Shoot what you love. Shoot what you know. Have you considered these little nuggets of advice lately? Whether you are a professional, part-timer or serious amateur photographer, you spend enormous resources on your passion. Of course you spend plenty of money on camera equipment, classes, etc. But perhaps your biggest investment is time. We only have so many breaths in this life, and to be engaged in things that are worthwhile and enriching is a common goal for all of us.
Shoot what you love
I assume most of you are like me in that you enjoy photography not only for the sake of it but also for what appears in your viewfinder. Many of us love to capture beauty, in people as well as in nature. But plenty of photographers love the intrigue and mystery of things, and try to capture them to cause the viewer to wonder and to question. Others love to take pictures that tell stories. Some photographers even like to capture the seamy side or even the downright ugly side of the world.
I think it is worth remembering from time to time what you like to capture and why. No matter how abstract your photography becomes, you are still putting yourself in front of real scenes in real life. We all want to enjoy the time we spend doing this. What do you love to shoot? You know, because when you grab your camera and go out with no real goal in mind. And then you find yourself in front of something or someone, capturing images in the best light you can find, that means you love to shoot that subject.
But there might be times when you choose a subject for other reasons. Perhaps it’s because of the likelihood of making money with the images, or because you know your friends or loved ones will enjoy seeing the pictures. Perhaps it is simply because that is all that is available, and you feel a strong urge to photograph something. I don’t particularly love still lifes, for example. But when I feel that urge and the weather is unsuitable for shooting outside, then I might look for the bowl of fruit or the flowers.
Your decisions on what to shoot are your own of course, but your images will soon begin to impart something that most of us could do without: a label. You become a landscape photographer, a portrait photographer, a macro or wildlife photographer. You might even be labeled a lifestyle photographer or a wedding photographer. There are no shortage of labels. Some of them we apply to ourselves (perhaps in order to market a business) and some are applied by others. (“Hey Jim, I’d like you to meet Michael, a very good landscape photographer”. Does this make me feel good? Would it feel better to be introduced as a very good person?)
Shoot what you know
I do indeed shoot a lot of landscapes and nature subjects. But not just because I love it. This is what I’m most familiar with, and have the most intimate knowledge of. I also have a good knowledge of wildlife, but sadly my telephoto lens was stolen not long ago and I cannot now afford to replace it. I’m an astronomy nerd as well. So I have gotten into shooting starscapes. In recent times this has become a very popular subject to photograph, so I’m not alone.
But it’s funny when I speak to some photographers who do excellent night sky work. With most I can’t have a lively back and forth with them on astronomy, about the actual objects in the sky, even about constellations and their stories. All the subjects I shoot I already knew about and I tend to shy away from those subjects I am fairly ignorant of. Perhaps this is why I don’t shoot many pictures of women!
But I’ve found that for many photographers it is the opposite. They begin to shoot something for other reasons (such as for business reasons as mentioned above) and then proceed to learn about the subject. This seems a backwards approach to me. But I’ve learned to appreciate those who actually make the attempt to learn something about what they’re shooting; some can’t be bothered at all.
All of the above verge on being truisms. But since I tend to reject labels and also really love to do photography of any kind, I think these matters bear considering in a balanced way. What I mean is that while you should definitely shoot what you love and what you know best, it is also important to mix things up, to not be pigeonholed. The sooner you consider yourself an artist, the better your images will be. And good artists explore their art. They don’t settle (immediately at least) on one type of art and do it to the exclusion of all else.
In other words, you must break out of your comfort zone from time to time. That is an overused expression but also a truism. For one thing, if you love taking pictures, putting yourself in front of any subject will likely leave you feeling like the time was well spent. Sure you will experience some frustration trying to photograph in a manner with which you are unfamiliar. Sure your images will probably not be up to your usual standard.
But you’ll learn something new and I bet you’ll end up having fun. There’s another reason to do this. You could very well discover that you love something that you never thought you would. I did not know I loved shooting candid street portraits until I began to travel to other countries with my camera. Now this is one of the things I most look forward to when I travel, and I load up on knowledge of the cultures I visit partly for this purpose. I’m not sure why I don’t do it at home, but this weekend I will be attending a workshop on available-light portraits. Heck, I don’t even do workshops, so this is a bold departure for me on two counts.
But while you’re cross-training, or “breaking out of your comfort zone” (if you prefer), remember your core photography. In other words, just because you don’t like being labeled, don’t ever devalue – even a little bit – those things you love to photograph. Why is this so important? I believe it has little to do with photography itself. You started photographing those subjects because you felt good being in their company. It does not make any sense to over-think this.
For example, I have since I was small loved being out in nature. I loved looking out across wide expanses of land, feeling a brisk wind blow in my face, or the soft crunch of leaves on my belly as I lay on the autumn earth. I loved spying on a creature going about its daily business, or finding a small sculpture of ice hidden in the snow-covered world of winter. I loved touching my nose to the flowers or grass and pretending I was an insect seeing the amazing world that lay hidden at my feet. I did not decide what to shoot when I first picked up a camera. It had already been decided long before.
Now I”m an adult and I can never fully reclaim the wonder I had as a child. I know too much, and that gift of knowledge was never meant to be free of charge. You know how it goes: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away”.
You undoubtedly have similar experiences in your background. But what about now? You now have both the freedom of choice and the ability to capture most anything with your camera. And so there is nothing keeping you from getting out there to explore new subjects; nothing to keep you caged within the four walls of your labels, whether they’re self imposed or placed by others. By all means shoot what you love and know, but for as long as you and I breathe the world will be a big place. It will be a place that constantly presents new things to see and experience. Of course you can photograph these new things as well. What are you waiting for?
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