Be An Ignorant Photographer Again And Learn To Be Great

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I’d like to be a little unconventional for this post and deconstruct some of my old photos.  My goal is not to pump myself up or hype my work in any way.  But the overall intent of this article requires me to know the photographer intimately, and who do I know better – from a photographic perspective anyhow – than myself?  The goal of tonight’s post is to demonstrate that we all have a natural ability to shoot great photographs without fully understanding how or why.  The purpose of this article is to show you that if you’re struggling with your work, it’s possible you’ve forgotten how to be naive.

Included in this post are two photographs I took several years back with my old Nikon N2000 (Nikon F301 outside the US), a film camera that I still occasionally use to this day.  The photos, Tangle of Wet Cain (above) and Daisy’s Curiosity (below)  were shot in 2003 and 2004 respectively.  At the time, I technically already had 8 years of experience with a camera under my belt, but I will admit that I made very little effort to improve – nor did I learn much – in the last 7 years leading up to that point.  My photographic works were fairly stagnant and the product of a curiosity, nothing more.  In fact, Daisy’s Curiosity was shot at the beginning of my resurgence back into photography, the beginning of a steep learning curve that has brought me to where I am now.  This is of course a little background, but it is necessary to fully understand where I’m going with this article.

So now lets take the photos for face value.  I don’t feel that either photograph is necessarily a bad photograph – Quite the contrary.  I feel that at face value both shots have a lot of interest. Tangle of Wet Cain – which was part of a short series – was an exploration in depth of field, bokeh, pattern and repetition.  Daisy’s Curiosity turned out to be a playful candid shot of a cat’s whimsical, albeit somewhat ignorant, ability to think she’s effectively hidden by the blinds.  But lets face the facts:  Tangle wasn’t planned out, and Daisy was a result of luck.  I was an ignorant photographer, yet I successfully captured two fairly decent images.

How?

I believe that we all have an eye for photography.  There is not one human on this planet that does not have at least some ability to select the great photographs from a stack of mediocre shots.  Many of us also have the ability to capture great photographs as well – be it with a high end SLR or a phonecam.  Without formal education in composition, photographic theory or otherwise, most of us are capable of capturing great photos.  I believe that many of the rules of photography are ingrained in us from birth.  They are, after all, based on our natural environment:  elements and spatial concepts that are comfortable to us humans.  My theory is that these photographs are a result of naturally understanding what I was shooting without really knowing why.

Most photographers follow a trajectory in their photographic experience.  In the beginning, we’re shooting to capture memories.  After that, we develop a defined interest in wanting to capture photos for artistic means.  And we might hang out on that plateau for a while, exploring without a defined purpose, wandering about without a clear destination.  But at some point during this stage, we stand back and look at our photographs constructively, and we realize that we might actually have a knack for this.  That’s when we start buying books, attending classes and reading sites like this online.  This can be very dangerous to the unaware.  Learning too much too fast can be harmful to our development as photographers.  One can very easily displace our natural instincts with rules and practices.  Instead of letting our minds naturally find great compositions, we may burden ourselves with trying to apply rules unfairly to compositions.

So I want you to think differently about rules and techniques as you expand your knowledge and wisdom.  Try not to apply rules to compositions like pieces of a large puzzle.  Like a puzzle builder, you will not be able to be efficient in your work.  Instead, keep the rules in mind as you go about your work.  It is much more effective to use rules as tools that would help you improve your composition.    Take the shot of my cat, for example.  The shot is a fairly decent shot as is.  But what if – in the moment – I realized that I could improve the composition by getting closer and filling the frame with the cat’s head and face?  Wouldn’t that be a better photograph?

I will say it again for reiteration:  Compositional rules and procedures are tools that help you improve a composition.  It is perhaps because of our ignorance that we did not crowd our early compositions with misapplied rules.  It is perhaps that our works were half-way there already, and with the appropriate amount of finesse, it could have been great.  So don’t go down that dark path, and thrive in your naivete:  Shoot first, ask questions later.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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