I just wrote a reply over on Lightstalkers to a young photographer of eighteen, asking about what it takes to be a working photographer, The comment before mine brought up the subject of beards, so I started with that:
The beard is a must if you decide to pursue landscape photography. For that it should be big, bushy and unkempt.
Grizzled and stubbly is good for many other types of photographers, but be prepared to fill it out on a few weeks’ notice if you do the type of photography which will take you to places where being clean-shaven carries as much credibility as wearing a frilly pink dress.
Just kidding, of course—JR’s comment above made me smile.
As a photographer, be sure you have an absolute handle on the technical aspects of photography. You’ll need to be proficient, to the point where you can produce a well-exposed, well-composed and well-focused shot whenever you are called upon to produce one. Learn to prepare yourself and your gear. For me, it’s stepping off the train, I have a personal ritual of checking that the ISO on my camera is suitable. (checking that it’s not still on ISO 800 from the night before when I’ll be shooting in the daylight.) After that, I check that autofocus is set and that exposure compensation isn’t dialed two stops in the wrong direction and that my battery isn’t about to die. (That’s also when I pull a piece of gaffer tape from the sharpie pen I’ve wound it around and tape my 5D’s power switch on, because it’s in an easy position to get bumped to off, most likely at the worst possible time.)
Kind of a pre-flight check, but the thing is, I do this not even when I’m “shooting,” but all the time. I always have some sort of camera with me, so I give it a once over, generally as I leave the house and look at the light or step off the train. Doorways, I guess, are my trigger.
When I was teaching myself light, I used to carry an incident meter and meter everything, in much the same way. The thing is, you’ve got to have your camera ready at all times. You don’t want to lose a shot that you’re expected to take, because of something stupid like a full roll of film or a memory card you forgot to format.
Next, master the “straight shot” – a picture devoid of artistic tricks and arty overtones. Unless you have a quite unusual editor or a lot of personal clout, it’s better to not shoot your work pictures on a fisheye Holga using cross-processed expired film.
After that, when you’re comfortable taking a competent shot on ten seconds notice, start to think about how you can take a better shot. How can you add something that you see and no one else sees, something profound and inspired. Having studied music, this is something I think of as “virtuosity.”
While the world has hundreds of perfectly competent musical performers, to get to First Chair, you need virtuosity, a term that has it’s roots in the concept of being touched by God. This is the thing that tells you that the violin piece you’re hearing for the first time must be done by Jascha Heifetz, or that the photo you’re seeing for the first time could only have been done by Diane Arbus.
When you have that, it doesn’t matter what you shoot, because everything you choose to shoot will matter. This comes through being relentlessly demanding of yourself and editing your stuff with a cold, unbiased eye.
Of course, orchestras are filled with musicians who will never be first chair, musicians who are fine technicians and probably have comfortable, enjoyable lives, doing what they love to do and there are just as many photographers doing the same. Nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn’t recommend striving for that when you’re eighteen. Dream big.
Most of the world’s significant images were made by people with cameras not as advanced as whatever you probably carry and captured in less than a sixtieth of a second, often by people your age.
Go read about John Filo and his Kent State photo:
Here’s a guy about your age, who reflexively shot something he found mildly interesting and not only won a Pulitzer, but helped bring the end of the Viet Nam war, without going more than a couple of hours from his home in a small Pennsylvania town.
(Plus, he did it with a Nikkormat, half a roll of Tri-X and probably a 50mm Nikkor lens, a setup that would probably cost you $50 today in decent shape used. I don’t like gear discussions, but I find something joyful about that.)
OK – I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent and ranted too much, but good luck to you. Wherever you wind up, you’ll want a solid body of work to open doors and show people that you can do what they need you to do. After that, keep looking for those three or five photos that will define your career and make you live forever.
by Jim O’Connell | 15 Mar 2009 11:03 | Tokyo, Japan