Earlier this year I turned 5 years old, or rather, my “professional hobby” of photography turned 5 years old. 5 years ago, I started a serious journey into photography. I created a 500px account, used one of their generic templates to create my own website, registered my own domain name, and started placing a concerted effort into my images. No longer was I just going to show up at a location and snap a photo. I was trying to get the best light, the best weather, and the best compositions.
5 years ago I took this photo of the Bountiful, Utah Temple.
I scouted this location after doing some wandering around on this hillside on a previous trip. I wanted to get a photo of the temple and it was currently winter time so I laced up my boots, pulled on my snowpants, and hiked up the hill. If we analyze this photo, it’s not terrible. The lighting is decent, the purple glow from the sunset on the snow is cool, and the composition isn’t terrible. The sunset isn’t going to stop anyone dead in their tracks and the editing is much too dark to get great detail in the shadows. All in all, this is a “good attempt.” I’ve had very generous family members say, “But I really like this one!” However, none of them have offered to purchase a print and hang it on their wall, which really tells you how much someone likes it.
I was SO PROUD of this photo, I even entered it into the Utah State Fair and knew for a fact that I would walk away with a blue ribbon. The day of the State Fair I made a bee-line to the photography exhibit and rushed through the walls and walls of photos looking for mine, proudly displaying a FIRST PLACE ribbon. But it wasn’t there. The photo was there, along with 2 others I submitted, but neither of them had a blue ribbon. Or a red ribbon, or any ribbon at all. There they sat, lost among the other submissions, completely unremarkable. I’ll be honest with you and say that I was crushed. My first reaction was to find who actually won prized and compare my photos to theirs. “Well, the judges obviously don’t know how to judge photos!” I thought to myself. “Mine are clearly superior. I was robbed!” Such are the words of an inexperienced artist who has offered nothing worth a second look.
Luckily, this crushing experience didn’t stop me from taking out my camera again. I never made the conscious choice to “show those judges what they’re missing” or prove myself to total strangers. I just kept taking photos, kept learning better techniques, and kept going out there.
In the course of my 5 year journey I learned many things:
Good weather is 75% of a great photo. You can plan the time of day, the time of year, and get the perfect composition, but if the weather isn’t great, the photo won’t be great. Check weather apps and know the weather by season and month. There have been times I’ve monitored the weather down to the hour in order to nail a shot.
Overcoming laziness often leads to great photography. Bodies at rest do not want to get off the couch, get out of bed, get out of a sleeping bag, or get out of a toasty warm car with heated seats. However, some of the best photos I’ve taken have required me to wake up at 4am and go for a hike to meet the sunset, or to drive through the night and get only 3 hours of shut eye before waking up again, or to stomp through the frigid snow (14 degrees in the photo above) to get a half decent composition. I get it, you don’t think that waking up at 4am to drive an hour to hike for a half hour to wait 40 minutes for the sun to rise is really going to be worth it. Maybe you wake up and you think “Ugggh, the sunrise probably won’t be very good today. I’ll just go back to bed.” Maybe you make a half effort to check your weather app and see that it says 80% chance of clouds. Or maybe you wake up all energized and do all the things and you are presented with the most drab looking landscape ever. Maybe this happens twice or three times in a row. You aren’t always guaranteed a payoff if you put in the work. But when you look back after years of discipline, that’s when you see the pay off.
It’s easy to get the same shot as everyone else. It’s hard to get a new shot of something that’s been done 10,000 times. Sure you can show up, get out of your car, walk to the same overlook that has 15 other photographers, snap a few photos, and produce something quite unremarkable. If you want to get something outstanding, you have to be out standing where no one else is. This can take a lot of time and exploring. However, I’m convinced that there are photos of popular locations that haven’t been done before. Earlier this year I got a photo of Monument Valley unlike any I’ve ever seen before. The composition was very similar to many I’ve seen, but the weather added a new element that very few people have captured. Going back to my first point, I got lucky with the weather. I certainly didn’t plan for it.
Taking the photo is 50% of the work. Editing the photo is the other 50%. Yeah, yeah…so many “purists” will say “Get it right in camera” or “I only minimally edit my photos to reflect the scene in it’s purest form.” That’s great. Sadly though, a camera isn’t capturing exactly what the scene looked like. It is only capturing a digital interpretation based on the programming of like 300 different software engineers. Secondly, editing is as much of an art as taking the picture in the first place. A great picture will be ruined by poor editing and most of the editing I see from beginner photographers (myself included) is not that great. Either too much or not enough contrast, saturation, dynamic range, vignetting, or many other aspects. The great thing about being an artist, is that I get to recreate the scene as I remember it or as I want to remember it. If I wanted to remember it as having a TIE Fighter flying across the sky, I can edit that in. If I want to remember it as having a completely different sunrise, I can edit in a different one. It is my prerogative as the artist to edit to my taste and my preference. I don’t have to conform to the criticism of others and nor do I have to get upset if they don’t like the way I’ve edited a photo. One of the harsh realities that stems from this, that many photographers (including myself) discover along the way, is that their “style” just isn’t that attractive. That’s great that you are shooting something you love and editing it in such a way that makes you happy…but most everyone else won’t care for it. If you are doing this for you (I mean HONESTLY doing this for just you), then keep it up. But if you are doing this for the approval and praise of others (which is why I do it), then you have to learn what needs to be changed so you can produce something other people will like (and buy).
Good photos can be taken in a matter of minutes. Great photos can be taken in a matter of days. Amazing photos can be taken in a matter of months or years. Think of it this way. You go to Yellowstone with your family and you’re walking the boardwalk along one of the thermal pools. You think, “Oh that looks cool” and take out your cell phone and snap a photo. There you have a good photo you took in a couple minutes (seconds, really). This photo taken with your cell phone at 11:37am, shoulder to shoulder with 45 international tourists isn’t going to win any awards. But it’s good enough to post to Facebook. Next, you’ve been planning a trip to Zion National Park. You get down there and do some hiking. You see a great view on one of your hikes and think, “Wow, this would be super cool at sunset, with the sun shining on this rock face.” You go back at sunset (either that day or the next), maybe wander around a bit to get a good composition, and snap a photo. You’ve put some planning into taking that picture! A photo taken at sunset is much better than a photo taken at mid-day with the harsh light blasting out all detail and mood. Now you have a great photo. You might get a blue ribbon with this bad boy. Last, you’ve been wanting to get an amazing photo of the Bountiful Temple because your cousin got married there and she asked you to take a picture of it “in the unique way that you do” because the only image she has is a little 8x10 artistic piece standing on a curio cabinet…that’s where my journey has taken me.
I’ve learned that great or amazing photos rarely “just happen” and that so much work goes into the planning, the execution, and the editing. So rare is it to be in the right spot at the right time and take the photo of a lifetime. So much planning has to go into making sure a photo will turn out the way you want it too. In fact, even if you have all the ingredients for an amazing photo, you may need to learn how to mix them together to produce the kind of photo you want. This means you might have to learn new techniques in Photoshop in order to get the best results.
After 5 years, and applying everything I’ve learned about photography (and learning more in the process), here is the photo I took of the same temple:
So much better, right? I actually did submit this to the State Fair as well but didn’t win any awards. I submitted it into the Fine Art category along with my previously mentioned Monument Valley photo and the Monument Valley shot won BEST IN SHOW. Since they don’t give more than one award per photographer in any one class, this temple photo got nothing. But in talking to the judges, they really loved it and said it was the last photo to be voted out.
So what did I do differently this time? Let’s compare techniques between the two photos.
In the first photo:
Shot on a Canon Rebel t2i with a generic 18-55mm kit lens
One exposure/one frame
Scouted this location over the course of 1 week
Editing took me probably 45 minutes
Didn’t plan for weather or time of year; I just showed up when it was convenient for me
In the second photo:
Shot on a Nikon D750 with a Sigma 24-105mm ART lens
5 exposure panorama with 3 additional frames for focus stacking the foliage in the bottom left corner
Scouted this location over the course of 4 months and 4 hiking/exploring trips that took about 2 hours each; developed a composition in my mind before finding the perfect spot to match what I had already visualized
Planned for the perfect season when the trees were full or in bloom (late April)
Carefully monitored the weather down to the hour (it was raining all day this day and cleared up 2 hours before this photo)
Planned for a Sunday or Monday shoot because the temple is closed these days, which meant no cars in the parking lot
Editing took me over 12 hours over the span of 5 days, including learning new techniques for image warping to level the horizon and the architecture
There was so much more that went into the second photo that makes it such a better image. This is the kind of photo that will hang up in my cousins’s house until she’s old and wrinkly, not until she gets bored of it and replaces it with something else. A 5 year journey has taken me from having a serious, but unrefined interest in photography, to being capable of producing a great work of art. This includes knowing what needs to be done and knowing how to do it. For example, shooting panoramas with frames for focus stacking requires strict discipline on-site. If you mess up your shooting order, your entire set of images will be useless. I knew how to do this because I read about it and visualized it in my mind and made verbal notes to myself while I was shooting.
Note: a better camera will not make you a better photographer. Only when your skills as a photographer have surpassed the capabilities of your camera should you consider upgrading. Don’t think you can “cut in line” by buying a $3k Canon 5DIV or a Sony a7RIIIs when you haven’t mastered advanced camera techniques.
This isn’t just a post to brag about how awesome I am. I hope that if you are on a journey to get better at photography, I’ve helped you understand some of the things that need to happen in your journey in order to get to where you want to be. You won’t just wake up in 5 years after doing nothing exciting with your photography and find that you’ve developed the skillset to make amazing images happen. It truly is a journey. There is no end, at least for me there isn’t. I didn’t take this photo and tell myself “Ok, I’m done. I’ve reached the top. I’m hanging up my camera now.” In another 5 years, maybe I’ll look back at this and think “That photo is ok, but it’s nothing compared to THIS.” I hope your journey is as fruitful as mine has been.