Today, Jay and I are thrilled to introduce our favorite guru (who also happens to be my brother) – Andrew MacFarland of GordianMind.com. We’ve invited him to write a guest post about what it takes to get good at just about anything. We’re excited to have him as a guest on our blog – and we know you’ll appreciate what he has to say no matter where you are in your photographic journey. Andrew is one of the smartest people we know… and his website is well worth a look.
Baby Steps to Better Snaps: The Road to Professional Photography
When I was in high school, I took a photography class and made out with a girl in the darkroom. I learned a bit about photography that semester too, but I didn’t spend enough time on the fundamentals to really make much progress. As you might expect, I didn’t grow up to be a photographer.
I do own a nice entry-level Canon that produces lovely images on auto mode, but I only use two settings: portrait and no-flash. These are generally acceptable for capturing my subjects, which include my baby son, my wife, my dog, and my chickens. But anyone could look at the photos I take and be able to tell immediately that I’m no professional. Why? Professional photographers have something I don’t have. It’s not fancy gear or special software. It’s a mastery of the basics.
The road to being a professional is long. It’s tempting to take shortcuts, thinking we’ll arrive sooner at our destination, but it just doesn’t work that way.
As a young boy, I had a big dream. I wanted to be a writer. I imagined myself in a home office, sipping coffee, typing away at a computer. I imagined the day when I would receive my first contract from a publisher (which would be incredibly lucrative, of course). I imagined attending book signings, giving interviews, and being generally regarded as a creative genius.
So I had my desire, and I had my dream. What did I do to follow it? I bought beautiful Moleskine notebooks and fine writing utensils. I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing. I researched the earning potential of writers and I daydreamed about success.
Notice anything missing from that list? That’s right – writing.
I wanted to be a writer and I almost never actually put pen to paper. Even when I did, I’d usually just jot down ideas for stories I’d like to write or characters I was interested in exploring. I never sat down and slogged through a bad first draft, not until many years later.
This type of procrastination is a little tricky, because none of the things I bought or the things I did were bad. Professional writers do all of those things – buy nice equipment and do research and daydream. They’re harmless… unless they take the place of practice.
No matter what, if we want to get good we have to get to the grind. Doesn’t matter what craft we choose or how innately talented we are. At some point we simply must take the time to practice.
I had to stop buying fancy notebooks and pens and just sit down and write, every day, no matter what. My wife is a woodcut artist and she didn’t hit her stride until she took a class and spent six weeks working at it every day. If you’ve ever played an instrument, you know that scales come before the symphony. Scales are the symphony. You have to practice.
In photography, the basics are everything. Aperture isn’t just an opening inside the camera. It’s depth of field. It’s the difference between a pensive image and a still life. It’s an element of every professional photograph, and understanding it is essential to the craft. You have to practice it like you’d practice scales on an instrument, until the f-stop progression feels natural and you can do it without thinking. Once you’ve mastered aperture, move on to shutter speed, and then combine the two. After that, get intimate with ISO.
Okay, so it’s important to practice. That’s not news, is it? It’s a good reminder, but that still leaves us with the actual task of getting down to business.
There are two big reasons practice doesn’t happen.
1. It’s not as fun as goofing around. Practice is work, no bones about it. Sure, spending an afternoon snapping images at various aperture settings can be amusing, but it’s probably not something you’d do unless you were actually trying to get better at photography.
2. It means admitting that you’ve got room for improvement, admitting that you’re not the world’s most talented artist of all time. This fact can be surprisingly hard to face head-on.
To overcome these barriers, you need motivation and you need courage.
Motivation is the push that makes us buckle down and get to work. For me, it was the desire to earn a living as a writer, and the realization that I really had to make an effort if I was going to achieve that dream. The idea of being my own boss, working from home and setting my own schedule, was enough to push me into sustained practice.
For you, maybe the thrill of creation is enough, or maybe you want more than that. Maybe you want to sell prints and make a name for yourself. Maybe you want to feel more confident about your material. Maybe you want to justify how much you’ve spent on gear. Whatever the reason, if it’s enough to motivate you, hold on to it. You’d be amazed at how much progress you make once you start practicing consistently.
Courage is the push that allows us to take that first step, and then another, and then another. When I first started writing every day, I was appalled at how terrible my work was. I was dismayed at how many drafts it took for me to create something that was merely adequate. All those years of not-practicing, I had also been avoiding the truth. I wasn’t the genius I dreamed of being. I had to work at it like everybody else.
It can be daunting, knowing how far you are from where you want to be. When the road seems so long, why bother even starting down that path?
I’ll tell you why. Every artist who’s ever reached the other side has taken those same small steps. If you don’t practice, you’ll never reach your goal. But if you can manage to get started down that road, soon you’ll be looking back, surprised at how far you’ve come.
Have you spent time mastering the basics of photography? How did you get motivated to practice?
Andrew MacFarland is a writer living in Colorado with his wife and son, a dog, and three very photogenic chickens. More of his work can be found at GordianMind.com.