You learn a lot more from bad pictures than from good ones.
I get asked a lot how I learned to take good pictures. To be entirely honest, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to learn photography: I grew up in a house full of cameras (my great grandfather made a living as a photographer during the Great Depression) my dad is an avid photographer and I studied photography at the university level. Weirdly though, none of those advantages taught me as much about taking good pictures as one unexpected thing: Taking thousands of bad pictures.
The art of photography is not about being able to imitate or outright copy the works of great photographers. It’s about developing your own style.
When I was studying photography, I wanted nothing more than to be able to take Yousuf Karsh style portraits. I did everything I could to mimic his style. I copied his famous poses, analysed his lighting setups, and roped my friends into posing in my makeshift studio. In the end, I did manage to take some Karsh-like pictures but they’re not the ones I ended up keeping.
There was something too artificial about them. They didn’t feel like they were my pictures. My favourite shots from the series were the ones that didn’t quite work out. The shots in between the poses where the model was relaxed. I found my style in the less-than-perfect pictures.
You’ll get quite a few happy accidents that come from trying something out and getting results that you definitely weren’t expecting. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve found myself looking at a mistake and wondering how I could use what I had found to good effect. You can find entire new techniques from shots that weren’t what you wanted in the first place.
You can learn at lot more about technique and composition by trying to figure out why certain shots didn’t work than you can by trying to copy shots that did. Looking critically at a less than perfect shot, especially with the help of a more experienced photographer, can give you a lot of insight into how to accomplish what you were trying to do.
Taking a photography course will give you a foundation on which to build your own skills. The best instructors will teach you all of the techniques you need to know to get out and start taking better pictures. Take what you learn and mess with it. Try new angles. Move the lights around. Shoot at different times of day. If it doesn’t work then all you’ve lost is the time it took to take that one picture.
Digital photography gives us an incredible advantage over film. We’re not limited to 24 shots per roll and we can see the results without having to spend time developing the film. You can take hundreds of bad shots without it costing you anything. Play around with your camera settings. Try things that shouldn’t make sense and see what happens. If the shots are terrible, take the time to figure out why they didn’t work. If you get happy accidents, remember what you did that worked.
Technique alone does not make for great photography and “safe shots” that follow all of the rules of photography are boring. You need to develop a style to be able to take truly remarkable pictures. Style is something you learn on your own. It is something that comes from learning the rules and then starting to creatively break them. The best way I know to do this is to start by taking bad pictures.
Get out there and start taking