What does it take to be great? Advice for an Amateur

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by Woodrow72, Sep 8, 2009.

  1. Woodrow72 macrumors member


    Nov 16, 2008
    I started my photographic journey about 3 years ago after purchasing a Nikon D40 for a magazine that a colleague of mine and I started. I shot approx. 10,000 or more photos on that camera in the first 2 years, all of them on auto. I have now upgraded to a D90 and other various lenses.

    Earlier this year I enrolled in my first photography class for my Photography / Graphic Design major. Ever since picking up that first camera I have been hooked and haven't been able to put the camera down, after taking that first class I realized everything I was doing wrong and now have a better understanding of composition, exposure, lighting, etc. As always though, there is more to learn and I am excited to learn it.

    I have the desire to be a great photographer, I mean truly great. So my question to this wide audience of professionals and amateurs alike, is "What does it take to be great?" What makes the distinguished photographers of today and of the past so revered? As amateurs where do we start? I figure that going to school and learning the basics as well as the advanced techniques is the first thing, but what do we do after that?

    I appreciate any and all the advice that is given, and look forward to hearing different points of view. Thanks in advance
  2. Doylem macrumors 68040


    Dec 30, 2006
    Wherever I hang my hat...
    Great, eh? Sounds a fair ambition, though I haven't a clue how anyone gets to be great (not least because 'greatness' is generally bestowed by the audience... not the performer).

    I'd just concentrate on getting better, with every day that passes, with every set of pix you shoot... and maybe the greatness will sort itself out eventually... or maybe it won't. ;)
  3. toxic macrumors 68000

    Nov 9, 2008
    there's nothing really specific... like any fine art, you need to know how to compose a shot. since this is photography, you also have to be able to see light as the cameras sees it, and figure out how to use whatever quality of light you have the best.

    once you can see natural light and manipulate it (if needed), it's a relatively simple transition to artificial lighting, since artificial lighting strives to reproduce natural light.

    other than that, study the photographers you like best. some might have written books on their techniques or approach, or somebody else might've written about them.
  4. CrackedButter macrumors 68040


    Jan 15, 2003
    51st State of America
    Being a great photographer isn't about taking great pictures. Its about being a good communicator with the ability to sell yourself to others and being able to network. The camera is secondary to the person.
  5. Demosthenes X macrumors 68000

    Demosthenes X

    Oct 21, 2008
    I think you're describing a successful photographer. A great photographer, imo, is someone who takes great photos - full stop. You can be great without being successful (and can probably be successful even without being great).
  6. CrackedButter macrumors 68040


    Jan 15, 2003
    51st State of America
    No, an aspiring photographer needs to do the same. Otherwise how else would you take pictures in the first place? Without people's permission you haven't got the pics!
  7. TheStrudel macrumors 65816


    Jan 5, 2008
    Agreed. Being a great photographer is about knowing how to take a shot that is not at all generic, both creatively and technically competent. Anybody can pimp their work.

    Taking a good shot isn't the same as being a great photographer. It's easy to fool the uninitiated, harder to take a landscape shot in the middle of a completely sunny day without the completely even light making it seem a little flat.
  8. ChrisA macrumors G4

    Jan 5, 2006
    Redondo Beach, California
    To be a "great photographer" means you have transitioned from being a technician to being an artist. What's the difference? An artist will typically try and communicate something that has an emotional impact or reveals a side of person or condition that a viewer would likely not see without the help of the artist.

    In other words, a "great photographer" has something to say about the subject. You have to care a lot about what the viewer will get from the image. It does not need to be a political message. It could be as simple as "look these four trees make a nice pattern". I think artists or good ones, what makes them good is that they have insights that we don't and they are able to share those insights with us. The best ones can do this n many levels at once.

    How to get there? For centuries art students have studied under masters, first emulating their style then later making changes and trying their own ideas. Get some books of photos from famous photographers and find the ones you like then set out to emulate the style, not copy the images, copy the "feel".

    That said, most of us end up at best being competent technicians.

    I tried this. I'm a fan of Edward Weston. With respect to my attempts to emulate is style I don't even think I'm a competent technician. He did the imposable and made it look easy. He shoot mostly very ordinary objects using simple equipment.
  9. Edge100 macrumors 68000

    May 14, 2002
    Where am I???
    Without getting too philosophical, I'd say that 'greatness' in photography comes, like greatness in any other endeavour, from practice and from viewing other 'great' people apply their skills.

    Looking back, I can say that most of the first 2-3000 photographs I took were crap; boring subjects, out of focus, crappy lighting, over/underexposed, or combinations thereof. Only by actually going out and taking pictures, posting them on the web and having them critiqued, looking at the work of other photographers whose work I enjoy (many of them right here on this forum), and reading about the art and science of photography, did I begin to feel that I was improving.

    Case in point, I've started to do a lot of portrait work for friends. When I look at the work I produced a year or so ago, I'm shocked at the technical and artistic errors. By contrast, I did a shoot yesterday that I am immensely proud of, and yet I can already see things that I need to do much better. Point is, I've learned from every experience, and I can honestly appraise myself and say I'm getting better. Again, there are many, many photographers whose work I find far superior to my own, but that's not the point; by studying and evaluating their work, I improve too. This is why, I think, having things like EXIF info is so important; it allows one to study exactly how a shot was taken. Of course, it tells you nothing about the lighting or composition, but there are resources out there for that too.

    In terms of actual technical skills that one needs to master to become "great" (whatever that means, exactly), I'd say the three biggest ones are: control of light quality (which many people confuse with light QUANTITY), compositional rules (and when/how to break them), and DoF control. Once you can get good quality light on a well-composed scene with adequate depth of field to allow focus when needed and OOF blur when desired, I think you're pretty much there.

    After that, all you need is something interesting to take a picture of. That, I'm afraid, is something altogether different, and speaks to your eye for interesting subjects, rather than your technical mastery of photographic principles; fittingly, it's also, I think, the hardest part to master. For this, I'm afraid, we WILL have to get philosophical...
  10. rouxeny macrumors 6502

    Jan 22, 2008
    As somebody mentioned before, "greatness" is very different from being successful or competent.

    I would say a successful photographer is one who is able to make a living taking photos. You can do that without ever taking a "great" photo. Obviously, many people though are very talented and some are probably "great". Clearly, you need to be able to market both yourself and your work.

    A competent photographer is what we all probably strive to be. Anybody who is an advanced amateur wants to be able to get a correctly exposed, nicely composed shot in whatever light conditions we're placed in. Ideally, we'd get something good enough for our friends and family to exclaim how talented we are, and even perhaps good enough to part some fool from his money.

    "Great" however, is steps far far beyond any of the above two. Ansel Adams, or any of the other greats, I think had a photographic vision that most photographers will never have. To some degree it's practice and education and experience, but to a greater degree, it's just sheer raw, natural talent. You have it or you don't.
  11. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA
    First, I think you have to figure out what sort of photography you want to excel at, as they're not all part and parcel. What it takes to do great portraiture is different than what it takes to do nature or weddings or products or landscapes...

    Elements of greatness include composition, lighting, posing, people skills and knowing how your equipment is going to perform under the conditions you're shooting under.

    As far as the past goes, craftsmanship and an eye for art are the two biggies.

    As far as the future goes, I think we're past the point of serious masters in photography, just like in paintings, there are enough people doing it at a high enough level that standing out just for your photography isn't likely to happen any more than a painter is likely to stand out for their paintings- we've all seen Elvis on velvet enough times that there's not much unique and there are too many varieties of unique to go around anyway...
  12. gkarris macrumors 604


    Dec 31, 2004
    "No escape from Reality..."
    It takes 3 things to be "great" - unfortunately, nobody knows what they are... :eek:

  13. wheezy macrumors 65816


    Apr 7, 2005
    Alpine, UT
    A good friend of mine whom I consider to be great, not merely by opinion by also by his reputation, learned a lesson several years ago that he adheres to whole heartedly.

    No Secrets

    I know it's not 'that simple' but get out and share. Ask, find photographers who aren't afraid to share the tips of the trade or what made them successful - and be the same.

    My friend apprenticed under a photographer many years ago who never let anyone into his darkroom. Decades later that photographer is still a mediocre, small business with no 'greatness' to his name while Kenneth's studio and photographs and awards etc garner worldwide recognition. I've attended classes that he teaches (INTSOP) now and he always adheres to 'No Secrets' and doesn't hesitate to tell us to take that motto for ourselves.

    As a life principle, people who give always have more than people that are selfish, and I believe whole heartedly that by applying the principle of giving in everything that you do you'll only end up with more in the end.
  14. BuddyTronic macrumors 6502a

    Jul 11, 2008

    Composition - rule of thirds - look it up. Experiment with composition.

    Technical - this is the part that most people never ever learn properly, and it's a pet peeve of mine:

    Try this for starters until you start to really know what you are doing.

    1. Don't use a flash - ever. Flash ruins most pictures. Save the flash for when you really have a clue what you are doing it for.

    2. Try to use a tripod or brace the camera for every shot. You don't see many people do this because it's a hassle, most of the Nikon guys I saw in Venice with the bag of expensive lenses were total fools with a camera and with all the bags they were carrying, you'd think they could think to use a tripod! nope! I could just imagine the crappy photo's they got from their expensive cameras. Dummies! Check my attached photo's below - I don't claim they are great, but I got exactly what I wanted, and these were shot with a super compact panasonic camera FX35, I didn't straighten them yet or do any corrections to them yet.

    3. Learn what depth of field means and how your aperture settings affect that. This is KEY. Look it up, and understand that a big f number gives you a small aperture and best depth of field, but requires slower shutter. Not good for action shots, but let's leave action and sports photography out of it - you want nice scenery, still life, candid shots, vacation shots let's say for now. Or use a small f number to blur the background - you choose what you want.

    4. Forget all the lenses and expensive stuff - 99% of people with all the extra gear have no idea how to properly use it. Get a normal lense or even a wide angle lense, and stick to that for a while until you know what you want for special circumstances. If you don't know what f-number means right now, save your money and don't buy any lenses. More gear does not make you a better photographer.

    5. Don't use a "zoom" lens - ever. Move yourself closer if you need to. (unless you are doing nature or sports from a distance I suppose)

    Ever been to a concert or wedding and see all the people taking pictures with flash? It's so ridiculous. Hundreds of people without any clue all flashing away at the band more than 200 feet away, with a flash! It always baffles me.

    Learn to be a Technician FIRST. Understand how a camera works FIRST. The great photographer can only come from you if you can control what you are going to get when you open the shutter. Once you really own the knowledge of taking technically good photo's, you are going to be able to be creative by intention.

    Don't listen to people on forums - get some real facts from a book or the internets. Most people on forums give bad advice! :) Good luck.

    Attached Files:

  15. compuwar macrumors 601


    Oct 5, 2006
    Northern/Central VA
    Funnily enough, both Strobist and Joe McNally's sites show lots of pictures that aren't ruined in the least bit by flash, most of which aren't even possible without it. I can't imagine a National Geographic photo editor telling McNally "Hey! Why the heck did you use flash?"

    If you want to be a great photographer, not being able to control light is going to be a significant disadvantage unless you shoot stuff that's too big to light, and McNally's pushed that envelope pretty far too.
  16. Balin64 macrumors 6502a


    Jul 23, 2002
    In a Mauve Dream
    I would agree with all of this.

    Also, drop your dSLR for a year and shoot exclusively on a 4x5 view camera, or at least a Hasselblad 500CM. Then come back here and ask the same question...
  17. BuddyTronic macrumors 6502a

    Jul 11, 2008

    Yes, but don't take what I say the wrong way. I am advising a beginner in a way that is going to bring him success.

    I have no idea what guys websites you are referring to. Sure flash can be good, but my point it to teach the guy something good that he will enjoy and learn from.

    I have seen way to many beginners use a flash incorrectly, and you probably know this too. I give the example of the rock concert in my previous post - you have seen this too. Don't you agree that all those people flashing away is absolutely stupid? I want this guy to learn so he won't be one of these guys.

    Flash is great, but it doesn't teach you anything if you don't know what you are doing. I am suggesting to this chap that he follow some rules for a while and learn how a camera works first.

    TRY THIS: Next birthday party, shoot the candle blow out sequence with auto exposure ON, and flash forced OFF, camera on TRIPOD. DO THAT. Then compare with your friends who flash the hell out of the room. Your photo might have some motion blur, but it's going to capture a far nicer image I'll bet than the blown out faces and shadows that the beginner is going to get with his flash. Particularly if you have a nice SLR with nice lenses that can gather a lot of light - you paid the big bucks for the clear glass, so use it to gather NATURAL light, and you are going to be pleased. This I know and that's what I want to convey.

    Reading a few chapters of a book or taking a course to understand exposure, light metering, aperture - these are things that I'd bet most folks don't even know properly. I'd make that bet, because I know I just know what I know, and I can tell that most people I meet couldn't explain how a camera works if their life depended on it.

    More photo madness......... Ever been on a whale watching trip? Check out the bags of lenses on the boat and the clowns trying to use their $5K cameras.. Man if people would just learn the basics of photography, they could do so much more.
  18. Doylem macrumors 68040


    Dec 30, 2006
    Wherever I hang my hat...
    Becoming a better photographer, IMO, isn't about learning one big secret... it's about improving in small increments, day by day, year by year. These improvements will go 'across the board - artistic, creative, optical, technical, etc - as we learn our trade and refine our vision.

    Once we can take consistently good photos, the rate of improvement might slow down. Nevertheless, we've always got to look to squeeze a bit more quality out of ourselves and our equioment, take more time and trouble over taking and making photographs (in my experience, people turn up somewhere with their camers, take the lens cap off and press the shutter... getting a couple of average shots... learning nothing).

    It all takes time. Even the rush to become a "great" photographer might be more of an hindrance than a help...
  19. toxic macrumors 68000

    Nov 9, 2008
    this is an important step - you have to figure out where you're going before you can get there.

    this is rather oversimplified. there is much more to composition than rule of thirds (which I think is less precise than diagonal method).

    bouncing the flash doesn't require the photographer "to really know what [he is] doing." so while the OP is new, I suggest he avoid direct flash, and only use flash indoors until he has enough technical knowledge to know how to use fill flash effectively.

    tripods don't have a place in every shot. but when time to set up a tripod, it is worth it.

    this is important, and actually much more complicated... DoF is influenced by f-stop, focal length, subject distance, camera format, and enlargement factor. on top of that, different focal lengths also influence how diffuse the background appears.

    note that "normal" and "wide angle" changes with the camera format

    somewhat arguable piece of advice. the problem with zooms is just that they lead novice photographers to be lazy in their composition - but if you are aware that perspective changes with distance, and you actually move farther or closer to your subject to achieve the your intended perspective, there is no reason not to use a zoom.

    not so sure about that. someone with a good eye still has a good eye whether or not they understand how to use a camera. understanding the technical aspects merely makes it easier to achieve the image they want.


    I suggest you at least look through The Photographer's Eye (Michael Freeman). many examples and explanations of different compositional techniques. I also suggest you read The Camera and The Negative (Ansel Adams). the latter isn't as relevant in the digital age, but it's nonetheless important to know and understand.
  20. BuddyTronic macrumors 6502a

    Jul 11, 2008
    Yes, my post of suggestions does not comprise a full course in Photography, but I did take a full year photography course at University that covered technical and artistic aspects of photography (many moons ago) as part of a BSc. I would suggest anyone to do the same.

    In teaching us the basics - we used no flash, and we learned about exposure and film etc etc. We shot still life images first using available light. In this way we controlled and learned about light.

    As the technical exercises were completed and shown to the group we also had a chance to critique composition, and study great photo's among many other things I probably totally forgot. Nobody got through the course without understanding f-stop and depth of field and scale of contrast and light metering etc etc. That was absolutely essential stuff everyone had to learn.

    I gave this beginner guy some good suggestions, and if you guys want to nitpick about whether or not a tripod is good go ahead. My suggestions will make him a better photographer in a short time, he doesn't even have to know why yet - just eliminate flash, use a tripod, and avoid zooming in like a voyeur on everything with the expensive lense. It's pretty easy to predict how most folks will go wrong in photography.

    To answer the question posed by this thread - I'd say "Learn the Basics of Photography to the point of Mastery"

    I have no idea what you could possibly learn by using a flash as a beginner - perhaps someone could let me know what the beginner is going to learn by using the flash before he even understands exposure?
  21. Edge100 macrumors 68000

    May 14, 2002
    Where am I???
    If you mean this for beginners, then I agree; but if you mean "ever" in the sense of "never ever use a flash or a zoom lens", I disagree. "Zooming with the feet" is ok, but don't forget that perspective is dependent on distance from the subject, NOT on focal length**, so shooting a portrait at 150mm from 24 feet away, for instance, doesn't yield the same results as shooting the same portrait with a 50mm from 8 feet away (though shooting with the 150 or 50 from 24 feet and then cropping the 50mm gives the same perspective). Prime lenses are great, and the IQ is unrivaled, but zooming with the feet is not the same as using a zoom lens.

    ** - Don't believe me? Try here, here, or here, for discussion and examples.

    As for never (ever???) using flash, again, I agree for beginners (flash photography is another definite skill on its own, and takes as much practice as learning the camera in the first place), but I would never recommend people avoid flash altogether. Direct flash? It's really only for fill flash outdoors, but flash, per se, is just another technique.

    Agreed; this always gets me. People end up with a brilliant photo of the top of the head of the guy in front of them, while the band remains illuminated only by the stage lights. The masses simply don't understand that a single on-camera flash isn't powerful enough to light an arena, EVEN on the fancy-dancy $99 P&S you picked up at Best Buy last weekend!

    Completely agree. You have to learn your tools; make using them an extension of your brain, so that things just come naturally. Otherwise, you will be focused on using the camera rather than seeing the composition. In my own experience, I've just now gotten to the point where I understand my camera well enough to stop focusing on it completely and really look at my scene. And my photos, I think, have gotten better because of it.
  22. TH3D4RKKN1GH7 macrumors 6502a


    Mar 25, 2009
    As some of you know I'm a film guy just got into photography. I'm at the School of Visual Arts for Film and Video, but a lot of my friends are photog majors and I'm like asking them for every bit of info they learn, even seeing what books they are told to pick up and going to pick them up. I plan on going on shoots with them for projects to. I've been told I have a good eye, but the thing is I compose a lot of my shots with film in mind. Some of the things you do for motion cinematography aren't looked so highly upon for stills photography. I'm finally get a proper camera at the end of the month though.
  23. Phrasikleia macrumors 601


    Feb 24, 2008
    Over there------->
    I have to disagree with most of this, partly because I'm a product of my own education, which differed quite a bit from what you've described about yours. The art school I attended placed a very high priority on conceptual development: learning those skills that will never become obsolete, as equipment inevitably will. Don't let your tools drive you; let your mind drive the tools. It is of course important to master one's craft, but if that's your starting point, it will be difficult to get beyond it--there will always be more tools to master, and you can always improve upon your mastery of them. If instead you work on thinking and seeing--on having a vision, a concept, a philosophy--you'll ultimately learn how to bring your ideas to fruition by choosing and using your tools accordingly. Naturally, this process is like an ascending double helix because theory and practice are interdependent, but if you exit the gate with technical goals, guess what...you'll get technologically-driven results (and, worse yet, you'll end up fetishizing your tools, thinking that the "answer" lies in the next, hot camera body or in the latest suite of Photoshop filters).

    I think the notion that photographers are first and foremost technicians has done a lot of disservice to the profession and is partly why it remains one of the stepchildren of the arts.
  24. Consultant macrumors G5


    Jun 27, 2007
    That's a question you can ask your photography teacher or actually google.

    1. Yes
    2. Depends. Real professionals can work with or without a tripod.
    3. Yeah
    4. Yeah learn the stuff
    5. Prime f2.8 zooms FTW. I have 3 prime zoomes plus 50 f1.4, and a macro in the bag.
  25. TheStrudel macrumors 65816


    Jan 5, 2008
    Moving images demand a much lower image quality to suit the viewer; it's much easier to pick out flaws in a stationary image and therefore your error latitude is much smaller in photo. You can approach it the same way, as long as you eliminate any tolerance for quality hits, issues with light, noise, blur, and compositional flaws. I've done a lot of both and it's more difficult to produce exceptional stills because the standards and scrutiny are much, much higher. On the other hand, you don't also need to worry about audio and the other countless minutiae of video.

Share This Page