The very origins of the word photography mean (roughly) ‘painting with light’. There are many forms of photography, and not all are considered art. Using a paint brush to paint a wall in my home doesn’t mean it is art, but I can use that same paint brush to create something with passion and make art out of it. Tools don’t make art; people do.
So what do I feel is the most important thing about the art of photography? It’s the understanding and expression of light and shadow. My camera is just the brush I use. The different light sources are the paint.
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to review the portfolios of photography students at a local college and give them advice on how to grow as photographers. I hope I was helpful, but thinking back, I’m not sure how successful I was at conveying the ‘art’ of the their craft. I gave various tips on technical aspects and building a successful career, but it’s the passion as an artist that will ultimately drive them.
No matter what path of artistic photography you choose, you must have a life-long study of light and shadow. There are thousands of tutorials available on where to place a light for a portrait in a studio, or where the sun should be when you shoot outdoors, or what time of day you should shoot a landscape. It is important to understand that these are all simply guides that can be applied to the vast majority of situations. The ‘artist’ in you has to decide if that is the right guide for the art you are trying to create. If your goal is to simply shoot a basic ‘yearbook’ or mass-market photo, then using the same light in the same place and the same camera settings may be the correct thing to do. If you are reading this, you probably want to do more than that.
So don’t worry about memorizing where a light should go or what type of diffuser to use. The only way you are going to truly understand the craft of photography is if you are not afraid to take more pictures and make mistakes. I once was told in a seminar several years ago that the difference between a professional and amateur photographer was that the professional takes more bad pictures. That really stuck with me. It means the professional cared enough about the craft that they experimented and learned. That learning doesn’t start and end in a classroom, although I am a huge proponent of getting as much education in photography as you possibly can. Like any craft, it takes practice and experience, and only you can push yourself to get it.