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John Ellingson's picture

Stop taking pictures of pretty places and things and start taking photographs – becoming a photographer.

When we are first learning about photography, we look for pretty things or places to take pictures of. This is because we don’t know how to create a photograph. A pretty picture is made in a camera. A photograph is made in the mind of the photographer. A pretty picture is the result of a mechanical process. A photograph is the product of a creative process by a photographer.

There are several major components to learning to be a photographer instead of just a camera operator. First, is obtaining a full understanding of how the scientific process of capturing light on film or a sensor works. This includes understanding the relative qualities of shutter speed, aperture and ISO and the interrelation and equivalence of each. Second, understanding the benefits and tradeoffs between each. This is a lot of information and it should become intuitive when put into practice. Second, is understanding the equipment of photography. This is not just the camera and lens, but memory cards, sensors, film, tripods and monopods, remote releases, filters, lens hoods, computers, monitors, darkrooms (the list of darkroom equipment and chemicals can be large if you are doing this), lighting, software, etc. There is a lot to learn here.

Having accomplished the technical education to the point that you can use all of this knowledge without having to spend a lot of time trying to remember what each component contributes to the resulting image takes time and a lot of practice. This can take years. Getting proficient with all of this knowledge enables one to make a technically correct image as intended by the operator. An exercise that you can do to determine the extent of your knowledge is to look at any image produced with a camera and have an understanding of the likely focal length and aperture used, the sensor size, any processing that was involved, etc.

Third is the creative part of the process which enables the transition from technician to photographer. This is about gaining the knowledge and skills to create an image in your mind with your vison of the finished product – what Ansel Adams called previsualization. You can do this any time. You don’t need any external equipment. You only need what you have between your ears.

One of the things that I have done over the years (over 65 of them) and still do today; is to look at other photographs that I find appealing and art I like and ask the question: Why do I like this? When you see someone spending a lot of time looking for a long time at an image, whether on the screen, in a publication or in a museum this may be what they are doing. This is a challenging and very enjoyable process. If you can recognize a particular photographer’s style and understand what it is about that style that makes it recognizable you are learning about both the photographer’s vision and developing your own. A goal hear is to develop your own vision and implement it in your own style.

There are questions you can and should ask yourself when you are planning a shoot. What am I trying to express? How well can I do that, and will it be apparent to those who view what I produce? And, lastly, is it worth doing? Am I expressing something that I want to express; is there something that I want to convey in my vision to the viewer?

If you get to the point where these things are naturally part of your approach you will have become more than a photo-technician – you will have become a photographer!

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3 Comments
Alex Yakimov's picture

Excellent points, John! Thank you. Asking yourself "why" is the best, most straightforward way to finesse previsualization ability.

Lachlan Moir's picture

Thank you for this. As a nervous beginner in this shadowy realm, it helps me to read these kind of posts.

Ruth Carll's picture

Hi all, I wanted to invite those who check out this group - the topic of which I wholeheartedly agree with - to check out "Minimalism, Abstract, Experimental". We are open to beginners and experts alike. We give kind, constructive feedback and are happy for the participation of everyone at all levels. Check us out!