Okay, now that we have all the 2009 wrap-up – well, wrapped up – and we’ve discussed in broader terms where we’re headed this year, I bring you the first practical post of 2010. Rather than to start technical, I wanted to take a more broad approach and discuss how you can focus to improve your photography skills throughout the year. It’s quite simple really…it all comes down to one key ingredient, one vital part that drives everything that you do as a photographer: Pride.
Pride is what drives us to improve. Pride is what allows us to criticise ourselves in an effort to improve. Pride is everything and anything in your work. Think about it. If you do not have pride in your work (any work, but creative work especially), you have nothing to show for it. Why share your work with the world if you don’t take pride in it? Why continue on to shoot more if you don’t take pride in your photography? Exactly. Pride can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. And like many aspects of our art form, there is a delicate balance – too much and you’re considered arrogant. Not enough and you’re stuck in a rut, never moving forward and never gaining the applause you deserve.
We are human, and we like attention, whether you admit it or not. You must admit that you love attention in some form. Sure, you may not want much, but some small amount of attention is a big motivator and confidence booster. So you might as well accept it and make the best of it. Many of those who have posted responses here at Shutter Photo or even more who have e-mailed me or tweeted me personally have stated that they don’t have much of their work online. There are even some who I have helped to get some work online…some have stuck with it, others have tapered off into bad habits. If you are a photographer, you have no excuse but to share your work. No, family doesn’t count. Friends don’t count. Though both are good starting places. You need to get your work in front of an audience, and online is a great place to do it. You can expect some negative feedback – or worse: lack-thereof – for a while. But keep pushing along. Eventually, someone will recognize your work and make a comment. They may follow you or share your work with their friends. Congratulations, you now have an audience. The best audience you can have are other photographers, and you should work towards that. Follow photographers that you like, correspond with them as often as possible. Eventually, one of them will take a look at your work and offer feedback. At a certain comfort level, you may find that they’re offering you tips to help you improve. This type of relationship is valuable, and you wouldn’t have it if you didn’t get your work out there. Don’t be intimidated by the work of other photographers. First of all, we all started somewhere and very few of us were shooting portfolio quality work early on. Second of all, we’re all at different places. While I might do well with urban and landscape photography, my portrait work is less than perfect and I could certainly use some improvement in close-up and architectural photography. So I might be sharing my wisdom about urban shooting, but you may have more wisdom when it comes to portrait photography. It has the potential to be a give-take relationship.
Share Your Wisdom
Experience can only be learned from doing. But wisdom is a two way street. You can gain wisdom from other photographers, and you can impart it as well. I’m rather surprised at the number of photographers that treat it as one-way. They keep their wisdom locked up and hidden from their audience. I don’t see any benefit in this other than arrogance and elitism – neither of which has any benefit to a person in the long run. Keep in mind that your audience is following you because of some unique style you might have. You might take advantage of some obscure (or maybe even not so obscure) technique that isn’t readily apparent from EXIF data. They’re following you because they want to learn how to do it. If you keep yourself all bottled up and don’t share your wisdom, they’re going to dismiss you. No one likes the one-way street. On the other hand, there is a great deal if benefit from sharing your tips and techniques. Most people will always hold dear a person that helped them discover a new way of looking at things. They will continue to follow you and will help to increase your followers. Somewhere in there is going to be someone that can help you improve your work…maybe even the person you helped initially. It never hurts to discuss how you did something. It never hurts to discuss the equipment used or your overall intent. You will gain a lot of respect for that, and it will help you to grow as a human being, which can only benefit your work. Not to mention, you often learn best when you’re teaching someone else. Besides, an audience is an audience, and it’s a give-take relationship. You want the attention, and they want to gain something from you as well. Take advantage and share what wisdom you can.
Before I got involved in online communities, I was under the false impression that professional photographers never make mistakes. Imagine my surprise when that myth was shot down over the last few years. I guess I never thought about it, but everyone makes mistakes – just that the professionals don’t share their mistakes (at least not with clients). They edit themselves well so that every image shared with the public is stunning and fantastic. Humility has two places in your work: Criticising your own work and admitting when you’ve made a mistake. In criticising your own work, it’s important to realize where you’re at and where you stand in your work. You may wish to think that a specific photo is one of your best because of how much effort it took to set up. But you need to be humble and realize that the setup matters very little to the observer. That photo may not be appealing to your audience, and it may need to be cut from your portfolio. As for admitting when you’ve made a mistake, this has the greatest impact when discussing a photo with the photography community. Other photographers – photographers who also make mistakes – will respect a person who doesn’t operate under the false pretence that they never make mistakes. We all know it’s not true, so don’t try to hide it. But sometimes admitting where you messed up will help you grow. Maybe you don’t know why a shot didn’t turn out well. Sharing it with the community may result in a number of suggestions that will help you to improve next time. It will also earn a lot of respect from those with less skill – you are not unapproachable, and you are just as human as they are. I must reiterate: some of your best feedback could potentially come from those less skilled than you are. You could always stand to learn something new and the source does not matter. So a little humility brings you back down to earth, it makes you approachable and it makes communication easier. You only stand to grow with a little humility.
Remember Who You Are
It is very easy for people to forget where they got started and who they really are. As you grow as a photographer, you will gain a certain following and you will have fans who believe you can do no wrong. This is not the time to be arrogant. The pedestal you stand on is made of toothpicks, and your fans will easily turn from you at the smallest shed of elitism. Always keep your audience in mind. They are, of course, the ones who got you where you are. And always be humble. The more human you are, the more widely recieved you will be. The hundreds of people who follow you on Flickr or Twitter mean nothing to you unless you can actually carry out a dialog with your followers. So here’s the catch…when you’re on top and you have a tremendous following, that doesn’t mean you won’t need feedback. Sometimes that feedback will come from uneducated sources. Take it with a grain of salt, of course, but remember that such a person is still within your audience. If they’re taking the time to write to you or comment on a photo, you should take the time to consider their viewpoint, no matter how off-base it might be. So do the prideful thing and consider yourself as just another person in the crowd. Be part of the crowd and talk amongst the crowd as if you are just one of them. The reality is that you’re one of them, whether you will admit it or not. You are and always will be jsut one of the aspiring masses, and you won’t get anywhere unless you embrace the population. Always remember who you are and where you came from.
Pride can be a very dangerous thing if not controlled. It should not be left to behave on its own, like a wild animal without a master. Pride is a tool and can be harmful in the wrong hands. You are the master of your own pride, so take hold, keep it in check and use it to the best of your abilities. When in doubt, swallow your pride, be humble and ask for help. It may be difficult to do, but keeping your pride in check is important to your growth. So be prideful, be humble, and strive towards success in your future.