A woman recently asked me how she could become a good photographer. I told her I’d let her know how if I ever figure it out for myself. I was joking, but there was truth in it, too.
I have a tortured relationship with photography, just as I do with any kind of creative work. I have a need to create — something which I can’t explain — but I go through predictable cycles. I try to create the beauty or truth that I see in something, and I quickly rage at myself for ever thinking I had the ability to rise to the task.
Then I struggle. I learn more about my equipment. I study different techniques. I experiment and get frustrated with failure. I spend ridiculous amounts of time in Lightroom and Photoshop. After all that work, I finally create a photo that represents a glimmer of what I had hoped to make. I feel exuberant for a few minutes.
And then I notice every little detail that’s imperfect about it — and I’m back to doubting whether I’ll ever be a good photographer.
It’s easier than ever before to take pictures that are acceptable to show your friends and family. Any modern iPhone can take photos that are better than anybody but a high-end professional could have made when I was a child. The image quality available to you — for both photos and video — is astounding, especially since you probably carry such a phone with you everywhere.
But it’s hard for me to consider most of those pictures as “photography,” because very few people understand how to take decent photos and almost none of them understand what makes a photo excellent. There’s nothing wrong with the snapshots they produce, but those shots have little in common with traditional photography.
Good photography looks deceptively simple. When you see a great photo — or even a really good one — you rarely think it would be difficult to make. You just know there’s something that feels right about it. But if you tried to duplicate it, you would be frustrated and wonder what you were doing wrong.
When you first have the notion that you’d like to take better photos, you assume you just need a better camera. If you had that $2,000 camera, your pictures would be that good, too. I’ve talked to lots of people who think that.
Then they get a “real” camera — maybe as an expensive gift they’ve asked for — at which point one of two things happens. They set everything to “auto” and start taking photos which are pretty much indistinguishable from the pictures they made on their smartphones. Or else they dive into learning how to really use the camera and get tired of the difficult work quickly. Then the camera sits on a shelf and is rarely used.
Very few people get beyond that. Why? Because real photography is difficult to learn. It feels so easy when you start pushing the button in the beginning, but if you have the artistic judgment to recognize good work, you quickly understand that taking excellent pictures — even ones that look simple — requires a lot of time and hard work.
Taking photos with your own smartphone will get pictures that are about 80 percent as good as what most people will ever want. For normal people, it’s probably not worth going beyond that.
Few people will see most of the pictures you take. When you do display them, most people will see them on tiny phone screens or maybe computer screens, but of which have lower resolution than traditional prints. Almost none of those photos will ever be printed and displayed in your home or in public.
The tiny size of those phone displays will hide many of the things I consider problematic in my photos. I post things on Facebook and Instagram which I would never print and blow up for a wall, because I know hardly anybody will ever know that the depth of field on a shot was too narrow and thus caused one eye on a cat to be out of focus. Everybody would notice if I printed it for display.
Social media actually lowers the bar for the quality of public photography, because the vast majority of people on Instagram or Facebook are just looking to quickly “like” something they think is cute. Most of them rarely notice when a photo is excellent, because social media photos are the photographic equivalent of fast food.
If you want to pursue photography, I wouldn’t want to stop you. I’ll tell you that you’ll be frustrated. I can explain all the difficulties that will lie in your way. I can also warn you that most people won’t understand the improvements you make along the way. Very few people will appreciate all the time and effort you put into developing your talent and honing your skills.
But if you have some inner need to do it, I wouldn’t try to talk you out of it.
You will spend years learning the intricacies of equipment — including why the first cameras and lenses you buy will be junk — and then you’ll spend even more time scraping together the money to buy better gear.
You’ll spend hours shooting photos and being frustrated with yourself, because what you see in your mind’s eye so rarely appears in the final image. You’ll discover that shooting a great image is only the first half of the battle — and that editing in increasingly complex software is the other half.
And you’ll go through the cycle I described earlier. You’ll hate your work and then finally think you’ve made a breakthrough to something good, only to discover how much you have left to learn and how flawed your work is.
You will want to love your photos — and sometimes you will — but you’ll spend a lot of time doubting whether you’re ever going to have the talent you need to make what you want to make.
If you’re OK with all that, then plunge right in. We all have our reasons. Some of us simply have to do it, because it would kill us not to be prepared to make the images we see in our minds.
For me, I have one big reason that keeps me going. You see, I have images in my head of making photos of my future family. Not just formal photos — which I see as pretty boring — but casual, candid photos of real life. Pictures which are slices of real life that are good enough to blow up and hang on a wall.
I’d like to make beautiful photos of my future wife. I’d like to make good art out of our children as they grow up. I’d like them to know I love them enough to put effort into making all of them look like living art for our walls.
I’ve made money from photography over the years, as a newspaper photographer and even as a freelancer for a magazine, but that’s not my real reason for getting better at what I’m doing.
I’d like to be able to take excellent photos of my family one day. I’d like to be able to make it into a beautiful book — with lovely photos and essays about the people I love — and present it to them to say, “I made this because I love you.”
If I’m able to do that, all the work will have been worth it. In the meantime, I’ll keep struggling and doubting myself every day as I strive to become good enough. And one day, I’ll have one more tool by which I can show my family — at least in this small way — how much I love them.