What are the attributes of a good photographer? What is it that makes one person with a camera different or better than another? The cliché answer, the one that drives photographers crazy but is still believed , if not voiced by many people – it’s the camera. I don’t subscribe to that fully but it would be naive to say that the camera doesn’t matter. Anyone who has tried to photograph soccer action with their mobile phone’s camera will know that the camera does matter. But given a reasonable camera, an entry level DSLR or Micro Four Thirds cameras, most of us can photograph most things.
So what makes some better others? Is it simply artistry, innate ability and so the preserve of the few? I don’t think so. Too many of the very best photographers took it up by accident or force of circumstance rather than hunger to be a lensman. They learned to be good photographers.
In the days before digital it was easier to be regarded as a good photographer. Photography required much more technique and knowledge. Mastering manual focusing for still life or landscape is straightforward enough. For portraiture it is more difficult. You can’t put a sitter’s head in a clamp to keep them still any more! For fast moving children and sport it is a true hard won skill. If you knew how to do that and how to arrive at the correct exposure setting you were a good photographer already. Never mind the picture. Anyone my age will remember the remark ‘did your pictures come out’? And the very height of praise, ‘ooh, they’re lovely and clear, aren’t they”? Back then, knowing how to work a camera could earn you a living because it was technical and difficult and not everyone could do it.
Nowadays pictures ‘coming out’ and being ‘clear’ are a given. The camera sees to that. Paradoxically, being a good photographer is much more difficult. If a good camera makes a good photographer then everyone is a good photographer. Trouble is, if everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. To be good, you need to have something that others don’t. To be different. That is much more difficult than working a camera.
So back to my original question, what makes a good photographer? How do you do it? There’s no one answer but there is one thing that looms above the others. Just keep doing it. Just keep taking pictures and looking at pictures. Take pictures of anything and everything. It’s free! Cull your pictures ruthlessly. Look at advertising pictures and sports pictures, press pictures and exhibition pictures. Look at other people’s work on your favourite online photo mag. I mean look at. Study them. Think about them. Because it will be your brain that makes you the photographer you want to be. What do you like about a picture? Why do you like that? How would you have done that picture? Would you have done it as well?
Paul McCartney said of songwriting that what made him want to write songs was listening to his hero Buddy Holly. When he first started writing, all his songs sounded like Buddy Holly. But by just keeping doing it, gradually they became less like Buddy Holly and more like the McCartney and Lennon/ McCartney songs so much admired today. That’s true of photography too. Although he modern camera has de-skilled the photographic process, it cannot automate the ability to see and understand a situation and the instinct to find the best way to express it.
But then there is always luck! The great leveler of photographers. Some of my own favourite pictures are a product of serendipity. I just came across something. It just happened in front of me. It just appeared. You have to take advantage of it though and that’s why I think the character trait of opportunism is so useful for a photographer. In politicians it is deprecated but for a photographer it is an asset. You see something you want, you grab it with your camera and it exists forever. It is something that no other medium can do so directly. See it, take it.
I have so many examples of opportunism in my own favourite pictures that someone could reasonably say that I am unusually lucky. But years of experience have taught me that to always have a camera with me (thank you MFT for making that painless!), to always be looking and to not often be too lazy to pick up the camera.
The pic here is one of my favourite opportunistic ones. I was in Jordan just before the first Gulf War getting stories of the refugees from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On a spare day, I travelled the 150 miles from Amman to Petra with a colleague, journalist Jeff Edwards. Because of the imminent war there were no visitors. Our guide was a Jordanian Professor of History and we had him to ourselves one to one. There were just the three of us and the professor wanted to ask us our thoughts on America’s intentions in Iraq. We sat down talking in the utter silence of the stone city when I heard a horse’s hooves drumming on the ground. I had a little Olympus Muji with me, picked it up and just loosed off one frame as the rider came thundering past. I didn’t have any great hopes for it, the scene arrived and unfolded so fast, the rider vanishing into to the distance in a plume of red dust. Only back in London and with a processed film did I realize I could never have planned it so well.This must be a rare sight because Petra is normally packed with tourists.
I think anyone seeing this picture would say I was a good photographer. Actually it was all down to luck and opportunism!