The Practice of Practicing Photography

by Steve Meltzer

Courtesy of Handmade Business

The answer to the old joke question "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" is "practice, practice, practice." However, many people buy into the idea there is always an easy way to accomplish something--a way that avoids learning and practicing.

Digital photography is offered as one of those easy ways. Between smartphones and digital cameras, today everyone is a photographer. I recently read a blog by a "professional" photographer, who should have known better, who wrote that because of digital cameras, there is no longer a difference between professional and amateur photographers.

While this is a bizarre and depressing statement, it is nothing new. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the philosopher Socrates said most people actually believe that difficult tasks are at their core truly simple, because they are told that by others. If a famous person or lots of one's friends state that throwing pots (or taking photos) is easy, then most people will simply accept this as truth. To this, Socrates pointed out that it is foolish to think that a good pot could result from intuition itself. Without an understanding of how to wedge clay, throw a pot, or use a kiln, you can't make a pot or be a potter. Socrates knew his craftwork.

In order to familiarize one's self with a new camera, the author encourages a trial-and-error photo shoot: Learn the device and its capabilities by photographing random items at hand. In this case, it's the author's foot.

However, the backbone of advertising and marketing is just the opposite. Their product or service will make you smarter, thinner, more attractive, and on and on, with little or no efforts. Digital photography seductively promises to make everyone a photographer simply through the purchase of a camera--preferably an expensive one. This is ridiculous on its face, since the only thing a digital camera actually does is get the exposure and focus right-- nothing more. But as Socrates saw in ancient Athens, people who should know better buy into this idea all the time.

I see the effect of this thinking in the e-mails I get from craftspeople. While most of these artists constantly practice their art, honing their skills in difficult processes like pottery or jewelry, when it comes to photography they, too, slip into the easy "point and shoot" mode.

I frequently point out that most people are happy to practice fun things, like their tennis serve, golf swing, or their cooking. When it comes to photography--something that is pivotal to their career as an artist--they don't seem to have practiced at all.

Making strong photographs is based on three things--understanding light, knowing your camera, and practice, practice, practice.

Practice includes experimenting with the way the subjects are set up.The author tried several different ways to lay this necklace, by Wahington State artist/jeweler Kat West, in a search for the best image.

This is a topic that I regularly cover, so no need to repeat myself, rather let me refer you to past The Crafts Report columns.

Knowing Your Camera
It doesn't matter if you are shooting pictures with a key-chain camera, a film camera, iPhone, or an $8,000 Single Lens Reflex, if you don't have a feel for the device, you won't get good photos. You will get focused, properly exposed images, but not really good photos, despite the praise you may get from friends and family, whose job it is to praise your efforts anyway. I am referring to photos that make sales and get you into shows and exhibitions.

In over 35 years as a photographer, I have had dozens of cameras; and yet to this day, whenever I get a new camera, I have to spend at least a week trying to figure out how it works and get comfortable with it. Of course, the reason to get to know your camera is so you don't have to think about it when you take pictures. Whether you are shooting a raku pot, a flower-filled hillside, or your kids at play, you need to be thinking about the subject and not wondering where to find a button on the camera. Simply setting the camera to AUTO helps in some situations, but not when you are shooting crafts.

It was simpler with film cameras because all their controls were pretty much located in the same places, camera to camera, brand to brand. All had a shutter speed dial on the right of the top deck and an aperture control and a focusing ring around the lens. Today it is a nightmare. Between touchscreens, hidden menu pages, and strange and stranger camera designs, learning a new camera can be an ordeal. Therefore, when I get a new camera, I sit down at my desk and take photos of the things around me--furniture, my laptop, pens, etc.--just to get a feel for the camera and the placement of its controls.

Practice, Practice, Practice
This is the core of the problem and paraphrasing Socrates, it is because people are naturally lazy. It's easier to believe that difficult things are simple, especially when everyone says so. It is a lot easier than thinking things out for one's self. We love timesaving devices--whether they save time or not, and whether or not they make things easier. However, you cannot get around the fact that crafts photography is a skill that has to be learned. And what is the best way to learn it? By practicing it.

One trick that will help is to "steal" ideas. Repetition alone isn't enough. You need goals and benchmarks. For me, one of the best ways to do this is by thievery. It is that simple. Find crafts photos you really like, strong images of work similar to your own, and then learn to copy the photos' lighting and design. Steal my pictures from these columns--it really is okay. That's what these images were meant for.

It doesn't matter how much time is spent creating an eye-popping vignette if the background becomes curled and distracting. Many photo shoots are ruined by this curled snafu.

Even with the best intentions, photos can sometimes come out awkward. That is why it is important to know the camera, perfect the product placement and take more than one shot. In this photo, the pendant is pointing the wrong way.

Examine your stolen images closely and deconstruct them. Where is the light coming from? Is the lighting soft and diffuse, or is it hard and sharp? What sort of background was used? Did the photographer use a close-up lens or a wide angle? Once you have answered some of these questions, apply them to your craftwork and try to make similar photos of your work.

Practice also by exploring your camera's potential. Having familiarized yourself with the camera's operation, try different things. One day, for example, shoot pictures only using Aperture Priority mode or at a very high ISO setting. Another day, photograph using the Manual mode. Several times during the day, pop the memory card out of the camera and into your laptop--or plug a USB into your phone--and review the pictures you have made and compare them to your past work.

Learn to see the differences between ISO speeds and alternative aperture settings and note down the settings that produce the best images so you can apply in actual crafts photography.

And through all this hard work, remember Socrates, who told us in effect that few folks can pick up a guitar first time and immediately play a Bach fugue or "Purple Haze." No matter how much we may want to.