By: Gary Gray
Moving beyond the mundane and learning to find your own look.
Firstly, I'm not going to claim I'm the worlds most talented photographer. I learn something new every day and I constantly struggle with my own work and style in an effort to push my own personal envelope as a photographer.
If you're at all concerned with making better photographs, you have to evaluate yourself with a critical eye, and not just your photographs, but also your knowledge, style, predisposition and flaws. I always look for something wrong with what I'm doing and try to figure out how to make it better. You would also be well advised to listen to what people tell you about your work.
I don't know about you, but in my experience, I've found that other photographers are not always the best sources of critique of another photographers work. They, like myself, have ingrained concepts, biases and habits, which will invariably creep in to their opinion of other people's photography. Not to say that another photographer can't evaluate your work and provide meaningful feedback, but more to say, I'd listen with equal or greater interest to the opinions of those who don't understand all the technicalities of photography. Photographs are, after all, for viewing. It requires no special knowledge to know when you see a really good photograph. Why? Maybe because photographic art is an emotional experience when it is at it's best. It requires special knowledge only when trying to dissect an artist's skills. Want a good example of this, try entering the same really good image into two different competitions and see how it is judged by two different experts. One may love it, the other may ignore it or brutally dissect it until you feel like a total failure as an artist. Both results can be good for you. I don't want people to tell me my pictures look "great" simply because they don't want to offend me and have some internal need to always be polite. I want people to tell me the truth as they see it. One way to get to the truth of the matter is to attempt to sell the image. If the image is not good, you won't be able to sell it to anybody, no matter what you want to believe.
Getting back on track with the subject of the article, one of the problems I've noticed with photography these days is "sameness." A gazillion photographers, taking a gazillion photographs, using the same basic techniques on the same basic subjects, generating the same basic results using the same photo editing techniques. Living in Colorado, I can go virtually anywhere and find a group of photographers gathered in the same spot, taking the same images. The same images that scores of other photographers have taken in the same spot in the past. What's wrong with that? Because they are the same shots and will never stand out for their individual uniqueness. The same images that many photographers use to sell books in an effort to sell their knowledge of where to go to get great images. Someone is making money, but it won't be you. I need to make a living and do the same thing too. But for some strange reason, I feel dirty. And I've figured out why I feel dirty. It's because in photography, if it looks the same it is the same and I don't want to be the same as everybody else. Heck, there are scores of people who make cross country treks to Yosemite National Park, just to get the same photographs that Ansel Adams took. I don't think they'll ever do any better than Ansel did with those images. Neither will you. You might find a way to get your own shots though, and they can be better than Ansel's too.
My advice. Don't buy a photography book that teaches you where to go to get great shots from your car on the side of the road. Why? Because everyone will eventually have the same shot you got from the same spot on the side of the same road. Go ahead and visit that spot in the road if you want. But at least get out of the car and walk a few hundred feet and look for something different. You'll probably find it.
Going a step further, lets apply the same concept to post processing.
Lets face it, everybody has a copy of Photoshop or Elements or Paint Shop Pro or Lightroom or Aperture or Picasa. Every amateur is tempted to test the pre-designed photo enhancements to generate a pre-designed artistic look. Ever been tempted to convert one of those not so wonderful photographs into a digital painting? Wow! That can sure spice things up and make it look like art, can't it? Even other professionals I know take a cookie cutter approach to much of their commercial work by recreating the same look over and over and over. Same studio set, same props, same lighting, same image, different person. My advice, master it and then move on. If you have to fix or modify something so heavily in post-processing just to make it appealing, you aren't doing a very good job of photography to begin with. Recreating a popular look is okay, so long as it stays popular and so long as it doesn't become boring to look at. I promise you that after 30,000 other photographers have mastered the same software and found the same location, it will be boring and you'll never have your images stand out amongst the clutter.
One of the latest trends in digital photography is HDR, or High Dynamic Range. It's more or less done by taking multiple photographs of the same scene using different exposures and then blending those images together in Photoshop or some other special software to create a "dynamic and vibrant" image containing full highlight and shadow detail. An offshoot of this technique is called "tone mapping." Wow! Sounds exciting doesn't it? No more blown out skys, no more lost shadow details. Vibrant too!
Well, I tried HDR for a while and decided afterwards that it was just more of the same thing everybody else was doing. I don't go near it these days. Why? Because at it's best, it looks the same as every other photographers HDR image. I can spot a HDR image a mile away. Why? Because they all look the same. I've instead learned how to make the image with the camera and how to use the age old tools available to photographers long before the computer software fix's came along. Want to keep your sky from blowing out highlights, wait for the correct light or use a neutral density filter. Want to keep noise out of your pictures, learn to use a tripod and shoot at a lower ISO with a proper exposure. Just about anything that can be fixed in post-processing can be avoided by doing it right to begin with. I'm to the point now where people who think they know something look at one of my images and say "is that a HDR shot?" I just smile. You can do HDR imaging with your camera if you know how. You don't need software to fake it.
In photography, looks the same is the same. In photography, being the same is one way to never stand out and move ahead.
I say, ignore the same. Aim to be different. Aim a little higher than what everybody else is doing.
You'll never hit any higher than you aim.
(Previously published on Jun 8, 2009)
In Photography, Looks the Same is the Same