What makes a great photographer?

words Alexa Wang

It’s a dream for many to become a world-famous photographer, known for his or her skill with a camera and creating stunning images that no one else can do. But what makes a photographer great among the millions out there who are diligently working on their craft? If you search the internet, you will find many blogs that say a great photographer knows how to set the camera for the proper exposure, creates sharp images, and understands composition.

If we follow the rules of thirds, does that mean you are suddenly a household name in the photographic arts? Surely there must be more to it than that.

Ansel Adams is well known for his landscape photography, but what is it about Ansel Adams that makes him still a popular photographer decades after his death? During Ansel Adams lifetime, there were other photographers who were better known yet their work has not stood the test of time. One thing that Ansel Adams did was to scout out a location and then return when the light would provide the maximum desirable effect. Adams understood light and how the shadows from the sun would change a landscape over the course of a day. Other photographers would walk up, snap their picture, and they were done.

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Black and white landscape inspired by the style of Ansel Adams.

Another thing that Ansel Adams did was to dodge and burn his photographs when developing. This would give greater contrasts between lights and darks and create a more interesting photograph. Many people will scoff at the notion of how photographs today can be easily manipulated with digital technology, but Ansel Adams was essentially doing the same thing with the tools that were available to him.

By being a pioneer in landscape photography and incorporating new techniques, Ansel Adams was able to stand out and be noticed. He was doing things no one else was doing in his time.

This is also what differentiates the great artists from those who just paint pictures. There are artists today who can paint as well as Rembrandt, but they are just another Rembrandt. The artists who have become famous are known not just for their skill but for being pioneers in new techniques. Impressionism, cubism, or just exploring new subjects are things that set the masters apart from the rest. Art historians will discuss periods of time where the “tradition” was to paint in a certain way and will point out the artists who went beyond the accepted “rules” and developed new ways to paint.

Fast forward to today and with the internet, you can easily search to see what other photographers are doing. There are many types of photography individuals are exploring such as journalism, street photography, surrealism, portraiture, landscape, noir, fantasy, and even horror.

Surfing the internet is like taking a random path through the woods where you wander in whatever direction seems to be of interest. As you browse through various web pages and images, you will find photographers that stand out from the rest. This will mainly be because their work, in some way, is several notches above from the other images you had been wading through. And thanks to the internet, you can focus on a particular photographer and find a collection or portfolio of their best images for greater study.

You will find that these photographers have developed their own way of doing things regardless of the subject they’re doing. Some will build their own scene in a garage or basement in order to photograph a particular concept. Some will take a small, realistic model car put on a table with a city street or neighborhood in the background. If the model is of a retro car, you can create a scene that looks like a vintage setting. Even with portraiture, there are photographers who are experimenting with new ways to light a subject and to arrange a scene for composition. Non-mainstream genres such as horror, it’s not always the skill of the photographer that matters but what the imagination can create and how you take a concept forward to producing an actual image.

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Photo editing software is producing new genres and techniques for photography that are creating exciting ways to mix digital and visual arts together.

Vincent Van Gogh did not become famous until after his death so the recognition many artists and photographers seek is not always going to happen. Even if some success is found, the photographer may still need to keep his day job. The phrase “Starving Artist” is more of a harsh reality than an amusing saying. But as with Van Gogh, he followed his passion, regardless.

The question then is, how does one become a pioneer and develop a new technique or find a refreshing twist in order to stand out in a world where there are actually very many and skilled artists who are also struggling to find their way? The answer to this was already given above: Follow Your Passion.

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Nature photographers will spend an entire day photographing flowers. Then next year when the flowers come in again after a long winter, they will be out there photographing the same flowers they did the previous year. You will see them doing it again the next. This is because their passion is to create photographs of flowers. The average photographer will take the same pictures year after year. Those who strive to improve and create better photographs over time will learn what works best for them. Perhaps they will try photo editing software to create new effects. Maybe they will invest in different kinds of lenses that can accomplish something different from a traditional lens. As they grow and learn, their photographs will stand out, which will be quite an accomplishment when you realize how many are out there photographing the same flowers over and over.

So, it’s really not a matter of sitting in a corner and trying to think of something new that will automatically make you a great photographer. A photographer will follow his passion and learn what works best for him and push himself to go beyond what he can currently do.

I think that’s what may have motivated Ansel Adams. When walking through the landscape and taking pictures, he may have realized that his photographs were flat and not as stunning as what he saw in the field. In realizing how the landscape would change with the sun and light, he would wait for the right conditions and then would take the picture. Over time he learned how to develop his images and create his “vision” of how he wanted the photograph to look.

The digital cameras of today and photo editing software make it possible for millions of hobbyists to create good, stunning photography. Even cell phone cameras can now snap an image that is worthy to be hanging in an art gallery. But if you’re just snapping pictures and trying to take pictures like everyone else, you’re not going to stand out. By following your passion and going in a direction that makes sense for you and striving to go beyond, that is how you can achieve success in today’s world of photography. “Success” is also a relative term. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, then the fame and fortune others are seeking doesn’t matter.

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