a lesson. It trains you to see places in more detail, to see the potential and intrigue of them, to know whether there’s a lot of visual interest here or not. Coming back somewhere, whether you get a lot of new pictures or not, can still be valuable in furthering your own abilities whether technical skills or visual ideas, or your artistic intuitiveness .

4. Finding the Personal and the Style

As you develop artistically, you begin to discover stylistic leanings both in how you shoot and what you like shooting. Some favour portraits of people, others like wildlife, some prefer expansive landscapes. Some shoot in colour, some in black-and-white. Some prefer brightly lit and even-looking night images where everything is in full visibility, others prefer more low-key lighting and naturalistic darkness. Some like bright colour palettes and others prefer more muted tones. Some find meaning in harsh lighting, others in soft lighting. Experimenting with style will help you uncover what kind of pictures you like to create. There’s no real answer to what you can and can’t create, it’s all about the connection between your personal interests and the stylistic expression that you approach them with.

For years, I devoured other photography and cinematography works. I bought how-to guides and would sit in libraries thumbing through photography collection books. I looked at the lighting, camera placement, framing, composition. All the elements. I studied impressive looking films in the same manner. I drank-in the images, finding both the rudiments of composition and developing my own taste for certain artistic choices. Never be afraid to look for inspiration, especially from many sources. Whether it’s other photographers, films, or even paintings. If it can be expressed visually, we can learn from it.

5. Do it for you. The validation of others is fleeting as a reward.

It’s easy to overvalue the praise or dismissal of others. When we do something purely to impress people we become somewhat removed from our own processes and satisfaction. Instead of expressing ourselves, we seek validation. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to communicate with others, in fact, that is a fundamentally important aspect of all art. The problem becomes apparent when we are overinvested in what others think of what we do. Our work or art or personality becomes less about what we want to communicate but rather how others think of us. It’s the sense of always second-guessing yourself, always trying to please other people. We exhaust ourselves looking for validation, the work we do becomes less of a pleasure and more of an insecurity.

Ultimately, we cannot please everyone. We have to make choices that feel right by us, that capture how we experience and see the world. We cannot produce art purely for the praise of others. Eventually that resource will be tapped dry, and we’ll find ourselves starved for praise and validation once more. It’s extremely easy to be discouraged and give up when our barometer is obtaining nice comments from others, especially during our early period when we’re only beginning to stretch our fingers. I suspect Instagram and other social media outlets intensify this problematic desire. From experience, when I began posting photographs on my Instagram account, my pride and estimation of my work became eerily tied to how many likes I was getting. I hashtagged the living hell out of them to expose them more and get increasing numbers of likes. The images that didn’t get as many ‘likes’ were deleted, even if I thought them quite good pictures in their own right. I simply rejected my own thoughts in favour of the number of faceless strangers clicking a button.

6. See the world in a new light.

When I was a teenager my approach to going out into the world was to walk with my head down, looking at the ground. I had terrible social anxiety and was afraid of just about everything and everyone.

Now, as I walk through an environment, my eyes are darting here and there. I look everywhere. I stop for a minute and examine the world around me. The shapes, the people, the sun’s positioning, the walls, the stones, the trees, the ground, the sky and clouds. I observe long and take-in everything. I gaze around keeping potential images in mind. I stoop down, lie down, kneel. I observe environments — city, hills or forest — as intently as I can, trying to spot things of intrigue, beauty, or more deeply, things that capture the essence of the place. I see the world in a completely different light as I’ve developed as a photographer. Once it was vague, big and threatening. Now it’s expansive, precise, and full of stories, and my camera is a means of capturing those elements, of giving a place its tone and poetry.

I think that is how I’ve come to view photography. It’s a reversal of poetry in a sense: where poetry is the construction of images and stories through words, photography in the construction of stories, moods and ideas through images. The fundamental elements of photography — lighting and composition, subject and lens choices — are what gives the images their expressions. They’re a representation of how someone perceives the world, the place, the person or situation that they’re capturing. For me, it’s a continually developing process, expressing pieces of the world around us and capturing moments, glimpses and narratives within the frame, found as we look through the viewfinder. It’s a way of understanding what’s going on around you.

My passions include cinema, literature, fantasy, psychology, music/guitar, photography and ancient/medieval history.

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