[I]’ve been a photographer for over twenty years. I started when I was around twelve and I have never looked back. The 90's saw me wandering around with a Pentax MX when most people, my age at least, were shooting 110. I was fortunate, as my aunt is a professional photographer and I had access to a lot of “serious” equipment early on. Today, oddly, most people are wandering around with a DSLR and, as a street photographer, I wouldn’t be caught dead with one! Most often it’s the legendary Ricoh GR in my bag. So what happened? How did I, a serious photographer, end up with a compact camera while all those 110 types now have a Mark III?
A lot of things have happened in photography in the past decade, by my casual observation. The focus has shifted away from the “art” of taking photographs and has recentered on gear and gear acquisition. Everyone “needs” a DSLR now. Consequently, everyone who now has one is, by default it seems, a professional photographer. Of course nothing could be farther from the truth. No, what we have really ended up with is a lot of electronic buffs and pixel peepers -two things that don’t really appeal to most genuine photographers.
As a result of this new trend of grabbing a fancy camera and shooting away, we have nearly two million photographs a day being uploaded to Flickr alone. Never mind the countless others on Facebook, 500px, Twitter and so on. So where does it all end? What is the outcome of this new “photographic” fad? Well, I’m afraid… nothing, worst-case scenario, and very little, best-case scenario. Most images on Flickr merely become lost in the trillions and trillions of other photographs.
The “photographer” who uploads them gets to go on believing they’re a photographer and creating something worthwhile and the rest of us pretty much ignore them because we too are concerned with our own uploads and our ground-breaking, iconic photographs. I’m being facetious, but only slightly. We do need to ground ourselves a bit and at least realize that buying an M9, or a Canon 5D Mark III, will not make us a photographer, much less a good one. It does, as the saying goes, make us a camera owner. And so, that’s what we have a wave of in our society – camera owners – not photographers. There is an important distinction to be noted here.
So, you ask, how do I become a photographer? The answer has not changed. Hard work is how you become a photographer. Learning your craft, understanding exposure, depth of field, focal length and, perhaps most importantly, composition and subject matter. You become a photographer by taking good photographs. Good photographs will be a matter of practice and of trial and error and experimentation but never a matter of expensive cameras. Some of the greatest masters worked with cameras, which in today’s terms would equal a $99 vivitar. So then, lesson one is work harder and get away from the gear craze.
Playing with cameras and dreaming about your next new one is wasting both time and money. If you have not had any success yet in selling or publishing your work don't bother lusting over the new Sony RX1, it's not going to correct that problem. You might as well smoke your money directly. Learn the camera you ALREADY have inside and out, be able to operate it with your eyes closed – literally!
Next, but certainly not last, is to realize that you are part of something greater thanyourself. You’re not in this alone. Stop taking photographs and shoving them into other people’s faces in search of a compliment. Compliments are cheap, in fact, they are free. Getting five or ten comments on a Flickr photo does nothing but feed the dangerous part of your ego as an artist. Now, I’M NOT saying that you should not upload your photos to Flickr or 500px etc., but I am suggesting that you do less of it. Upload your best shots only.
Train your eyes and hone your editing skills. Show the world work that makes you truly proud. Personally, I try to follow a rule that I call “one or none.” Simply put, this rule means that no matter how many great photos I capture on an outing, I narrow it down to one – the best shot of the day. That’s the one I upload and share. If there is no ‘one’ outstanding shot, then I don’t upload anything, hence, the rule of one or none. Follow this and I guarantee your Flickr feed will be looking pro in no time. A photostream featuring only “number one” shots will rise to the top of the pile fast. Believe me, your work will stand out much faster and easier by following this one simple tip.
Next, shoot film. Film is not dead. Despite what you may feel about the ‘hassle' of film, it is fundamental to the history of photography. Master film and you will be a better digital shooter. And, perhaps most crucially, simply enjoy the feel, the smell, the shear thrill of handling a roll of Tri-x before it's gone forever. Missing out on this is like being a writer who has never banged out a draft on a manual typewriter. It is, quite simply, a rite of passage.
Now, before you run out and buy an M6 remember cameras are just tools and you may not exactly fall in love with film. Try a Nikon FG they're cheap and easy to find. If you really want to experiment try the Rollei 35 – a fantastic cult classic with some of the best glass in the world mounted. Or, there's the Holga too! Just be sure to know that if you're a photographer in 2012 and you don't have a drawer of negatives you're missing out on something very special – something magical.
Finally, the other thing I think too many aspiring photographers neglect is other people’s work. Like the writer who doesn’t read, you will ultimately fail as a serious photographer if you do not study, critique, admire and, most importantly, support other photographers and their work. Go out and buy some photography books! Amazon has a huge selection of them at 50% off during the month of September. Now is the time. Just do it. Go to Blurb and buy a couple from lesser-known photographers too.
See a photograph on Flickr or 500px that you really like and admire? Contact the artist and inquire about buying a print. Support each other and pay it forward. This type of genuine interest in other photographers and their work, along with a strong sense of collegiality, as well as learning your craft, is what will ultimately allow you to become a photographer and not just a camera owner.
About Michael Ernest Sweet
[M]ichael Ernest Sweet is an award-winning educator, writer and street photographer. His signature style focuses on the human fragment and features images with crude framing, high contrast, grit and grain. Michael's photographs often focus on little bits and pieces of people with missing heads, obscured faces or cropped off arms and legs. Portfolio // Flickr // Interview