Photographers: Why You Should Give Away What You Know
A few months ago, I was out at dinner with a couple of friends of mine. We had each just finished up our respective shoots and had settled into a booth where the conversation inevitably turned toward who we shot, where we shot, and whether or not we were happy with the in-camera results (we were). That night, we spent the better part of two hours eating, drinking and sharing our techniques with one another.
As I drove home that night excited to get home and try some new techniques I’d just learned, I thought back to a conversation I overheard about a year prior between two photographers. The first, an older photographer, was chastising the second for showing a younger, less-experienced photographer how he had edited a set of photos. “Why would you tell someone how you edit your work?” the first photographer said. “That’s giving away your bag of tricks!” The second photographer seemed taken aback for a moment, as if he’d never considered what he was doing to be such an offense. “I never thought about that,” he said. “I was just helping someone out…” The conversation carried on for a little while longer, until the second photographer agreed he shouldn’t be giving away and/or sharing his “bag of tricks,” especially in a industry which relies so heavily on one’s own creativity.
Shortly afterward and still with that conversation in mind, I found myself looking through some of my old photography albums. Focus, tone, fashion, and composition issues aside, I realized was that while I was coming up, someone else (of lot of someone else’s for that matter) had shown me their technique and their secrets. The more I looked through my work, the more I saw how it had evolved and I knew that reason for that was because I had so many others who took the time to share their techniques with me. The feeling of indebtedness was overwhelming. And it was one that I immediately felt needed to be paid forward. But how?
The opportunity arrived later that month, when a younger, less-experienced photographer contacted me and told me that he loved a couple of the photos I’d recently posted. He asked me what my process was for shooting, retouching, and toning, and not only did I explain to him what I’d done and how I’d done it, but I went ahead and gave him the presets I’d created for that particular set of photos as well. In effect, I’d given him all the tools he needed to recreate my work. Sharing my technique in such an open way was a first for me, and it was one that I found to be really quite liberating; knowing that someone could reproduce meant that if I wanted to keep my work fresh, I need to learn something new.
I realize giving away secrets and/or technique is never going to be a popular idea. Photographers, on the whole, tend to be very protective. I’ve found that if you ask someone about the settings they use, the teams they work with, the spots at which they shoot, how they edit and retouch, and even the gear for which they shot a particular photo with, you’re more likely to get a blank stare than an answer. And I think that’s wrong.
As a working photographer and as someone with a desire to keep my work current, almost nothing stands out to me more than the fact that when we keep our technique so close to our vest, we’re prevented from learning something new. Personally, I discovered that when I was trying to keep my techniques a well-guarded secret, my work neither grew nor changed. I was stagnant and everything I produced all seemed to have a similar, almost lifeless feel. But in giving it all away, in emptying my bag of tricks so to speak, I was forcing myself to push forward. I’m convinced that our competitive spirit sees giving everything away as a challenge and thinks, “someone else knows what I know, someone else can do what I do. it’s time to step it up, it’s time to learn something new – it’s time to take my work to the next level.”
To be honest, the thing of it is, there really are no secrets and there aren’t any tricks. This is not the ethereal world and we’re not wizards (sorry). We each use what we know and have available to us at the time. And when our style and our tastes change, we move on to something new. What we’re giving away isn’t secrets and tricks, they’re just shortcuts we’ve learned, mostly likely from someone else who told us their technique in which we tweaked to make our own.
It’s simple really; when we give away what we know and we allow ourselves to start over. As artists, isn’t it our job to keep pushing forward? Shouldn’t we constantly be looking for anything which will bring about a new style, a new look, and/or a new direction which keeps our work fresh? And shouldn’t we, when we’re feeling comfortable with all that, give it away and start all over again?
I think we should.
Besides, it’s 2014. We have the Internet. People are eventually going to figure it out.