People often ask how to take better photos as if there's a magic how-to list somewhere that we photographers keep hidden. With the advent of digital photography, billions of photos are taken every day and, statistically speaking, some of those are bound to be good if not great. What separates the one-offs from those who produce consistently good work? First and foremost, one must differentiate the two types of photos: snapshots—those that are little more than documentation of daily life—and photographs that have the ability to affect the viewer—those that transcend.
"A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the
deepest sense, about what is being photographed."
I believe the difference is as complicatedly simple as intent. In the beginning, photography was used as a means to document. Being much less labor-intensive than etching, drawing, or painting, it allowed photographers to be much more prolific than their cohorts and the same is no less true nowadays. We take photos of family events, time spent with friends, and funny faces our pets makes. In order for an image to affect the viewer on a deeper level, a photographer must make an photograph.
One cannot simply set out, camera in hand, and intend to make an image for the creation's sake and expect to produce a worthwhile image. Photographer and ardent proponent of photography as an art form, Ansel Adams said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."
Rather, if one intends to say something he must have something to say in the first place. For some, an artistic voice is as primary as breathing and takes little thought. As an artist, it takes time, practice, and no small amount of courage to produce a piece of art. One incorporates himself into that which he produces. It’s one’s combined life experiences— the trials, tribulations, joys—that form an artist’s voice.
Standard design concepts and composition are pretty universal and learning how to operate one’s camera can be done in a relatively short amount of time. As much as the average self-described “non-artistic” person may proclaim, one can indeed cultivate technical skill in any medium
The harder skill is being cognizant of art as a form of communication. What am I trying to say? What feeling or emotion am I trying invoke?
Some of my most intentful images are those that describe my own feelings of isolation and loneliness. The two horizontal, land-based images are the same basic concept separated by seven years. The photograph of the tree is meant to be the antithesis of the axiom “No man is an island.” The boat is very much in struggle against the darkness. They are all austere, nebulous, brooding, forlorn, uncertain.
In an interview, Ryan Muirhead discusses his discovery of being able to address his depression through his work. “When I started shooting I was miserable. I was suicidal. I hated everything about my life. I was going through tons of stuff that I had no outlet for. When I found photography it became my outlet. Soon after, I grasped the concept that you can use art to express something that is going on personally, and that other people will relate. That’s like Art 101.”
Whenever anyone asks me how to become a better photographer I rarely answer with any technical details. I try to get the person to think critically about what aspects of whatever image are most appealing regardless of medium. Most basic first: what about the image’s design catches the eye first? Then, what draws you deeper? As Adams said, “A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.” What is it about an image that is able affect you that DOES?
If you want to make rather than take a photo, step back before you press the shutter button. Don’t just “spray and pray.” Think. Contemplate. Create with intent.
"We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it,
and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium."