So much of the photography content on the Internet is about one thing: people want to be better photographers.
At the lower levels of the hobby it’s fairly easy. There are a lot of concrete skills and general tips to pick up and integrate that are available: completing tutorials for Lightroom, learning some basic design concepts like compositional rules, or learning about lens optics and exactly what is going on in your camera. There are a lot of easily articulated skills to practice. You can stay busy for years just consuming basic instructional content.
But what happens when you bump into The End of the Internet?
Really it’s not that simple I suppose. It’s not a lack of content — because damn, there’s nearly an infinite amount — but rather a lack of applicability. Once you reach the endgame state there are no more tutorials to make you better. There are no easy answers to the question, “How do I get better at photography?” You already understand the thirds rule of composition, and you have heard about the golden ratio and other compositional rules. You’ve probably developed an automatic eye to utilize those.
But then it becomes a question of repetition. Thousands of times, tens of thousands. Enough to wear out a shutter.
That’s soul crushing, because people live through narrative and not repetition. There’s no good, fulfilling story inside “And then I tried ten thousand slightly different compositions over ten years to understand exactly how to place foreground elements.”
So you need a philosophy. You need a set of rules and a guiding story that can help you down the path of years, instead of down a path of days or weeks. You need to zoom out from your tutorial existence that is one day to the next. You want to be better at taking photos. We all do. It’s easy to say intellectually that it’s just practice, time invested. But it’s hard to live that.
This is my philosophy, my structure for this art. It’s not the be-all-end-all. I don’t think such a thing exists, mind, but I think there are some universal concepts that are useful and I think there’s a good basic way to tie them together. It’s just a net that maybe you can tote out on your fishing boat and cast into the ocean of the world and if you’re lucky and paying attention, catch some stuff reliably. I’m just another person with this net — and I didn’t even weave it, I found it and just patched some parts up.
First, you need a destination. Stylistically, where do you want your photos to go? Who is better than you? Identify them. Photography is very ego-laden but I guarantee even the best, most self-assured photographers know someone that they at least suspect is better than them. Find as many examples of this as you can. Learn about those people. Learn their process, the thoughts they have as they create. Advanced levels of any art become less about the mechanical details of technique and more about the details of what is going on in the creators mind. Learn their mind. But bottom line, know what looks better than what you are doing. Have end goals. Study them.
Then, through study, find specifics in their work that are better. There is something, it’s specific, find it. You may not have the vocabulary to talk about it, but you can see it visually. Manipulating concepts is difficult without a solid vocabulary, but it is possible. Work on finding a simple word, even just one.
Get started with something, anything. Is your ideal photography clear? Is it emotional? Is it warm? Is it cold? You can find one word, I guarantee it. Then find two words. It isn’t easy, nothing valuable is easy. But find words and apply the internet to them, or even just take it to discussion with other interested people. Generate more vocabulary. Google that vocabulary. Think about what you already know about processing, shooting, seeing and apply that to the concepts you’re trying to master.
Then plateau. Because that’s what happens. You will plateau every time you master a concept that can improve your photography, after some amount of invested time. You will apply it until you get sick of it, master it, and then plateau. And that’s when you start the process over. Yeah, you’re better now. Maybe you’re much better. Hey, maybe you’re really gifted and there’s hardly anyone whose work you cannot break down into simple concepts in your own mind in moments. But I bet there’s at least one that isn’t so easily broken down. I bet there’s someone that’s a little better than you, a little more aware of the medium in different ways.
And start the process over. This is what getting better is like for anything. Embrace the larger timescale and just find enjoyment in the individual steps of the process. Watch fads come and go. Watch new technologies come and go sometimes, and stick around other times. If they stick around, integrate their lessons.
Now the game is structure — what is your structure? What lets you stay with this medium after the novelty of shooting sunsets and cat photos wears off? Because it will, trust me. You will shoot and forget so many images that you will learn that some are just worth experiencing and not recording. But once you have that realization, what then?
The project. You can have a short term relationship with photography really easily but this is how you marry it. Stories are the true nature of photography and artistic communication. Human beings see the world through story. This isn’t just photography, this is the human condition. If photography is the art of seeing, then the nature of photography is the stories that we see.
So what story would you tell? A day in the life? The struggle of the working man? The horror of war? In every single worthy thing there is a story to tell. Tell the story of the small. Tell the story of insects. It doesn’t matter, it all has a story. Take the idealization of technique and the graphic image and apply it to anything you feel strongly about. I guarantee these things — your love of the image and your desire to tell a story — will carry you forward the 10, 30, 50 years it takes to master photography. With these endless loops of deconstructing and reconstructing your style and techniques, and identifying the stories you care about, you will be a master if you can stick with it for as long as it takes.
Also, for perspective, I’d like to share a photo I took and processed something like 12 or 13 years ago that I was able to dig up on the Internet. We all start somewhere.