A Facebook friend and Instagram follower from France asks: “Tell me, what would you say to a beginner in photography? Do you have any advice to share?”
My short answer: put your camera down until you start to develop a strong eye for photography. That is, if your goal as a beginner is to produce eye-grabbing, printable or prize-worthy photos, then you must focus first on what is most fundamental to creating such quality images.
Yes, technical factors are certainly integral to creating great photos, and without first learning how to use your camera’s settings, then blur, over- or under-exposure and other missteps can mar otherwise outstanding shots.
There are myriad ways to improve technically, including using the proper lenses to capture the details of a rose versus the panorama of a landscape, how to employ artificial light to evoke certain moods, and editing in Photoshop or Lightroom. But I don’t believe technique matters as much, especially as a novice with so much already to learn, if your subjects (the people, buildings, streetscapes, etc.) and the interrelated compositions and perspectives you use to capture them are dull and uninspiring.
You’ve developed a photographer’s eye when you’re able to capture subjects in ways that intrigue. For example, you and your fellow Frenchmen have undoubtedly seen countless photos of the Eiffel Tower, most of which generally look alike in terms of the angles and depths at which the structure was shot. But a photographer with an eye can capture the tower from just a slightly different vantage point that gives the viewer an uncommon or even unique perspective.
Ultimately, many crucial elements must conspire to produce outstanding photos, starting with focus, lighting and other basics. But I think the more fundamental factors, those that you can’t necessarily rely on your camera to produce, are the interplay of subject, your purpose for photographing it, and the composition and perspective of the shot.
Is a photographer’s eye an innate talent or an ability developed over time—or both? What I can say for sure is that I developed mine through experience and observation. More on this later.
First, I must emphasize that while you can certainly learn a lot simply from taking many photos, beginners especially should couple practice with study. That is, look carefully and critically at the work of other photographers, ranging from top professionals to talentless amateurs.
Of course, in our increasingly digitized and visually oriented world, opportunities to study photos are seemingly endless. Sure, follow photographers on Instagram and create boards of your favorite photos on Pinterest. But also slowly leaf through books and magazines with quality photos and ask yourself why a particular shot caught your eye, or flip back to a photo that failed to give you pause and figure out what it lacks.
Did the subject, lighting or colors move you, or perhaps it was all these elements working together? Is the framing and perspective cliched or unique? Maybe what you like best is the clarity of the shot? Would you have a different response to the photo if the lighting were brighter or darker, or if the subject posed differently, or smiled instead of wearing a neutral expression?
Making these kind of observations routine will significantly help guide your eye toward what to pursue or avoid in your own work, including how a composition in one photographer’s photo, say, a country landscape, may be applied to an entirely different scene, such as a cityscape, in your own photo.
I started to appreciate creative photography as a pre-teen who eagerly awaited the next issue of Sports Illustrated to arrive in the mail each week. SI’s photographers typically captured compelling action shots of athletes in critical moments of competition, evoking everything from struggle to overjoy to heartbreak.
As I grew older, I’d check books out of the library such as Life compilations featuring the magazine’s most iconic images and books of New York featuring black-and-white photos from decades past that revealed to me how different the city and people looked back in the day.
I believe these observations coupled with my early dabbling in artistic drawing and, later, looking at art books (especially of representational paintings) certainly helped develop my eye for photography years later, even though I didn’t yet own a camera and rarely identified explicitly what I liked about certain images.
Years later while working as an editor who needed to fill newspapers with stories and photos, I noted how our staff photographers executed my instructions for the images I wanted to accompany our articles. Some took cliched and subpar shots; the best among them, though, used creative perspectives, often coming up with more imaginative images than I could ever envision. This taught me about the many approaches photographers can take to capture a subject or scene.
I also benefited from sifting through dozens of images with our photo editors who taught me why a particular shot told a story best, as well as what makes a photo front-page worthy. This too was part of my informal study of photography that greatly helped develop my eye.
I tell you my story to emphasize the time and effort I invested just observing photos and art before I ever picked up a camera with the intent to produce purposeful, creative shots, which came later in my journalism career.
It’s certainly true that to develop as a novice photographer you must go out and take plenty of photos of various subjects and learn by trial and error. But I believe that if you want to markedly improve the quality of your images, the most important steps have nothing to do with your camera but rather the power of purposeful observation.
So put your camera down just long enough to invest the necessary time and effort to study photos to identify and cultivate diverse perspectives. In time, as you head out to shoot, you’ll find you increasingly develop a personal eye and style and provide your audience with the substance of your own and perhaps unique vision of the world.
* Photos by Joseph Kellard; Photo of Brooklyn Bridge painters by Eugene de Salignac/ courtesy NYC Municipal Archives).