Today, cameras are easy to use. The skill of photographers has shifted from learning how to handle a camera to learning how to handle what happens in front of it. Do you have this skill?
Let's be honest. The golden ages for photographers are over. Everyone knows how to handle a camera and it doesn't seem as if the craft will need advanced technical know-how in the future. Of course, composition is a thing that needs to be learned, trained, and brought to perfection. Most cameras however do their job on their own. You just need to compose and then press the shutter. No manual light-meter, no dark room. Just compose and shoot.
When I look at images from local professional photographers around my area, I am quite sure that Generation Instagram is able to create competing images on their phones. It seems like some photographers still think they live in a time where it was enough to own a camera and some studio lights. In those glory days, I guess you could start a photography business, because you knew how to deal with the gear. That was then, now is now. So, what is the extra skill which photographers need to stand out from the crowd of laymen and women with a decent camera or cellphone? It’s what has always separated good professionals from just professionals: The work before you hit the shutter. Your homework. The masters of photography didn't only know how to deal with their camera. Most of all, they knew and know how to deal with their subjects. This is why it’s most important to do your homework before you shoot.
I learned photography by simply taking my camera with me on vacation, then to my field of research for my M.A. degree and later on my vacations around my former field of research and beyond. I have a friend who got professional education as a documentary photographer, though. He described his studies as hanging out at the right places, talking to artists, and getting to know how to develop analogue photographs. Most of the time he was just working on projects that he was interested in. "But what did you learn then?", I asked him. His reply: "Well, if there is one useful thing, which I have learned... it's that you have to do research before you go out and shoot." Does this count for all areas of photography? I guess so.
Even landscapes need a lot of research. How to get there at what time of the year? Where do I have the best view and least tourists and where will the sun rise or set? Wedding photographers need to scout the location, find out about the families of the bride and the groom, go through the program of the wedding and be aware of all the peculiarities which will happen and need to be captured. They need to know where to stand at what time, having the right lens mounted on their camera body for perfect results. If you ever tried astrophotography, you will know that many factors influence your work. You need to know where the center of the Milky Way is at what time, keep an eye on the moon phase and hope for cold weather with a clear sky. If you don’t check these factors beforehand, you will spend a night out in frustration.
Tell the Right Story
Especially, when you are covering a topic and aim at publishing it to a wider audience, it is important that you know what you are doing. Do you want to portrait the life of a group of people in your city? Then read about them first. Find information about current debates, about scientific research and the opinion of other experts. Then get into contact with them and leave your camera at home. Slow down and see if your information suits to your experience in the field. Think about what you want to demonstrate to the audience. You will never get the full truth through your research, but you can come close to it by looking at a topic from different perspectives.
We all carry our preconditions and stereotypes to the field and it’s important to be aware of that. Especially in an unknown field, it’s important to critically reflect on one's own perception. Let me give an example. When I worked with people in Indian slums during my research, I was blinded by the poverty around me. There were so many problems that I couldn't see the social life, which was going on all day. I was blinded by my own preconception of the situation. Of course, their life is a struggle, but it's not just struggles alone. There is also family, love and happiness in between. Sometimes, there even is success. It took me a long while to reflect on my own perception. Just then, I was able to draw a more holistic image of their lives.
Stand out From the Masses
Just think about your own responsibility. Sometimes your homework can be done quickly, sometimes it takes a lot of time to research. Do you create a portrait, which really suits the person in front of the camera? Did you get to know the person well enough? I know about photographers, who don’t take portraits of people, which they didn’t talk to in a comfortable space for a certain amount of time, given it is not a corporate business shooting. Do you know all the details about the wedding and party? Do you know if your client is a rather humorous person, extrovert or introvert? How would they like to see themselves in the pictures?
It is easy to just think about how you can beautifully capture a sunrise at the sea. We see it every day on Instagram. A girl holding the hand of the photographer, a person with a red or yellow jacket sitting at the edge of a canyon. These are images which almost everyone can copy without further skills. If you use your creativity and mix it with diligent research, your work will be really professional.