“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.“
– Ansel Adams
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My passion for the art of photography began quite suddenly and unexpectedly in the winter of 2010. As a self-taught photographer, I’ve had no traditional or formal education in photography (or in any form of art, for that matter). Never taken a class, no private instruction, no degrees or certificates. In all honesty…before 2010, I had never considered the possibility of creating anything artistic.
I developed my skills in two predominant ways: 1) Reading various online blogs and watching Youtube videos to learn the fundamentals, and 2) Good old fashioned trial-and-error out in the field. Especially in the first year or so of shooting, the single most helpful part of the process was to for me to screw up the shot. Botching the photograph, and subsequently analyzing why and how I messed it up, greatly accelerated my learning process. And, make no mistake about it, that process will never end no matter how many years I rack up in experience. What’s vitally important is that, as I gained knowledge in the craft, the mistakes I made became significantly more nuanced and difficult to find.
As a beginner, I was occasionally satisfied with a photograph because I didn’t know enough to know that I didn’t know enough. At times, it seemed “easy” (whenever something seems “easy” it’s usually because I don’t know what I’m doing). But, once I accumulated more knowledge and experience, my appreciation for the exceptional difficulty in fine-tuning the smallest of details became part of the pure joy of creating a photograph. It’s the journey that matters, not the finish. Every photograph I take has a story behind its capture. Experiencing and remembering those stories is probably the most enjoyable aspect of being a photographer. (Nailing a shot is a very close second.)
If I could pass on one thought or idea to others who are interested in beginning their journey into photography, it would be to never reach any preconceived notion or conclusion about what you may or may not be able to accomplish. Ever. Keep your mind wide open and don’t limit yourself or construct artificial boundaries which could dampen your creative instincts. (Clichè warning) You have no way of knowing what you’re capable of unless you give it your best effort.
When I look at my photographs, I don’t see a photo, I see a thousand opportunities to have improved the shot. That process of “self-scouting” never ceases; there is no such thing as a “perfect” photograph. In that context, photographic art is very much akin to a human being: Perfect imperfection.
I struggle with defining what makes a “quality” photograph. How does anyone, regardless of their experience level, determine when a particular photograph reaches some enigmatic, abstract notion of “good?” Obviously, we all have a deep well of emotion shaped by our lifetime of experiences. And, a work of art which taps into that well would be considered by that viewer to be of high “quality” regardless of whether or not the photographer followed any predetermined rules of what makes a “good” photograph. A photographer does not need to, for example, follow the Rule of Thirds in order to create an image which captures the feelings and imagination of viewers. Generic fundamentals are guidelines, not laws.
Art, in its purest form, is nothing more (or less) than two main concepts: 1) an individual’s expression of self, and/or 2) an individual’s personal interpretation/appreciation of the art form (projection of self-expression). #1 is anything created with the explicit (or implied) purpose of expressing one’s self. In other words, it’s the purpose and process of creation which ultimately determines whether or not something is a form of art. #2 is a bit more tricky. In this case, it’s not about who created the work or why they created it…it’s about someone else’s experience with the art form.
Is the front door to someone’s home a form of art? I believe it can be. A custom built door created by a carpenter could most definitely be considered a form of self-expression. And, even if the door is simply your common variety wood door purchased at Home Depot (I prefer Home Depot over Lowes), it could still be viewed as art by someone else. For example, if an individual closely examined the door and noticed interesting patterns in the wood which depicted something to capture the viewer’s imagination and emotion, then you’ve got art. For this reason, we can consider practically anything a potential form of art, regardless of whether or not it was created by an artist. A cloud can be a form of art…or the sound of rain on a metal roof…or a sunset.
My favorite genres are Landscape Photography (especially long exposures and waterscapes) and Architectural Photography. My favorite activity/hobby in my spare time (what little of it I have these days) is to hike through state and national parks, capturing the unique beauty of the scenery via my camera.
I am currently working on a book showcasing many of the photographs I’ve taken during my experiences in parks across the United States. With a little bit of luck, the book should be finished sometime within the next 40 years.
The vast majority of my photographs are taken with a Nikon D810, and almost always on a tripod. While I use Adobe Lightroom to categorize and organize my photographs, and I use Adobe Photoshop to develop the photographs in post process, I try very hard to manipulate the photographs as little as possible digitally. Put simply, I do as much as possible in the field.
In my opinion, there is a significant difference between Photography and Graphic Design. The former relies predominantly on a mechanical device to depict a visual interpretation of reality…the latter is a visual interpretation of an idea in the creator’s mind. As a Photographer, I believe maintaining a clear line of delineation between the two genres is important. That said, there are situations where Photoshop is necessary to develop the photograph (i.e. cloning out a person who unwittingly ended up in the background of a photograph, dodging/burning, adding a watermark, etc…).
I am extraordinarily fortunate to have several of my photos showcased in National Geographic, The Smithsonian Institution website, the Baltimore Sun newspaper, and Landscape Photography Magazine. In addition to my blog here on my website, I also write instructional columns for Digital-Photography-School.com. If interested, you can find those columns here.
I have never set any personal goals throughout my adventure in Photography. While having goals or striving to reach specific levels of achievement can be of great benefit in many facets of life, I believe they can be limiting and self-defeating for an artist. At the very beginning, I gave Photography a try simply because it stirred up something inside me that had been previously dormant. I didn’t know what “it” was that made me interested in trying to create photographs, I just knew I loved doing “it.” And, having that “it” is the only ingredient one needs to become an artist. You don’t need talent, you don’t need the approval of others, and you don’t need a degree from a school. All you need is “it.”