Do your best work alone?

My latest weekend project was a full photography portfolio review. If you are interested you can check out my nature portfolio here. There are now multiple threads: Nature, People and Architecture. This process involved a weekend of clicking through around 50000 photos. In my later work I adopted a regimented system of importing images and rating them.

Hint: Start doing this now if you don’t! The review process becomes a lot faster!

Reviewing your work is a key contributor to your progression. I have always heard: “to know where you are going you need to understand where you have come from”. It is interesting to watch your skills evolve over time. Doing this got me thinking about the way I shoot.

Most of the time I have a camera within arms reach. This became automatic for me after realising I was missing so many shots in my daily life. Whether with friends, family, partners or alone I love capturing moments. But here is where I will make an important distinction. There are snapshots: memories of experiences and people. These are generally interesting only to those involved and their circles. Then there are photographs: something that anyone can enjoy. Think blurry baby walking for first time photo vs a long exposure of a river under an ancient bridge.

Good landscape photographers are always alone.

I had often heard that being a “good” landscape or nature photographer is a fairly solitary profession. Long hours of hiking and patience to frame up your subject then the waiting for that light to pop. My earlier trips away had to be “re-prioritised” after seeing the boredom levels of my travel companions reaching breaking point. I imagine some of you out there may have had similar experiences.

This was understandable to me. If you imagine a landscape photographer, you generally visualise one man on a hill with a tripod looking at a sunset. I myself have stood in this position many times, freezing cold, humming something or talking to myself. But I love it!

How about street photography?

You can relax amongst friends with a camera around your neck, snapping away. Yet, good street photography requires a lot of concentration, patience and fast reflexes. The evidence is in front of us: Parr, Gilden and Webb all spend the majority of their time shooting alone. It seems that the best street photographers are all lone wolves too.

War photography is not a profession that you would see groups of people doing either. There is a certain type of comradery that exists between the photographers when they return from “shooting”. However, (like street photography) in the field it is every person for themselves.

But what about a type of photography that requires other people?

Portrait photography or (more broadly) photography using models, requires a support crew of sorts. If you study the photographer when they are in their zone, it seems as there is nothing but the model and the photographer in the room. The creativity of the photographer is personified in the subtle movements of the model. Their crew seems to be there only to make this process as friction less as possible.

For the time that they are shooting they are deep inside their own head. Imagining, innovating and directing the scene in front of them. It seems that as soon as the shoot is over you see the photographers eyes re-glaze as they return to the real world.

The difference between these professional photographers and us mere mortals is that we still have a lot to learn. I am sure we could argue that professionals are still learning every day. But, this learning time is not generally time in which you are producing your best work. It is time to learn a new skill that you will incorporate into future work.

So what is the answer?

You have to take photos because you love taking photos. Don’t expect to get portfolio photos every time you go out. When you are with people, enjoy being with those people. Capture moments, snapshots to share with them. Don’t let your photography consume the day.

If you want to improve quickly, you need to work hard and realise that nothing great comes for free. It seems that to create something great we must make some sacrafice. Many of the great photographers (or creatives in general) do their best work alone. You should try this too!

Homework

I put the challenge to you to have a look through your back catalogue of photos. Look at the photos you took when you were with other people and compare them to ones taken when you were alone. Which are better? Post your thoughts in the comments below.