Many photographers start out with lofty goals. The budding artist wants to be an original — to immortalize something unique with his or her camera.
These beginners soon learn that there are very few “secret” locations that have not been captured in photographs (particularly now that a camera is part of most everyone’s mobile phone). For some, this realization makes them not want to step outside or hold a camera up to their eye, because everything they see has been photographed so many times before.
Of course, to become an artist, you need to use your camera. It’s how you learn all those pesky dials, knobs and buttons. And it’s how you develop, through years of practice, a style that is uniquely your own.
It’s how you become an original.
A Disturbing Trend
What I find disturbing, though, is that some beginning photographers don’t seem to value originality.
In fact, they don’t even understand the difference between learning photography and creating photography. They think that snapping a shutter is what photography is about.
Today there are elaborate workshops where you pay big bucks and an instructor arranges the models, the props, and the lights. The teacher does everything except for the final click.
It’s the equivalent of painting by numbers.
Such workshops are available in every genre imaginable today. If you fancy yourself a wildlife photographer, you can go on an African photo safari. If you want to shoot for men’s magazines, you can attend gatherings of scantily clad women — assembled for your instruction in glamour photography.
Don’t own any gear but you’re in Zion National Park? No problem.
There are schools there where you can rent the equipment — and then be driven to a location where you can see the tell-tale impressions made by previous tripod legs. Just stick your own tripod in the same place and start clicking.
All of this is well and good — as long as students know that these exercises are for instruction, or even just for fun. They do not represent original work.
But since I started teaching a few years ago, I’ve noticed that many students don’t see the distinction. To many young people, the “artist” is now simply the person who trips the shutter on the camera.
Recently, I noticed that one of my former students was using a picture taken during a demo I set up in class to promote his portrait photography business.
Making matters worse, the ex-student had handed the model, a fellow classmate, some paperwork and said to her, “If you sign this model release, I’ll give you the original file.”
The model had posed as a favor to the class. Now, she was being asked to sign a model release — and the ex-student was presenting the shot of her that I set up as his original work.
Path to Originality
Performing artists learn first by imitating others and then by creating their own interpretation of “old material.” Photographers are no different; finding a picture you like and emulating it is a great way to learn.
This approach, over time, can lead to the development of your own, original style.
But never treat mimicking others or shooting a picture set up for you as an end in itself. That’s not photography; it’s the mechanical act of snapping a shutter.