How I Improved My Photography at the Library
I took a photo of a rabbit on some abandoned train tracks that made the front page of Reddit. This photo was seen by tens of thousands of people. It's a simple picture in many ways—a balanced composition with a coordinating colour scheme and a built-in story about a rabbit in Saskatchewan. It's not perfect, but it captured imaginations and I feel good about the final piece. Not only that, but this holiday season my friends and family suddenly took interest in my photos, often asking me for copies and how I did them. These experiences represent a major turning point for my photography practice.
I have been doing professional photography as a journalist and writer for many years, but I never took the time to actually learn the technical side of the craft until recently. What I've learned is you don't need expensive gear; an open mind will go a long way to making more meaningful photos.
As a freelancer, I learned on the job and picked up basic ideas from gig to gig while working with media outlets like VICE. Looking back at my old work, I'm still proud, but I was simply taking snapshots. I was doing the kind of work that anyone can do using mostly automatic camera modes. More often than not, I wasn't making meaningful photos that tell stories and frame the world in an emotional and interesting way. For years, I would scroll through my camera roll back in my office wondering why my photos were mostly boring or downright terrible. Many of us know the feeling of seeing other people's work and thinking "why don't my photos look amazing like that?"
It wasn't until I dove into library services and surrounded myself with proper knowledge that my photos suddenly came to life. It wasn't all viral hits and praise from my friends right away. The first step was admitting I don't know a lot about photography! Even if I use a camera and get paid to do it occasionally, it's a vast subject. There is always something to learn, both technically and artistically.
The second step was to surround myself with as many kinds of resources as possible. There isn't a single course or book that will be a magic bullet to truly mastering any complicated skill. I started reading books like Perfect Digital Photography and The Art of Digital Photography to learn concepts like what aperture does and how light enters a camera lens. Additionally, Lynda.com and The Great Courses through Kanopy are other fantastic resources to understand the technical details of how a camera works, what makes a good composition, and how to edit better. I obsessively study magazines like Digital Photo and Outdoor Photography to learn the latest techniques. I also watch documentaries and read books about influential artists like Dorothea Lang, Annie Leibovitz, and Imogen Cunningham. I access all of these resources through the library.
That said, I still have so much to learn! My focus on this journey is to not fall into the trap of buying expensive gear thinking that will improve my abilities. While upgraded lenses are tempting, I've come to understand that even after over 100 years of technology improvements, all cameras are essentially still just boxes with holes in them that capture light. Learning to frame that light in a unique way and tell emotional stories is a priceless artform. As famous French photographer Marc Riboud once said, “Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.” By learning these new skills, I'm learning to savour life.