Please, Listen Up!

If you plan on reading on, you’ll have to excuse what will probably be a picture-less rant. I’m here to say that one of the very best ways to improve your photography, to move it from good to WOW!, is not with your eyes, but with your ears!

I have a friend who is a dedicated amateur photographer and I mean really dedicated. In recent years he has obviously decided to up his skill level, as well as broaden his travels to encompass travel photography and landscapes. As a professional photographer and judge of photo contests, I can honestly say that, from what I have seen, he has improved.

Like many amateurs that I know, this man reads about photography constantly. He watches photography shows and website videos and I am sure he must scour information on the Web. He belongs to camera clubs. Without question, that’s terrific.

But, as a professional photographer, instructor and mentor, I often question how one can best improve one’s skills. No doubt the above-mentioned activities are valuable. Camera clubs for example, help a great deal, in part because outside professionals are brought in to present ideas, concepts, skills and experiences that broaden one’s vision.

Online forums can also be helpful… up to a point. I can’t even quantify how many times have I seen photographers discouraged by the disparaging remarks they received from other forum members, let alone downright nasty comments. Now I’ll say something controversial. I venture to guess that those nasty comments are not nearly as harmful to one’s photographic development as are saccharin sweet comments about images that really just don’t make the grade. And, without fail, those pablum critiques are immediately echoed by lemmings who know little or nothing about photography. (Sorry, I warned you this might be a rant!). The photographer in that instance comes away thinking that their work is better than it actually is. She has no incentive to up her game. Why should she? People obviously like her work. I have one friend who brags about having photographed for 40 years, yet that person’s work by any standard would be considered mediocre. Such squandered opportunities pain me.

What is the common characteristic of these scenarios? In all such cases I find that these photographers have shied away from constructive, yet demanding, critique from respected professionals. More images is often not the answer. Better listening is.

What a few sessions with a professional photographer, or accomplished and respected amateur, can do is help a dedicated amateur understand and apply dynamic composition to enhance an image in-camera. A pro can help in assessing a scene prior to even pressing the shutter. And in post-processing, that pro can help pull from the image every ounce of emotion and drama it is capable of. All in a way that is supportive, yet honest and informed. I am not trolling for business here. At my age I have all I can handle. But those who know me understand how passionate I am about photography. All those lost opportunities irritate me.

I have to smile when people say that such mentoring is too expensive. Really? In the case of folks who have DSLRs, let’s get real. What is their investment in equipment, accessories, photography travel, insurance, books, videos and more? Oh, okay, working with an accomplished professional, learning to get the very best imagery you can possibly make with that ample investment, is too expensive. Right.

I actually know several photographers who buy every new camera and lens they can, including pricey telephotos. They spend a fortune traveling to exotic locales, yet they still take mediocre images! It has been said a million times; good images are not dependent on equipment alone.

And by the way, I know many highly respected and accomplished amateurs that can help with one-on-one critique, whether in person or via the Internet. They are rarely asked. One must be willing to avail him or herself of these mentors and be constructively critiqued.

I guess what I’m saying here is that to really bring your photography from good to great to stunning is to not be timid, to get out of your comfort zone, ask questions, and L-I-S-T-E-N. Not just hear, but really listen. Ask an accomplished amateur or pro to analyze your work. Listen carefully. Ask questions. Listen. Do not defend or explain away why the image is not great. Listen. Take notes, ask for suggestions. Listen. Go on trips with photography masters and watch him or her at work in the field. L-I-S-T-E-N.

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