There are a lot of ways to improve at photography, and we should never stop trying them. Sometimes, it comes down to just risk versus reward.
One of the truest platitudes I cling to in most areas of my life — but particularly photography — is the Gorbachev quote: "if you're not moving forward, you're moving backwards." Not actively attempting to improve at photography is not stagnation; photography is steadily evolving, and if you don't evolve too, you'll fall behind the curve and even further behind where you were when you stopped striving.
Sometimes, improvement is found in gear, sometimes in technique, but most commonly, I find it in ideas. One theme I noticed in the various works I read and watched on iconic shots or the photographers who made them was this: they were never safe. Safe can mean a number of things in photography, but usually, it has to do with composition. Safe images are the results of the unadventurous or under-skilled. That isn't to say the images will be of poor quality; they may well be strong, but they won't have the originality necessary to set you apart.
When you first start photography — or damn near any creative endeavor — you aim to mimic what you like. Eventually, however, you have to break free of those training wheels if you want to progress. That's not to say everybody does. Many are happy creating images the world has seen hundreds of times over, comfortable in the knowledge they pressed the shutter. Others relish the chase, collecting images of iconic locations like one might collect baseball cards. The landscape workshop industry thrives on this type of photographer. I don't hold any ill will towards these people — whatever gives you enjoyment! — but it's not for me, and it's not for many other photographers either.
What stands in the way as far as I can tell is sometimes creativity. But what concerns me more is not a lack of creativity, but rather the fear of missing the shot. For me, it was perhaps a blend of the two, though the latter was more influential. If you're lacking in ideas, you can come up with them, but a fear of not getting the shots can be paralyzing.
So, if playing it safe is getting the most obvious, often easiest, and tried-and-tested shots, what is "taking a risk" when it comes to photography?
Taking the Risk
Taking a risk in photography can be subject matter, but that's not what I'm talking of here. When I say "take the risk," I mean opt for a more original shot in lieu of the banker you could have. This sort of approach doesn't guarantee a great shot, but it does guarantee a chance at a great shot that's lost when you play it safe. I'll give a few examples. Again, I'm not claiming these shots are great — they aren't — but they're far more memorable than the alternatives I skipped, and the higher stakes meant that I had a chance at something truly stand-out.
Missing on Purpose
This shot and the lead image are the first of my most recent examples. Earlier this month, I was in Costa Rica with Olympus and was lucky enough to shoot a surf competition on Jaco Beach. I'd always wanted to photograph surfers, so it's one of the few times I've been genuinely excited. The competition started a little while before sunset, and it was beautiful light. I took some action shots of the surfers, and the images were ok, but not memorable; I knew I wouldn't care about them down the line. That is, they wouldn't stand the test of time. I had the idea of instead using a long focal length prime and shooting into the sun. My concept had a number of difficulties.
There was only about an hour and a bit left of the sun being up, and I had to: 1) find a spot along the beach where the surfers might come close enough to the setting sun for it to feature in the same shot. 2) Wait for the sun to get low enough and dim enough that it wouldn't wash the shot out and would instead be a large focal point. 3) Use a telephoto prime long enough to make the sun appear even bigger. The cost of these choices were large. I had to essentially miss an hour's worth of good shots of professional surfers to find the right spot and then wait with a setup that had practically no flexibility. I found it within 15 minutes (it was actually in the sea and 500 meters down the beach) and stood there for an hour waiting. Fortunately, two contenders surfed near enough to the sun for me to get two 10-15 shot bursts with the above image and the article's lead image being my favorites.
Of the surf competition, I was able to shoot for a maximum of an hour and 45 minutes, and I missed about an hour and 15 minutes waiting for the moment in my head. That's likely a thousand shots I was excited to take, but I regret nothing.
A Different Point of View
I like this shot, though since I took it, it's more commonplace an idea than it once was (though me taking it and it becoming more popular are in no way correlated I might add!) I was shooting a wedding a good few years back. The sun was going down, and we were at the garden party stage. It was just dark enough that for a crisp portrait, I needed to use lights, but for candid shots, I could always crank up the ISO. In front of my eyes, a chap went to take a picture of the bride and bridesmaids, and as they were cutting loose, they started messing around. I could have clumsily lit the shot and ruined the mood of the images. I could have captured it from the wrong angle with high ISO, and it would have been boring. So I decided to take a risk, forfeit the obvious shot, and try to capture something interesting without missing out on the scene.
To quote Johnny Cash: "I came away with a different point of view." It marked the start of my interest in forgoing the safe and obvious in the interest of chasing the interesting or great, even if I come away with nothing.
Make It Your Own
I've never been much of a landscape photographer. Perhaps if I had grown up in somewhere that wasn't flat, uneventful, gray and drizzly, and uninspiring, I might have gone a different path. Either way, I'm a terrible landscape photographer. After taking dull shots for the first few years I had a camera, I knew I had to either become far, far better, travel, or think differently. One afternoon, we were hit with a rare and heavy storm. Once it started to break, I saw it was going to be one of those apocalyptic sunsets, so I set out. Every shot I took was below average. Even I couldn't get excited about them, and I took the damn things. So, in a moment of frustration, I Sharpied a moving box. It's not a great image — with so much time elapsed, I can't help but look at all the flaws — but it did well for me at the time, and at least it was original.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
This is the second of my most recent examples. In Costa Rica recently with Olympus, we were fortunate enough to have a small colony of wild capuchins to photograph. I immediately went for my knee-jerk shots: long focal length, wide aperture, and wait for an attractive pose or moment and separate that subject from the background. I was firing off a lot of images that were more or less the same. I got some shots I was happy with, but nothing I'd care for long-term. So, in the interest of taking risks, I stopped waiting for a magical moment and decided to make one. I slapped on the widest angle lens I had available to me and offered a small piece of banana to a monkey on his own. As he took it, I started firing from point blank range. I missed approximated 70% of the shots I took, but I got about six in focus, and while they might not be award winning in any way, they are at least memorable!
I'm not saying don't get those shots you've always dreamed of. I'm not suggesting that you ought to take wall-to-wall risks on shoots and come away with nothing. I'm not trying to convince you that consistently good images don't have merit. I am hopefully just highlighting that if you want to break out of that vast group of solid, competent photographers, you can't keep playing it safe. You can't just imitate compositions and concepts you've seen or that you know do well, and then expect to come away with anything amazing. It's possible, it's just unlikely. Taking risks might mean you come home, load up your images, and have nothing you're happy with — it's happened to me more than once — but that's the price you pay for the pursuit of images that you'll be proud of 10 years from now and further.