Tips to Become a Better Fine Art Photographer / by Neal Auch

The internet is full of "how to be a better photographer for beginners" listicles.  For the most part, these fall into two broad categories: (1) technical tips, and (2) inspirational suggestions.  In the first category we have stuff like advice about how to use your camera, soft vs hard light, the rule of thirds, etc.  The latter category tends to be a bit more vague and artsy, offering suggestions like "focus your attention, not just your lens".  I have nothing whatsoever against either type of article; both can be very helpful for particular audiences and I have certainly consumed my share of this kind of media.  However,  I feel like there's a middle ground between these two extremes that might be worth exploring.  I want to focus on non-technical stuff, so I'm aiming this article at readers who already know about light and understand what F-stop means.  However, I want to be as practical as possible.  The issue with advice like "focus your attention" is that it's rather vague and probably works best for photographers who already "get it" on some level.  This kind of tip can be very useful for inspiration/motivation, but it's often not so simple for beginners to know where to start with actually implementing that kind of advice.  So that's the challenge I've decided to try and tackle with this post: I'm going to attempt to distill down some non-technical tips for folks getting started in fine art photography, but I'm going to try and limit myself to suggestions that are as concrete as possible and straightforward to implement.  

Okay, with that out of the way...  Here goes!

Invest most of your time / energy / money into putting more interesting stuff in front of your camera lens.

I've rambled on about this previously but it bears repeating: the most important part of taking an interesting photograph is having something interesting in front of the lens.  Standing in front of something interesting before you fire the shutter is more important than your choice of F-stop, or your lighting technique, or your post-processing skills.  Not only is this the most important part of photography, it's also the most challenging part.  Taking a good exposure is easy.  Doing the leg work to make sure there was an interesting scene in front of your camera, less so.  And this fact is precisely why too many photographers end up spending their careers taking technically sound shots of boring subjects. 

Let's consider a concrete example.  Suppose you're an aspiring landscape photographer with a tight budget.  You can spend your limited funds on Canon 5D Mark iii and outfit your fancy new camera with the finest quality wide angle lens and the best tripod in the world and a whole array of neutral density filters, and you can use this gear to shoot technically brilliant shots of the park near your house at high noon.  Or, on the other hand, you can buy an entry-level DSLR and shoot on the kit lens, investing the money you've saved on a plane ticket to someplace with amazing vistas.  If your goal is to wow audiences with your photography, then you will almost certainly end up with a more impressive portfolio in the latter scenario.  Note, as anticipated earlier, that the second option here is not only more interesting, it also requires more effort.  It requires taking a long flight, researching locations, dealing with jet lag, navigating an unfamiliar location, and spending your vacation hiking around some remote and possibly rugged terrain in the pre-dawn hours in order to stand in front of a beautiful landscape at sunrise.  This kind of effort is what makes a great landscape photograph.  Almost any aspiring photographer can put their camera on a tripod and stop down to F22 and slap on a neutral density filter and make sure there's a foreground element and put the horizon line in the upper (or lower) third of the frame and fire the shutter.  That stuff's easy.  Editing a landscape shot in Photoshop/Lightroom is only marginally more difficult.  Getting to an interesting landscape in the first place, that's what takes the effort and that's what makes the photograph.

This advice rings true for nearly all genres of photography.  Ours in an art-form where the key challenge faced is not getting the technical stuff down -- almost anybody can take a good exposure and compose using the rule of thirds.  The real challenge is getting an interesting or unusual or compelling subject matter in front of the lens before you take the shot.

Try to show the audience something they don't see every day.  

 Everybody is a photographer and the internet is overflowing with technically competent, well-processed images of the same handful of subjects that we've all seen over and over and over again.  There is no shortage of macro flower shots that needs to be addressed.  What's comparatively much more rare are photographs that reveal something that we don't see every day.  When choosing a subject matter try avoid re-iterating the same images that everybody else is doing.  Your job as a fine art photographer is to aim for something new and unique and interesting, whatever that may mean to you.

Remember that most of your audience are regular people, not professional photographers.  Pay attention to what kinds of images strike a deep emotional chord with most folks; regular people care much more about what the image is about than any of the technical stuff.  Regular people don't give a shit about high ISO noise or small-aperture diffraction or chromatic aberration or lens distortion.  Nobody in the world has ever looked at Kevin Carter's famous photograph of the little Sudanese girl being stalked by a vulture and thought: "Was this shot on a cropped sensor, or with a full frame camera?"  Audiences want to see something they haven't already seen a hundred times before.

The truth of the matter -- a truth many professional photographers don't want to admit -- is that the technical part of photography (composition, lighting, F-stop, etc) really isn't very hard.  It may take years to become a true master, but a person who's never used a DSLR in their lives can pick one up and easily nail these skills down "good enough" with a little effort and dedicated practice.  (Here "good enough" means the vast majority of regular viewers will consider your shots indistinguishable from the work of a professional.)  

The technical stuff is easy.  The idea is everything.

Study serious art.

New ideas are not born in the vacuum, they arise from the synthesis of lots of pre-existing sources.  The creative engine works by mashing lots of old ideas together until they coalesce into something new.  To facilitate this, you want to be surrounded by new ideas and inspiration all the time.  

To that end: Look at paintings and sculptures.  Go to museums and galleries.  Buy photography books by important photographers and study the images that speak to you.  (Don't spend all your time looking around on Flickr or Instagram.  Those site are great and serve a very useful purpose, but you want to be inspired by the masters, not by the hive-mind of some social media outlet.  You're aspiring to greatness, so study the greats.)  Read books.  Read poetry.  Listen to interesting podcasts.  Listen to challenging music.  Watch foreign films.  Etc, etc, etc...

Nurture your interests outside of photography.

Think about photography as a skill that you bring to bear on your interests, rather than as an interest in and of itself.  This approach makes it easy to find photography subjects that you are passionate about, and your genuine passion will come through in your images.  So pursue your interests outside of photography, whatever they may be.  Every subject you're passionate about is potentially a great subject to make into art.  Great sports photographers love the sport they're shooting.  Great landscape photographers enjoy nature.  Great concert photographers love music.  Etc, etc, etc...

Are you passionate about helping Syrian refugees find homes and employment in Canada?  Awesome!  Shoot a photo essay that reveals their day-to-day struggles.  

Are you passionate about animals rights activism?  Awesome!  Sneak into a slaughter house or a factory farm; show the world the ugliness that the meat industry would rather remain hidden.  

Are you passionate about the indie punk music scene in the city where you live?  Awesome!  Go to basement shows and capture a kind of concert photography that rarely receives such a loving treatment.  

Do you love going to the drag shows at your neighbourhood gay bar?  Awesome!  Make friends with the organizers and get permission to shoot some behind-the-scenes images.

Etc, etc, etc...

Use only gear you need to get the shot.

It's easy to get caught up in the rat race of thinking you need more and better gear to make better images.  Avoid this way of thinking.  Figure out what gear you need for the project at hand, and purchase only that gear.  Buying more and more gear is a money sink, and that money is better spent getting interesting things in front of the camera.  Buying new gear is also a time sink; each new gadget you buy will require that you spend some time figuring out how to use it.  Again: that time is better spent figuring out how to get interesting things in front of your camera.

Modern camera are very sophisticated.  With a few notable exceptions, entry level gear is more than good enough to shoot professional quality images, providing you know how to use it.  Owning too much gear -- or excessively complicated gear -- can be a trap.  Always remember that you're shooting to make an audience of regular people feel something; you're not trying to impress those tedious "pro photog" types in internet forums.

Learn how to recognize a bad image.

This sounds like it should be obvious, but recognizing a bad shot is a skill that takes practice.  The definition of a "bad" shot is, obviously, highly subjective.  There are no hard and fast rules, but there are some common "mistakes" that run through all genres of photography.  Remember that you're welcome break the rules all you want, but it's important to know what rule you're breaking, and why. 

To start to develop a feel for what makes a bad image I'd suggestion you watch KelbyOne's The Grid Blind Critique episodes.  (Go HERE to watch for free on youtube.)  These will give a rough sense of some common "errors" that beginner photographers make and, better yet, the hosts often show you how to fix those issues in Lightroom/Photoshop.  (Note that I am not being sponsored by KelbyOne; I honestly doubt that Scott Kelby would want his brand associated with my work in any way.)  Start by watching the older episodes with Matt Kloskowski and RC Conception first; the newer episodes are light on critique and waste a lot of time with Scott reading comments from viewers who are in the live chat.  Watch enough blind critique episodes until you can anticipate what the critiques are going to be.  At this stage, stop watching and ignore everything the hosts say.  You've learned the rules, now you are free to break them.  

Note that The Grid blind critique episodes tend to avoid fine art photography and emphasize genres like landscape/travel/sports/etc, so sometimes the advice may feel a little bit prescriptive.  Of course fine art photography is less constrained than commercial photography, and it's worth bearing this distinction in mind while you watch the critiques.  However, I still think that aspiring fine art photographers will learn a lot by watching these episodes, especially early into their career.

Once you've found your voice as an artist, stick to that voice.  Trying new things is great, but try to keep a consistent "feel", at least within any given project.

When you're just starting out in photography (or any art form) the goal is to find your "voice".  Experiment, try different post-processing techniques, shoot different subjects, play around with lens choices, lighting rigs, etc.  See what works for you as an artist.  But once you've found a "look" that works for you, you will generally be best off not straying too far from that territory.  You want the audience to be able to look at your images and say "oh, that's a shot by So-And-So".  Think about the greats of photography: Ansel Adams is known for shooting landscapes in black and white and his work has a specific look where all the mid-tones are represented.  Diane Arbus is known for shooting outcast members of society in black and white.  Anders Petersen also shot black and white and his work shares a similar subject matter with Arbus, but there's a gritty grainy character to his images and a candid vulnerability to his subjects that makes his work instantly distinguishable from hers.  Joel Peter Witkin's best-known images all share his signature "scratched negative" look.  Having a consistent "feel" to their images helps these artists have a clear and easily recognized voice.  Audiences want to know what to expect from you.  (This discussion of "voice" is really the artist equivalent of branding, if you like.)

Think about this in the context of any other art form.  When people purchase the latest album by their favourite band, they have an expectation about what the music will sound like.  This is not to say that a musician can't evolve their sound.  Take Autechre as an example: their career has been marked by constant evolution and experimentation, but their music always sounds like Autechre.  It is possible to experiment too much: if the latest Autechre record was entirely acoustic folk music, the fans would be understandably annoyed.  When audiences go see a David Cronenberg film, they have an expectation about what kind of themes will be explored and how the movie will look.  When you purchase the latest Don Delillo novel, you have a reasonable expectation that the prose style and dialogue will conform to his signature style.  You want to find the thing that works for you as an artist, and you want to become known for that thing.

I want to be absolutely clear that I'm not saying one shouldn't try new things.  Experiment, try new stuff, be adventurous, etc.  What I'm saying is that you're (generally) going to be better off when that experimentation fits within the context of your pre-established voice.  You want to be evolving as an artist, rather than jumping haphazardly from one thing to the next.

Set your camera to spot metering and single point autofocus mode.

I realize that this sounds like a technical suggestion -- something that I promised I wouldn't do at the start of this article -- but it really isn't.  This is a conceptual point.  By setting your camera to single point autofocus and spot metering you are forcing yourself to choose a single subject in the image.  Wherever you place the focus square, that's the spot that's going to be in focus and that's the spot that's going to be properly exposed.  The rest of the image might be soft (depending on your F-stop) or it might be blown-out / clipped (depending on the contrast of the scene).  When you set your camera this way you are forcing yourself to choose a single point in the scene that is of penultimate importance.  Before firing the shutter you are forcing yourself to decide what the subject of the image is; on some level you are forcing yourself to decide what the image is about.  

Now, I get that for some readers this might sound like a trivial point, but for a lot of beginners it isn't.  Often beginning / amateur photographers will take a shot because intuitively they feel like there's something interesting about the scene, but they may not be able to articulate what exactly it is that's capturing their interest.  Setting your camera up like this is one way of forcing yourself to make that decision explicitly.

Shoot RAW and learn Lightroom / Photoshop (or some equivalent editing software).

I'm including this tip only because there are a surprising number of folks on the interwebs who seem to think that post-processing your images is "cheating" somehow.  In the most extreme cases I've even seen folks arguing that even cropping an image shouldn't be "allowed" because reasons.  The folks making this kind of argument are not serious people.  The truth is that post-processing accounts for a significant amount of what makes a professional shot look professional.  (If you're new to the game I suggest you watch some youtube videos showing start-to-finish edits in Lightroom so you can appreciate how big an impact a little toning and/or dodging & burning goes to making the "look" of the final product.  Serge Ramelli has a handful of youtube videos of this type, but he's certainly not the only photographer out there who's willing to show how the sausage gets made.)

Also, know that there's no special award for getting it right in camera or always shooting fully manual; audiences don't care, it doesn't influence your print sales, and there's no coherent reason that you (as a photographer) should care about this kind of silliness.  Don't fall into that silly trap of thinking that if you use the clone stamp tool or the spot healing brush you've somehow broken some golden rule of photography.  This way of thinking is silly and out of touch with the modern world.

Share your work with people, both in real life and online.  Social media is great, but you want to own your own platform.  

Don't be afraid to share your work with others.  A part of the creative act is making yourself vulnerable: when you share your work you are opening yourself up to criticism, or mockery, or derision.  Don't be put off by that fear.  Being an artist means being vulnerable, embrace it.  (If/when the mockery does come, it's useful to keep in mind that this is almost always coming from a place of cowardice; taking a shit on somebody else's art is usually an excuse that cowards use to justify the fact that they create nothing of value.  David Wong wrote a rather cogent article about this over at Cracked, of all places, skim down to the last item in that list to read the content I'm referring to.)

Share your stuff on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or Flickr or 500px or ETSY or whatever site you like.  Those are all great websites.  But you want to have a homepage that belongs only to you.  You want to own your own domain name.  This is a part of branding yourself, and it's crucial to being taken seriously as an artist.  If you aspire to be a successful Instagrammer then that's awesome, I have nothing against that.  But know that a photographer with their own website is generally going to be taken more seriously as an artist, rightly or wrongly.  

If you don't want to learn Wordpress then that's fine, you don't need to.  It's easy as all shit to set up a website on Squarespace or Smugmug or some similar platform, and those sites usually look quite professional.  Even if you're not tech savvy at all, you can probably set up a professional looking website in an afternoon using templates.

Have fun!

Enjoy yourself.  Make images you'd want to hang in your own home.  Meet interesting people.  Have interesting conversations about your own work and about art in general.  Follow your passion.  I'm guessing you didn't go into fine art photography to get rich quick (if you did know that very few people are making a shit-load of money just from selling fine art photography prints) so you may as well enjoy yourself.  Making art is about doing something personal and idiosyncratic, so do that and enjoy it.