Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera series. In this feature, I will usually take a question that has popped up during the month which requires a bit more explanation than just a comment, or I will use it as a platform to talk about something that has been on my mind lately. This month, I have decided to use this as an opportunity to speak to those learning photography, or that might have an interest in learning it. This isn’t the first time I’ve come here to discuss such topics and you might benefit from reading through my thoughts on learning photography in general. During my time as a photographer, I have gone through the gamut of topics that I wanted to learn and a few of those topics I have eventually decided to teach through my workshops. This has given me a wonderful opportunity to talk with other photographers at different points in their own journeys to realize some of the things that go through everyone’s mind as they learn. Surprisingly, I’ve found that pretty much without fail, the thoughts, concerns, and questions that I’m hearing and seeing are quite similar to those that I have had at the different stages. What this tells me is that whatever I am going through, there is a pretty good chance that my journey might help others through their own.
I’m currently going through an evolution in my photography where I am starting to learn a whole new type of photography that has been foreign to me over the years. This is what I affectionately call “People Photography” and while I’ve dabbled in it over the years at Toni’s prompting, I have never really put that much effort or expense into it. That is changing now, if for no other reason than I have to find a new form of income from photography as my main sources have been drying up it seems. Anyway, there has been an interesting change that has been happening to my views on this particular form of photography because of this new direction shift. I have kind of alluded to it last month when I talked about GAS….Gear Acquisition Syndrome and illustrated some of my points with purchases that I have been making in order to make my people photography more workable. The change in view has been the learning behind the process of this type of photography and the more I learn about it, the more I am seeing the art behind it, and that excites me. It also frightens me, and that is what I wanted to talk about this month.
It would seem that although I have been well versed in photography and have been doing it for upwards of 15 years now, I have the unique opportunity to also be a complete newb when it comes to photography once again. It gives me a bit of perspective on the learning process that I really didn’t fully understand until now. Sure, I remember learning photography as a landscape photographer and how long it took to work through all of the different learning points to get to where I am now. The difference is…I’m now looking from a point of success in a manner of speaking. It is easy to look at the path taken from the top of the mountain and say that “You can do this too.” It is quite another thing to look from the bottom of the mountain and understand that “I can reach that summit.” I’ve been at the top of that mountain for a while now (although I freely admit that I have a lot more climbing to do as I create new paths of learning), but here I am feeling like I’m back at square one learning a craft that baffles me. To be honest, it has made me question everything that I thought that I knew as a photographer. There has been a lot of discouragement along the way as I realized just how little I actually knew.
When one sets out to learn photography, it is really looked at as learning a single discipline or skill. You pick up a camera, point it at something, make a few selections, and voila….a photograph is born. That is the bare bones of photography, but that is how we all get started. I feel like I’ve learned how to work a camera fairly well and I’ve used that knowledge to create quite literally hundreds of thousands of images over the years. I can do most things with my camera in my sleep and that has brought me to a point of complacency in many regards with my photography. Granted, I’ve been focused on using natural light and the unmanipulated landscapes that I find to be my subject matter. That was how I trained myself starting back in 2005. As I start into people photography in earnest, I am finding that there is an entire Pandora’s Box that has just been opened and that is a bit intimidating.
What I’ve found is that people photography has very little to do with landscape photography, but the two can be intertwined rather easily. Landscape photography is all about lighting and composition, but then again so is portraiture and other people photography. The difference is that there is much more room for creative license with landscape photography where composition is king. In portraiture, composition is a little less important and is more fluid. Here, it is the lighting and the moment of expression that is king and the whole key to the success of an image. People photography requires a whole new thought process in order to get it right.
I’ve been a photographer that has set up compositions and waited for the light to be right in order to capture my images. I’ve had that time to make minute adjustments to the composition so that every part of it tells a story and everything is as right as it can be. Then it is just a matter of waiting for that right moment of light to get the image. It is kind of like fishing in a way. It can be rather relaxing most of the time as you just throw your line out there and wait. Portraiture is something completely different. You start with the light, and then you form a composition that is flattered by the light and which flatters the subject. You then trigger the emotion when the lighting and composition come together. You are working backwards from what I am used to, and you have to have that emotion and expression hit right as the composition comes together. I am no longer fishing, I am Pheasant hunting where it all happens quite quickly.
As I am learning the techniques of lighting, posing, and getting the right expression I have realized that there is more to learn behind people photography than I had ever considered. Just in lighting alone, there is natural light which I am fairly familiar with, and artificial light which is a whole different realm. I am quite excited about using artificial light both indoors and outside because of the ability to really shape the light on the subject for the perfect definition of form. Of course, with that comes learning all the ways to shape light since it is just not as easy as using a flash on a camera. Nope, light is much better when it is on a different axis than where the lens is, and then you get into different types of light. There is direct light, reflected light, diffused light, bounced light, and colored light with many different types of light modifiers between those kinds of light. As if that isn’t enough to think about, there are lighting ratios to consider with key lights, fill light, and rim lights…and occasionally background lighting. I’ve spent more than a decade controlling the light that has been given to me by the sun and now I am looking at the ability to create my own light, or even overpower the sun itself for portraiture. It has been said that portraiture starts with a black wash and then light is added to reveal what you are wanting to capture.
Remember when I said that it was easy to look down from the top of that mountain and say it was easy? I’ve been reading and watching a lot of portrait photographers out there who are standing at that point and saying just that. Of course, they aren’t doing it in a way that belittles anyone, but they are saying that these are skills that anyone can learn. If I had not been through my own photographic journey already, I surely would be saying that there was no way I was going to be able to climb that mountain of knowledge. There was just too much to learn and the thoughts of having to remember all of that information at the moment that the birds took flight was just too much to hope for. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had already climbed one mountain, I would see no way to climb this one and I would have gotten so discouraged that I would have just put that dream aside and moved onto something else. It is just all too easy to loose your drive when you are looking at the whole process ahead instead of just learning the next step, and then the next.
Fortunately for me though, I have climbed the mountain of landscape photography and can look back on all of the different concepts that I have learned over the years and how it is all second nature to me now. From that vantage point, I know that I can climb this new mountain as well. That is the motivation for this entry today. I want to talk to those who are getting discouraged in their own pursuits, especially in photography. Whether you are just getting started and are confused about the differences between aperture priority and program modes, or maybe you are just starting to use filters and have no idea how to work a polarizer. Maybe you started out doing portraiture photography and want to move into landscape photography but have no idea how to effectively harness the natural light that you are seeing across a landscape. It could be that you have been a button pusher in a studio where all of the elements were already established and you are ready to get out of the studio and work in a different environment. Whatever the case is, you will be learning a new skillset and any time you are starting out on that journey, you can easily feel overwhelmed which can lead to discouragement, and eventually giving up.
Don’t give up in anything that you want to learn…ever. Knowledge is powerful and anything that you learn will benefit you in the long run. The key is to figure out the rate at which you learn and slow the information coming in to meet that rate. What I mean is this, don’t feel like you have to learn it all at once. I remember learning landscape photography one step at a time. I started with composition on a point and shoot camera. I had it in full auto mode (like I had a choice on that camera) and I practiced setting up compositions to see what would work the best. I wasn’t worried about lighting or creative exposures, only the placement of elements in the frame. My next step was learning how to harness the natural light that was available and I started understanding that the best light was often softer light. By this point, I was ready to get a new camera that allowed me control over my exposure values. That was when I got out of auto mode and went into program mode for a short time until I understood the aperture and shutter values. My next step was to move into manual mode. I then started to learn about filters to further manipulate the creative possibilities of a scene. Each step brought me closer to the next and eventually, I was ready to get into post processing after I had learned how to get the image right in camera. It was a long journey, and I remember thinking that there was no way I was going to be able to climb that mountain, but I realized that I enjoyed the hike along the way, so even if I didn’t get to the top of that mountain it was OK.
As I am now over two months into learning the craft of people photography, I have realized that I am really enjoying the journey of learning. It has opened up a new excitement for photography in my eyes and a new way of expressing my creativity. A complete byproduct of this new journey is that there are a lot of new little ideas that I am looking forward to incorporating into my regular landscape and decay subjects. The other really surprising thing that I have learned is that while I spent so many years agreeing to do portraiture occasionally, I would only do it with natural light. It was the light that I understood, but during one of my recent portrait shoots I had the opportunity to work in both natural light as well as artificial light. I learned that controlling the light from the ground up was a game changer for me and I really loved the potential that it had. What started out as a quick aside in an education to deal with a specific need, has turned into a main focus for me. That has become the rabbit hole for me in people photography.
As a natural light photographer, I was content to know just enough to get by with the occasional photo shoot for a person. Now that my eyes are open to the power of controlling your own light, I can see all kinds of creative possibilities in portrait photography. The books that I have been reading (reading list on my Gear Page) have been selected to further this idea and focus on the creative and artistic forms of portraiture. Sure, I could just do headshots and basic portraits, but what really excites me is going a step further with my subjects and finding that truly flattering light and pose to create art. This, of course, brings with it a whole bunch of extra points to learn and complicates things greatly. That makes it easy to get discouraged as I am looking at the work of photographers that have been doing fashion and portrait photography for decades and know it like I know the landscape. They make it look easy, and they are there to tell me that I too, can climb that mountain. There I am like the Little Engine that Could slowly making my way up the mountain chanting “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Will I achieve the level of competency that these artists have in my own journey? I have no idea and right now I am likely to say that there is no way. Will I be able to get to a point where I can actually use this as a viable source of income? I hope so. While asking these questions I am left to remember a long climb up a mountain many years ago when I was asking those same questions with very similar answers. From where I stand now on that mountain, I know that I have achieved what I set out for, and it actually has been a viable source of income.
I got discouraged many times along my journey as a landscape photographer and one of those times resulted in selling everything that I had related to photography because I was just no good at it and had failed in my quest to learn the craft. The truth of the matter was, I had just gotten to that point where I was able to really see what needed to be improved in my own work and saw that I was not as good as I had thought originally. That is actually one of the hardest parts of learning, but is the most important part. That moment when you realize that you suck is powerful and it means that you are finally able to take yourself to the next step because up until that point you thought that you were just as good as those that you were learning from because you really didn’t know how to evaluate your own work. When you finally gain the ability to critique your own works when compared to those that you admire, that is the start of great things, but it comes across very negatively unfortunately. It is just something that you have to plow though and don’t quit. You will also reach that stage many times through your own journey, so start getting used to it and embrace it.
Undoubtedly, I will get discouraged many times over while learning people photography. It has already started in a way. I’ve been collecting the gear that I want to work with so that I can shape light and have some variety to the types of images that I capture. While I have been very conscious of making the difference between “need” and “want” part of every decision, I have still worked up quite a tally of expenses in putting together my lighting kit. Keep in mind that I have not had to buy anything at all for the camera because I future proofed my choices there with the intention of if I needed to get into people photography I would have what I needed. That amount of forethought has really been beneficial for me because that means that I don’t need to purchase new lenses, and I don’t need a different camera body which are the basic tools for any type of photography. Where my money has been going has been lighting, modifiers, stands, and backdrops. I’m scared to total it up, but I’m roughly twice what my initial budget was when I started this process in June. That is where the discouragement comes into play. I have spent upwards of two grand to get my people photography kit put together. I have only done two client shoots since May which means that unless I am practically robbing the clients I am way far upside down in this venture. This comes at a time when my workshop attendance is down, print sales are down, and the art galleries that I have worked with in the past have been quiet on their print needs. The safer option would have been to hold onto that money especially with the Delta variant threatening more lockdowns and closures. Is this really the right time to make this kind of change to my photography? Will I see a return on it? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do know that I have learned an awful lot about photography in general that will affect my landscape work favorably as time goes forward. Knowledge is good no matter what, so the journey that I am on right now with people photography is a learning experience and the money that I have spent is just the cost of that education. I do hope that I can do something special with this type of photography though.
Even though I have been getting discouraged in this new venture, I am still excited about what is possible with it from a creative standpoint. I’m about to the point where I am going to get serious about putting together a portfolio and marketing myself as a portrait photographer. It is that portfolio that is kind of daunting for me though. While I have done several portrait sessions over the years, this will be something completely different because I am going to be showcasing what I can do for another client and trying to entice them to come in and pay me to capture images of them. I have spent over 15 years answering the portrait request question with “I don’t really do people pictures, but here are some names of great portrait photographers that I know.” Now it is time to pony up and respond with “I would love capture your personality in the most flattering way possible using everything that I’ve learned and hope that like it.” Well, maybe I’ll work on that response a little bit, but it will be a change for me.
This, of course, is my own personal journey and may or may not be your own. However, when you take the details out of this journey and just focus on the human element, you will undoubtedly see parallels to your own experience. It is that aspect that prompted me to write this particular Behind the Camera. I know that those of you who are learning photography (or anything for that matter) will go though the same types of stages. You are always excited to learn in the first place, and then you start to get overwhelmed, which can lead to you quitting or taking a long break from it. It is easy to do, but you have to keep remembering the excitement that you had when you got started. It is that excitement that fueled your journey to start with, and can continue to take you through as long as you focus on that more than anything else. There will always be hurdles that you have to jump in order to realize your goals, but they are just hurdles and not walls. There is nothing that says that learning any new craft will be easy or even linear. You will grab onto some concepts quickly and eat up the knowledge at a fast pace only to hit that one concept that stumps you. Why mandate a timeline or a schedule here? When you reach that hard part, just take more time to learn it and find different ways of learning it. That is where I’m at with posing and expressions. That is very difficult for me because I’m used to a tree or a car looking like it does no matter what I say. “Ok, move that limb just a little to the right?” “Can you aim that headlight up just a little bit and give me a playful expression?” I now have the ability to influence the entire photograph and that is a brand new concept for me and not an easy one to grasp. My learning process has stalled here, but I’m just taking my time learning it, and getting different forms of instruction on the topic. When I get past that stage I will hopefully move onto the next learning point and that will move faster like earlier points that I have covered.
These are the things that you have to keep in mind while you are climbing your own mountain. Just take things step by step as you will never be able to teleport yourself to the top of the mountain. Just learn each step of the way and if you need to take a break, that is why they provide benches along the trail. Sit down and figure things out up to that point. When you are ready, get back on the trail and get to stepping. It really is that simple and that notion of quitting because it is too hard, or taking too long is all self produced. When it comes to learning something that you want to learn, there are no timelines unless you present one. Think about those reality automotive shows. They buy a $500 shell of a car that has been burned, buried, and completely stripped of parts. They come up with a fantastic concept for a build that will be a complete custom car when it is done. They get started on it and all of a sudden, they have to have it done in two weeks for an auction or car show. This is drama for the show and introduces that “will they make it in time??” aspect that keeps the viewer glued to their seat. Why put that kind of pressure on you for your own personal journey. Unless you are on a reality show, there is no reason to put that kind of pressure on the situation, and if you are, then you main goal has nothing to do with your main goal.
Enjoy the process and see what doors get opened as you learn the different aspects of your craft. I have always looked at people photographers in a strange way. As an introvert, I really didn’t understand the draw and I had no idea what the actual skillset was for them. I knew that they possessed skills that I didn’t have, but I always looked at it as skills that I didn’t actually want to have. The more I am reading about portraiture, the more I realize that I was completely wrong about it. It is not just a simple snapping of a photograph of somebody. There is a lot that goes into it, although it doesn’t look like much to just watch. As I learn the craft, I am totally amazed at how the lighting works and how the positioning of the subject makes huge differences in how the photograph flows. What I always thought were more or less accidental elements turned out to be conscious choices on the part of the photographer. I owe portrait photographers a huge apology because I never gave them their proper credit. I always thought that people photography was as easy as it looks, and it can be, although with less than stellar end results. I guess those that have been focused on portraiture might look at the landscape similarly because it is just a different skillset altogether.
Interesting point here, there are several photographers that I have been following over the years that will specialize in something like automotive portraiture, or even people photography and will occasionally go out and do some landscape images. When they post those, I am usually surprised because the landscape images are never as compelling as their mainstay subjects. I never really understood that until now. I get that these are all different types of photography and require a bit different approach to how it all gets done. For those that are used to controlling everything from the concept, position, pose, composition, to the light of a shoot, coming into the landscape and only having control over the camera’s position and lens choice makes for a huge change. Being able to deal with what is there to work with is the landscape photographer’s secret weapon and that takes a long time to be able to figure out. That is what allows a landscape photographer to visual a photograph from a scene that is in front of them. That part is simple for me, and it carries through to my decay photography because I am totally at the mercy of how I find the subject. Looking at it from the other side of things, when I look at people photography, I am there and ready to capture the image, but realize that there is not an image to be had yet. I have to craft it from the ground up by deciding on a concept, choosing a subject, a background, lighting, a pose, and then choosing the right emotion or expression to capture. It is completely new to me to have that much control over the image just as loosing that control over an image would affect a portrait photographer coming to landscape.
I have so much respect for those photographers that can do several shoots a day with different concepts and nail them each time. It is a skillset I would love to possess some day, but I definitely don’t have it now. It is that process of creating the entire look of an image that is really starting to appeal to me though and I can see really having a lot of fun with that as I progress. After 15 years of being at the mercy of the weather and even finding suitable subjects in order to capture images in the available light, I am seeing the ability to take control of all of that and create images whenever I want, or whenever I am asked to. It is a freeing concept to me and is opening up more creative doors. For the first time, I am really looking at people photography as an artform and not just a picture of somebody. In that light, I know I will have similar discouraging moments like I had learning the art of landscape photography and I hope that I can survive those periods along the way because I really want to get to the top of that mountain.
Thank you so much for joining me for this very personal Behind the Camera. It was not the easiest thing for me to share some of the thoughts that I have had during this journey, but I really thought that they might be able to help somebody else along the way. It is just too easy to get discouraged when learning something new when the folks teaching it make it look so easy. You automatically put yourself into that frame of mind that makes you wonder why it isn’t that easy for you. Well….because you are learning it….Duh! Just keep that in mind as you are learning and remember, there was a time not that long ago that I was taking pictures with a point and shoot camera with my only concern being the compositions that I was choosing without regard to anything else photographically. These days, I am teaching that concept along with so many other concepts that I have learned along the way. There are undoubtedly things that you have learned over the years which seemed daunting that you have mastered. Whatever you are learning now is no different. Just keep applying yourself, taking it step by step, and eventually you will see that you have made it to the top of your own mountain.
See you at the top!!!!!
Remember, if you shop at these retailers, consider using these links. They won’t cost you anything, but they will send a few pennies my way to help fund my photography. They will work, no matter what you are buying once you get there. Also, the code KISER10 will actually save you 10% at Singh-Ray.