You could accuse me of writing a title for this article that is pure clickbait, and in a way you would be right, but my use of a clickbait title is both knowing and more complicated than it may immediately seem. This clickbait question is the one I get asked most often. It is a question that I have answered indirectly many times in various posts, and every week on the A Photographic Life podcast. But I decided recently to see how simple I could make my answer. How few words I could use, and how concise I could be in passing on the information I believe could be most helpful.
I came up with this. Look, listen, learn, slowly.
My answer to the question that title’s this article in four words. It’s probably not enough for those searching for a holy grail in photography. Those who want an answer based in kit, post production, or a manual. But it is an answer based in truth and experience. There are no short cuts or quick fixes within photography that does not seek to merely imitate.
That can be a difficult pill to swallow, but it is one that needs to be taken. Those looking for a different answer may have clicked on this article because of its title and at this point either be disappointed by what they are reading or feeling cheated. I hope not, but it is a possibility. If you are starting to feel that way then I urge you to stick with me on this for just a few more paragraphs. I can’t keep you here, but if you really do want to improve your photography I think you might stay. I am not being glib, tricksy or arrogant when I use just four words to aid improvement. I’m trying to offer a simple solution.
The looking refers to everything, not just photography. The listening refers to everyone, not just photographers, the learning refers to life, and not just how a camera works, and the slowly refers to the previous three words.
Photography is not just about pretty pictures, its about documentation, memories, creation, exploration and evidence. It’s visual storytelling and visual problem solving. It’s about composition, juxtaposition, structure and form. None of which can be learnt from one place or one person. Clues can be given and examples examined, analysed and reflected upon. Good advice will be rarer than bad advice and the defining of the two can only be completed by the informed listener. Information will conflict, opinions both subjective and objective will be freely given, but may not be relevant. This takes time.
Anyone who is aware of the principles of a growth mindset will know that speed and perfection are the enemy of difficult learning. Constructive criticism needs to be sought out, however difficult it may be to hear. It is tempting to create a world in which we are perfect and which photographs are perfect, but perfection should not be an aim within photography. We can choose friends who make us feel that our images are perfect, but such an approach prevents the possibility of creative growth and a sense of creative evolution.
Photography can help us to think about learning, to accept challenges, confront obstacles and think about effort as being positive. It is a medium that is not solution based, but one that offers questions. If you want to improve your photography you will have to accept that reality and be willing to play the long game. As I say there is no written formula for you to follow, just a few sign posts.
If you are still reading this article I hope that it was of some help, if not, then anything I say now will be of no relevance.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021
A helpful article Grant, I am currently studying photography at university and I feel like I’m consuming new work at a million miles per hour, the advice to slow down is probably the advice I needed to hear. Keep up the good work.