As I show my photographs on various social media platforms I often receive comments along the lines of, “where do you find these pictures?” or compliments like, “you have such a good eye!” I appreciate the encouragement and so I want to offer it right back. You can also create good art if you want to, and you can do so in your every day life if you can train yourself how to see. I don’t live in an exotic location or embark on fantastic adventures to exotic locations. In fact, I find living in the suburbs of Arizona to be quite boring and uninspiring! So how do I come up with these images? I practice. There is no shortcut or magic tip to becoming a better photographer. Consistently taking pictures over the last few years has helped me to be more observant of my surroundings and as a result I am beginning to see more. I am becoming a better photographer because I challenge myself to keep taking pictures.
It’s amazing what you see when you’re looking for it: How does this building look in morning light versus afternoon light? How does the impact of a particular subject change as I get closer to, or further away from it? What characteristics of that object grab my attention most and how can I emphasize them? Is there anything in the frame that is going to distract from my subject? These are the kinds of questions I ask myself before I press the shutter button or tap that iPhone screen. I am looking for things to show my viewers that they don’t already see every day… or at least they haven’t seen them my way!
This practice I mentioned isn’t simply pressing a button (I hope you don’t need much practice for that!). I am practicing composition. The collage above features ten of my iPhone snaps from the last few weeks. If you study each of these images individually, you may notice that each one utilizes very basic elements to draw your eye to the subject: a circle, a triangle, a series of converging lines, a pattern, contrast, etc. For me, photography is the art of abstraction and exclusion. When I design my compositions I strip things down as much as possible (in my mind’s eye) to their most basic elements of shape, line, color, etc. That’s the abstraction part. Anything that does not add to, complement, or work in unity with these elements I try not to include in the frame. That’s the exclusion part. Simplicity adds elegance and power to art.
I would argue that in order to become a better artist, you must have at least a basic understanding of the Elements of Art. These include line, shape, form, value, color, texture and space (and others depending on who you talk to). Combine them with an understanding of Principles of Design (emphasis, balance, pattern, proportion, contrast, unity, etc.) and you will have the tools to practice creating striking images. These are not just lists of esoteric art jargon for critics to flaunt so that they sound cultured and intellectual. These are the foundations of good composition.
Even with this knowledge, and regardless of whether or not you have natural talent, the only way to get better at something is to practice it. I don’t know who said, “Practice beats talent when talent doesn’t practice,” but I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been artistic in some way, shape, or form for my whole life but I’m relatively new to photography. I do have some natural artistic talent but I can honestly say that I have become a much better photographer since creating my Instagram account almost three years ago. It isn’t because I have a nicer camera, and it certainly isn’t the ability to add quirky filters to my images. It is because I have a tool with me at all times that enables me to practice composition on a daily basis, and I use it.
The iPhone and Instagram are to this photographer what a sketchbook and pencil are to a painter. A good painter keeps a pad of drawing paper handy to brainstorm and rough out ideas as his or her muse inspires. Some of those sketches are later developed into a work of fine art and some of them remain scribbles in a notebook, never to see the light of day. Most of my iPhone shots never become anything beyond quirky sketches on my Instagram feed, but a few of them do go on to become my art when I later revisit the scene with my DSLR camera. However, the ones that remain as sketches are not wasted; they are valuable experiences, they are the practice that hones my composition skills.
Taking risks and being willing to fail now and then is a necessary part of growing. I posted my pictures on facebook for years with rarely a single “like” or comment received, but I kept shooting. I still don’t have very many Instagram followers but I still keep shooting. Today I’d say that, on average, only one in every dozen pictures I take ends up actually being posted to my instagram feed. If I don’t think it’s special, or if the composition doesn’t work, I don’t share it (regardless of how much I like the subject matter). Of those, maybe one in fifty ends up being revisited with my DSLR camera, and even fewer will make the final cut in my portfolio.
When I look at those statistics I realize how little I would be shooting if I were only using my DSLR camera every other weekend versus my iPhone virtually every day. I would be much less experienced and I would not have seen as much personal growth happen in the last few years. Art is a neverending journey and the more you learn the more you realize how much you have yet to learn but you don’t progress at all unless you get out and practice your craft. I love my DSLR but my iPhone camera (A.K.A. my moblie sketchbook) just might be the most valuable piece of photographic equipment I own. It has helped make me a better photographer today than I was a month ago, a year ago, three years ago.
All images above were taken and edited using only an iPhone 5
You can follow Johnny’s Instagram feed at www.instagram.com/johnnyhifi