Shoot first, and ask questions later (No, really).

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I started off with a truly shitty camera, though I can hardly blame the quality of my early photographs on that. The Nikon Coolpix 5900 I got just before my first international trip to Guatemala in 2005 was a small, boxy hunk of point-and-shoot aluminum whose chief desirable attribute was its ability to be dropped from a height onto concrete without ceasing to function. It had a screen with a resolution so low that I couldn’t tell until they’d been uploaded to a computer if the photographs I’d taken were actually in focus or not. It had a useful anti-blur warning that was made significantly less useful by the fact that nearly anything not taken in direct sunlight tended to blur, and an optical viewfinder that, hilariously, presented a picture that was significantly different from what the lens would actually take. (I found that last bit out months later.)

I  have precisely zero photographs from those five weeks in Guatemala. No keepers. None. Worse still were the six months I spent in 2007-2008 travelling thru India, Nepal and China (with a cherry-on-top trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway in the waning days of winter). I visited spectacular temples on that trip; I visited marvelous beaches. I hiked the Himalayas and tromped thru Red Square on Lenin’s birthday. And yet what do I have to show for it, photographically? Barely a dozen worthwhile images, plus some non-public visual detritus on my Flickr photostream to remind me of my once-dizzying photographic incompetence.

The photos that I got that were worth showing to people were, by and large, accidents, an illustration of the aphorism that even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then. This is because, like most people, I was taking pictures at things, rather than properly taking pictures of things.

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A fine example of dumb luck — this little girl just outside the Nepali town of Pokhara chose to ‘namaste’ just as I pulled my camera out, and her sister broke into a run, coming into the frame purely by accident. (She also demanded money afterwards, and while I appreciate the effort, it wasn’t going to happen.)

You know how that works, right? You see something and think, “hey, that’s interesting”, and you point your camera at it, considering it interesting only in the most general sense without stopping to think about what’s interesting about it. When you don’t consider what’s actually interesting in the scene you find interesting, you’re taking a picture at it, rather than a picture of it. Not that that isn’t valuable, of course, because from time to time you will, blind-squirrel style, find a photograph that you took at something actually turned out to be a photograph of something.

Take photograph below, for example. I snapped a photo because I though, “Hey – temple. Temples are neat.” That was literally as far as my thinking got. Yet when I looked at it afterwards, I noticed that there was a dynamism to the photo, a point of real visual interest that came from the movement of the birds within the frame, and that it was only THAT that made the backdrop of the temple itself truly interesting.

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So: I’mma let you in on a little secret here, and I’mma give it to you for free:

There are exactly two real skills that a photographer needs:

(1) Knowing what’s good, and

(2) Knowing what isn’t.

All other considerations are utterly secondary to these. Your camera, your lens, your tripod, your understanding of bokeh and depth of field —  none of it matters until you can pick a strong image from a weak image. You might think that “knowing what’s good” is the critical point in the equation of getting respectable photos, but really it’s only meaningful — and only really gets developed — once you’ve mastered the first point of “knowing what isn’t”.

When you know what really, truly isn’t any good, you have the power to look at an image you’ve composed on your screen, or in your viewfinder, and to go, “Wow — that sucks. There is absolutely nothing interesting about that photo, and consequently, I’m not gonna take it.” The first time you have that moment, let me tell you, is it ever liberating! You’re peering at a frame full of nothing — no visual interest, no drama, no lines or color or movement to speak of — something you were about to take a picture at rather than a picture of, and you suddenly have the discrimination and presence of mind to realise that it’s a waste of your attention. And when that moment happens, it’s a blessing, because in that moment you understand that in order to get a photograph worth taking, you need to look differently, or look elsewhere, or look deeper.

Knowing what sucks keeps you from wasting your time, effort and attention on something that was never going to yield results. To be zen about it, knowing what sucks is nothing more or less than the quality of DISCERNMENT, which is the essential element in the development of a keen and perspicacious photographic eye.

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An image of the Washington Monument taken with considerations of composition strongly in mind. Superficially interesting as that towering 555-foot obelisk is, there are relatively few ways to get an interesting photograph of it, since it tends to suffer from having a frame placed around it. Some things gain from having a frame placed around them; some things lose. It’s important to know the difference.

Now do you want to hear the shit part about this? The frustrating truth about how to get from taking dull photographs that no one wants to see, to taking photographs that make your friends jealous? It’s only this:

YOU HAVE TO SHOOT MORE, AND YOU HAVE TO THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE SHOT.

As the Henri Cartier-Bresson quote goes, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”. And while I did, early on, manage blind-squirrel-style to find a photographic nut every now and then, the thing that finally took my photography to the next level was going out and shooting, a lot, each and every week. Ira Glass notes that when we start doing any kind of creative work, we tend to have a gap between our good taste in appreciating art and our low ability in producing it. The only way to close that gap is to persevere in creating even when the products are disappointing to us.

Of course, there is a further step that may help you out a bit: get a photo editing program, and use it with everything you shoot. Adobe Lightroom is my personal preference, but if you’re on a Mac, Aperture is good too. Even the basic photo management software preloaded onto your computer (e.g. iPhoto) will be a useful aid. I’d not worry too much about getting into full-on Photoshop-style messing with your images, which at an early stage in your creative development is likely to be a distraction, rather than a help. Instead, LOOK at each and every image that you’ve shot after the fact in your photo editing program, and simply flag the ones that, as you go through your images from a particular session out shooting, actually grab your eye. When you’ve gone through once, filter to just the images you’ve flagged, and have a look at them. These are your “keepers”.

Now is the time that you have to ask yourself questions about what you’ve shot:

What is it about them that grabs your eye, and what is it that’s weakening the photograph? Is it improperly exposed? Is there a point of visual interest that’s being crowded by being too close to the edge of the frame? Do you have something really cool in the foreground that’s being ruined by a cluttered and distracting background? Developing this awareness about your images is the key to “knowing what’s good”. Arm yourself with a critical eye when you’re out shooting, and a critical eye when you’re back reviewing your images, and you’ll be well on your way to getting those first 10,000 photographs well out of the way.

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