So, what does this have to do with photography? Nothing or perhaps everything! Please bear with me for a moment.
I became interested in photography in my twenties. Growing up in Minnesota, I was surrounded by the natural beauty of Lake Superior and the great "Northland." Upon graduation from college, I enlisted in the US Navy. While stationed in the Pacific, I purchased my first 35mm camera and a complete darkroom. Photography was a great outlet for my creativity. It helped me to pass the long hours at sea and I continued to take and develop my own photos after I came home.
When I returned from the service, the demands of my career took precedence over photography and I soon found myself in the fast-paced world of semiconductor manufacturing in Silicon Valley. As the digital revolution eclipsed film and older technologies, I started to invest in new cameras and software for image enhancement, replacing my darkroom with the "digital darkroom." However, photography would largely remain a hobby until my retirement.
In Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, he claims that you need to practice an activity for 10,000 hours in order to truly become good at it. In photography, I think this is very true. I knew that I enjoyed taking photographs, but was I ready to invest the time needed to be good?
In 2008, I received a flyer in the mail describing a photography workshop in Greece, organized through Wilderness Travel in Oakland, California. It described a tour where we would go out each day and walk 6-10 miles, taking photographs of the surrounding towns and countryside. With my wife's encouragement, I signed up. Little did I know that this trip would change my life.
The instructor for the workshop was Dan Heller, a freelance travel-photographer who has written several books on photography. Dan came from the computer business and had worked at Sun in a totally unrelated role before turning pro in 1995. Wilderness Travel hired him to run the photography portion of the workshop. We immediately became good friends.
Each night we would return to the hotel and he would critique our images. It was a perfect opportunity for me to get some exercise, lose weight, and perhaps learn something new. At this point, I did not believe there was anything else to learn—I was just enjoying the tour and the companionship.
Dan was good at providing constructive feedback. He would download our images to his computer and the group would review them in real-time. Some images he would edit—for example, by cropping to demonstrate composition or making basic changes in exposure and color. He encouraged us to go out the next day and get it right in the camera without editing. Before long, we were all doing better in the field.
By the end of the workshop, I learned that I had an eye for taking good photos and the technical skills to understand the camera and post processing. However, I lacked some of key concepts that were preventing me from doing my best. I also fell in love with night photography and wanted to do more. Dan encouraged me to invest in better equipment and continue my journey to learn as much as I could.
When I returned home, I purchased a better camera, one with good low light capability, and bought some new software for my computer. I used online training podcasts—mostly free—to improve my understanding of the camera and software. However, I felt that I needed more work on the artistic side. Just having the technical skills was not enough.
In 2009, I decided to make the big jump and attend one of Jay Maisel's workshops in New York. Jay is about the least technical photographer you probably will ever meet. He doesn't even edit his own images. However, his work is outstanding and admired. He has been published in The New York Times, Life Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and many books and other publications around the world. Jay has mentored most of the big names in photography. Even though the workshop was expensive, I felt that this could help me become a better photographer.
There is something to be said about not knowing what you got yourself into, but off I went to New York. For five days we were totally immersed in photography. Concepts like color, light, and gesture became the central theme of our discussions. Each day, Jay would give us assignments in New York. Then we would return and have review sessions at "The Bank." Everyone was asked to participate.
Jay was very patient with us, but did have one basic rule—it was essential that everyone contribute to group image review. Sharing our feelings, thoughts, and suggestions were important to our growth! He also told us to "leave your ego at the doorstep." This was very difficult at first since photographers normally do not like to criticize other photographers. In addition, this was a pro-level workshop and it was intimidating to open up in the midst of all that talent. However, Jay led by example and before long we found ourselves treating each other with respect and providing useful feedback. I noticed that regardless of the skill level, everyone had something important to offer. Like the Galton experiment, no matter how knowledgeable you were, better results would follow from the "wisdom of the crowd."
Since 2009, I have attended many workshops, viewed countless podcasts, developed my own website, and joined other social media websites like Flickr and Facebook. What I have learned is there are no shortcuts to the 10,000-hour rule. In fact, with all the new cameras and software products available today, photography may be a never-ending learning experience. That doesn't mean you have to mortgage the house to keep up, but if you want better results you must put in the effort. Regardless of what you have in your camera bag, if you involve others in the process along the way, you will improve your outcome.
Photography is a subjective art form and there is no one way that gets it right all the time. You may be able to overcome the technical issues with a better understanding of your camera or become Adobe Photoshop certified. However, in the end we are artists and everyone has their own style and an eye for of looking at things differently. There is no one way, but rather many ways of taking a photo of the same thing.
I'm still on a journey to improve my art and that is okay! As Apple's CEO Steve Job said "The Journey is the Reward." It surely has been rewarding to live in a community of friends that encourage each other to become better at their art.
All Photographs by Howard Ignatius
The Business of the Journal
It's Our Nature
News, Editorials, & Commentary