I strongly believe that one should seek lessons in all kinds of places, especially the unlikely ones. Here are 10 photography tips from Michelangelo’s David. Yeah, the statue ><


The story


(Please note that I have taken some artistic liberty to dramatize)

Agostino di Duccio was going to be the sculptor of David, a part of 12 Tanakh (Known as the Old Testament) statues to serve as buttresses for the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral in Florence. But he only begun to sculpt some basic lower parts when he abandoned the project for reasons unknown. The large huge block of marble was abandoned for 25 years until Michelangelo was selected for the job. He heard about an abandoned slab that a couple of sculptors rejected because there was a hole made and there was numerous veins that were running in the marble, making it almost impossible to sculpt because of the risks of fracture.


“Now you see it is crap” said the quarry owner, but Michelangelo was lost in looking at the large piece of rock. After a couple of minutes, he turned his head to a puzzled quarry owner, “Don’t you see it?” he asked, “NO! What do you see?” replied the other man slightly irritated, “I see an angel trapped inside and must set it free” said Michelangelo softly, ready to fill out the paperwork. A chisel in hand, Michelangelo started to carve out David, with the blazing speed of a slug. If he tapped harder or faster the slab would be ruined. He started making the basic broad shapes of a humanoid until he got to the nitty-gritty details and made the masterpiece that it is today. I took more than two years to complete David, and the work was never seen because Michelangelo was working it utmost secrecy, hiding is masterpiece in the making.


There was something being transported, the habitants of Forence knew it was something tall and big, but what was it? Everybody ran and followed that odd-looking package wrapped in a white canvas that was making its way through the town. On the appointed location, the tall surprise was only waiting to be revealed. The canvas was pulled out, gasps were heard, and everybody acknowledged the grandeur and majesty of Michelangelo’s David……….


So how does this story help us in our photography? Well I’m glad you asked:



It's not easy, buddy


When folks see the statue of David for the first time, there's usually the sense of awe. But NO one realizes that greatness takes time. I mean, the guy took 2 years for this one piece! In the society we live in it's all about the instant, instant food instant knowledge, instant everything! That's why one of the most formidable quotes ever is from Michaelangelo himself:


If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all


When people see photographs, they do not see the work that went behind it. When you see great work in the Magazine for example, resist the temptation to simply hang your camera up. That person wasn't just born a photographer, they worked their butts off before reaching a level were everything is easy. This is not the happy kind of photography tip, but it's the one that most overlook: You can be the photographer you want to be, if you just do the work. Many know one of the most famous american photographers of all time, Eugene Smith, but not many know of his obsessiveness.




Hang in there

Half sculpted David is not as impressive as fully formed David. Can you imagine David just being a polygonal humanoid statue? That’s what it looked like at some point. It's easy to get down on your work or project when it's half done or half complete. It's easy to get down on yourself when you are in the middle of learning a craft. I think one of the hardest phases in photography is the middle phase, it's not where you just made nice images, it's when you are looking at the images half done, half processed, half selected……


It always falls short of your expectations and you just want to scrap them…Or you just want to abandon photography because you feel it leads nowhere. I find it useful to think of the Statue of David. It probably looked like crap until the last phase where the details are being put down. Don't judge yourself, your project or images half done or half complete because they will probably suck. Hang in there like Michaelangelo did for David.




Broad edits to local edits


Michelangelo as a sculptor worked on the broad shapes first, and then worked on the details. David started as a crude and rough shape, and then started taking form as time went on. When you edit your photographs edit the overall photograph first, like general levels, contrasts, etc. and then make some masks or dodge and burn local areas.


This is also useful when editing your work, it helps to see your work in a bird's eye view and then go into the details.



Never delete anything

If you can, NEVER delete any of your photographs. Even the blurry ones, even the whatever ones (exceptions could be missfired flash, lens cap pictures, etc.). Imagine what would have happened if they threw out the slab of marble! The reason why you should not delete anything is because you never know what tomorrow holds. There might be crazy technology to refocus, deblur or other things.


But more than that, you do not know what kind of a photographer you will be later. You might start as a landscape photographer with a couple of street shots that you wanted to erase, only to realize later down the road as a street photographer how good they were. The ones you don't like could always go to stock agencies (a random picture might be artistically worthless but take another life as stock) or be used for collages and as textures.




Look again


But ultimately THE reason not to delete, it's that there might be something you missed. Many sculptors looked over the marble, it stood there for 25 years, but Michelangelo saw something special. I cannot tell you how many gems I find here and there revisiting my 3-4 year old stuff! Back then what I believe was complete crap is actually pretty strong photographs. We learn a lot between shutter presses, and since we grow, when we look back at our old work we see things that we could not have seen back then.


We get better at post processing too, so now you discover that your 3 year old RAW was not completely ruined by overexposure because of the recovery slider. Look again at your catalog, what you thought was ruined might not be. All straight out of camera files are works in progress, when you make images you might not see the potential right away (like the other sculptors) but you might see it later (like Michelangelo).


Here is my perfect example of a Michelangelo marble:


canvas print


This “Ruined photograph” of mine was sitting there for something like 3 years until I rediscovered it with new skills and new eyes. It was underexposed and needed intensive work. Do share yours if you have any!



After the final image




Congrats. You've printed the image, you're done right? Nopes. As artists, we believe that the work is done once the artwork is done, because we believe that it stands on it's own. But presentation is everything. When “David” was done, 9 locations were considered for it, fact is, it looked better in certain locations. Just like inside the photograph everything either detracts or reinforces your main subject, everything around the physical frame either attracts or detracts from your image.


I saw an ad once (can't find it!) where you saw the same painting in two situations: An old attic and a gallery. They read differently because of the location. When your photograph is complete, it's not about the photograph anymore, it's about everything else…..Where and how do you present your photography?


I'll leave you with a little story that my design teacher told me. He was designing a brochure for painters, and they didn't understand WHY they needed a graphic designer, he told them “I'm the guy you pay to make your stuff look good”. They weren't happy, but it's true. Presentation is everything once the image is complete….even the great statue of David needed it!






Imagine with me 5 renaissance sculptors assembled around the slab of marble. There's also a dog looking at the slab. The dog sees a slab of marble, nothing more, nothing less. But each and every single one of the sculptors saw something different, Michaelangelo saw the David that we have now. But that statue only existed in the master's mind, he saw the potential of the slab, where others were disinterested.


Photography is about putting what's in your mind outside of your mind through photographs. It's about looking at a scene to free the Angels that are trapped inside. Michaelangelo saw David before he even put his chisel to the marble! Likewise photographers should strive to SEE the photograph before they even put the camera to their eye.




Baby steps

If Michaelangelo hit the chisel too hard, the whole sculpture could have fallen apart. This goes for us photographers, we must work hard on our craft, but not to the breaking point. We must take baby steps and learn at our own pace, not everyone learns in the same way! But there's also something to learn for post processing. When you post process you must take baby steps and not go overboard, or you might break the photograph, especially with posterization. I personally like to “destroy” my photographs, but most prefer the conservative side.



Are you saying something?

The Statue of David is much more than a statue, it's been recognized as a statue symbolizing strength, a bit like the statue of Liberty symbolizing….liberty! (duh…). If photography is a visual language, what are you saying with your photography? What's your point? Are your criticizing something? Pointing out some aspect that's overlooked? Are you trying to be funny?


In the photograph below:



I wanted to show the resilience, pride and head-high attitude of the haitian people. I did that through the processing and her expression even though she is carrying many things. Haitians carry lots of baggage but they keep their heads high. What are you using the visual language for?



Dedication & diligence

Hey….want a secret? 81% of americans believe they have a book in them. And I believe them. Why don't we see more books? Because of the lack of dedication. People think they can write a book, but never put the first paragraph in place. The people who are published are not necessarily the best authors, only those dedicated enough to complete their manuscripts. David, this splendid statue was the result of 2 years of dedication from the part of the sculptor…..2 years of slow, consistent and steady chiseling….




I doesn't matter if you think you can be a great photographer, it's all about putting money where your mouth is. The famous photographers out there are not necessarily the best photographers, only those who were dedicated enough to make images and market them. What stands between you and the photographer is dedication and diligence, the same stuff that stood between Michaelangelo and his statue of David.



Arguably, David is one of Michaelangelo's best work. But it didn't come in existence in a minute, it took years of patience and dedication, I hope these 10 tips learned from that helped you as it helped me. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.


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