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.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Great article, and well said.

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.

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.

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

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

Did you know Paul Meyer and his brother Don?

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.

Yeah, Don has been back on the islands for about 6-8 months?

"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?"

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:)

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.

" 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.

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

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?

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! :-)

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.

I was using Cesar's word.

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;)


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)

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

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

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

Mine has free coffee and great bathrooms!

As I see you childishly tapped the thumbs down on an honest review, (a really lame move for a writer) I can only surmise this URL is some cheeseball attempt to denigrate that same review online, via some social media. Good luck!

I'm not sure "childish" is the correct word; the thumbs down functionality was conceived, coded, and implemented by adults, it's rather demeaning to refer to their work as childish. I made use of the functionality of the site to show my opinion about a comment that I believe adds no value to any discussion, and was just some anonymous person's silly attempt at stroking their own ego.

Disallowing you argument via soft logical fallacy, we must note I did not refer to the implementation of a thumb-down button as childish. I stated, "... you childishly tapped the thumbs-down on an honest review." Nice try at bait & switch.

You are entitled to the cheap button push but I invited correction, on the merits of the work here. You passed on that in favor of just the lazy button, a no-no for a writing pro, if only because you deny everyone your real insight on the matter at hand. By any adult standard my original comment was both well-written and valuable to willing learners. I'd still like to read your review of the images ....

Correct. You implied that the usage of the feature was childish, as if you somehow have the power to dictate reality. Since you don't have that power the only thing that makes any logical sense is that you believe the thumbs down button is inherently childish. Also, there is no such thing as a "soft logical fallacy". Since we have already established that you do not have the power to dictate reality, your decision to "disallow" something on the grounds of a non-existent fallacy is confusing, to say the least.

Finally, you seem to be very excited about the idea that you are some sort of valiant internet critic with an excessive vocabulary, but I would challenge you to not hide behind a nameless, faceless account. You share no work of your own, you are unwilling to put your own name and reputation behind your opinions. It's really a rather cowardly thing to do.

Yes, I am correct, thank you. In clarification and excuse me, soft fallacy is "informal fallacy," as resorted to by you in your post as I explained.

To the topic at hand; you have four images here, cut to the chase & explain why they are above a C-, ie average or better. That should be easy for you if they are, after all you are pro photography writer. Btw if you think your sports grab shots and casual portraits are some basis for you to make demands of anyone, think again. And as for the ad hominem attack, grow up.

"The real issue here is the fear of criticism, must be some PC thing."

While you might not fear a thumbs down you certainly love to shrug off the symbolic criticism with a "it's them and not me" kind of attitude. Looking through your comment history has provided a lot of entertainment tonight so thanks are in order.

Look up a photo here by Rex Jones titled "Gabe" (of a young man without any limbs) read my analysis and check yourself. That is standard analysis of some fine work. I'd post the URL above that comment to make it easy, but it posts the photo too and it takes half a page.

As the dude would say "Yeah well, like, you know.... that's just your opinion man"

I think you've missed the point in that everyone is trying to make in that you come off as a pompous ass in the way you comment and that might be your intent. While the use of the english language might be a strength of yours, your social skills are lacking. You could also just not care.... which one is worse is up for debate.

Funny, but this is the sentence that gets me the most confused: "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."

Not sure what he thinks goes on in a degree program, like we're mindless receptacles just having knowledge input through the base of the skull as we sit around and drink. We did all that he did and more, and had knowledgable people to help question our work, over and over and over again.

Oh. You have a degree in photography or something. Do you think he was "trashing" that route or ??? I didn't get that impression at all. Personally, I think there are many roads to most places and none, more inherently advantageous than another.

While I totally agree that there are many routes, it's his use of the word "Instead," directly opposing his route to that of the other. It's a minor thing, but I do believe he feels that a university program is not as rigorous as his method, and it's worth noting it is likely moreso.

Okay. We can disagree without being disagreeable. :-)

The crux is he didn't back up his "self-taught" theme with a demonstration of it working. He might have substituted "untaught" and avoided criticism.

I don't believe he's downing degree programs per se, more just clueless. You will take a beating here for being "uppity" don't let it set you off:)

I get how that might rankle you, and I agree completely on the rigor. A great professor pressures poor students to get out of art photography because they weaken the class, and tells the good ones where they are weak, to strengthen it. It's the rare day that compliments get passed out in a good fine art program. But those are the days!

Do you look at

I hadn't seen that before and will add it to the daily read! Just noticed one of the states project guest editors was my fellow student in the MFA program.

Check the archive, a certain small % of the work rocks the house.

You must be a hit at parties.

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