I ask myself this question because I’m constantly being asked the same question by others: How do I become a better photographer? The easy answer is keep shooting and never stop. 10,000 photos to be competent, another 10,000 to feel comfortable, and another 10,000 to be content. However, can one ever master the art of photography? Even if you could, would you want to? I sure don’t. Ansel Adams quoted English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘All art is the balance between the external and the internal’. I agree. I am constantly trying to find that balance of interpreting the external (the things I see, hear and feel) with the internal (how I imagine, interpret, create). To do this, there is no finish line, there is no mastering. There is only the never-ending pursuit of maintaining balance between these two opposing forces. I’ve found that the greatest quality (aka ‘superpower’) I’ve retained since childhood that has helped me become a ‘balanced’ photographer is the gift of being easily amused. Let me explain.
The key behind every great photo is not what’s in front of the lens, but who’s behind it. The key to every great photo isn’t the camera, but the photographer who took it. The external, the things we see in life is, by nature, always there. Everyone walking past a possible photographic scene can potentially ‘see’ what we’re seeing through our cameras, and yet the decision for us to frame and capture the image is what makes it our own vision. Of course there is the craft of photography, the skills needed to take a photograph with a competent understanding of composition, exposure and timing. However, that in itself does not make a great photograph. There are many competent photographers who can imitate and copy other photographers’ styles, or keep up with whatever style is currently trending, but those things are all external forces exerting influence onto our internal self. If we are constantly looking to others for inspiration, we will never find the balance that will give us our own unique style. Without the right balance, we will never be happy with our photography, no matter how good other people tell us we are.
The key quality that I have found in most successful artists is that they all have a childlike curiosity with the world or, in other words, the gift of being easily amused. This is a powerful internal force. The smallest little noise, the oddest combination of words or the unique way an object casts a shadow – great artists are amused by what they sense around them. Although these events take place externally, it is the internal processing of the event that sparks the imagination and is the seed that produces the fruitage of great art. I’ve witnessed this internal spark with musicians, writers, painters and, yes, photographers. I will not pretend to be a ‘great’ or ‘successful’ artist but I believe I am competent. The key to my competence comes not from my skills, but from my constant curiosity about life itself.
Years ago I looked down while taking a product shot of camera gear and noticed my feet in the picture by accident. I was amused by it and kept doing it as a regular series here on FujiLove, as well as on my Instagram account. These happy accidents that merge with curiosity and amusement happens all the time. I look up at the night sky and notice a single glowing red curtain at night, reminding me of a blood moon. Click. I notice long shadows and dark grey clouds while my family plays basketball on a late summer evening. Click, click. Most times I’m not even planning on taking a photograph, although I stress the importance of always having a camera. I see something, there’s a spark, I click. Moreover, it’s typically curiosity and amusement that motivates my photography. Having the skill to take a great photograph is only potential, but it’s not actionable.
Perhaps you may feel that by nature you are not curious, or perhaps you are observational but not easily amused. I truly believe that when we were all children, we were, by nature, curious and easily amused. This trait is often disregarded as we get older, as we perpetually learn and experience new things, and eventually we are no longer excited by them. However, curiosity can be fostered and reignited, just like actionable qualities like motivation, enthusiasm and positivity can be, with the right mindset. The right tools (new lens or camera) and environment (travel to a new city) can temporarily motivate us but, for the long game, genuine amusement and curiosity about the external world is the best motivation for us to keep growing as photographers. Try to view a scene like a child, literally getting on your hands and knees (the below image I laid down on my back) to get a different perspective. Curiosity is an actionable quality, especially for all creatives. Learn how to become curious and amused and watch your click count increase, but as well your ability to balance the external with the internal for your own unique style. Thanks for reading and happy shooting.
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