This is probably the worst photograph I’ve ever taken. I say “probably” because I’m sure that if someone trawled through all my work there is a chance that they could dig up something even more awful.
But not by much. And, besides, this is the one that sticks in my head. This is a horrible photograph.
It was taken not that long ago, December of 2009 in fact, at First Friday, a local even held once a month in Las Vegas’ own burgeoning Arts District. I like to go down there and try to capture as many of the interesting characters and performers as possible. My success rate is very low. But, it used to be a lot worse.
I can say that I have improved a lot since then. There are several factors for this. One is that I have been shooting almost constantly since I got back into photography back in aught seven. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Indeed. By the benefit of simply shooting almost daily, I have been able to develop my eye, know my gear so much better, and generally be in more situations where I can capture that magic in better and more knowledgeable ways. I still get lucky, but I feel like I’m creating my own luck more and more.
But there is one other factor that has been very important in my development as a photographer.
Now, I usually don’t give advice. Whenever someone asks me for advice, I try to dodge and weave and leave the question hanging. Mostly, I’m afraid that if the person follows my advice, and it all goes horribly wrong, they will come limping back, pointing their finger at me and shouting in a loud voice, “I followed your advice, and NOW LOOK WHAT HAPPENED!” It’s a nightmare.
But, today, I will give you some advice. My best advice, actually. This isn’t just for photographers either, the best advice for anyone involved in the arts, from woodworking to songwriting to dance.
My best advice is this: You will never improve as an artist if all people do is kiss your ass.
There, I said it.
It is a huge temptation these days. Our social media structures are mostly slanted to having “followers”, ever notice that? And, for the most part, “followers” don’t tend to challenge their leaders. All too often I see people, especially photographers for some reason, who put up work only to have every single response be outstanding, unrivaled praise. Regardless of the quality of the photograph.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I want as many “followers” as I can get. My desire is to have Generator Photography become as big as I can grow it. But if I post crap, I want people to call me out on it.
I have been blessed to be a part of several online groups who have really put me through the wringer, but in very helpful ways. I have sought out individuals and groups with whom I can share my work and I know I will get honest feedback. Or, groups that pushed me to get out of my comfort zone, people who forced me to stretch myself and my work.
So, here is my advice.
Seek out people who can give you honest criticism. Ideally, they will be people who are better than you, or people whose work you admire.
Seek out people who can give you constructive criticism. This is hugely important. You can go into pretty much any photography forum and there will be people there who will say, “You’re a moron and your photography sucks.” Well, both of those statements might be true, but it doesn’t really help much. Look for people who will instead comment about your composition, or your post processing choices. People who can offer up different options, like how you should have shot with “this” lens, or maybe used a different shutter speed to get a better result. People who can see through your own limitations and try to offer ways to help you break through them.
Seek out people who will push you. People who won’t be satisfied when you are just getting lazy and posting crap. Proverbs 27:6 says “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” Indeed. Friends don’t let friends get by with mediocre work.
There is also, however, one important caveat.
Learn to be discerning about the comments on your work. For instance, I’m a sucker for technical advice, because I think that is an area of knowledge where I feel I’m weak. So, if someone wants to tell me I should be shooting at f/5.6 instead of f/1.8, and lists a couple of reasons why, I’m all ears. Or, if someone wants to give me lighting advice, or gives me tips on adjusting my white balance, I’m all ears.
However, if someone tells me that I shoot boring things, well now we have a problem. I know I don’t shoot the most exciting subject matter. But I have a vision for my art. And what I want to to bring that vision into reality the best way possible. I may take pictures of boring things, but I never want to take a boring photograph.
I know that the subject matter might be boring to some, it’s just a suburban mailbox.
But, because of what I’ve learned about things like composition and post processing, and because of all the help so many talented people have given me over these past years, I can say that this is probably the best photograph I’ve ever taken. Of a mailbox, anyway.
Don’t settle, people. Get out there and tell great stories, and make great art.