The One Thing All Photographers Do, The One Thing You Should Never Do

The One Thing All Photographers Do, The One Thing You Should Never Do

Human nature can sometimes get the better of us.  But sometimes knowing when to apply lessons and when to forget them can be the difference between taking photographs or taking photography to the next level.

I am self taught.

Well, at least in the parlance of the photography world. I’ve taken a few classes here and there. I’ve studied related fields. But I never specifically went to school for photography. I have no Bachelors of Photography degree, if that’s what it’s called. Instead, everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned by doing. By trial and error. Lots and lots or error. By putting in far more than my requisite ten thousand hours behind the lens to discover what works for me, and what doesn’t.

Emphasis on the “for me” part of that last sentence.

But, as you know, photography is equal parts art and craft. Motivated by individual artistic impulse born of someone’s soul. Executed by science and mathematics that turn that inspiration into an image.

Once I mastered the basic mathematics involved in things like lighting ratios, depth of field, and all the other crossover skills required to produce a photograph, my most powerful learning technique was observation. Quite simple, really. I’d look at the work of other photographers I admired. Then I would reverse engineer those images using my understanding of photography to figure out how they did it. Next time I was shooting, I would try out the new technique and, more often than not, voila! I was able to reproduce what I had seen. Or at least a respectable approximation of it.

For a long time, I took these accomplishments to be progress. And, I suppose they were, up to a point. Being able to make camera and light do what you want them to, when you want them to do it, is what separates a professional photographer from the majority of the population. Anyone can get a great shot once in awhile by simply shooting enough frames. But to be a Photographer, with a capital P, you need to know how you got that shot and be able to repeat it even when the perfect conditions aren’t already there.

These experiments with reverse engineering were critical to my development. They filled my toolkit with a diverse skill set that I draw from every day.

But even training wheels have their limits. After several years of this practice, I had climbed through several grades at my self-made photography school. I had a portfolio full of my own versions of a Leibovitz, a Streiber, a Watson, a Penn. I wowed my friends and impressed a client or two with my ability to light. But my growth was stunted. My glorious Freshman year giving way to a Sophomore slump. I had mastered the masters. So what was I doing wrong?

I hadn’t mastered myself. I’d learned really well how to be other people behind the camera. But, I hadn’t yet learned how to be myself.

Like an in-demand art forger, I’d learned all the brush strokes and could recreate a Picasso with such perfection that it could fool all but the most astute of observers. But being able to recreate a Picasso isn’t the same thing as actually being Picasso.

With enough practice, nearly anyone can learn a technique. But no amount of study will allow you to acquire another man’s soul. You’ll never speak with his voice, nor see through his tears.

It is our innate sensibilities and ability to translate them onto a canvas that make us who we are as an artists. Sensitivities develop through not only artistic experimentation, but a life lived without camera in hand.

Trying to emulate another artist's style without an intimate understanding of the substance dooms you to be second rate. Like Salieri to Mozart, you can learn the right keys, but somehow the tune just won’t sound the same.

And that’s OK.

Because you’re not Mozart. You’re you. No more. No less. Your voice is just as worthy of being heard as any of those masters you begin your career trying to impersonate. You just have to have the courage to speak out loud.

We make the mistake of thinking that if we can shoot like someone else, we will be successful like someone else. And while, at first, that theory may seem logical, as you attempt to progress to the next level of your career, it will quickly reveal itself to be incorrect.

Just think about it. Why would a company hire someone who can shoot like Mark Seliger when they can simply hire Mark Seliger? Who would knowingly purchase the forged Picasso? And, more importantly, why would you want to be a forged Picasso?

Your value lies in what you bring to the table. That only you bring to the table. And while observing others can help you learn technique, it can’t teach you how to be yourself.  

That is a lifetime journey. One that is impossible to reverse engineer. And one well worth taking.

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Gregory Parris's picture

Great article, and well said.

Anonymous's picture

Once I figured out my style, I realized it sucked! ;-)

Ha ha. I've been photographing for over 20 years and I'm still trying to figure out who I am as a photographer. I'm worried that when I do I'm going to be dissapointed.

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

It's called a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I didn't know at the time that it would have the word "photography" on there but it does. iPhone 6s. No Picasso know.

Cesar Sales's picture

You must be one of the final graduating class! So sorry to see that school close.

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

One of them! Yeah. I was in the middle of my masters. Very sad.

Robert Grenader's picture

Did you know Paul Meyer and his brother Don?

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

Yep! Still have them on Facebook ha. Paul is a great instructor. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to take his classes. Don is doing good! I think he just went back to Hawaii.

Cesar Sales's picture

"while observing others can help you learn technique, it can’t teach you how to be yourself. " This is taught day 1 of Photo 101 in any respectable university - the rest of the BA, BFA, MFA years are spent exploring your own style. Thus the value of a university education: there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

Is this a trick/test to see who went to school and paid attention and who is clueless?

This article's tedious prose would merit it being marked up in red from stem to stern, were it on a printed page offered for correction. The included images magnify that tedium, again earning red marks all over (focus, composition, mood, tones) were this a serious course of study, grading out at a generously given C- (so as not to discourage too much). They exhibit practically no vision, and poor technique. Not one image is a keeper in the fine art sense (alas there is some commericial use for anything). I intinctively searched for the passage wherein they are explained to be examples of early mistakes, to no avail. A check then of the portfolio behind the byline proved the images in fact to be consistent with the larger body of work. A check of reinforces this small, embarrassing, nightmare.


I bust hard on the author, because while the story purports to a humble expression of personal insight, the only well developed skill here is ego (possibly engendered by some commercial success). This temerity; to invoke Picasso as a done deal, to rattle off names of the most solid craftpeople in the commercial side, then to show nothing of the sort whatsoever, merits a rough slap down. This sort of unsubstantiated bravado in a crudely written piece larded with, "I" induces nausea.

Allowing that one article and four photos are not definitive, and negative evaluations should be done with openness, I welcome being corrected on the merits ie defend the images, the writing, or the gleaming brass balls.

A full review would include an interview, but I can ask the salient interview question from this forum, "Are you putting me on here?"

Anonymous's picture

So you went to all the trouble of writing this and then editing it and still didn't realize, and correct, your own pompous attitude? :-/

Writing, "I’d learned all the brush strokes and could recreate a Picasso with such perfection that it could fool all but the most astute of observers." when your work is not even good, is pompous. Criticizing that foolish statement as ego is not pompous, in fact in an educational setting it is simply wise, and willing learners appreciate that.

I invited replies of correction on the merits (again not pompous), you fail to do that heavy lifting. Instead you attack the messenger with an empty hand, which would earn you a failing grade in a credit course.

P.S. What you categorize as "going to all the trouble" is no trouble here:)

Hans Rosemond's picture

Perhaps what you're saying has merit, but one must consider the source. You're giving harsh criticism from the veil of anonymity. One has no idea of your credentials, skill, or authority to speak on such subjects.

Cesar Sales's picture

" I had mastered the masters." To make such a statement without the images to back it up is worthy of being called out. To make one's work public is a choice to invite comments, and commentators have no obligation to prove their worthiness to weigh in.

That's the difference between the general public viewing your photos and going through the rigor of a degree program in photography: you pay to have credentialed professors trash your work, and you learn from it. After that, putting your work out to the internet for trashing by strangers just seems pointless.

Well stated. I was waiting on the small percentage who are not intimidated by strong criticism in review to speak out ... only a matter of time.

Anonymous's picture

Criticism is often given as you have done but I think the method depends on the venue. Again, if you've paid for tutelage, and in the spirit of weeding out poor students, your approach is probably valid. In this context, however, it is not. JMO

Cesar Sales's picture

So, in this context, as professionals, if we are not to critique honestly and without personal insult, what are we to do? Is this site merely a place to come and have your ego stroked by people who will tell you "Great job!" no matter the quality?

Anonymous's picture

Absolutely not! I agree with your point except I don't believe honest critique has to be insulting. I'd love to be there when you insult your mother's cooking in the interest of honest critique! :-)

Cesar Sales's picture

I guess in this case "insult" is in the eye of the beholder, as I consider tough words about my work (tedious, poor technique, lack of vision to use phrases from the OP) to not be personal, or even insults, but direct critique that I am free to accept or not. Should the critique include content that questions my worth as a person, then yes, that is out of place.

Honest critique is applicable to a variety of endeavors - the home kitchen is not one of them!

I see that I misspoke in my previous reply - I do NOT feel that personal insults should be part of a critique.

It was honest critique. Your "insult" criteria is ridiculous. The work is just a tad below average stuff, a mockery of the article itself.

Anonymous's picture

I was using Cesar's word.

Anonymous's picture

Also, your critique was insulting. You're not his instructor and this is NOT school.
Try to get over yourself.

You must be new here;)

Only perhaps?

Please, take a hard stand; yes or no on whether the comment has merit. Then, as I invite readers to do; offer up your corrections on the merits of the story and pics. Would you grade this work a C+ rather than C-? Why? Are the images arresting, technically superlative, or just simply beautiful? This is not about me!


My writing stands on it's own. My job was to take the time to assure that readers were getting something to chew on, written without prior bias and with honest intent to educate and inform. It's the best I can do, for free;)


Anonymous's picture

He actually wrote, "Like an in-demand art forger..." It was clearly allegorical and not boasting. As for my grade, the idea that you, or anyone, has the inherent right to "grade" someone else is also pompous. By enrolling in classes, you grant that right to the instructor. I have not done so.
I am, however, impressed that you consider such a lengthy, and obviously well thought out, comment to be no trouble. I often keep my comments short, to the detriment of my point, due to a lack of time and interest. :-/

You don't need a "right" to criticise or grade, who told you that?

The methodology (thinking back 40 years to college) is to, 1. confront the work, 2. describe what you see in the vocabulary of visual analysis and, 3. draw conclusions using the full body of the history of art as a basis for comparison. That's what you would be taught as a young art historian at a university, and then that skill improves with experience. That's what evaluators do at Sothebys etc. It's a learned skill and very much a joy to practice once you catch on. I guarantee you, a C- here is a fair grade.

I see you posted a comment right below my review of the photo, "Gabe" (a man with no arms or legs) from April. In that review I received public thanks from the author for the help I lend his thinking. I did not get a ration from you on that one! The real issue here is the fear of criticism, must be some PC thing.

"You become writer by writing. It is a yoga." - R.K. Narayan, novelist (1906-2001)

Anonymous's picture

Nobody told me. I'm a self-taught person. ;-)

It's available in a library, where the self taught go to self teach.

Anonymous's picture

I go to the library to rent DVDs! ;-)