Five of the Best Photography Lessons I’ve Learned

The field of photography holds many lessons to be learned. Here’s a challenge: do a quick search on Google for “photography lessons” and see how many results you get. There are literally hundreds, perhaps even thousands of websites, magazines, schools, etc. that can offer to teach you the craft to its finest detail. And that’s just Google. Head to Youtube for part two of the same challenge and see the range of video lessons you can access. There is a lot that can be said and a lot that can be taught. We can get lost in months worth of lessons about aperture, depth of field, light transmission through various media etc. There’s an almost infinite amount of information you can stuff into your head.
It’s ironic though that some of the best lessons I’ve learned in photography had nothing to do with f-stops and chromatic aberration or even exposure. Instead, the lessons that made the biggest improvements in my photos were lessons that dealt more with my approach to photography; the “airy-fairy”-type lessons that aren’t so easily found in textbooks and tutorials. For a start I’ve selected five of my favourites which I hope you’d find useful. In no particular order, here goes:

1. Nothing left to take away – My dabblings in graphic design brought me head to head with a very interesting quote some time ago: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing left to take away” – Antoine de Saint Exupery. It’s a philosophy so simple, so elemental, that it can potentially be applied to almost any of the visual arts. Before long I started adopting it as one of my main design philosophies. I’ve even seen some photographers endorse this as an approach to shooting which they’ve blogged about. It’s essentially not a new lesson. It’s been preached exuberantly from many blogs and books across the industry. It is however one of those gems I’ve found indispensable as an approach to photography. The lesson seems to be even older than I figured. Michelangelo, when asked how he made his famous Statue of David replied, “It’s easy, you just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David“. Michelangelo went on to say (speaking of another sculpture), “I saw an angel in the block of marble and I just chiseled ’til I set him free“. Genius! When there’s no more marble left to chisel away, what you’re left with is your masterpiece.

Taking Michelangelo’s remarkably simple advice on sculpting and transposing it (very much without argument), onto the craft of photography is both easy and rewarding. Some of the pictures I’ve admired most were extremely simple in composition. No clutter, no confusion, no question about what the subject or mood is. Apply this rule to simplify your compositions. Be deliberate about keeping things out of the frame that don’t belong there. Reduce and simplify until there’s nothing left to take away then press that shutter button and follow up with a smile of contentment.

2. Be selective and be deliberate – With so many potential distractions in life there is real value in learning to slow down and be selective about what we choose to heed. In the days of film I’d take a very modest Kodak automatic camera to my school field trips and one roll of film containing no more than 36 exposures. Throughout the entire trip I would of course be extremely selective about what I chose to shoot and how I shot it. Film was expensive and so was developing. A wasted shot was wasted money. Essentially, before I pressed that gloss black shutter release button I had to be sure I wanted a picture of whatever I saw through my viewfinder. Today I must say I appreciate the discipline that comes from having this experience. In the digital age its easy to lose count of how many frames you’ve shot. We barely give a second thought to how many shots we’ve already taken because storage space is almost limitless.

Along with this came a haste to point our high end DSLRs at everything shiny and click away. The discipline of being deliberate and selective about what we shoot is truly undervalued. We give in to the primal urge to “shoot first, sort later” racking up frames by the hundreds tasking ourselves later with the job of weaving through them to decide which are the keepers.

When I first started shooting for practice I shot practically everything. Plants, animals, different kinds of plants, different kinds of animals, plants, landscapes, night shots, plants… you get the picture. Over time though, I realized that I started getting “picky” about what I chose to shoot. When I “slowed down” and chose my shots out of thought and not on impulse I enjoyed the results much more. Essentially, I saw the products as a manifestation of what I saw in my head first and was able to express in the image. Shooting an endless range of subjects and in different conditions is great for practice. Once you settle on a style and taste of your own though, be selective and deliberate about what you choose to shoot. When you take up your camera set yourself a frame-count limit in your head and stick to it. Knowing you have just 36 exposures is just the type of discipline you need to choose wisely how you use them.

3. The same place in different light is a different place – I chose the feature image for this post because it’s a perfect illustration of more than one of the lessons I wanted to share. This is one of the lessons it exhibits well. I’ve been to this spot in central Trinidad countless times. I’ve spent evenings there sometimes just observing the light, the reflections, the people, the weather. Then one particular evening after a particularly rainy day I noticed something I never noticed before. The islands extending off the north coast (the blue hills in the background) were perfectly outlined in a gorgeous sapphire blue . The rain had settled the usual thick dust and the evening light, coming through with perfect golden clarity, produced a whole new aesthetic in what should have been a very routine scene. Don’t ever be afraid to visit the same place multiple times in search of new shots. With new light comes new potential. Be ready for it when it happens.

4. Change your perspective – I’m sometimes both amazed and disappointed at how cliched some photographers are in their thinking (I know that’s not you though). I’d go to a location and see an array of photographers with high-end cameras and lenses all cluttered around the same spot pointing their gear in the same direction. This may sound like a harsh way to bring across my point but photographers owe it to themselves to think more creatively. Guys, if this were a scene from a Vietnam war movie they’d all be killed with one grenade. Move around the terrain; take a low angle; climb a height. Change your perspective and shoot the scene in a way it hasn’t been shot before. Give your viewers something different to enjoy.

For years I thought Capitol Hill (Washington DC) was quite simply the gorgeous white building sitting atop an incline. When I finally had the opportunity to be there myself and walk the grounds I saw a whole new range of possibilities for “different” shots. Canon has a very appropriate marketing tagline for their lenses: “Change your lens, change your story“. The same applies to perspective. A change of perspective though requires no investment in a new lens.

5. Save some scenery for yourself – It happens too often; you set out to your location, the lighting is amazing and you spend an entire evening with your  eyes glued to a viewfinder shooting it’s beauty. You go home without a clue of what the scene itself looked like until you download your shots to sort and develop.

While it’s undeniably great that you summed up the resolve to find yourself in the right place at the right time, you should never forget to soak in some of those golden sunlight moments for yourself. Put the camera down, not too far away that you can’t reach it if things get interesting, enjoy the quiet bliss of just being there. If you’re shooting events, spare a second to make some friendly conversation with a patron. It will certainly remind you of the reason you chose to be there in the first place. Sometimes as photographers we get so wrapped up in our shooting we forget that we’re allowed to have fun and relax too. Shooting the beauty of a new location should never keep us from enjoying it as well. Always remember, having the pictures is usually the next best thing to being there. The best thing therefore, is being there.

I’ll close with a memory but I’ll make it quick. I remember once driving by the seaside at sunset on my way home. The sun was getting interesting and flaring with some colour. A quick check to my backseat reminded me I didn’t have my camera. I almost cursed. Nonetheless, I decided to pull aside and observe the spectacle. It was free after all. It turned out to be amazing. I did have some regret that I wasn’t able to shoot it. But more than the regret, I enjoyed just being there soaking in the sun as it set. It was a moment of calm, no hassle to find a composition, no checking my histogram to correct my exposure, no adjusting my ISO for a better shutter speed. Just a nostalgic gaze into a beautiful glow with a soft wind at my back. I don’t have the pictures but I have the memory. You deserve those moments too just as much as your viewers do. It may seem trivial as a “photography lesson”, but it’s all part of enjoying your art.

If you’ve read this far then I owe you congratulations and gratitude for reading. And, to bring this post to a proper close I must state as a disclaimer, that if you happen to be a photojournalist/documentary photographer covering war or conflict, advice point No.5 does NOT apply to you. A more appropriate piece of advice can be easily gleaned from that song by PinkFloyd: “Run Like Hell”.

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