8 Ways How Not to Suck as a Photographer | A Guide

You may think that I'm being harsh.  You may think that I need to sit down and be quiet. You may think that I'm a snobby know-it-all. Well, I am whatever you say I am, and I AIN'T STUNTIN' YOU. Photography is my life, I love it, and as this medium's passionate lover I am so disheartened by the constant barrage of mediocrity that I'm seeing everywhere. It hurts me. Physically. Because with the advent of readily accessible and increasingly cheaper photo gear - which I and my bank account are in favor of, by the way - has come a bunch of charlatans who care more about the status that comes along with being known as a photographer (especially here in Los Angeles) rather than a passion for making great, clear, impactful work.

There are "photographers" out here who spend a bunch of money on a kit and then charge you for your headshots, event photography, model portfolio, and their photos come out looking like crap. It's like they didn't even bother looking through magazines, searching for examples beforehand, getting down some basics before hoisting their egos up in front of their faces to start snapping. If you asked them to use their digital SLRs on manual, they would fail much in the manner of Iggy Azalea "freestyling". These posers are taking advantage of so many people while adding to the proliferation of just straight up bad photography.  And what's so bad about it is that they crowd out the good ones out here with their visual noise. The cream always rises to the top, but not so easily when the playing field is so unnecessarily crowded. Almost every day, I see bad photos that a local upstart brand or actor/model spent good money on to promote themselves, and I know that I could have done a MUCH better job for them.

Enough of my ranting though - I could go on for hours, and for that I need to get paid. What I'll now do is chill out, be a bit of a follower, and bless you with the first "listicle" of The Kraft. Pull up a seat, 'cause this is gonna take a few minutes... 

1. BEGIN WITH THE BASICS

Know how to shoot on a 35mm SLR camera, beginning with black and white film. The importance of beginning in black and white is that you train yourself to see in terms of light, shadows, contrast, and the nuances in between. If possible, if available, I recommend taking a darkroom class where you develop and print your own black and white photos. This is the foundation of modern photography, and once you've mastered black and white in your own way, move on to experimenting with color film and printing.

 "SLR" is an acronym that stands for "single lens reflex", and SLR cameras are mechanically different than "point-and-shoot" cameras. The difference: SLR cameras function the same way as the human eye does. Light passes through the lens and the resulting image is flipped right-side up and onto the film in the time you've set the shutter to open. Therefore, what you see in the viewfinder is what you get, whereas with point-and-shoot film cameras, you're making educated guesses without any control over shutter speed or aperture opening. In fact, even with digital SLRs, what you see isn't exactly what you get because sensor coverage is never fully 100%.

 Diagram by  Mio Shahril

Diagram by Mio Shahril

When you understand how to get the images you want without the luxury of previews and endless shots (film is expensive!), you have that much more of an advantage over those who run straight to the easy route, both creatively and in experience. And that knowledge and experience makes a big difference when you're out there looking for a chance at a gig.

2. RESPECT THE VISUAL AND TECHNICAL HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY AS A MEDIUM

Garry Winogrand. Diane Arbus. Weegee. Gordon Parks. Herb Ritts. Sebastiao SalgadoLorna Simpson. Mario TestinoThe Kodak vs Polaroid instant film fight. Post-mortem photography. And more!

You don't have to know or like every little thing about photo history or the people/situations I named above. You won't catch me even trying to pretend like I can or do. But when there's a topic you love, you're not flippant about the work that's come before you. You have a working knowledge of it because you care. And when the working knowledge you have may be different than that of a fellow photographer's, then there's something you can learn from each other. Isn't that cool? Yeah!

3. RESPECT PHOTOGRAPHY AS A PROFESSION

Let's say you're the boss of a team at a financial firm, and it's time for a performance review of one of your employees, who is a personal banker. This employee is frequently late to work; is flummoxed by some of the most basic requirements of their job, yet can be often overheard boasting about their prowess and what they have coming up next; does not show any interest in improving their knowledge and/or performing at a higher caliber; is incredibly disorganized; and the work that they do do is - without fail - slipshod, basic, and costing the company in both dollars and valuable time. So what do you do?

FIRE 'EM.

Just because we're being creative here does NOT mean that we shouldn't be holding ourselves to a high standard when it comes to professionalism. When I'm crewing up as a director, trust me, I'm looking through my contacts not necessarily for which photographer has the dopest portfolio site or posting the most behind-the-scenes #setlife pics on Instagram, but the one who also arrives to set on time, knows their craft, and takes the job seriously. Now that I'm officially affiliated with a national magazine as a co-creative director, that personal standard of mine is raised even higher when I'm crewing up for shoots. So those of you who are crushing it with your professionalism, I LOVE AND THANK YOU!!! And those of you who aren't, either step it up or go do something else. Please.

4. IDENTIFY YOUR PASSION

There is a reason why I turn down headshot gigs. A reason why I don't do fashion photography or court families for portrait sessions. And although I have a background in animation and video, I don't even try to do run-and-gun videography. They're just not my passion. I learned a hard lesson last year while doing a job for someone that I had no business doing: just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Your passion will lead you to your strengths both technically and creatively. This is simply because when you're passionate, you care. And when you care, you're paying attention to detail. And when you're paying attention to detail, fully engaged, giving it all you've got, being thoughtful, you can't help but to make great art. 

When I'm holding the camera with my hands, I'm passionate about documenting events, I'm passionate about conceptual photography and videography that conveys clear and pointed messages, and I'm passionate about my friend Dolly. Nothing else. I'm wild about directing *almost* any kind of shoot, but I can't get my mojo going to actually shoot fashion, pretty portraits, and perfect headshots with my camera. There are plenty of photographers out there who have a passion for those three things, and I care too deeply about this medium to rob them of a chance at engagement just so that I can make a buck producing underwhelming photos that I don't even care about. I hope you feel this way too.

Identify your passion and follow it.

5. MAKE STRONG TECHNICAL CHOICES

As you're following your passion, caring about your subject matter, after a while you ought to have developed some ways about how you use camera or lighting technique to achieve the message or mood you're trying to convey. The best photographers out there experiment and try new things technically, and through this experimentation wonderful things happen that could be repeated in the future. You could try cross-processing a film shoot where you tried a new lighting technique. You could use a setting on your digital camera in a way that it wasn't even intended for, and then see what your results are. Whatever it is, that's where the magic happens: when you make a strong choice. If you've not ever even thought of experimenting in this way, then, again, I suggest strongly that you find another line of work.

6. DEVELOP YOUR OWN STYLE AND WORKFLOW

Don't waste your time trying to emulate another's style. Because by this point you'll already know what subject matter you're passionate about, you'll have a handle on how you like to creatively plan shoots, and you'll be making technical choices for reasons all on your own, and owning them to boot. Now, I *do* advocate for looking at the work of other photographers and trying to figure out how they achieved the look they did. It keeps you on your toes, and prepares your brain for the possibility of trying something new that you can adapt to your own style. There are those who are stuck in the mode of post-modernist thinking; that everything that can be done has already been done so why even bother to try anything new. I think that's lazy. You don't need to bother trying to reinvent the wheel, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to look at different ways you can make it turn. 

7. KEEP YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR @$$

Never get so high on your own bullshit that you think that you're above reproach, have nothing to learn, that you're the center and star of everyone else's lives. Continue to court constructive criticism on both the style and technique of your work. Step outside yourself at least once a day and evaluate your procedures and workflow - can anything be done differently? More smoothly?

Some of you may be reading this, thinking "OMG DUUHHH, EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS!!!"

I'm telling you right now: NO. Everybody doesn't. I've run into some of the most seasoned and talented professional photographers who - after working with them or having a conversation with them - have caused me to involuntarily roll my eyes so hard (in private) they nearly fell out my sockets. I want my eyeballs to stay right where they are. I like them there. Let's make it stop.

8. KNOW YOUR POWER AND HOW TO USE IT FOR GOOD

When you're a visually literate artist of any kind, you have power. You know the old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words"? Think about that, and think about why corporations have advertising budgets bigger than most American households. Think about why they hire focus group firms to test out films and ad campaigns. And think about how that, as a result of the advent of the internet, as an image-maker you have unprecedented access to almost whatever audience you want the world over. How will you use your visual voice? I say take a stand and direct your power toward making images that will change minds and influence generations, whether they get famous or not.


You can take it or leave it. I know I'm right, and you know it too. So let's all make a resolution to not honor the untalented with our time and money. Let's all vow to learn at least three unfamiliar lighting techniques before April. Let's all make a conscious effort to rely a little less on Lightroom, Photoshop, and other programs to achieve what we could have gotten in-camera. Let's all sign our names on a pledge in blood.

There are several photographers here in Los Angeles who I know personally, and in most cases I've worked with them. I can vouch for their quality, passion, creativity, timeliness, and professionalism. Their eagerness to keep learning and pushing themselves no matter how far they've "made it" really contributes to the medium, whether it's recognized or not. In fact, I want to give a shout-out to a kid who I'm very proud of, who graduated from the high school I where I used to teach. He is currently attending community college to deepen his knowledge of photography and he is constantly experimenting: Carlos Sanchez. He'll go far, and so will I, and so will all of us who understand that this is about more than just pointing and shooting and handing out business cards and taking people's money. It's about vision and care.