Several years ago I wrote a short book called TEN: Ten Ways to Improve Your Craft Without Buying Gear. It was wildly popular, in part because I believe it’s easier to wrap our brains around doing ten things rather than a hundred. It’s manageable. Also because the word “eleven” is hard to say for some people. You can get that book and the follow-up, cleverly titled TEN MORE, for free using the links at the bottom of this article. But assuming you’ve read those and are hungry for more and are wondering what ten pieces of unsolicited advice I might now give for any photographer who cares to listen, here goes:
One. It’s all about the human experience, not the technique. That’s why we pay attention to composition and light and emotion. Make it alive. That takes craft, to be sure, but mostly it takes taste, courage, and vision, and those things take time. So put in the hours. Learn from others. Study other photographers who make work that, to you, is alive.
Two. Ultimately you will hear a lot of voices, but you have to figure out which ones you want to listen to. Listen. Learn. Then be willing to go in another direction if that’s where your curiosity and your instinct lead you. If you want to create something unique, something authentic, you need to learn to ignore everybody but learn from them too. That’s also a balance that comes with time.
Three. Photography is easier than we all make it seem. The magazines and books want to keep you on the hook for more and more advice, the next great secret, the next top tricks. Learn to expose well. Learn to focus. Study composition like your life depends on it. Now go make photographs. You'll learn more from cutting the apron strings and experimenting on your own, and you’ll find your voice faster.
Four. Think in bodies of work. A series of 3 to begin, perhaps. Then 10. 20. A strong body of unified work is much harder than a dozen single images that are all over the map. This approach forces you to think deeper.
Five. Make some work. Serious work. Great work. Work that everyone should experience. But don’t share it for a year. Build it. Live with it. Play with the sequence. But don’t put it out there for a year. It’ll do you good to incubate it without hearing the voices of others.
Six. Work with tighter constraints. This year I know several photographers going back to their roots and working mostly in black and white. It’s a return to line and form, to tone and moments, without the seduction of colour. I’ve sworn off tripods and long exposures. And I have specific projects I’m already creating constraints for. This will force you into more creative thinking.
Seven. Don’t chase the shot. Chase the magic. Chase the experience. Life is too short and even the best photograph you make this year is likely to be eclipsed by something you make next year. So put your time first into great experiences; the photographs will come out of those and they’ll be stronger for being rooted in something you really care about.
Eight. Learn what it takes to make a great story. Too many photographers lean on cheap gimmicks and nudge the saturation slider in hopes that just a little more visual sugar will make the image a bit more delicious. But in doing so, we kill our taste buds. It’s great for a quick hit but it leaves us empty. Understand the elements of story and how you might use those to strengthen your work.
Nine. Print your work. You don’t need another lens as much as you need to print your work, hold it in your hands, and live with it. Printing will make you a better photographer, and it will help you fall in love with the photograph more than the gear with which you make them.
Ten. Study the Masters. Once a week or once a month, pick a new photographer. Find one on your own (or ask your friends who they love) and study them. Read about their life and study their work. What was important about it at the time? Why does it succeed for you? Why does it not? How did they use visual language and composition? What can you learn from the way they thought? You can do this for free online, but if you can, budget for a book each month: a book of photographs. At the end of the year, you’ll have 12 books full of magic, inspiration, and better lessons than you’ll find in those magazines promising tips and tricks.
This is a beautiful, powerful craft. It has such possibility. We need it now more than ever. And more than ever, we need to approach it with heart and soul and the will to walk away from being dilettantes and dabblers. It’s too good, too beautiful, for such a trivial approach from those who claim to love it. There is so much more to it than getting edge-to-edge sharpness or great bokeh. We can want so much more from our images than that they be free from chromatic aberration or that they get good likes on Instagram. Make this the year you put your soul—as vulnerable and unfettered as it can be—into your work and your life. Most of all, do it with love. Be an amateur—a lover—in every frame you make, every print you sign, every body of work you conceive.
And don’t you dare use f*cking white vignettes.
For the Love of the Photograph,
Click on the following links to get free copies of TEN: Ten Ways to Improve Your Craft Without Buying Gear and TEN MORE: Ten More Ways to Improve Your Craft Without Buyer Gear.
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.
If you're looking for photography prompts to lead you through 2017, take a look at Vision 365: Mastering the Everyday Practice of Seeing by Henry Fernando, a beautiful 772-page reminder that it's the practice of photography that trains your eye to see not only the spectacular and obvious, but the small, ordinary, and everyday things in new ways. Through 365 days of simple visual exercises, Henry teaches you to recognize daily opportunities in your surroundings so that you can make the photographs that better express who you are and how you see your world.