“You don’t take a photograph, you make a photograph.”
I would say this is broadly true of most photographs; even the most stolen of moments need to be framed after all. Sometimes you have mere seconds to create something out of a scene unfolding before you, and other times you have almost as long as you wish to create the image you’re looking for. The challenge is being ready for when that moment arrives, or having enough know-how to create them yourself. It’s often a bit of both. But the good news is with a bit of practice you can dramatically improve your ability to really make photographs.
As a photographer, vision is essential. Everybody has vision. Even the most lacklustre snapper will see a photograph form in their mind before they push the button. Nobody imagines a wonky horizon, closed eyes or a bad exposure as they raise the camera to their eye, do they?
The thing that separates good photographers from lesser ones is how developed their sense of vision is and how skilled they are at creating, capturing and presenting that vision. This is what makes a photograph. One of the great things about photography is that you can, in my experience, work on most of the elements of your craft independently of one another.
You can create images in your mind without a camera. You can refine your camera skills with an uninspiring subject. You can edit other people’s photographs. The path to making great images doesn’t necessarily have to be linear procession from vision, to capture, to edit, to print. In fact, I would say that it is a mistake to believe that vision must precede all other stages in the process.
Take a look at some of my RAW edits – do these photographs really suffer the fact that my vision was applied long after the original capture? Of course, I cannot claim these photographs as my own, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the process. Take a beer bottle into the garden and light it every way imaginable – high key, low key, flash, no flash. Take your camera to the park and shoot ducks all morning at f/2 – practice your AF point selection and speed with your camera and lens. Make pictures in your mind when you’re sat in traffic, at the supermarket or walking home. Maybe next time you’ll have your camera with you.
A sportsman doesn’t train for their sport by repeatedly playing full matches from start to finish. They work on their fitness, strength, technique in both combination and isolation. They identify areas of weakness and work out how to improve them – and photographers can do the same. Improvement in any area is going to get you closer to the images you aspire to make.
This series of macro pictures really got me thinking about what goes into making a photograph, because I invested the vast majority of my efforts into really creating the moments. Camera settings, flash power, apertures all faded into the background because I was familiar with the equipment. I don’t think I would have come away with the same results if I had been struggling with the basics.
So my point is this: break down the task of making better photographs into chunks and take any opportunity to practice them. Don’t avoid editing photographs just because you didn’t take them. Don’t neglect your camera even if nothing interesting is happening. Think about how you would take the shot even if you don’t have a camera with you.
One day you’ll have all the pieces to hand, and you’ll be ready to put them together.