I’ve never checked, but I’m sure by now someone has put out one of those “…for Dummies” books about photography.
They’re bound to be better than those horrible manuals that come with most cameras—the kind where a term on p. 20 refers you to p. 50 which again refers you back to p. 20; or that tells you what a particular setting means, but doesn’t tell you why you’d ever want to use it or even how to use it. Those should be called “Manuals BY Dummies.” For most photographers, the important lessons come in the field, by trial and error, by happy accident, by necessity or sudden inspiration. I’ve made a list of my favorites.
- No matter how much you love your dog, leave him home when you’re serious about taking photos. You’ll either spend all your time wondering where he is, watching him scare off that deer you were hoping to shoot, or muttering under your breath when he’s just come to investigate with his big feet whatever it is you’re peering at so intensely with your macro lens. And unless you’ve trained him to sit, stay and don’t move, photographing with a dog on a leash is an exercise in futility.
- Be counter-cultural when it comes to the weather. When you wake up and hope to take photos, and you look outside and see sun and blue skies, go back to bed. It might be good picnic weather, but the sun will make the photos too contrasty unless you have a lot of fancy filters, and it will ALWAYS be shining in the wrong direction when you’ve found the perfect subject. A nice cloudy day gives you lots more options. Even better than that are the stormy days, when the clouds are angry and create great backdrops; or—my personal favorite—foggy days, when ordinary scenes become mystical when shrouded in nature’s damp veils. Here’s a rule: if you want good, dramatic photography days, think “duck hunting weather.”
- Develop the 180-degree rule. When you’ve just composed a great shot, turn around and see what’s behind you. I’ve been surprised by that simple maneuver many times. I remember shooting a glorious red sunrise, then turning around and finding all the birch trees behind me awash with a pink glow. The resulting photo was almost better than the sunrise. Another time, after shooting an angry Lake Superior, with white caps and wave surges and a glowering sky, I looked behind me and saw a lone pine tree on a hill, standing straight and strong against black storm clouds creeping up behind it. Again, the resulting photo was more dramatic than the first one.
- Take one last look. After you’ve gleaned an area for all its good shots (a silly thing to say, since you’ll never get them all) and you’re heading back down the trail, or to your car, or back in the house, turn around and take one last look. It’s a bit like the 180 rule. But in this case, you’re not really looking. You think you’re done, your brain slips into another mode—and that’s when Nature throws one last opportunity at you. It happened to me one day down at the waterfront, shooting clouds over various horizons. When I’d decided I had enough clouds for the next 10 years, I put the camera in the case, got in the van, and looked back the way I’d come. And there it was: a young maple tree on the rise, hunched against the wind, its branches flung to one side, framing the breakwater and the lake beyond. In the thousands of times I’ve been to the waterfront, I’d never seen that particular shot. Needless to say, I grabbed the camera back out of its case and aimed one last time.
Now that I look at them, those “rules” are all about doing the unexpected. And the unexpected is what makes a photograph something that’s art, rather than just a snapshot that thousands of other people have taken.