“Great photos aren’t taken, they’re made”

Snow Tripod

I’ve seen the title of this post, a quote from Ansel Adams, come up a few times when reading about modern photography and it generally holds negative connotations as people assume it refers to excessive post processing and “photoshopping” to change the results in the image.

This is not what Ansel was referring to. He was referring to the difference in the eye of someone who is, or hopes to be, a Photographer and an individual who is simply taking a snapshot.

Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph. – Matt Hardy

For the most part, I’d safely define the vast majority of individuals who own cameras as amateur Photo Journalists, in that they wish to journal the events and moments they experience so they use a camera to effectively do this.

A turning point happens when you stop trying to catalog events as they happen and wish to create an artistic representation of what you are seeing. When you start to become an Artistic Photographer. When you stop merely taking a photograph of a scene and start making the photograph before you close the shutter.

Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like – David Alan Harvey

For me this has been a gradual process. I largely started out wanting to journal my experiences as they happened. Comparing my folders of digital images now I’m not really taking more images today than I was a few years ago but what I’m photographing has changed immensely.

Going back a few years I can see that I would take photos as I moved, usually at eye height and directly at what I was looking at. I’d usually take one photo per view and move on. Now, I’m taking a similar number of photos but the content has been vastly reduced. I’m taking many pictures of a single moment, from different angles and heights, with different apertures, ISO’s and shutter speeds. The gap in time between my photos is no longer documented as I’m not concerned with simply journaling my experience but rather creating my own personal artistic representation of the experience.

The difference between “Taking” and “Making” a photo you’d print and hang on your wall is subtle but the results can vary immensely. Making a photo could be as simple as dropping to one knee and using a different aperture rather than taking the photo from a standing height and using the auto setting on the camera.

I don’t imagine that I’m an amazing photographer myself, but I make photos that I personally like so I’m going to explain how I’ve made the progression from seeing myself as an amateur photo journalist to being an amateur artistic photographer.

Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst. – Henri Cartier-Bresson

The process has been iterative and the old maxim to “Just start shooting!” when it comes to photography holds true, at least for myself. If you want to change as a photographer or to be a better photographer you need to just continually shoot photographs. The digital era allows for a very quick and cheap progression in this regards. Some, from the old film camp, will say it leads to careless shooting but I disagree. The digital era allows for instant critical analysis of the image and allows for more subsequent images to be shot.

When I moved to Canada from Ireland back in 2010 I began sharing photo albums on Facebook with my family back home. I wouldn’t upload every photo I took, just a few of the better ones. This process of sifting through your photos and picking out the best ones after every shoot is crucial in my opinion. At first I’d cull maybe 50% of my photos, then 70%. Currently I’m down to selecting only ~30 photos per day of shooting, even if I shoot 1000 images. I expect this number to get even lower as I progress and my own personal standard for what I expect from my photographs increases.

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop. – Ansel Adams

The sifting and rejecting process is crucial as you are continually required to ask yourself: “Do I like this photo? Why do I like it? How can I shoot more photos like this in the future”. As I elaborated previously, it’s been a slow process for myself, and it is always changing. I look back on my pictures from last year and a lot of the ones I initially liked I now think look over processed or badly shot. In saying that, shots I initially discarded as worthless I’ve since come back to and now appreciate their aesthetic.

It’s also important, in my opinion, to constantly test yourself as a photographer. If you’re good at shooting in a certain style then maybe force yourself to try a different style for a while. I like to shoot large, wide angle, landscapes so on a lot of occasions, I’ve limited myself to only carrying a 20mm prime (no zoom) lens. I use a light m4/3 camera so that is effectively 40mm with sensor cropping. It’s meant to be used primarily for portraits but I’ve found it has really helped exercise my creative eye on trips when I’m forced to find scenes that it can used well. On other occasions I’ve forced myself to solely use a fisheye 7.5mm (effective 15mm) which proved challenging at times but I’ve ended up with some shots that I absolutely love.

Milky Way over the Coq

All of the above helps train the eye of a photographer. The post-factum critique of your own photos and sifting through them helps to teach you what to look for the next time you are out. Putting limitations on your camera equipment trains you while you are out to see your environment differently as each lens you choose to bring is going to have it’s own weaknesses and strengths. You will need to be capable of viewing the world through the glass of that lens and be able to visualize how changes you make to the settings of that camera in the scene will affect the result before you’ve even taken the camera out of it’s carry case.

Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow. – Imogen Cunningham

Related to this is a little annoyance I have about progressing as a photographer. Were I to focus on painting or sculpting for artistic expression, people who would view my work would never say: “Amazing painting, you must use some really nice brushes?” or “Fantastic sculpture, I think I need to buy a chisel like the one you have” but with photography I frequently hear “Great Photo, what camera do you use? I need to buy one like that!”.

I’m not going to lose perspective and state that I was never like this either. I was. I would see amazing landscape photographs on flickr and its ilk and I’d find out what camera was used to take the shot. I bought a large DSLR and was bummed out when my shots didn’t look as good as others who were using the same equipment.

The equipment is only the medium. Imagine a Camera like a canvas and paints. Merely owning the equipment does not make you a Picasso or Monet no matter how much money you spend.

When I realized this I took a step back. I was lugging around a hefty DSLR in the mountains and I had it set on auto most of the time. The lenses were so heavy for it that I never bothered bringing them with me. I decided that I needed to focus on training my eye as a photographer and not worrying so much about the equipment I was using. I sold off that beast and purchased a new, lighter m4/3 Camera. It’s lighter weight meant I could carry a wider variety of lenses.

I’ve lost some functionality with the lighter camera. It has a much smaller sensor and creates a lot of noise in my photographs when I use higher ISO values, but I consider it a training device. I’m sure I will move back over to a full frame DSLR in the future when I feel I am ready. 

You’ve got to push yourself harder. You’ve got to start looking for pictures nobody else could take. You’ve got to take the tools you have and probe deeper. – William Albert Allard 

So if you’re a burgeoning artistic photographer yourself I hope you’ve garnered something useful from my advice. If anything, respect the eye of great photographers like Mr. Ansel Adams and others like him. Knowing when and what to shoot is exponentially more important than how you take the shot.

Winters grip

Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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  1. I would say go and get a full frame now! your images are amazing and you definitely have a natural eye for composition and photography.

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  2. My personal opinion is that I think is 50% the camera and 50% the artist. That is because Schumacher can’t win a formula one race if he drives a taxi car and the same goes for a taxi driver who also can’t with a formula one race even if he is driving a Ferrari or McLaren race car. So I think for the best result of a photo is to have both things, that is why up to date the best quality of a picture (from a pure technical point of view) comes from full frame DSLR taken by pro photographers. And of course it is true that a good photographer can take a good picture with any camera, but if the same photographer uses a full frame, he will always get a better picture from a technical point of view. Just my opinion.

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  3. One factor which determines your rate of progress could be the number of great images you study to develop your ‘eye’. To try to do this by simply shooting a lot and try to be a careful editor of your own work is laudable but your progress might be quicker if you viewed and analysed a lot of images by the top dogs in the field. We are not born with any ‘instinct’ regarding visual design, visual order and the various ingredients which the top guys put into their images. It is difficult to get proper teaching for visual design as we need it for nature photography. Colleges don’t teach it because most of their focus is on industry. You can go to school and learn to shoot fashion, product, photojournalism, architecture etc but nature is not on that list. In reality the best place would be the amateur camera clubs. They teach members to excel in nature images and invite speakers and judges who know what they’re talking about. Put that database in your subconscious memory and you’ll use it to shoot and to judge and edit your own work. Good luck.

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