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Photography can’t be all f-stops and shutter speeds; megapixels and frames per second shouldn't dominate your thought process each time you reach for your camera. True, photography is an intriguing blend of art and science, so it's not like fundamental principles of math and physics are irrelevant, but the science and engineering aspects have been taken care of for you. What is left for you, the photographer, is to create the art. Of course you need to know about exposure; having a functional understanding of how to control your camera is a must; and it's nice to have a decent assortment of useful features on your camera. But these things don’t magically make you a better photographer any more than having a nice oven range and knowing a few recipes make one a chef.
At the heart of meaningful, visually arresting photography lies attitude; how do you think and feel about what you’re shooting? Workshops and how-to guides certainly have their place when it comes to learning about photography, but such things will take you only so far. If you desire to become better at the intangibles, the things that are qualitative as opposed to quantitative, you might try drawing inspiration from a few lessons that can be applied to life itself as easily as they can be to photography.
Don’t Worry About Trying to be Number One
Work within your own parameters. There’s nothing wrong with trying to excel and being dedicated to what you do, but when you become consumed by constantly trying to be the best, you stand the chance of losing focus of why you fell in love with photography in the first place.
Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others
At some point you will certainly see and admire the work of other photographers and aspire to be as “good” as they are. In broad terms, this is a useful perspective to have; it’s helpful to your growth as a creative individual to be able to recognize and appreciate good art. But if all you ever do is obsess about how much better a photographer someone else is compared to you, you’re setting yourself up for failure in the form of creative stagnation. It’s a trap. Don’t fall for it. There will always be someone who is better at something; the individual whose work you so admire probably feels the same as you about someone else’s work. Once you figure out your personal style, develop it, refine it, own it, and be happy with it.
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Don’t Become Complacent
Never feel like you’ve mastered everything about your craft. Even if you were to designate for yourself a finite number of skills to master, there are countless ways to tackle the mastery of each skill. Treat skill mastery as something cyclical rather than linear. Whenever you set out to learn something new, the early stages are marked by the fact that you’re not fully aware of all the things you don’t know, there will be terms and ideas you have not yet been exposed to; after some time, you then become painfully aware of how much there is to learn. But it’s that knowing that pushes you to learn a specific skill, a skill that may be performed awkwardly at first, but one that you will eventually perform without much thought. It becomes second nature. You could say that you’ve mastered a skill. This, however, is not the point where you rest on your laurels; it is now time to start the whole process over again, the only difference being that you start out knowing what areas you need to address.
There are any number of avenues to lose your way as a photographer, but one that is problematic for many is the matter of gear acquisition. Considering the blinding rate at which new technologies are developed and introduced and the buy-me-now marketing tactics that consumers are bombarded with, it’s easy to see how some can get sucked into the vicious cycle of buying and selling gear in a futile effort to always have the latest and greatest. Besides burning through insane amounts of money, getting sidetracked by gear lust causes you to lose focus of your path toward mastery; when you’re buried in camera reviews and armed to the teeth with test charts for every lens known to humanity, you’re wasting time and talent. Go pick up your camera, whatever it is, and use it. You’ll know when it’s time to upgrade.
Live in the Now
Planning ahead is an important life skill, but a large part of what makes life enjoyable is living in the moment, dropping all your baggage, just being there — wherever “there” is. When you’re behind your camera, don’t be afraid to get lost in what you are doing. Don’t worry so much about technical perfection, just enjoy the act of shooting.
Retain (or Rediscover) Your Sense of Wonder
Kids are amazed by just about anything and can find themselves enthralled by the simplest of objects; it’s why they will play with the box that their shiny new toy came in instead of playing with the shiny new toy. This is actually a good quality to possess and put to use sometimes. Adults too easily succumb to routine and get bored. Or maybe some adults are just jaded about everything. Whatever the reason, it’s important to not get locked into the constraints that your mind might try to project on your surroundings. You don’t have to go on a tropical vacation for interesting photo opportunities. There are interesting things all around you — in your city, in your yard, perhaps even where you’re sitting as you read this. If you can’t access new environs, try seeing what’s already around you in a new way. Be amazed at the little things you have dismissed or overlooked hundreds of times.
Good photographers — no matter the diversity of subject matter they shoot, no matter how disparate their styles, no matter what gear they use — are united by a shared love for the art and a mindset that facilitates the creation of art. This is what matters. Learning to rely on your own creativity, openness, curiosity, and adaptability will bring a level of personal and artistic fulfillment that I trust you will find to be indescribably rewarding.