While it is certainly true that there is no recipe for good photography, it should also be said that most great images share a common ingredient. More than luck, raw talent, hard work, experience or equipment, what really made a difference was that the photographer deeply cared about the image. The creator of the piece had something to say, and photography was how he chose to express it. It may not have been the immediate subject that the artist really cared about (I doubt Edward Weston was that passionate about peppers), but, at some level, there is a message in each of those timeless photographs. In a way, this is almost a tautology: a good photograph is one that is inspiring, and it can’t be inspiring to viewers if it hadn’t been to the photographer when he pressed the shutter. If you want to create powerful images, the first and most important step is simply to care. You need to have something to say, and you need to try and express it through your photography.
Every time you are about to take a picture, ask yourself how the scene you are photographing makes you feel, and whether the image you are about to create is the best way to express that feeling. Are you awed, amused, scared? Is this a tale of suffering, of conquest, of brotherhood, of humility?
Just remember this: if you don’t care about your subject, why should any viewer? And deeper even, if you don’t care about your subject, why would you care about producing a good photograph of it?
To illustrate this, here’s a personal story. A few years ago, on a hike in Swedish Lapland, I saw a postcard with a waterfall in front of an easily recognizable mountain. As I walked back to camp, I happened to pass that very waterfall in similar lighting conditions. For some reason, I felt that I had to take the same picture. It turned out pretty well, and has had some success with viewers, but deep down, I have always hated it. It wasn’t mine, I wasn’t expressing anything with it. I have since deleted it from my portfolio and am not showing it anymore.
So look into your soul. Find something that you care about, something that you want to share, something that makes you want to take your camera, your paintbrush or your pen and pursue it.
I don’t like cars very much, and I have little interest in them. I find car photography rather boring, and I have no doubt that if I were to try and photograph cars, I would come back with poor images. Maybe they would be well exposed and well composed, but they would not stir anything in the viewers, simply because the subjects didn’t stir anything in me.
On the other hand, climbing, especially in the big mountains, is my life. I have so much to say, so much to share about that wonderful experience that climbing a mountain is. And even when my pictures are badly exposed or blurry, they usually still have more soul than any photograph of a car I could ever take. And of course, to many people, mountaineering photos will look dull while anything with four wheels will make them salivate. This is fine (though they are wrong, but hey… 😉 ).
The recipe is simple: photograph what you love.
Disclaimer: Today’s lesson is adapted from a chapter of my book, Remote Exposure.