It has been argued that no idea is original. Somewhere, at some time, someone else has done it. I am proud to acknowledge that a lot of my photography ideas come from the work of other photographers. Some ideas I try to replicate as closely as possible whereas others I simply adopt a theme and change it by adding my own personal interpretation. While some artists strive for total originality, I do not, and for several good reasons.
First, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If I am copying an idea of another photographer, it is because I am blown away by their work. The funny part is, if I dig deep enough I usually discover that the photographer I am copying got their idea from someone else as well. I have a long list of ideas that are born from images I have seen from other photographers. The list has been generated not by the name of the photographer, or the equipment they use, but rather by the finished product.
Second, you can learn a lot by simply trying to reproduce someone else’s work. If you are trying to duplicate an image perfectly, you have to account for lighting, depth of field, noise levels, shadows, etc. Trying to get all of that right, isn’t easy, especially if the image is already complex and complicated. If you’re lucky enough, the photographer might have a behind-the-scenes explanation or video where they explain what camera settings they used and how they set up their gear to capture the shot. This typically is not the case for most images, but search for details on the picture anyway. You may be surprised. The more you attempt to recreate others’ work, the quicker you can realize how certain images were created. You will be able to look at a simple portrait and fairly quickly figure out how many lights were used and where the lights were generally located. The more you try this duplication process, the better you will become at photography in general.
Lastly, by repeatedly trying to duplicate the work of others, you will start to develop your own style. You will start to combine ideas from different sources to create ideas that come from you. Even then, your ideas may not be completely original as someone has probably already done something very similar. That’s ok. Do an image search for ‘egg photography’ and you will find some very interesting images, but after a page or two, they all start to take on some similar themes. This isn’t to say that the first few images you see are more or less original, it just means the different variations on the same subject (an egg) tend to start to blend together such as broken egg images, eggs with facial expressions images, colored eggs images, etc.
So, have I ever had an ‘original’ idea? Sure! I've had several ‘original’ ideas that usually plague me right before I go to sleep. It’s only later in the morning that I discover the idea has been done before in some form or another. If you’re new to photography and want to develop your own style, as odd as it sounds, plagiarize as much as you can. Even if you’re a seasoned photographer in a certain style and want to branch into other styles, try re-creating images of others whose work you find interesting. True photographic plagiarism is taking someone else’s picture and putting your name on it. Sadly, this happens all too frequently. But if you adopt the philosophy that photography is about capturing moments that can never be re-created later on, it becomes literally impossible to plagiarize anyone’s picture by simply trying to re-create it. So if originality is undetected plagiarism, be an undetected plagiarist!
Portrait photography, or ‘people pics’, can be one of the more challenging forms of photography to master. As with any skill, practice makes perfect. If you're not made of money and do not have the means to hire a Heidi Klum, what do you do? Where do you go to find willing models to help you improve and hone your skills? With a little work on your part, you can probably find more models than you think.
Obviously one of the first sources for models can be family and friends. Not only are they fairly willing, they are also usually patient and understanding. A patient model is key when starting out because portrait photography can take a little time to properly setup, especially if you are using artificial lighting. It is also much less intimidating to take pictures of people you know fairly well than it is to take pictures of someone unfamiliar to you. Don’t burn them out though. Unless they are enjoying the experience and are having as much fun as you, keep your shoots reasonably short. I probably have a bad habit of hounding a few friends for pictures more than I should only because I know the images would turn out great. Don't be too pushy or demanding. If they're not into it, they're not into it. Find those that are!
Once you have exhausted friends and family, consider other sources for models. Most aspiring photographers can’t afford a professional model but still want to practice portrait photography. Luckily, most aspiring models can’t afford a professional photographer either. Look for online modeling sites such as Broken Doll Models, Model Management, Model Mayhem, and similar sites These sites have some great advantages. First, most sites will allow you to search for models in your area. Second, you can search for models that are willing to trade their time for prints (TFP). This allows the model to use the pictures from the photographer to build their portfolio and gives the photographer a model to help build his/her skills. Third, you can run across some models with a fair amount of experience. Their experience can benefit you as well. Lastly, most of these sites are free to use.
Finally, you can hire a model for a shoot. I would only suggest this once you are fairly comfortable with portraits or ‘people pics’ as you are usually paying them on an hourly basis. This is definitely not the time to be figuring out lighting or poses unless you have the income to do so. However, there are some great benefits to a paid model. Simply put, they know how to pose. They are usually very prompt and professional. They are far less camera shy and can get into ‘modeling mode’ very easily. They also know how to position their body in relation to the lighting. They will know which light is the key light and which light is a fill light or a separation light. Knowing this, they will make sure they don’t place an arm or hand between the light and their face that would cast an unpleasant shadow.
Having said all of this, you do not necessarily need a professional model to create great images. If you can find a friend that loves being in front of the camera, take advantage of that. Sometimes you can get much better results with a friend that is just as passionate about your shoot idea than you can from a paid model that isn't as passionate about it. Don’t be afraid to try unconventional ideas! These kinds of shoots are simply a blast and even considering supplies, aren't that expensive. Although, compensating models with pizza, chocolate fountains, and mimosas probably doesn't hurt either.
Don’t be afraid of portraiture. Start with friends and family. Try looking for models in your area online that are willing to trade services and don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. My more unusual ideas seem to attract more willing models than just a normal portrait sitting. Respect your model’s time and comfort level and have fun in the process. Once you get comfortable with portraiture and start creating a decent portfolio, something very interesting happens. Instead of having to search for willing models, models will start contacting you. Nothing surprised me more than receiving messages from people I did not know asking me how much I would charge for a ‘creative’ shoot. Don’t get me wrong, I still bug the crap out of friends and family when I have an idea or two I want to try out, but it's a nice confidence boost when a stranger wants to follow my work, or better yet, shoot with me.
Maybe you received a camera for the holidays, or maybe you've always had one but it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere because it just looks too complicated to use. If this is you, fret not. The best way to learn any hobby, increase any skill, or perfect a passion, is to do it! There is simply no substitute for practice. The only thing stopping you from becoming a better photographer, is you. As Matt Granger says, “Get Your Gear Out!” You can watch videos online, buy books, and even memorize the manual that came with your camera but it won’t make a bit of difference if you don’t put it into practice. This post is about different ways to engage with your camera and become a better photographer.
First off, don’t try and figure out what every single button on your camera does right away. You will learn them over time. Even then, you may not use all of the buttons. There are some buttons on my camera I have only used once or twice only in attempting to figure out what they did. Second, don’t buy into the ‘you have to get your camera out of automatic mode to be a good photographer’ rule. Some of my favorite pictures I have taken were taken on a full automatic setting. Does putting your camera in ‘manual’ mode make for better pictures? No, not if you do not understand what ISO, aperture, and shutter speed mean. You may actually wind up with worse looking pictures if you don’t know how to set up a camera in manual mode. If you have absolutely no clue what any setting means, keep your camera in automatic mode and start taking pictures. Automatic mode is a good way to start learning about composition. Take pictures of things you like. Take several pictures of the same thing from different angles. Doing this will help you develop a sense of framing, composition, and perhaps lighting. Does the item look better right in the middle of the image? Maybe it might look better just off-center. Play around. There are ‘rules’ about where you should place the subject of your picture, but don’t worry about the rules. Besides, rules are made to be broken. If you like it, then it’s good enough.
Once you feel like you have a handle on composition and placement of your subject in the picture, pick a different setting on your camera. Some cameras have presets for portraits, landscapes, sports, close-ups (macro), etc. Give these a try. Maybe pick one and spend some time just taking pictures with that setting. Obviously if you set the camera into sports mode, try to make sure you are taking pictures of scenes with a lot of movement and action. Likewise, if you set it to portraits, try doing a lot of portraits. When you do different settings, try and pay attention to the numbers the camera is using for different scenes. Try this method with other modes too such as P, Tv, and Av, modes on a Canon and P, S, and A modes on a Nikon.
After you think you are getting the images you want from these modes, consider manual (M) mode on your camera. The best place to learn about manual settings is online, especially video tutorials on YouTube. This is where learning about ISO, aperture, and shutter speed will start to become important. If you paid attention to the settings the camera used when using the presets, that gives you a good starting point. For example, put your camera in portrait mode and focus on a person. Write down or remember the settings and then switch to manual mode. Input the very same settings. This should result in the same picture you would have achieved in the portrait preset mode. But what if you want the picture darker or lighter? What if you want the background to appear fuzzier? This is where you can learn to start with the ‘suggested’ settings and change one or two settings to achieve a slightly different final image. It’s not as daunting as it may seem. After all, they are only digital pictures. No money has been spent on developing film or buying new rolls. Worst case scenario, you probably are only spending money on batteries or electricity to recharge batteries. There’s simply no reason not to experiment.
The single best way that helped me learn my way around my camera and all of the settings, was to engage in a 365 day photo challenge. The concept of the challenge is to take a photograph a day, without missing a day, for a full 365 days. A friend of mine was currently doing this challenge and I loved looking at his pictures. Although he was already a very accomplished photographer, it was fun to see how he could create amazing pictures from ordinary everyday objects. The challenge can focus on a single subject, such as taking a picture of a growing beard over a year. It can even be as simple as taking one selfie a day over a year. For my personal challenge, I selected an entire month to different camera settings. I would pick a month to focus on just ISO, another month focused just on shutter speed, another month just on aperture, another month just on focusing, and so on and so on. I even dedicated a month to forcing myself to Photoshop my photos A LOT to better understand post processing and Photoshop. Afraid I wouldn’t have enough unique items to photograph, I picked up a toy army doll and routinely made him the subject of my daily picture. Although the challenge seems very fun and interesting at first, it can be a very daunting endeavor. Honestly, there were days I just didn’t feel like picking up the camera, but I did.
At the end of the challenge, I created a short video of every picture I had taken over that period. I realized I was no longer afraid of my camera or any of the settings. I no longer fear manual mode, in fact, now my camera hardly comes out of manual mode. I no longer fear ‘breaking’ my camera by setting it wrong. The most unexpected outcome of finishing the project was the feeling the few weeks after. I honestly felt a sense of withdrawal. It felt very strange not picking up my camera on a daily basis. As a result of the challenge, I view the world around me VERY differently. I am constantly looking at people, places, and things in a way I never before had. It forces me to stop and appreciate the beauty in every moment that I think gets overlooked all too often.
A 365 day photo challenge is just one way to make you pick up your camera and become more proficient with it. In the end, it’s about having fun. If you simply don’t enjoy using a camera and taking pictures, then find something that does spark that interest and enjoyment for you. If you enjoy taking pictures but maybe on a less frequent basis, that is fine too. But if you enjoy photography and really want to learn how to master your camera and equipment, then get out there and use it! Videos and books are fine, but nothing beats trial and error. You will have a lot of pictures that aren’t that good, a few pictures that are ok, and fewer that are really great. By repeatedly using your equipment, you can reduce the number of bad pictures while at the same time increasing the number of great ones. For me, photography is often the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about before I go to bed. My only regret is not getting into this hobby earlier in my life. But as they say, better late than never.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.