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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Previous comments
David Mawson's picture

>> 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

Definitely one of the most ironic comments I've read. As well, of course, as one of the most pompous and boring.

(Hint: learn how two write without relying on cliches and with correct use of commas before attempting literary criticism...)

Dave Spencer's picture

Really a wonderful read. Made my morning!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thank you

Michael Kim's picture

My photos have no people or personal surroundings, but they tell everything about me...

Christopher Malcolm's picture

It is interesting how what we shoot is as much about us as it is about the subject.

Michael Coen's picture

Thank you for another insightful article, Christopher. As a beginner, I've thought a lot about what you've vocalized here, specifically as it relates to finding our own style. I have no idea what mine looks like since I've been attempting to emulate the styles of people whose work I admire, in the hopes that I'll eventually discover my own.

Thanks again.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks Michael. It's definitely a process :-)

Jared Murray's picture

More than anything, I appreciate this article's affirming nature. I come to Fstoppers because I'm a very new hobbyist photographer who hopes to one day obtain the necessary skills and internal understanding in order to create something even a select few would consider artistic and insightful.

I often find myself getting discouraged because I'm attempting the self-taught route mentioned here. I can't afford more college debt in order to go back and study what I fully believe is a burgeoning passion within me. So I go this route. This article confirms the necessary work one must put in to understand the technical aspect of the medium, while further intending to push the reader to understand the internal journey required of themself.

And that such a journey would be worth it.

So thank you for helping me reach a place I hadn't yet been able to reach.

P.S. Ignore the pseudo-intellectual snobs in this forum who insist on raining empty calories of self-aggrandizement down upon your methods and prose as a way to boost their own egos.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thank you, Jared. Much appreciated.

D M's picture

"I’d learned really well how to be other people behind the camera."

As one famous illustrator, when confronted by those copying his style, put it. "They can always copy what I've done but not what I'm going to do."

Jan Freire's picture

Yep, to be honest, I never seen great photographer having a school. You can learn to see. You only can learn technique. Great article!

John Skinner's picture

You go, you shoot, you let the desk tell you how really good you are at sucking his life out with your junk just submitted.. And then you try again the next day/event.

This isn't splitting atoms at CERN, this is just making images that support the story you've been assigned to cover.

Or, easier... casual photography for the masses that read this.

0.00000001% of us doing this day in and day out will EVER get recognized for our images aside from the hordes of the people on Facebook or whatever other form of social media one chooses to pat themselves on the back with a couple of hundred 'likes'. This is just about what the people that pay you can, and cannot run, and how YOU feel the work carries you as a person making images.