Great photographers require more than expertise in the art of photography: They require extensive wisdom and knowledge about their subjects. It’s not enough to simply know how to use a camera or how to light the subject. You would need to also show great respect and caring for that which you photograph. The love and caring will show in your photos.
I learned photography when I was in High School. Like many new photographers, my work was that of exploration. The subjects of my photos varied with my assignments. Some were portraits, some were candids, some were still shots. I even had the requisite photo of railroad tracks to demonstrate the vanishing point (I think 70% of my class had a similar shot). To be fair, I was working in film and I spent a lot of time in the dark room simply trying to understand how I could create optimum exposure. For those who have never worked in a dark room, printing a photo is almost like taking the photograph again.
My photography started to come together as my love in other things – other hobbies and other interests – grew. I went to college for a degree in Landscape Architecture. There I learned about the importance of human scale, massing and weight in the built and natural environment. It helped me to truly understand and appreciate composition of these spaces. I grew to love the landscapes. My photography grew more refined as a result.
In my career, I also got into lighting design. Learning about light and how it is perceived by the human eye helped my photography grow exponentially. In fact, it wasn’t until I was doing lighting design in my day job that I started using a flash in my photography. I grew to love the flash; the way I could manipulate the lighting environment and kiss the subject with just enough light to control my observer’s eye. My love of light has expanded my love for photography.
There are many photographers that I admire and they all have something in common: They truly love what they photograph. Jim M. Goldstein is a landscape photographer who specializes in National Parks. As a casual observer, I would hazard a guess that he knows some of these parks like the back of his hand. His portfolio is incredible showing us the beauty of our natural resources. Elizabeth Kreutz is a sports photographer who is perhaps best known for documenting Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France and the boxing career of Manny Pacquiao. Yet her love of all sports shines in her diverse sports portfolio. She’s a student of sport, and her camera bends to her wisdom.
Finally, I’ll point to the fantastic and always-humble New York portrait photographer, Brad Trent. I happened upon Trent’s work when I first started learning about flash photography. He is known for pulling the camera back so you can actually see his setup; he actually makes his setup part of the shot. His work therefore catches you off-guard, but you can learn a lot from him as well. He clearly has a love for people; it shows in the natural poses of his subjects (also obvious because he often gets self-portraits with his subjects). But I suspect he also has a love for photography and lighting. Sometimes I feel the actual subject of his work is the setup. Or maybe he just loves teaching other photographers subliminally.
My best advice to any photographer as they go about building their craft is simple: Photograph what you love. Learn about what you photograph. And keep learning. It will show in your work and your work will thrive.