But It All has Changed

It seems rather strange but it all began at about the turn on the century. Boy, does that make me sound old. I bought my first digital camera (a Nikon Coolpix E4100) and soon found out I was about to become a grandpa. As the guy who took family pictures, I certainly needed a “real camera” so I went out and bought a Nikon D70. In the following years I took a lot of digital photos of my granddaughter, and then my grandson, and enjoyed sharing these photos with my family. And occasionally we went on vacation and I took shots of beautiful places, and assumed these shots were beautiful photographs. And I liked them back then. But now when I go back and look at them I realize they aren’t beautiful photographs. Back then I thought I was a pretty good photographer … but it all has changed.

It’s been six months since I put up the first post on my blog FirstanAmateur.com. When I went back and read the first post, one line stood out: I hope when you read about what I have learned it will help you move forward with better artistic photographs. It reminds me that it might be good to take some time and reflect on what I have learned starting back at the turn of the century, share that with you, and invite you to reflect on what you have learned about becoming a better photographer.

But let me start at the beginning, or at least at the beginning of the new revival of Randy’s photography. When my wife and I retired and moved to Victor Idaho my first “job” was to help out the guys who were building our house. I wanted to learn about home construction and our contractor was very willing to make me the gopher who helped out with the very basic stuff. He was also very nice about answering questions. I felt comfortable to ask silly questions since it was only expected that I didn’t know doddle-squat about construction. In some situations we feel comfortable asking questions; in other situations we feel foolish.

After our house was complete I started looking for something to keep me busy and out of trouble. 🙂 I had always enjoyed taking pictures so I thought I could make an easy transition to being a really good photographer, especially since I lived in the beautiful environment of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. I thought it would be easy to make huge improvements in a short time, but I was dead-wrong. And since this blog is about my journey to help you with your journey, let me share the problems from the very beginning – problems some of you may be experiencing.

To become a better photographer I thought I should:

Take a lot more photographs – This certainly sounds like a good idea but it didn’t solve the problem. I remember telling my students that to improve their test scores they should study many more hours; but they just spent more time “studying” in front of the TV. I found that in my first year trying to become a better photographer I took a lot more pictures, carried my camera with me more often, but the photos weren’t any better. I didn’t know what to look for when taking photos. I just started firing away. Just like my students who didn’t really think about their studies, I didn’t really think about the photographs I was taking.

Read more books and learning the lingo – It didn’t take too long for me to learn the photo vocabulary: aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, etc. But I couldn’t really apply any of the terms. I had told my students that they needed to be able to apply what they were learning to real life experience, but they assumed memorization was all they needed. I read the books and sat with my camera in my lap to set the aperture and shutter speed, but when I went out to take photographs I typically used the auto setting; it was easy to do in my chair the night before but in the field the auto was much easier. But I wasn’t really engaged in all this and I didn’t have anyone to turn to when I had question – and I had a LOT of questions, all “dumb” questions. I felt uncomfortable and wondered why this was so difficult for me to grasp.

Shoot in the Golden Hour – Most of the books and articles I read talked about how critical it was to use the golden hour to take photographs. That certainly made sense but I didn’t “see the light” (sorry for the pun) and didn’t get out to take shots before sunrise. I didn’t understanding and appreciation that the value of the “golden hour” was worth the inconvenience of getting up early; just like my students didn’t realize that though studying every day was inconvenient, it was the best was to learn. And looking in retrospect, I knew what I should have done but didn’t have my own photos of the warmth of the lighting during the golden hour. It’s easy to get lazy when you are getting discouraged.

But there were Challenges to Improving My Photographs:

Discouragement – Back-in-the-day I can remember sending off color film for processing thinking I had some great shots, only to be disappointed. In my new life as an amateur photographer I had the same disappointment. After a day of hiking and taking many many photos I arrived home to look at a lot of ordinary pictures that didn’t resemble photos in the books I was reading. I didn’t expect to take National Geographic photos right away :-), but I thought they would be pretty good. But they were bland and discouraging. If the Grand Teton National Park didn’t “create” impressive photos, maybe the Grand Canyon would – – – but it didn’t.

Discouragement Undermines Confidence – As a professor of a challenging course I frequently had many conversations with discouraged students, many of whom anticipated academic success while others expected failure. Their failure to reach their goals undermined their confidence. This often led to a lack of involvement in class (e.g., they feared asking questions because they would look stupid), a lack of effort (e.g., lazy was a better explanation for failure than stupidity), or they just gave-up and essentially dropped out. I found that I was experiencing the same decreasing confidence. I thought if I put forth a little more effort I would make huge improvement; I was terribly wrong. But just like my students, I didn’t want to admit I was having so much trouble. Other people seemed to take great photographs. What was wrong with me?

My Eyes and Brain don’t work like My Lens and Camera – Living in a beautiful place like the mountain west has its advantages but photo progress can be slow. The beauty of the Grand Tetons seemed so obvious that I’d put on my wide-angle lens to capture all the gorgeous scenery before me. But when I got home the images on my computer looked pretty bland and unimpressive. What was wrong? Why doesn’t my lens and camera take the same shot as my eyes?

Eye Training Takes Time – Reading a lot of photography books and examining Ansel Adams photos is helpful. But training your eyes to recognize what makes a great photograph takes time, experience, and thoughtful reflection. I suspect taking an art class would help (I think I slept though my only art class in college many year ago) but I imagine that the application of line, balance, texture, etc. is critical and I have found that it takes time. And in retrospect, I think it can really help to work with someone and discuss what you see and what you are learning; it can be really tough to improve your photography by yourself. At least I found that it was an important aspect of learning for me.

If Step #1 Ain’t Working, Time to Move on to Step #2

At about the time my discouragement and confidence were hitting bottom a friend suggested I look for a photography club. Tom was involved in a club in South Carolina and he had really gained a lot from having photographers around. I went on-line and found that the Teton Photography Group was a club that met monthly about an hour from our house. I had reservations (remember I was discouraged and lacking confidence) but I was committed to making progress so I planned to attend the next monthly meeting, an Informal Critique.

Back in the fourth blog (The Challenge of Getting Motivated to Learn) you might remember that I admitted that I didn’t take my photos to the Informal Critique at my first meeting with the Teton Photography Group. I was discouraged and lacking confidence and I assumed that my photos would be shot-down. I suspect there are many start-up amateurs (let’s call them Novice Amateurs) that have the same concern and are also lacking confidence. If there is anyone I am hoping to reach with my FirstanAmateur.com blog it is the Novice Amateurs. I am planning on putting up a post next week (Sorry, I know I haven’t done well in sticking to my timelines) to share what I have done in 2015 to move forward. I hope you will join me and make some comments.

I will also have another opportunity to work to help Novice Amateurs and other photographers this coming month. As a members of the Teton Photography Group steering committee, I will be in charge of the Informal Critique (Monday March 14th) and a presentation (Monday March 21st) on a new Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) that I will be developing. I will be talking about these photo activities in upcoming blog posts.

6 thoughts on “But It All has Changed

  1. JP Connelly

    Hi Randy,
    I think the fact that you spend this much time in reflection about what you have learned and building on both the small failures and small successes is HUGE for improving your craft. In my own photography I probably rely on my small failures most and often forget to keep building on my small successes. But what I love about those failures is the chance to very distinctly find what didn’t work or what I don’t like, and focus on how to improve those elements. Its a piece mail process, but eventually they all start adding up. At times I even like to print out those failures, mark them up with notes, and take them with me when I am on my next shoot. Anytime your subject is repeatable or nearly so, then its a great reminder about what else to try next.

    I did want to mention that one of your points really struck home: “My eyes and brain don’t work like my lens and camera.” So VERY VERY true! One of the best ways I learned how to “see differently” through the lens, was back in my black and white days in high school. Shooting with a color filter on my lens, it suddenly became much easier to see my final images since looking through the lens was all monochrome. Living where you do, color is such a wonderful treat, but maybe consider going back to BW for a stretch. Maybe for a set period of time, and maybe just keep a yellow filter on hand to shoot in both BW and color…and I would suggest BW first as you train your brain to think in light and shadows and not always in color and hue saturation.

    Beyond that, keep reading. Books, blogs, whatever you find. Look for workshops from artists you admire. Look for webcasts, and online tutorials. I might also look for a favorite place or location and try to keep improving your photography of that one spot. Live it, know it, love it and see if you can really tell different stories with your images of that same place.


  2. JP, thanks for your thoughtful comments. You have clearly been doing the same type of thinking I am finding helpful. Next week I will have a post that discusses what actually did work for me the past year. The biggest impact on my improvement has been my involvement in a photo club (Teton Photography Group). In my next post will be talking about the Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) I will be starting. I am primarily focused on rounding up folks from this area but I am also thinking about how I could expand it to people who are not in the area. If you are interested in joining, send me an e-mail at risaacso@iusb.edu. Good to hear from you.


  3. Tom Lehrer

    Really interesting insights in this edition. I have experienced many of the same episodes that you document. I came into retirement with a history of having owned a number of really fine cameras and a fairly good knowledge about the fundamentals of 35mm photography. I had accumulated about 5,000 images, all of them in slide format, which were housed in 50 or so Kodak carousels.
    I joined a photography club in my retirement community and hooked up with some folks who were far more knowledgeable than I, and I soon discovered that I knew almost nothing about the art of photography. One of my first clues was to send some of my photographs to friends, thinking that I would get back very positive comments, only to have the responses be lukewarm.

    I joined a photography club in my community and started to enter competitions. Initially, I had a lot of success in the novice and intermediate level, but once I got to the advanced level, the recognition dropped off totally. I have been a year without a ribbon — even honorable mention.
    While I’d like to blame the subjectivity of the judges (and that does enter in), I have to accept that the people in the advanced level who are getting the recognition have really perfected their craft.
    They are out photographing five days a week and spend lots of time with post processing. In addition, our club offers special interest forums for specific cameras and another for black and white photography, yet another just on creativity. I have not as yet taken full advantage of these opportunities, but I suspect that they have largely contributed to the success of my fellow club members.

    All that to say is that competition isn’t for everyone, but I believe that, taken in the right frame of mind, it can be a huge impetus for growth. And, as I’ve experienced, just like anything else, the higher you get in the ranks, the tougher the competition becomes. The big thing is not to take it personally and to keep things in proper perspective. That is, those who are succeeding are putting in the time AND putting in the time wisely. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. It’s up to the serious amateur to seek proper guidance and instruction and then apply that learning to the craft again and again.


  4. Tom, thanks for your comments and for your advice last year about joining a photography club. I have mixed feelings about competition. When I was an young athlete, interpersonal competition spurred me on but as I got older I was more interested in intrapersonal competition (competing with myself.) Competition can increase extrinsic motivation but it can undermine intrinsic motivation (I’ll explain in my next post.) You comment “The big thing is not to take it personally” is VERY important and is tied to confidence. As we gain confidence as an athlete, cook, or photographer we are more capable of taking criticism in stride (e.g., you mother-in-law criticizing your cooking) but when we lack confidence and experience we are more likely to be discouraged and give-up (e.g, the young basketball player who is criticized for missing the last-second free-throw that lost the game.) I like that your photo club has levels of competition which allows the novice amateurs to enter competition at a more basic level, and hopefully the feedback is more carefully delivered. I’ll be talking about motivation in my next blog and offering some strategies that can help those photographers who may not be ready for the toughest level of competition. Please share my blog with your club, especially those folks who are Novice Amateurs or Advancing Amateurs. I would love to hear their comments.


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