Recently I participated in a discussion that stemmed from a person wondering about the composition of a very famous photo by a very famous photographer; Henri Cartier-Bresson. Specifically the person wanted to understand why this image is composed so amazingly well.
It got me to thinking about photography and the importance of concentration in the sense of a Major in College. Cartier-Bresson had a very specific concentration and didn’t experiment wildly with either his subject matter or his equipment. Instead he applied his passion to what amounts to one genre and that, combined with his instinctive artistic sensibility, makes his work compelling, cohesive and unique.
Often when I look at someone’s photo stream or gallery, I don’t see much cohesion. Mostly this applies to amateurs, not people making a living with this. Many photo-enthusiasts seem to sprawl all over the place, never picking a major. They spend a lot of time experimenting not only with subject matter, but equipment as well. They might get a really good photo now and again, but not many. That’s especially sad if the person has been at it for years. To me, as someone looking at what they’ve produced, it is obvious they haven’t mastered anything and don’t look as if they intend to.
That’s one thing I also look for; intent, craft, vision – progress. A specialized style and body of work that shows me they can direct their passion into one channel and really develop expertise. Speaking for myself, I think I’ve improved. My focus lately is woodlands and attempting to capture intimate portraits of the forest and what I find so magical about being in one. Does that make my photos repetitive and boring? I hope not, but then again, I don’t really care. I value my concentration not only for what it produces for images, but for the process itself – it builds muscle memory and good instincts.
By instinct in this case, I mean an instant sense of what will make a good photograph. I don’t claim to know the circumstances under which Mr. Cartier-Bresson made the image above, but I bet he didn’t overthink it. I bet he didn’t stop forever at the top of those stairs and manipulate the camera in every conceivable way before deciding on this composition. I bet it was instinctive. Even if he asked a bicyclist to work with him to make the shot, it was Cartier-Bresson’s knowledge that if he put such a person in that spot it would be amazing. He knew it would be especially good if the rider were blurred. The sense of motion we already get from the swirling steps is almost enough to make the image outstanding, but that bit of activity, of life, really makes it amazing and irreplaceable. Even if this shot wasn’t especially difficult, planned or set up, Cartier-Bresson never-the-less worked on it. His photography career and the hours he put in at his Major produced it. That was the work. And it paid off every time he picked up a camera.
Experimenting and practicing within a specific sphere of photography allows you to build a library of facts, techniques, outcomes and lessons that help you make better decisions in the field. By making better decisions you get better results. By developing good habits you save time and have less frustrating experiences. Eventually habits become instinct. For me, having a foundation of good habits and instinct leaves me more brain power to devote to the finer points of composition, light, perspective, depth-of-field and other technical choices. More keepers is what it comes down to. Expertise is a nice thing to have.
As a novice it’s natural to try lots of things. The world of photography is new and exciting and when I look at my pictures from that time, I smile indulgently at myself. It’s an important time though. We learn the rules and try to play by them, hopefully realizing in the process why they are rules and why they work. I’m talking the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, leading lines and ideas like that. Once understood and applied, they help whatever artistic sensibility you have become more substantive and less theoretical. After looking at shots you’ve taken where you forgot the rules and have crappy photos, it doesn’t take long for the rules to become habit and hopefully instinct.
That said, I don’t think you can really excel unless you pick a major. Ok, I’ll let you have a minor, too, but diluting the craft over lots and lots of genres won’t help you become an expert in any. If you want to be a landscape photographer, do it. Do it more often than you take pictures of your kids. If you want to be a macro photographer, do it more than you take pictures of buildings. If you want to be a street photographer, do it more than you take pictures of your vegetable garden. At first quantity matters more than quality and it’s the application of the former that will build the latter.
Like that old Carnegie Hall joke, the secret is practice, practice, practice. But not just snapping away at anything that moves, you have to devote yourself to what you love and be faithful. The rules of photography always apply, but they apply differently depending on the subject and the particular way you want to show it. The end result, if you have any talent, is that you’ll build a body of work that shows you are a subject matter expert.
I know it’s hard to stop taking pictures of all and sundry, but you really have to. Especially if you’ve got a life, too, and can’t spend 10 hours a day taking photos. If you’re stuck on picking your major, here are a few ideas on how to decide. Go through your photos and rate them. If you’ve already rated them, look at what rated highest and lowest. Did you have fun taking those? Did you love the process? Another way is to look on sharing sites and see which of your photos are most favorited or commented on. Which ones made Explore? Again, did they move you? Was making them a good time? Are they a cohesive group? Another way is to look at your worst pictures. Are those the ones you were really excited about? Why did they fail? Do you want to get better at taking those kinds of pictures?
There are lots of ways to choose your major and once you have it’s vital not only to practice, but to look at the work of the experts. There is no shortage of photo web sites, fora, blogs and sharing communities. Find some photographers who take the kinds of pictures you want to take and follow them. Study their work. Study their processes. Pick apart their EXIF data and equipment lists. Read their articles. Comment on their work and see if you can get a dialog going. Attend one of their workshops if they offer them. Podcasts, webinars, tutorials – it’s amazing what’s available now. Just don’t go overboard. Too much information and too many conflicting approaches will only muddy the waters. Instead, pick a point or two and take them into the field, specifically applying them during your session. See if the ideas work for you. Did you get more keepers from that session or not? Lather, rinse, repeat.
And I do mean repeat. Develop that muscle memory. Develop good habits and instincts. Find your passion. Declare your Major.
I have been thinking about this recently and made a commitment to myself to decide “what to major in”. Thanks for the permission to have a “minor” too. Now I have to decide. Aye,there’s the rub. I’ll let you know when I know.
Very well said. “Jack of all trades, master of none,” comes to mind. The more I narrow down the focus of my photography, the better I like to think it is becoming.
Exactly it, Jeff. It’s a tough lesson, but never-the-less true for anything a person wants to do well. Would you go to a general surgeon to have a brain tumor removed? NOT.
Great article and so very true, I will have to start thinking more about this and focusing my energies into what I want my “major” to be.