Getting Better by Staying Inspired

In a previous blog entry, I wrote about using small cameras as an exercise to help make you think differently about shot selection and how having limited tools can force you in a new direction or at least a direction you might not have chosen had you been armed with a full arsenal of camera gear.

After all, if you consider the gear used by some of the greatest photographers of our time and before our time... well, there is no comparison. Let's face it, with today's equipment, if you're having trouble getting a correct exposure and the subject in focus, you might want to consider a different career path. Today's camera technology is off the charts and probably to the point of creating new charts.

Given that, the competition, professionally, as gotten greater and greater. The fact that "most" photographers can deliver a clear and in focus image increases the supply of photography. You don't need to be an economics major to understand supply and demand. Digital has had a chilling effect on the supply side.

Or has it? Well, short answer yes. If your knocking on doors peddling mediocre images at a mediocre price, you can bet you're going to feel the pressure. And, chances are, you're going to respond to that pressure by lowering your prices.

Bad idea, emulsion breath. If your plan of competing is to simply sell more for less, you're putting a timeline on your dismal future.

It is at this moment in time that you need to take stock in what you are doing and ask yourself, "what can I do to improve?" It's simple, really. Deliver a better product. Better images, better service... be better.

Anyone can ultimately beat your price. There are hundreds of photographers out there willing to take your client and deliver the goods for less money. So, if you think you'll be the last man standing in a price war, you are dreaming.

Anyone can beat my price. I can't control that. But if they want to beat my quality, they'd better be prepared to work. If they think they can beat my service, they'd better be prepared to work some more. If they think they're going to simply undercut me, they'd better get smart. Anyone can do something for less. Not everyone can do something better.

So, how do you get better? You work at it. You look around. You observe. You soak up everything you can and get brutally honest with yourself. And whatever your competitors are doing... do more.

I'll save the business side of things for another time. But make sure you understand, the mindset is the same and is a constant. You have to be better than you were last year. If you stay the same.. if you do things the same... you've gone backwards... the field is catching up.

So, how can you better with your photography?

First and foremost, stop existing in a vacuum. Expand your vision by expanding your "experience quotient." Look around. When you watch a movie, watch it frame by frame... or scene by scene. Cinematographers frame shots very much the same way photographers do. But what you can learn from them is how they move about... or how their subject moves about, within a frame or sequence of frames. As a motorsports shooter, I'll sit through the Steve McQueen movie, Le Mans, with my jaw wide open. The shot selection in that movie is endless. Sadly, some are not available to me on a live track... but the ideas and inspiration is priceless.

Go to the book store. Sit with the books of famous photographers. Dissect what they are doing... what you like and what you don't like. Look for common denominators in their style. And, look for common denominators of technique from one great photographer to another. There are consistent traits that make great photographs. Try to familiarize yourself with them and replicate them in your own shooting.

Assuming you have your technical skills in order, I'm not one to spend time with technical books. I'll turn to the likes of Jesse Alexander, Louis Klementaski, Nigel Snowdon and other great motorsports shooters. I like the older works since the importance is usually placed on content, light and composition. It's fantastic stuff and if you can mentally put yourself into their shoes and try to deconstruct how they shot a particular image, it's not hard to appreciate the difficulty of what they did.

I'll also look beyond my own interest and discipline. Look at portrait photographers... or street photographers. And again, look at those who worked with minimal equipment. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Ansel Adams or earlier Annie Leibovitz.

Of course there are lots of contemporary photographers you can learn from. But, I like to avoid those that are immersed in studio and technological wizardry. Not because I don't like that sort of thing... I do, and I admire the talent. But I want to look at and learn from the simplicity of simply shooting a camera.

Lastly, I'll look at my peers. I'll always visit websites of Rick Dole or Regis Lefebure. Or I'll watch for images created by other photographers I work with and along side of.

So, the point herRemovee? Get that small camera and keep it with you. Or, at least put a simple lens on your current body and go out and shoot. Put aside the time. Go and shoot different things.

If you're having trouble wandering aimlessly, check out some of the photography websites and forums. For instance, Fred Miranda (www.fredmiranda.com} hosts two "Assignments," one weekly and one monthly. Each week (or month) they establish a theme. To be eligible to enter, you MUST shoot your image during the week/month of the assignment. This is a great way to  broaden your horizons and advance your photography skills. What I have always liked about theme type assignments is they force you to think. You'll be stunned at the quality of images and even more so when you see how people think outside the box and interpret the assignment. Remember, it's not about winning... it's about learning.

If you're really stuck on cars, I run a monthly assignment over at the Automotive Photographers Network (www.automotivephoto.net) that offers up a challenge with themes like "Sky's the Limit," or this month's "On The Edge." It's a challenge and a reason to go out and shoot.

Challenge yourself to improve. Get better.