Ok, so that’s kind of a provocative title for a blog post. But the fact is that I get asked that question quite a bit. And most of the time time, the photos in question most certainly DO NOT suck. My friend, Blake Rudis and I have come together today to answer this question and give you some practical advice.
I used to think that the those who were asking just had a bit of a self-confidence problem. Over time, I came to realize that the issue was really one of clarity. Look at it this way: let’s say you’ve been nominated to prepare dinner for a group of friends. They know that you have a newfound interest in cooking and that you’ve been working at it. You’ve acquired an impressive collection of recipes and you spend hours watching The Food Network trying to figure it all out. You do ok in your own kitchen with your recipes in front of you but now you’re at someone else’s house with no recipe to guide you. On top of that, one of the guests is a professional chef. Suddenly, you feel a massive sense of insecurity. You’re sure that you’re never going to be able to prepare something even remotely good. But you head into the kitchen anyway.
Once there, you realize you really have no idea where to begin. After all, you’ve been following recipes written by others. Your friend has a pantry full of ingredients but where do you begin? You have no idea how flavor pairings work. Nor do you understand the basic principles of roasting, braising, sauce making, etc. Stoically, you soldier on, leaning on your past experiences in the kitchen and the catalog of cooking shows in your head.
In the end, you manage to make something that’s quite good. Your friends rave about the meal and even the chef compliments your skills. Secretly, you know that you could never repeat your performance. You couldn’t make that meal again if it meant the difference between life and death. In a word, you got lucky. Does that mean you’re a bad cook? Not at all. What it means is that you lack the foundational knowledge and skills that allow a trained chef to create great food off the top of his or her head.
Because I teach photography in the classroom and speak about it publicly I meet a lot of photographers. More often than not, I’m asked to look at their work. As they’re scrolling through their phone trying to find something “worthy” (Ha!…as if I’m the master arbiter of great photography…) they often say something like, “It’s not very good, but tell me what you think anyway”. Usually, their work is pretty darn good and sometimes it’s so good that it blows my mind. They go on about how they struggle with one thing or another, essentially telling me that their photos suck, which is patently untrue.
The problem they face is that, like the cook, they feel like they got lucky. Why? Because they really have no idea how they managed to make whatever it is that they’re showing me. Worse yet, they either feel like they might not be able to repeat it or they feel stuck. They know they’re capable of so much more but they don’t know how to get it out.
Does this sound anything like you? If it does, then you’re like most of us. In the end, the problem isn’t about skills or equipment. It’s not about working hard, reading more books, taking more classes, or watching more YouTube. It doesn’t take very long to master the technical part about operating your camera. Once you do that, there aren’t a whole lot of camera tricks that will allow you to make great leaps forward with your work. It’s the same with Photoshop or any other software. Once you get to a certain point, and it doesn’t take that long, learning more about it won’t really make your photographs any better. What it’s really about, what it’s been about from the beginning, is Artistry and Vision. it’s about looking inside yourself and putting your technical skills together with what you find there.
Blake and I have been very actively exploring this idea for a couple of years. We’ve burned the candle late into the night talking about this, scribbling notes about it, shooting together around it, processing photos based on our discussions about it. We come at the central issue from completely opposite directions but we end up in the same place. What we’ve realized is that there are two distinct paths that most photographers follow. Most of us get stuck at some point along the way because we don’t realize how much we need the other approach as well. This applies to me, to Blake, and to you as well. Both points of view are critical if you’re going to master photography well enough to make it a vehicle for true self-expression. And that’s what art is. It’s self-expression.
All of this might sound obvious to you. When I began my photographic journey it certainly seemed obvious to me. But working it all out in real life turned out to be another matter. Blake and I have each made a video about this for you. My practical advice is this:
-Be completely present when you’re shooting and pay attention to the Moment of Impulse. Most of the questions you have about your vision and your work are answered in this moment. Most of us blow right by it.
-Master your tools well enough so you don’t have to think too much about them. You don’t need to be a Photoshop expert and you don’t need to understand every little thing your camera does. But you need to know enough to get you where you want to go and you shouldn’t have to struggle through it.