Like any art, success in photography comes with years of practice and dedication. To capture moments, emotions, and stories, perseverance is essential.
These ideas from famous and iconic photographers highlight the importance of practice, emotion, authenticity, interpretation, communication, and patience – worthwhile aims for all creatives.
No matter how and what you create, these legends teach us to strive to share our perspectives with the world.
1. “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a photographer who specialized in capturing the everyday life of humans. He is considered a master and pioneer of the “candid” photograph. Today, street photography is a widespread practice among photographers, but it was Cartier-Bresson who brought it to the forefront.
Cartier-Bresson’s advice transcends the work of photography and even that of any creative field. You can’t expect to be perfect, great, or even decent on your first (or first hundred, possibly thousands of) tries.
Nobody starts off as a master; only practice, patience, and persistence will eventually lead to your goals.
Takeaway: Practice and persistence lead to improvement. It’s important not to get discouraged by early setbacks or failures, as they are part of the learning journey.
2. “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” – Dorothea Lange
Dorothea Lange was an American photojournalist who made her mark by capturing the lives of farm workers and families during the Depression in a solemn documentary style.
For photographers, the goal is often to allow people to see something from a new perspective. There’s always a different way of seeing things – even that which we pass every day. The creative’s job is to create something that forces audiences to think about something in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Just as photography is about more than merely capturing images, creative work is about seeing things and sharing a different perspective. More than that, the act of creating should force not only the viewer but also the creator to shift their perspective.
Takeaway: Find ways to “change lenses”. Creativity should share and expand on an idea, or it’s not really creating.
3. “It’s not about the f-stop. It’s about the moment.” – Ernst Haas
Ernst Haas was an Austrian-American photographer who worked with color film very early on. His work was known for both being innovative in the field of photojournalism while also focusing on self-expression and the creative side of photography.
Hass’s work walked the line between technical aspects of photography and capturing the emotions, beauty, and essence of a moment.
Regardless of your field, it’s important to straddle the line between technical precision and thoughtful creativity. In addition to technique and execution, storytelling matters. Adjust your settings, or don’t, and then let creativity take the reigns.
Takeaway: While technical aspects of your work are important, emotion and storytelling are often more important in that they yield more authentic work and deeper connections.
4. “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” – Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt is a French-American photographer who specialized in advertising and documentary photography. His work was known for capturing and communicating humor and irony through his photographs.
In advertising, perhaps more than any other art form, the imagery used is essential to getting a precise and controlled message across. There are so many different ways of communicating an idea. And that’s only the start. The decoding process is the objective.
People perceive things differently from one another. It’s a creative’s responsibility to consider what the end user will take away from the message. Some creative needs to ensure that a message is contained and precise (say in an ad), while others can leave it open-ended but elicit a range of hopefully strong reactions (say abstract art).
Takeaway: Ensuring that the goal of a creative piece is achieved is essential. Success should be measured as to whether the creative was interpreted as intended.
5. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa
Born as Endre Ernő Friedmann, the name Robert Capa is famous for covering mid-century Europe and multiple wars around the world. Capa put himself on the front lines to capture his iconic and classic images.
Though the adventure photographer may have been speaking literally, this quote also rings true when we think about the emotional connections between ourselves and our work.
While a certain level of objectivity is needed for establishing an effective process, it’s also important to be emotionally in touch with your work. Dive in. Deep. When something is produced that is clearly void of passion, others will notice – whether consciously or unconsciously.
Takeaway: Can you feel what you create? To create compelling work, get as close to it as you can. Live, eat, and breathe it. Take risks, and don’t be afraid to get up close and personal.
6. “A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.” ― Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz, American photographer, is renowned for her elegant portraits of celebrities. Rather than typical magazine cover photos, Liebovitz’s mastery of portraiture captures her subjects in ways that show more than their outward beauty – she turns them into works of art.
Known to work in high-contrast compositions, her images reveal a depth that she can only achieve by getting to know the subjects. By connecting with the people in front of the camera, Liebovitz helps them feel comfortable with intimate settings and poses.
Empathy, compassion, and personal relationships are vital parts of creative work. For your work to feel authentic and truly connect with audiences, it’s necessary to first connect with what you’re doing and understand the emotions or energy you wish to convey.
Takeaway: Let yourself fall in love with the subject of your work – it will add authenticity and give your work more depth.
7. “In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration” – Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams spent his career exploring and photographing the American West. By employing a full tonal range and expert knowledge of composition, Adams captured the movement and life of landscapes in his still images.
His works, paying homage to the light and shadows of rocks, fog, and mountains, is a lesson in patience. Hitting the perfect moment when light peaks over the mountain, giving us an opportunity to jump and snap the perfect photo, feels like the goal. But it’s also important to remember that mornings spent waiting, when no perfect light appears, is not time wasted.
Time spent learning, discovering, and making mistakes is time well spent. You never know when a seemingly “meaningless” experience or random piece of information will come in handy.
Takeaway: No experience – even those that don’t end in the expected or ideal outcome – is a waste of time.
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