Wow, that is a bold title for a blog post, isn’t it? And I bet you’re expecting a fool-proof list of actions that will make you outstanding – maybe a list of gear or a set of techniques that will take you there. But what I will tell you in this post is of a different nature. It is not about gear or techniques – it is about you and your attitude towards photography or any other creative passion you may pursue.
I have been creative in different disciplines almost all of my life. I have been a musician, a software engineer, a scientist, a scientific writer and a photographer. And during all that time, I have learned one thing that is true across all creative disciplines: Being outstanding is a mindset rather than a set of technical skills or tools.
Now, this may be a huge let-down for you, but no matter how much money you spend on photography tools, gear and education, the thing that really counts is your attitude, and your approach towards the process of becoming better. The technical skills you need (and you do need them of course) will come naturally if you have the right mindset.
So let’s explore what that mindset is.
How much of it is pure talent
Ok, so let’s get the first myth out of the way quickly: Becoming outstanding in anything has very little to do with talent. Talent is a person’s natural ability to do or achieve certain things with ease that are commonly perceived as being hard.
Talent is nothing without passion, discipline, determination and a lot of hard work. Conversely, if you are not particularly talented, but you have all those other qualities, you can still become outstanding at anything. To me, talent (or the lack thereof) has always been a convenient excuse of people who do not succeed because they lack those basic skills.
Now, that’s really bad news if you were about to use the concept of talent as an excuse. But on the other hand, it is great news because it means you can be outstanding at anything if you are just passionate enough and willing to put in the effort it takes.
Watch Robin Griggs Wood’s video about her own story to see how she became a world-class photographer and artist despite an obvious lack of talent to begin with.
Have good taste
A very important concept in any creative work – as Ira Glass points out in the video below – is good taste. That is, you have to have the ability to know whether something is great or whether it sucks. And what’s equally important, you have to trust in your taste. If you have no taste, you’ll never be able to create something outstanding because there’s nothing driving you towards that goal. If you don’t trust in your taste, you’ll never be confident enough to put your work out there even if it’s awesome.
Of course, the concept of taste is a difficult one. What is good taste anyway, right? You cannot define that, and everyone’s taste is different. But whatever it is that draws you to a particular photograph, you need to be able to name it precisely. That’s what sets the artistic goals you will be striving toward in your photography. Your taste will tell you which elements make an outstanding photo, and eventually, it will tell you how to combine these elements in your own photographs and when you have actually succeeded in doing so.
Be passionate and hungry
No matter if you are a pro photographer or an amateur, if you are not passionate and hungry to create more great photos, you will quit before you ever become outstanding. Passion and love for what you are doing helps you overcome the hard times that you are always facing when you are doing creative work.
Set high goals and break them down into actionable steps
In a recent video (see below), Mike Browne argued that you should be happy with your photos and stop comparing them with the photos you admire. As much as I respect Mike for his photography and outstanding teaching skills, I disagree with him on this. I think, comparing your photos with the work of others that you look up to is the no. 1 factor in driving you forward and in enabling you to improve.
You absolutely have to set high goals for your own work. You have to define what it is that you are striving for, even if that goal seems out of reach by a huge margin. If you do not have a tangible goal, you can never achieve it. And that’s true for just about anything that you start in life. If you learn to be happy with your current abilities, why would you want to invest any effort in improving?
The danger that lies in setting high goals for yourself though, is that you do not see an immediate path that takes you there. That will prevent you from making any real progress towards that goal and, ultimately, leads to frustration. Do not expect to be able to create work of stunning quality over night. This is not going to happen. Instead, work hard to find out what it really is that makes those photos you admire so great. Look at the lighting, the composition, the post-processing. If you look up to a particular photographer, find out what exactly you admire about their work. Write that down. Make a list of individual qualities that you want to incorporate in your own work. Do that not just for one, but for all your favorite photos and photographers. Then, work on each of these qualities individually until you fully understand how to recreate them. While you do this, it is almost inevitable that you transform those qualities putting your own twist on them. This is actually the secret of creating your own style.
This process of breaking apart the work that you love and working on individual aspects to improve yourself gives you a list of steps – a to-do list with tangible items to work on. You will eventually see progress for each individual item, and ultimately you will get close to your original goal.
Learn to deal with criticism
One essential part of being a photographer is putting your work out there. And no matter if you want to or not, that will cause critics to express their opinion about your work. If you put enough work out there on a consistent basis, you will get any type of criticism – good, bad, insightful and destructive.
Now, if somebody steps up to you in real life to criticize you, they will most likely try to be as thoughtful as possible because they are putting themselves on the line in doing so. But online, that is totally different, and many creatives learn this the hard way. People have all kinds of motives to criticize you, and only very few of them (especially of the unsolicited critiques) are to help you improve. Most are in fact, totally self-serving. They had a bad day or a bad life and simply want to bring you down.
Do not take any of that directly to your heart – neither the good critique, nor the bad critique. Always take it with a grain of salt.
The really valuable critique is the one you actively asked for, by people you trust. Seek the critique of such people, but do it sparingly. People you look up to are probably very busy and may ignore your inquiry. But the ones that do answer will be honest and try to help you in most cases. Do not pester them by sending them every image you create. Ask them politely and really analyze what they have to say. Reflect how you can incorporate their critique into your work. Doing so may not be straight-forward, but it can really help you get to the next level.
My little recipe of breaking down your goal into actionable steps is actually the result of another quality that you need to have: a systematic approach to your art. I know that systematic sounds boring, uninspiring or even intimidating to the ears of an aspiring artist. But the truth is that you will almost certainly fail at anything you do unless you create a framework that helps you transform your high-rising goals into small steps that you can take one at a time. Such a framework also includes work techniques that help you analyze other people’s work, keep track of your ideas, make and implement plans, and monitor your improvements.
The most simple tool to achieve these things is to maintain a notebook (on paper or electronically). Write down what’s in your head. Make a list of features that you like while you look at other people’s work. Make notes while you read tutorials and while you discover new post-processing techniques. Revisit those notes regularly after a certain time and revise them. This is a simple process that will help you recognize what you really need to do in order to improve.
When you isolated the things that you need to work on to achieve your goal, plan individual photo shoots to implement this work. Write down what your goal for each shoot is. For example, you may want to work on your night photography. Approach this exercise in the same way as a professional photographer would do it by scouting locations (online or by visiting them), writing down which shots you want to take and what you need to get it done. When the shoot and the post-processing is over, write down what you learned, what has worked and what did not work.
This type of systematic work style will create a record that you can go back to whenever you need to. It will give you new ideas for future work, and it will help you recognize which topics you still need to work on. If that sounds intimidating to you, you can start out real slow and simple. Don’t worry, you will learn how to structure your notes and how to make use of them while you go.
Experiment a lot
Too many aspiring photographers out there try to find ready-made recipes that they can simply apply to their photos to make them look great. While that is totally understandable, it will keep you from actually learning and improving yourself. Improvement and innovation comes from trying things yourself the hard way. I say innovation because that’s one of the factors that differentiates outstanding photographers form run-of-the-mill photographers: The latter type is happy with doing what others did before them, the former will always look for new ways of doing things. And this explorative spirit will lead to originality and an identifiable style.
So, the next time you get stuck with achieving a certain look in post-production. Don’t google for a solution! Instead, go crazy and try to discover your own way of solving this. This sounds as if you would need in-depth knowledge of all your tools in order to do this. But actually, it’s the other way around: Having a real problem and trying to solve it will teach you more about photography and post-processing than you will ever learn from any tutorial out there. And it will teach you to do things your own way.
Never stop learning
As a natural extension of the previous thoughts about experimentation, I will add learning here. Photography has become a high-tech field that ranges from camera technology via image processing all the way to new forms of presenting your work online and offline. What is outstanding photography today, may be common-place tomorrow as technology and techniques evolve. So, you need to be ready to learn for as long as you are active in this field. The day you stop learning will be the day you start falling behind. That may sound cruel, but it’s the reality in any technology-driven area of life.
For example, if you refused to make the transition to digital photography than you’re insignificant in today’s photography landscape. And trust me, this will not have been the last photographic revolution we went through.
Be curious, keep on learning and embrace change. That’s the best advice I can give you.
Do a lot of work and practice, practice, practice
There is the famous 10,000-hour rule that was introduced to the broader public by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers. This rule says that you need about 10,000 hours of practice in your field to become and expert. Of course, the figure 10,000 is quite arbitrary and chosen for it’s obvious simplicity. But it’s a trivial fact that you need to practice a lot to become good at anything. So, instead of thinking hard as to what you could do to improve, it’s always better to just go out there and take photos.
What does 10,000 hours actually mean? The number by itself seems rather abstract, but if you assume that you invest 1 hour a day every day, you would need more than 27 years to become a master of your craft. Now, don’t let that discourage you. Take it more as a metaphor than an actual task: The more you’ll practice, the better you’ll get. And don’t discount all the fun you will be having along the way. After all you are doing this because it’s what you love.
Be confident and express it
If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anybody else believe in you? Of course, true confidence only comes with experience and having your share of the 10,000 hours practicing your craft. But especially if you are still a beginner you are unable to tell if you’re on the right path or not and if people like what you are doing. So, how can you be confident? Think about it this way:
There are two things you are going to put out there:
- Your work
- Your personality
And especially on the Internet, people will subconsciously evaluate both when they see your photo and read the accompanying blog or social media post. No matter if you come across as being confident or insecure about your work, people are still going to see the same photo. Of course, you should avoid being bold or even arrogant. But a healthy level of confidence will actually increase the probability that people believe in you and your work. On the other hand, being completely insecure will make people evaluate your work differently and generally assess it as being weaker. This is all a matter of psychology.
So, be humble but not submissive. Stand up for your art, no matter if you are a beginner or a master. This is what you are able to achieve. You’ve worked hard for it and you’re proud of it. Period!
This post might be a big one to swallow since it has little to do with the specifics of any photographic technique. But it has everything to do with the mindset you adopt while you are trying to improve your photography. The message I want to convey to you is really that you can become outstanding if you are willing to do what it takes. This is no god-given talent that some people have and others don’t. If you love photography, if you enjoy great photography when you see it, if you are willing to invest time to study and practice it in a systematic way, you will get there.
I hope the tips and resources I have given you here help you on your way.