This year marks 20 years since I first picked up a camera with the intent of pursuing photography; if not as a profession, then as a serious avocation. I've shot, conservatively, tens of thousands of photographs since then -- and in that time, the way I shoot has changed dramatically, as well it should have. In 20 years, I've practiced almost daily with composition as well as technical proficiency, experimenting by following the rules of photography, and then later, trying new things by breaking the rules of photography. My approach continually evolves.
That said, it probably took me 15 years before I felt comfortable calling myself a photographer. And even now, 20 years later, I wouldn't call myself an expert: I'm constantly looking for and finding work that I think outpaces mine by a huge margin. And honestly, I hope that never stops: finding photographers whose work takes my breath away is one of the most exhilarating parts of pursuing photography.
It's for this reason I've been thinking, recently, that not only has my photographic approach changed over the decades, but so also has my opinion on what makes a good photographer, or a good photograph. I do realize that much of my thoughts on this are subjective -- opinions generally are -- but to be clear, I'm talking about something different than someone's style (for example, I can look at photos that are in a style that I find unappealing, while still clearly seeing that the photographer is exceedingly talented). It is difficult to articulate exactly what I mean, but I do know this:
• It's not the camera. I've seen people who owned $10,000 cameras whose work is always unimpressive; similarly I know of several photographers who work nothing short of magic with cheap point-and-shoots and camera phones.
• It's not entirely about technical proficiency. Granted, knowing your camera and what it's capable of will always improve your photography; however, I know many, many people who know everything there is to know about photography -- aperture, ISO and shutter speed, who clearly have researched composition and who own every camera accessory on the sun -- whose work consistently leaves me cold. On the flip side, I know an equal number of people who have very little idea of what their cameras can do, who admit to not knowing the difference between auto-focus and white balance, and yet whose images always fill me with admiration.
In fact, you know what? Here's what it is:
I think a great photograph reveals almost as much about the photographer as it does about the subject of the image.
In other words, the difference between a snapshot of, say, graffiti on a decaying wall, and a great photograph of the same graffiti on the decaying wall, is that in the second instance, you'll not only see the graffiti, but you'll get a sense of what the photographer was thinking when s/he shot it.
Good photography is photography with intention. It's photography with soul.
My photographer friend Alessandra Cave puts it even better: at the end of last year, she published her very first book, Shooting with Soul, and in addition to sharing her own thoughts about soulfulness and photography, in the first few pages, she shares her formula for creating a meaningful shot:
(see) + (think) + (feel/connect) + (shoot) = great image.
This so appeals to the math geek in me, and I think she nails it: it's easy to simply see and shoot, while skipping over the the think-feel-connect part of the equation. And as I think about it, that think-feel-connect is the Secret Sauce: it's everything in making a great photo.
The technical part, you'll eventually get. It's the soulful part that requires all the practice.