I am going to let you in on a secret. In this article, I am going to tell you the single most important thing that you need to do before you can really call yourself a photographer, the one thing that you must master in order to achieve greatness. It’s not aperture, it’s not the rule of thirds, and it has nothing to do with what kind of camera equipment you own. Are you ready? Here it is:
You must let go of your pride.
I don’t mean the pride you have in your work—it’s OK to be proud of your accomplishments, as long as you can also be humble. It’s the pride that you take in the way you conduct yourself. It’s that little part of you that says, “No way am I going to do that, what would people think?” Until you learn to ignore that little voice, to embarrass yourself willfully and with great abandon, you may never become the photographer you want to be.
In case you’re still wondering what the heck I’m talking about, here’s a few of the most embarrassing things that photographers do in the name of getting the shot.
Kate, Lying Down on the Job by Flickr user Malenkov in Exile
1. Lying down in the mud (or dirt, or concrete, or horse manure)
If you still take all your photos from a standing position, there’s a good chance you’re never going to really be thrilled with your work. That’s because most humans view the world from a standing position, and as a result just about everything you shoot from that perspective is mundane. Let’s say that you want to take a photo of a garden snail—if you stand above it and photograph it from that angle, you’re going to end up with a photograph of a garden snail that looks exactly like most people see garden snails most of the time.
Slow train by Flickr user Deja Photo From Lens To Picture
But if you get down in the dirt instead and you shoot that snail from the perspective of another snail, a few things are going to happen. First, people are going to stare at you. They just will, and you have to get over it. Second, you’re going to get dirty. (Tip: it’s best to not go anywhere with your camera while wearing your best Prada.) And third, you’re going to end up with a photo that’s really unique and cool, a photo full of details that you’ve never seen before, a photo that gives your viewer a glimpse into what life might be like for a snail.
2. Climbing things
The opposite of laying down in the mud or horse manure, of course, is getting up high and shooting from an elevated perspective. Now, I must caution you to not do anything dangerous—I don’t like telling people to sit with their feet dangling over a balcony in the name of getting an awesome shot, because your life isn’t really worth a great photo. But if you can do so safely, find an elevated perspective to shoot from. Your kids’ tree house is a great example. Standing on a table will work well, too. Or a stump, or on the roof of your car. Never mind that you’re almost certainly going to call attention to yourself—you need to stop caring. And anyway, most people will excuse your behavior when they see your camera, though they may not actually stop staring at you.
3. Making stupid faces and telling lame jokes
Sometimes a portrait photographer must sacrifice pride in the name of a great photo. This is especially true if your subject is a part of the baby or toddler set—let’s face it, you can’t exactly tell them a sophisticated joke from your Wit and Wisdom of the Dowager Countess book over crumpets and tea, unless your goal is to capture a photo of a blank stare. Children don’t understand sophisticated humor, unless you finish your joke by tacking the word “butt” on the end of it.
Yes, to get a genuine smile out of the under four-foot set, you need to be silly. You need to make goofy faces and you need to invest in a potentially embarrassing arsenal of puppets, noisemakers, and any other objects that might possibly elicit a smile out of your juvenile subjects. Most of all, you need to make sure you're not shy about using any of those things. If you have never really felt comfortable using a silly voice, jumping around, making faces or waving your hands, or having a puppet on your left hand fight with a puppet on your right hand, you may never approach the realm of kid photographer greatness. In other words, taking great kid shots often (and usually) involves letting go of a little bit of your pride.
4. Getting wet (or cold)
How many photos have you shot of the ocean from the perspective of the beach? All of them? If that’s true, then you need to think about taking some risks. I don't necessarily mean with your camera, I mean it with your ego. Just like most photographs are shot from a standing height, most photographs of water are shot from dry land. But to capture a truly unique photo of the water, you have to be willing to get wet. Now, I don't advocate doing this with an unprotected DSLR—if you know you're going to be shooting photos at the beach, bring a rain guard or, better still, a waterproof housing. I have a rugged waterproof camera that I use for these situations, which lets me get out in the waves or put myself in situations where I'm at risk of getting splashed, without having to worry about damage to my equipment.
Again, it's important to protect your gear from a wet weather condition, and by all means wear a raincoat. But don't be afraid to get out there in that torrential downpour to seek out some unique and interesting pictures. And if you really want people to stare at you, go ahead and lay down in that torrential rainstorm. You may win the award for most embarrassing photographic contortion of all time, but on the flipside you’ll probably end up with a photograph unlike anything anyone else has.
5. Pointing your camera at strangers
One of the hardest things for any photographer to do is to point your camera at a stranger. This isn't necessarily an embarrassing situation, but it is still one that is fraught with peril. Nobody likes rejection, and being yelled at by a potential subject who might turn out to really not want to have his picture taken is a situation that nobody really wants to get themselves into. But it may comfort you to hear that this doesn't actually happen that often, even to the boldest of street photographers. Most people are flattered to have their pictures taken, and if they feel differently, you'll probably just be met with a raised hand rather than rude or aggressive words.
So why photograph strangers? Not only is it an exercise in stepping outside of your comfort zone, but taking candid photos of strangers is a great way to seek out and capture the kind of unique interesting situations that you probably wouldn't be on the lookout for with your own friends or family. That’s something that's worth doing for everyone who owns a camera, so shed your ego, steel yourself against the criticism that probably won't come, and point your camera at a few unfamiliar faces.
6. Letting your kids do stuff you usually tell them not to do
If you're a parent, you're almost certainly familiar with the "mommy wars,” which is the term used to describe the verbal battles that we get into (either on the Internet or in person) over who is the best/most responsible/most natural parent. So I'm afraid that if you want to achieve greatness as a photographer, you must first concede a battle or two in the mommy wars. Nobody is going to vote you the best parent of all time if they see you shooting pictures of your kids rolling around in the mud. But let's face it, that is a photo opportunity unlike any other. Even if you would normally tell your kids to stay out of the mud, the fact is that giving them free reign to make mud pies and cover their faces with that natural camouflage is a great way to capture unforgettable photos. And though you’re probably always telling them to stop jumping on the bed, you have to admit that there’s something really wonderful about a photo that shows them doing just that.
Now the problem with this, of course, is that once you have all those great photos saved to your hard drive, your kids are going wonder why they can't jump on the bed some more—which means you're going to have to come up with some clever excuses. But it's all in the name of the filling the scrapbook with photos that will make everyone say “Wow,” so it's kind of worth those sideways glance glances from disapproving fellow parents.
7. Exploring places you probably would otherwise avoid
Have you ever stood at the mouth of a steep trail and thought to yourself, “I know there are some great photos at the end of that trail, but I really don’t want to go all the way up there”? Have you ever stared across a field full of thistles and considered how amazing that photo would look, if only there weren’t so many thistles in the way? Sometimes being a great photographer means that you have to go exploring in uninviting places. Now, again, I don’t advocate going anywhere that isn’t safe unless you take reasonable precautions (go ahead and climb a mountain if you have ropes and the right training), but you shouldn’t avoid going places that make you feel awkward and uncomfortable just because, well, you feel awkward and uncomfortable. Remember that if you don’t feel like going in those places, other people probably feel the same way—and that likely means you’re going to capture some images that most people would otherwise never see.
Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - I Can See You Now by Flickr user familymwr
There's a very good argument to be made that embarrassing and uncomfortable situations are what separates great photographers from mediocre photographers. If you're not willing to crawl, climb, or otherwise humiliate yourself in the name of your art, then your art may not ever be anything more then average. So throw off those inhibitions, get into some embarrassing situations, and let your camera do the rest. Remember that most people who see you with that camera are going to know what you’re up to, even though they may still laugh and point. Your job is to think of all those amazing photo opportunities, and not what other people think of you.
- Lie down
- Climb high
- Make faces and tell jokes
- Get wet (or cold)
- Point your camera at strangers
- Let your kids do things you don’t usually let them do
- Explore places you wouldn’t usually explore
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