Anyone who does anything worth doing wants to be the best. Maybe not the best ever, maybe not the best in the world, but everyone wants to maximize their potential. Everyone wants to achieve their personal best. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this — pushing yourself to be better each day is a worthwhile endeavor. The problem that arises, however, for some people is that they allow the mode of improvement to get in the way of actually improving.
We live in an instant-access world. Anything we want to know is a tap and a swipe away and it has become commonplace to live and learn vicariously through virtual others. As photographers, it’s easy for us to find out the “best” camera settings for any given kind of photo by trawling the innumerable websites, forums, and YouTube videos dedicated to the subject. We can learn about all the newest camera tech on the market and engage in ultimately pointless arguments about that technology. We can marvel over the beautiful photos posted by the people we follow and secretly wish we were that good. If you’re more of an “analog” personality type who prefers physical books to digital publications, you might spend the bulk of your time perusing the work and writings of master photographers and renowned photography educators. And for many of us, the chief reason we do any of these things is because we want to grow our skills and be the best we can be.
Photo by Derek Σωκράτης Finch
To be sure, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the aforementioned activities. They all exist ostensibly to be instructional and inspirational for all who care to make use of these sources. But no text, gallery, how-to video or any other form of advice is a suitable replacement for hands-on learning, otherwise known as practice. Both good and bad advice can be found online but, generally, advice is a matter of subjectivity — those giving it are essentially describing the way they prefer to do things. You might watch 5 videos on how to best use manual focus and come away with 5 different techniques swimming around your head. The answer to this isn’t to continue watching more and more videos until you discover the “best ever video on manually focusing your digital camera.” No. The best thing you can do for yourself is to heed the mantra of that internationally acclaimed athletic footwear company and just do it. Or, more appropriately for the photography crowd, just shoot it.
Photo by Giuseppe Milo
Peel yourself away from your computer or mobile device, put down the book, pick up your camera and just shoot. Erase from your mind whatever expectations you may have and just be in the moment with your camera and your subject. No, trial and error isn’t a fast-track approach to becoming the best; maybe that’s why some people don’t like it. We’re an instant gratification society. While following the step-by-step instructions provided by other photographers may be perceived as being the quickest way to get something done, it may not be the most effective way in the long run. How much are you really learning? How much growth can you experience if you’re simply painting by the numbers?
There is great value in the various learning resources available to photographers, but none of them eclipse the value of practice and trial and error, which are, as any experienced photographer will tell you, the very best teachers. So as you’re running down your list of favorite photography books and websites and pro tips, make sure practice not only tops the list but recurs throughout your list, serving as a constant reminder that in order to be the best you can’t spend all your time absorbing theory. There really isn’t much point in having a head full of information if you can’t apply it effectively. You have to grab your camera and take meaningful action.
Photo by Salvatore Gerace
As always, happy shooting!