In a way, making photos is a solitary thing – it’s you behind the camera, and the rest of the world on the other side of the lens. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a lonely thing.
As an aspiring photographer, there is a lot of value in meeting other photographers. Exchanging ideas, experiences, war stories and all that provides useful input to exploring yourself further.
It doesn’t even quite matter which way the discussion swings. It may become a discussion on gear or a peer review of your work. There is always a lot to learn from the experience of others, or from how they see your work. It can help sharpen your empathy and better understand the audience of your images. What you do with such understanding, is all yours, of course. Always be weary when people start to tell you how you must do things “to do it right”. They may have valid points, but stay true to yourself. It’s your creativeness, not theirs.
The missing subject
There is one topic, though, that not surfaces very often. Sharing your way of working doesn’t happen often. Personally, I find that a real pity, as there is so much more to learn from that.
Sure, all of us will at some point press a button or flick a lever and make the exposure. That part of the effort is not all that interesting. But what goes before is. That may be a split second moment, or it may be years. In one way or another, every single photo is the result of that moment before the click. And that moment (no matter how long) is the deciding factor in the end result.
Hearing about different ways you can get there will force self-reflection. It may provide clues what or how you could change to come to different results, it may help understand your own strengths and weaknesses. If you’re lucky enough to meet those willing to share, you will come out wiser.
I have been lucky and unlucky in this respect. I’ve met those willing to share, discuss and engage. Those who never gave it any thought but were willing to embark on a discussion. Those who never have it any thought and weren’t interested. And those who do not wish to share. Let’s be clear: I count my blessings for having met the first two categories.
Not wanting to waste too many words on this, but to me it is puzzling that one wouldn’t want to share. Afraid the cook’s signature recipe gets copied?
Or afraid to receive feedback about you, as a photographer? Do you only share images to receive kudos and compliments, but not willing to reflect on yourself and your creative process? Not sharing will ultimately cause those willing to share to ignore you, and that is not their loss.
Maybe it’s just me, but I hope to get better as a photographer. If my only point of reference is what I do today, then that’s guaranteed to never ever happen. Growing is not something you do alone. Something with climbing on the shoulders of the giants that came before.
Good, on to happier pastures.
Probably there are as many “processes” to come to an image as there are photographers. But I think there are two variables that run through it that make up for much of the differences: readiness and planning.
Planning is the level on which you know up front what image you want, how it needs to end up looking. The scale goes from ‘meticilously’ to ‘none whatsoever’: precisely planned shoots like advertisement photos, studio shoots, all the way to unplannable things like wildlife, journalism or street photography.
Readiness manifests more while shooting. It’s about spotting opportunity, being ready to go with the flow as it presents itself, as opposed to sticking with a plan no matter what.
The reason to split them is because I feel they tap into two different competencies.
Planning is all pre-visualisation of a non-exisiting scene. The imagination to think up an image that doesn’t yet exist. That can be result from a advertisement agency applying a strict idea on how to portray a product. It can also be proper wild imagination. In either case: the image exists in the photographer’s mind well before it’s actually made. It is creative in the literal sense of the word: you create the image, from scratch.
Readiness is more about experience, alertness, constant observation. In a way, the art of seeing, and the art of being able to respond. Seeing a potential photo may not be that hard, but the time you have to react may be short. So you do need a sense of composition, exposure and handling your camera to make use of it.
The skills for planning are not at all at odds with the skills for preparedness. They’re not mutually exclusive, and they don’t necessarily get in each other’s way. Neither is inherently better than the other.
The results change, though. A very well-planned shoot without readiness will most likely yield exactly the desired results. Professional, dependable. You may leave some on the table, as better possibilities may have come into play for whatever reason, but you’re also safeguarded against poor results if the circumstances do not play along.
Very well-planned with readiness to me seems more of a sweet spot for things like portrait shoots, model shooting. You’re ready to use that lucky moment, but have a solid plan to fall back to if the special circumstance does not present itself.
And on the opposite end, no planning and no readiness…. heading dangerously close to the “lucky shot” territory. Yes, it can work out well. You rely on your own sense of what you like to see, and capture that without too much concern. That freedom of mind can work wonders. No pressure, no objectives. Just suck it up and enjoy, and respond from that. But it can also easily be really just a lucky shot.
No planning and readiness gets you out of the lucky shot territory. You know what you’re doing, and you’re scouting more actively for it. You turn the odds in your own favour.
The split isn’t clear-cut by any means. A photojournalist or wildlife photographer knows where to be, and when. That is a level of planning. But arrive at the right time, in the right spot, and you’re still not 100% sure what images will come out of it. So, readiness is the name of the game from there on.
Does any of us have an innate ability to either of these competencies? Perhaps. I really don’t know; yes, talented people exist, but talents also need training and practise. It seems more an ability to learn faster than it is something “that is just there”.
That said, with all people who were open and available to discuss their approach to making photos, it occured to me that the ability for planning is pretty difficult to develop. Planning, you can manage it to a varying degree, but if you struggle with it, it’s not likely to come your way. Readiness, on the other hand, is very much about doing things often enough to learn what works for you.
Whether any of those skills is innate, or learnt at a young age – no idea. I just hear the differences in approach, and see the differences in results. No expertise beyond that 🙂
Above I wrote that planning an image is closer to the literal meaning of creativeness. Personally, I do feel it is more creative actually. But I’m not too sure it’s a statement I’d defend all the way, as I may be biased.
The ability to plan and make up an image is something I envy. It’s an ability I completely lack. This is where the exchange with others get so important. Those with the ability share their way of working, and in that are tips, tricks, pointers. Is it an ability I lack, or do I just need to try in a different way?
Likewise for seeing photos from those who are very ready always. Seeing what caught their eye (a more vigilant and awake eye) provides tips and pointers what to look for. Next time, be a bit more eagle-eyed too.
The key is sharing. I don’t expect anyone to share their ideas and thoughts with me if I’m not willing to do the same. We all grow together.
What I learnt along the way is that I’m poor at planning, but halfway decent in the readiness department. Attempts at planning resulted in photos I didn’t like myself at all. I also didn’t enjoy making such photos as much.
But if I wouldn’t have tried, I wouldn’t have known. Knowing that planning is a weakness and something I don’t enjoy, frees up headspace to get better at the readiness part. Look better, see where to be for the best opportunity. If the opportunity is there, go with it. Stop second-guessing and trust the ability to make something out of it. A certain stream of consciousness. Honestly, it’s where I like to be most. Seeing the possibility for a shot, and waiting for things to align to my liking – and then be ready. Even if things don’t align, and I walk away from the possibility without a photo made, I’m feeling fine.
I’m glad I discovered this about my way of working and my approach. I wouldn’t have learned without others telling me their radically different ways of working, and subsequent some self-reflection.
Has it made me a better photographer? Mwah…. but I find it easier to be true to myself. Just do what I want to do, and work the way I want to work. It’s a hobby, I want to enjoy it on my terms. Be out there, look and try to see, and what catches my eye is what may make the next image.
And if nobody likes the results in the end, that’s OK.
How about you? What’s your lucky spot, and how do you find the images you make? I’d love to hear, the comment section is all yours.
P.S. The photos are not meant to highlight anything in particular. Just a lame excuse to share some recent photos that worked for me.