This is how it happens.
When you are ten years old, your parents give you an Instamatic camera. You burn through dozens of film cartridges, capturing snapshots that one day you will treasure as memories of a special time. Years later you clean out the closet and run across that old camera you haven’t thought about in years, and remember the good times you had together.
So you buy an entry-level basic digital camera and kindle a casual friendship with this oddly-shaped black or white or silver or pink device and begin taking snapshots again - because that’s what they are - and you realize that they aren’t bad and that this might actually be fun. You don’t know it yet but that casual, easy friendship is on its way to becoming a full-blown, torrid love affair that will never let you go.
Over time you begin to notice that there is a common theme to your pictures, a sameness that represents the opening act of your photographic voice. More and more, and without any conscious or deliberate effort on your part, your pictures are increasingly of buildings, or gardens, or bugs, or kids, or sports events, or birds, or pets, or farm animals, or bridges. And at about the same time you begin to notice peculiar little things in your pictures that are at first puzzling but that soon become annoying, irritating, vexing, and infuriating. You don’t quite understand what it is about them that bothers you but like that annoying itch you can’t scratch, they linger. Congratulations: your snapshots are about to be promoted to photographs, and your casual friendship with the camera just changed: you’re now going steady.
And how do snapshots become photographs? It’s not about the camera, or the lenses, or the subject matter. It’s about the person behind the camera. It’s about you. You have become a photographer. You have learned the difference between looking and seeing, and those annoying things in your pictures that bug you have now become instructional moments. They still annoy, but now they offer an opportunity to extract tuition value from them. You are more open and accepting and self-aware, and every image represents a lesson, an opportunity to learn.
Something else happens as well. You begin to see the world as a photographer, to view it through the lens brightly - even when there is no lens. You experience the world as a series of memory captures, the raw material of storytelling.
A hunger has begun to gnaw at you now, a hunger that can only be satisfied by shooting. You and your new lover become inseparable. You take your camera to the grocery, to the movies, to dinner with friends. And then something subtle happens: when you’re out there shooting you become frustrated because the camera shutter isn’t fast enough or the lens isn’t long enough or the memory card doesn’t hold enough.
So you begin to do research. You haunt the bookstore, seeking enlightenment. You read them all. You subscribe to the photo magazines and devour them, like candy, cover-to-cover. You scour their back sections, desirous of having that casual ability to toss out brands and names and models and features and capabilities. Your camera brand becomes your cause - Nikon or die. You speak of Dewitt and Lepp and Dykinga and Story and Lanting and Muench, your colleagues, and you whisper the other names - Adams and Weston and Lange and Maisel - in hushed, reverent tones.
You discover This Week in Photography and make the Podcast part of every week. You look forward to those 90 minutes with Frederick and Martin and Steve and Ron and Darrell and Sara because they’re funny and they’re your friends, your family.
And, you shoot. By now you have outgrown the lemming-like approach of the local camera club, where everyone shoots the same thing the way little kids playing soccer chase the ball in a big knot, with no thought to strategy. You discover the magic of the one-person photo walk. You crave that time and are refreshed and energized by it. You realize that when you are separated from your camera you start to feel twitchy and irritable. But as soon as you reunite and put that viewfinder to your eye, the stress and anxiety of everyday life melt away as the world is reduced to that small, beautiful area. You’re in the arms of your lover again.
As your quest for enlightenment intensifies, you enroll in a high-end photo workshop taught by one or more of the photographers who have become your heroes and travel to Jackson or Death Valley or Alaska or Antarctica or the Pelouse or Tuscany. Before you go you make the requisite pilgrimage to B&H to stock up on hope and promise.
You arrive at the workshop and kneel at the knee of the masters, shooting what they shoot, when they shoot. You emulate. You learn. You don’t eat or sleep, but these are minor annoyances. You use everything in your camera bag, and realize you need more. You make good friends who become shooting buddies and trusted critics of your work. You realize, I can do this. I NEED to do this.
You go home and upgrade all of your software. You research and acquire a piano-size printer. You become comfortable with terms like CMYK and Chroma Inks and color profiles. You buy a RAID for image backup. You discover NIK and become a plug-in junkie. You go to the camera store and engage in a conversation with the experts, and halfway through the conversation you realize that you know more than they do. And one day, a sense of photographic purpose and personal artistic confidence emerges. You still admire the work of your heroes but you see something unique in your own images as well. Your photographic voice has matured and strengthened and is now rich with color and tone and vision.
You sing what you see, with purpose and emotion. And you realize that the person who began making snapshots and became a photographer is now a storyteller, a visual teller of tales.
So, you tell stories. You move to the next level, one in which the goal isn’t to make a good picture - you do that easily - but to tell a story. Your measure of success becomes deceleration, that moment when people stop talking when your image comes up and they don’t want to know more about it - they need to know more about it. And one day you wake up and realize that people are reacting to your images the same way you reacted to the images of your heroes when you started out all those many years ago. You smile, and realize: The student has become the teacher.
I love this craft.
Excerpted from The Deliberate Photographer. ©Copyright 2013; all rights reserved.
To learn more about The Deliberate Photographer eBook as well as other titles by Steven Shepard, please visit the Shepard Communications Group Web site.