Technically Speaking

To be honest, I have never really found myself trying to be the most technically savvy photographer in the world. I know my way around a camera and know how to dial in settings for any given scene within a few seconds but I am okay admitting that my knowledge falls a bit flat in the face of a true studio lighting set up. I find comfort in using a few simple tools and cameras to the best of their ability without reaching too deep into a bag of tricks either in lighting or in post editing work.

My skill has emerged from fifteen or so years behind different cameras and learning what works and what doesn’t. After all this time I realize the best way to get better as a photographer is simply to pay attention. My style has shown itself to me over time through trying different approaches. During this process I have never tried to replicate photos I have seen other photographers take. In fact, I don’t often find a lot of inspiration in other photographic work. I have a huge respect for other photographers who forge a fresh, original path for their work and appreciate others work constantly while browsing online or in books and magazines, yet I find other art far more inspiring. The emotional connection I pull from a good film or book often leaves me with a creative fire burning. Even collections of graphic design or illustrators and comic book authors who create artwork without binds to the tangible, physical world leave me wondering what I could potentially accomplish within my own approach.

When I browse 500px, for instance, I loose interest quickly because all it seems anyone ever posts there are photos made specifically to show off something. Sometimes it’s just to show off their skill in post processing. Sometimes in how good their gear is, sometimes its how sexy they can make a woman look, or how patient they can be waiting for whatever animal to appear. I skim through the popular photos there and rarely find any with much of a soul or purpose other than to look good or show off.

I am all for mastering your gear and knowing it well. Technical prowess and a well trained eye are valuable assets as a photographer, but I just don’t really have the same amount of patience while viewing photographs as I once did. Not after so many years of following the art and seeing so many styles emulated and copied over and over as if reading a recipe and thinking you can make it better with just a dash of extra spice. I’m speaking of the sort of image you look at, admire for a moment, click the like button as though patting the creator on the back, then forget about forever.

Don’t go thinking that I am all out trashing a photo with a solid technical achievement, I have immense respect for the time and patience involved in some of these photographs, I simply have trouble connecting to them on an emotional level.

Now, if you give me a photo that has a soul, I feel that it is obvious. I touch on this all the time, that an images composition and approach to the subject speaks volumes about the person behind the camera and their true motivations. Are they selling themselves or are they sharing themselves? Great photographs should be like holding up a mirror to the photographer behind the camera.

I feel there is a deeply carved line here in the photography world. It separates many passionate shooters from those who are in it to make an easy buck or show off. I am not claiming to be on either side of this line. In fact, I feel its important to be able to balance your skill and learn to appreciate as many different approaches as possible. I have learned that there is no right or wrong here, the only thing that matters is that we, as your audience, are able to see you in the photographs you take. To have a firm understanding of these finer differences in approach takes years of trial and error and constant vigilance. If you feel you are not learning from each photograph you create then you are doing something wrong.


  1. Paul Anthony Webb - October 17, 2012 at 10:18 am

    This can certainly be applied to the music industry as well. I used to love listening to the radio but after 2001, it all went to shit, for lack of a better word. Now, radio is all about who’s music is mastered the loudest (so-called “Loudness Wars”), and which label has the most money to give radio stations to play their music (and only their music).

    I am much more inspired by indie artists because their music truly is a reflection of themselves. In addition to being a graphic designer/web developer, I am also a musician. I dream of someday touring and taking my sound around the world and thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, I no longer have to “get signed” by a major label, I can create my own.

    I understand people have to eat and making cliched, uninspired music works for them and it pays the bills, but that’s not for me.

    I can definitely relate to this post as I am self-taught in everything I do as well. I just worked hard and learned from my mistakes.

  2. Dan Hawk - October 17, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    John, I really like this post as it encapsulates so many of my thoughts on what makes a photo both touch the viewer, and represent the personality of the photographer. I’ve heard photographers (and authors, musicians and painters) talk about finding their style or voice, but I have abandoned that endeavor in favor of just making images that mean a lot to me. It’s quite a bit more fulfilling and people seem to respond well too.

    Thanks for continuing to post great images and thoughts!

  3. Jens - October 18, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I have noticed that in all my creative endeavors, be it photography, music or programming, my path for exploring new things has often been imitate -> extend -> innovate. Trying to recreate another picture can be a good learning experience. And to attempt to recreate a feeling from a movie or book in a picture can be seen as a loose form of imitation. Also, whenever I try to imitate another piece of art, my creation usually turns out quite differently, probably because I get distracted along the way.

    On the other hand, there seem to be people who shoot and post photos for others to admire, who like the feeling of positive support the comments and likes for the pictures bring. I think you can read a lot about them from their pictures as well. And I don’t mean this in a bad way.

    The one thing I often dislike are voted galleries like the “popular” page of 500px or the radio music charts. These charts inevitably contain the works with the broadest appeal, which have an immediate “wow” effect, to make you instinctively click the like-button. Art that really touches me is mostly more edgy or too unpolished to fit into the mainstream. This is probably the case for most people, and the mainstream is just the common denominator. And anyways, a good image or song often takes time to grow on me or is associated with a specific context, e.g. the day i met my girlfriend.

    Well, I don’t know if there is a point to my rambling. Maybe this: Imitation is good for learning, voted galleries are boring. Thanks for getting me thinking :)

  4. DavidR - October 20, 2012 at 11:03 am

    All I can say is this is another insightful, incredible article. Thought provoking (and perhaps even a little convicting to me who may be a bit guilty of a few of these artistic pitfalls.)

  5. Mike O'Brien - October 26, 2012 at 9:07 am

    Leonard Bernstein once said that you know you’ve really put yourself into a work when you have a complete erasure of ego. I think the only good pictures I ever take are the ones I take of my cats. In those instances, I completely forget about myself and just think of them.

    Love your stuff, btw.

  6. cara - October 31, 2012 at 9:05 am

    what a great post. i think about this often. i think about how you have to be technically proficient but still have to have a soul to make it work. it is such a balance. it is like music. you have to know what you are doing, but being a technical genius still only gets you so far. all the yngwie malmsteens of the world could never equal one hendrix.
    i get so tired of the cliches too, and you can pick them out right away, and they used to thrill me when i first started. now i only get excited about those photos that have that je ne sais quoi…thanks for this post

  7. Carlos Cabezas - November 1, 2012 at 10:14 pm

    thanks John, Great Post. totally agree about 500PX !! I feel guilty of trying to showing off, thinking in getting the latest gear but I also ask my self am i focusing on the subject or in the technical aspect of photography.?? what is really important is to connect with the subject so they can forget that I have a camera in front of them, so i can capture their soul in a click. that’s why I have not upgrade my 4mp camera !,…………………..yet =)

  8. Craig - November 2, 2012 at 5:34 am


    I haven’t visited your site in a while and the first picture I saw was the Canon GIII QL17. I used to own that camera (and the rare QL19!) and took some great photography with it. Heck, I learnt a lot about photography from older cameras.

    You wrote a post that truly speaks what I have been thinking for a long time.



  9. Chris - November 11, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    I hate to be the one to pull off topic, but- That’s a beautiful wrist strap on the Canonet… Do you mind sharing where you found it??

    Many thanks,


  10. Tamara - December 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    I loved this post. I feel the same way. Sometimes I’m sad because the darkroom is becoming lost to lightroom. I’m greatly inspired by Helen Levitt, and this reflects in my own work at times. When I’m hanging out with photographers and we all talk about our lens specifics, I feel bored. I like the art behind photography, and that comes from the person, not the camera. x Tamara Red Coat Studio

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