No, you don’t have to be a ‘born artist’ to significantly – and I mean really by a LOT – improve your photographs. This is a topic which makes me see red so get settled for a bit of a rant.
Picture the scene: a social meet-up in a bar, some people I know, some that are new to me we introduce ourselves and chat politely about who we are, what we do etc. So far so good. People are usually curious to hear what I do and will ask for tips, talk about their cameras, their Insta – the lot. It’s a similar story that night – and then I start chatting to this guy. And a few minutes into our conversation, he interjects and goes – “but it’s not like the Mums with cameras you teach will ever get any good, is it? You’re either an artist, or you’re not”. I wish I could tell you the witty reply that instantly came to me and put him in his place, but I was just a bit taken aback and just ranted a about learning journeys etc. Not my best. Pretty sure he was left unconvinced.
But then, on the way home, the more I thought about it, the more I felt my blood simmer and I thought it needed a proper response.
First and foremost: Nobody picks up a camera on Monday and turns it into art on Tuesday. I don’t care if your name is Annie Leibovitz – you just don’t. Having that creative eye is great and let’s not kid ourselves, will make you stand above the rest when you get into photography for good. But if you’re new to this, you need to learn your tools and that’s your camera. You would’t get into a car and expect to get into a formula 1 race with no actual knowledge of what your levers and buttons and pedals do, and you certainly wouldn’t expect to be able to race like Jenson Button. More to the point, I kind of bet 99% of you never plan to be as good as him and race at that level, but you do want to be able to drive properly, right? Why would it be different with photography? I mean I’d love to hear the commentators as they announce a scared looking woman pulling up between Button and Hamilton in a silver scoda, but I fear that’s just going to stay on my bucket list.
Oh and while we’re at it – AUTO is not the evil incarnate. Just like in cars, you can drive / shoot automatic and still get from A to B / get a well exposed photo. But the same way that seasoned drivers will tell you that they don’t like driving automatic because they feel like the subtlety of being in tune with the engine and making it do what they want it to do gives them a better experience – that same way, your experienced or even more enthusiast level photographers prefer to shoot semi-automatic or fully manual. Do I think it’s better to shoot manual than auto – for control, consistency, specific outcomes – yes, sure I do. Do I think you can’t take a good picture on auto – the hell I don’t.
But let’s come back to this ‘artist’ thing. I’m pretty sure we’re all aware that Art Schools exist? That year in and year out hundreds if not thousands of student go there and graduate from them and I have it on good authority, they don’t just get patted on their backs and told to ‘just go be an artist, man’ – they are being taught solid skills, critical appraisal and they grow their abilities. And you know what else – they won’t all become top level, world-renowned artists. But they might still carve a space for themselves in the creative world, do what they love at some commercial level, or if not, show their kids how to draw a horse properly.
Because when you learn Photography, you learn it bit by bit, and every little bit makes you a better photographer, and every little bit improves your photos – some more than others – but that’s what you learn. Not how to become the next Artist of the Year, but being a better photographer than you were yesterday. Our Photo courses last between 4 – 6 weeks per level. Can I tell you that as soon as that time is over, you’re ready to open your own photography practice? No. Will your photos have improved radically? Hell yes. Are you done learning? No. ( partly why we keep an alumni FB group for all past students and weekly challenges)
Because when you learn how light works in photography, your photos will improve even if you’re shooting on your phone camera. Because when you understand how our brains process the visual information and what makes our attention focus on what’s important – your composition will be better. Because when you practice and do exercises and try different angles and styles – you will have found new things that make your photos them more interesting, better. Because the more you really look at other people’s photographs and analyse them , and try to recreate a particlual effect or even just ask yourself why you like a picture – the more your own photos grow and develop and improve. It’s a craft first, art second – learning solid skills make you better and you’re only racing with yourself.
And my final point – most people come to our courses, not because they want a lucrative Children’s Photographer career at the end of these 6 weeks. The vast majority want this : to take really lovely photos of their own kids. To watch them grow and change and capture that very essence of them growing into ‘proper’ human beings – whether they smile, play, take their first or second steps and – and they want those photos to be good and print-worthy and capturing their children well. And that’s what we teach them. There is an indescribably great value in documenting your family lives in that way. Something I think every parent should have. So if we can help people get better at that, capture more of their children’s lives, capture them better, then I’m happy. ( Having said that, quite a few of our grads have made the move to professional photography and I’m bursting with pride seeing their businesses thrive.)
Are some people better at photography than others? Of course – as with any skill, there will always be people who will have a natural propensity for it – for every amazing Formula 1 driver there are countless others who are still great, just not THAT level great.