Advice on advice

If you came to this post by following one of the links under “composition,” I’m going to apologize up front, because this isn’t exactly about how to compose photos. Yet, it does have some relation, so stick with me for a second as I explain.

Last week was a busier one for me due to photography students (which is just fine,) but it repeatedly raised something I’ve noticed before, worth a little attention. Some of the students brought up some definitive bit of advice they’d been given earlier, in a photography class or from retail store staff or read in an article, and asked if this was correct; in two of the cases, it was in direct contradiction to something I’d just said myself. So let me get this right out in front: there is no “professional” way of doing things, and almost no advice at all that should be treated as a hard-and-fast rule.

snowswingPhotography is an art form, not in that it’s pretentious and spiritual (necessarily, anyway,) but in that it reflects the approach of the person behind the camera – it’s expression, and the rules are strictly your own. Sure, there are a few physical traits that apply to everyone, mostly in how light behaves, but that’s it really. Everything else remains just preference. Even the term “professional photographer” has no real meaning, except that someone is making the bulk of their income from taking photos – it reflects no level of education or certification, and believe it or not, no particular level of skill; I worked with one photographer who did not actually know how aperture applied to depth-of-field, despite routinely hiring himself out for weddings.

(Since you’re too polite to ask but dying to know anyway, no, I do not consider myself a professional; do with that what you will.)

All of this might be frustrating to the beginner who desires firm guidelines in learning photography, but it’s far better than believing that “every part of the frame should be filled” or “your first lens should be 35mm focal length” – I’d actually received the latter chestnut more than three decades ago from a wedding photographer, and while I may have found this more useful than a 50mm (the old standard lens before zooms took over,) I’d have been gravely misled if I’d been interested in doing portraiture. There’s no shortage of people who like to impart advice (ahem,) but this should always be regarded as opinion, not fact. Perhaps my interest in critical thinking has made me aware of things like confirmation bias and conditional results, so I’m sensitive to inappropriately definitive statements, and there are a lot of them out there.

Also note that it can be easy to misinterpret advice, sometimes from translating it mistakenly, but just as often through the adviser not explaining things adequately – something I occasionally run into myself. I personally tell people to “be aware of every part of the frame, and try to make it all work for your image,” but that’s not the same as, “every part of the frame should be filled” – sometimes, it’s the empty space that conveys the idea you’re after. Succinct advice is a nice thing to strive for, but it occasionally comes at the cost of greater understanding.

I’ve been on forums where several very successful photographers gave their critiques of submitted images, and they were all over the map; rarely was there complete agreement over the strengths of the photo or the ‘proper’ approach. I’ve seen multiple photographers tackle the same subject, displaying a wide variety of styles and techniques. It’s all opinion, so never be afraid to let your own direct you.

UnhelpfulYesterday I briefly tried out a new piece of editing software, and noticed that the ‘crop’ function handily provided real-time guidance lines for the rule of thirds. It’s this kind of jazz that gives entirely the wrong impressions, because there’s nothing mathematical about composing images, and inducing someone to meticulously hew to the guides rather than obeying their “eye” is only likely to make them more clinical and less able to use the elements within the frame to good advantage. Don’t overthink it – much of photography is about mood, subtle influences, and immediate impressions, so let the subconscious have its say.

When it comes to composition, the most I ever provide are various elements, what they do and how to use them. Any of them may provide benefit to someone’s particular style, or they may have no application at all; tastes vary. And remember that it takes no skill or education whatsoever to know what you like in an image – appreciation is accessible by everybody. What anyone learns is how to express themselves more effectively, how to provoke a desired response, and how to manage the conditions and camera traits. Only the last part is definitive; high contrast is high contrast, for instance, and you either use various methods to combat it or learn to live with it. But deciding how and when to incorporate it is all your own.

Perhaps the best advice I can offer someone about following advice is to avoid blindly accepting something, instead openly asking why? What’s the reasoning behind this, why this and not that? It stands a greater chance of providing meaning and context, and can help us to understand when not to follow the advice, or why it doesn’t apply to our own style of photography. Just never believe that anyone at all can tell you the right way to pursue photography.

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