From casual picture-taker to advanced amateur to professional shooter, what does one need to take his or her photography to the next level?
Aside from a passion for photography in general, I’d have to say one of the first things is the ability to honestly critique your own work. Sure, having a great eye and technical proficiency with your equipment are very important, but the ability to truly know what are and aren’t good photos that you have shot is an important talent.
You can’t always rely on close friends or family members. Their relationship with you could taint their opinion of your work. Either they may think that everything you do is great, or if they don’t, they won’t tell you in order to spare your feelings.
It’s easy to critique someone else’s work, because you have no vested interest in them other that if you like them or not. Your own work is another story. Many photographers think of their pictures as their “babies” and have emotional attachments to them. One may have gone through great lengths to get a shot from waiting to get the right moment or right light to setting up some unusual access in order to get the picture from a different angle. All that is well and good, but those things don’t necessarily make for a great shot. And remember, a portfolio of work is only as good as its weakest photo.
A good rule of thumb to ask is this: Is it a photo of a great event/moment/subject, or is it a great photo of said event/moment/subject? The distinction being in the former you’re relying on the subject matter to say how good it is, and in the latter it rests on how well you actually shot the photo. In other words, it’s the difference between, say, a celebrity shot by the paparazzi on the red carpet at a movie premiere and a portrait shot by famed photographer Annie Liebowitz. The first could be shot by anybody, but the second is something special.
The National Press Photographers Association holds it’s “Flying Short Course” around October every year. It’s a seminar that makes stops around the country featuring some of the most talented and biggest names in photojournalism. I attended one many years ago as a budding young photographer. One of the events held after all the lectures and workshops was the portfolio review. The featured speakers and other photo heavy hitters gave critiques to young up-and-coming photographers. I waited patiently and had mine done by the director of photography of National Geographic magazine. I felt that I had put together a decent set of photos and was hoping to get a little positive feedback and maybe, if I was lucky, a little praise. Boy, was I wrong. He, in a bluntly honest fashion, criticized everything from the subject matter to the size and quality of the prints. To add insult to injury, he had a young female photo student sitting at his side to chime in. When it was done I thanked him quietly and walked away dragging my bleeding ego behind me on the floor.
But after licking my wounds, I began to think more about what he had said rather than how he said it, and it all was true. Everything he said was true. Though my pictures were decent enough for an amateur, I was wedded to those pictures, and that fact blinded me to the fact that they weren’t good enough to reach a professional level (which every young photographer in the room was striving for).
Once I realized this, it became easier to see what was lacking (as well as what was good) about my photos. The first step in taking the next step to becoming a pro — or just improving your photography — is to be able to look at your own work with a dispassionate, even brutal, eye. Because if you don’t, someone else will.