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8 Reasons Why Good Photography is Deceivingly Simple

Whether you’re a photographer or simply enjoy photography, really good photography is quite deceivingly simple. I’d say this is similar to producing a really good story, assuming we know what that looks like.

We all have access to notebooks and words, but simply having the toolset doesn’t ensure success. Skilled writers utilize an arsenal of literary devices on hand to craft a good story. As with anything well done, the artist often makes it look easy.

But it’s not always possible to appreciate this because to truly appreciate the scope of the artists’ work, you must first understand the art itself as the artist does and understand the obstacles or even the frame of mind the artist went through to create their work.

I’m currently reading the Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Leonardo Da Vinci was as rigorous a thinker and artist as anyone else in history so I’m doing my best to learn from the best. Not that easy! But he’s inspiring in that he always strived for truth and beauty and demanded utmost rigor in his art.

Here’s a quote I came across in his journals that I personally feel strongly about as a photographer:

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.” -Leonardo da Vinci

Why Photography Is Deceivingly Simple
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As a painter and an artist, Leonardo felt passionately about not just working with the tools and delving into painting. He dwelled on mastering the art of perspective, drawing, light and shadow. Never settle for mediocre! Always keep learning something new.

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It’s no wonder he created some of the best paintings in the world. Although it’s not possible to fully appreciate his work, we can see how this relates to creating great photography.

It too requires mastery of a number of different skill sets which aren’t always obvious.

So here are 8 reasons why photography isn’t exactly as simple as clicking that shutter button.


1. Creating Art Out of Chaos

ITALY. 1951. Abruzzi. Village of Aquila.
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This is one of my favorite photographs from Henri Cartier-Bresson. I think it demonstrates his meticulous and elegant approach to capturing everyday life, as if he composed a quick painting in this shot. His ability to translate geometry and form on film is amazing. Clearly, this shot required much forethought and attentiveness.

Unlike painting, the skilled photographer must create a visually compelling image out of chaos. A painter has a canvas and creates their own space which requires a totally different set of skills and thinking to succeed than photography.

A skilled photographer on the other hand will evaluate a scene at that moment in terms of lighting and composition and may not even have much time to do so.

Great street photographers for example often evaluate a scene first and stalk the location for hours waiting for the photograph they envision to finally happen. Or, they may see something immediately and need to react fast to capture it in a compelling way. Or an abstract photographer may learn to respond completely differently to the subject matter.

The point is that creating a visually compelling photograph requires one to know how to simplify a subject out of chaos, irregardless of their personal vision. And creating something with broad appeal is much easier said than done. I’ve learned that this is something only experience, time and persistent work can produce.


2. The Camera is Just a Tool

When I hear people say things like “photography is just being at the right place at the right time,” or ” the camera takes the picture,” I feel slightly frustrated because I know that truly good photography is not that simple.

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It’s pretty much a pet-peeve of mine anytime someone suggests a simplification of reality. It shows a lack of depth on their part so it’s easier to digest a simplified version of reality than to ponder about its depth.

But being at the right place at the right time (sunrise on top of a mountain for example) can get you a nice NatGeo pic, but that’s only part of the story. Sometimes that’s all you need. Other captures require more depth, technique, and a refinement of vision or studio work.

As with any art, the observers only see the product, the end result.

The fact is that if you were to take five individuals on the road with Ansel Adams or Steve McCurry, each photographer will shoot 5 totally different images.

However, the magic of Ansel Adams’ vision will be nearly impossible to replicate, even if everyone had the exact same camera and tools. The camera itself doesn’t take the picture; it’s simply a tool.


3. The Camera Sees Different Than the Eye

Just because you recognize a pretty scene doesn’t mean you can immediately capture it well on camera. The camera sees differently than the human eye so becoming a skilled photographer means you have to understand how your camera sees. This is easier said than done.


4. Cultivating an Eye for Detail

Often times, getting the correct exposure isn’t quite so simple. This may require a different meter reading or more time in Photoshop. A really good black and white photographer can see and comprehend tonalities in a photograph that can only be achieved after years of practice. Similarly, shooting in color requires an eye for detail that many people don’t see in a print.


5. Reading Lighting Takes Skill
Why Photography Is Deceivingly Simple
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An artist can devote their entire lives to the study of lighting, it’s that deep. Reading lighting is a skill that the best painters, sculptors, and photographers are versed with. And how light interacts on different surfaces and translates to your camera is an entirely different story.

Understanding the difference between light that enhances a scene and light that detracts from the scene isn’t easy to say the least.

“The photographer has to learn to see light, and understand how light brings out or destroys the lines, forms, tonalities, colors, dimensionality, and all other aspects of the scene.” The Essence of Photography – Bruce Barnbaum


6. Shooting a Wedding Is No Piece of Cake

It seems today almost every amateur photographer wants to shoot a wedding, but seriously, shooting a wedding is hard work!! It’s not something I find personally fulfilling, but I very much respect those that can do it well.

The number of folks today who claim to shoot professionally as wedding photographers has skyrocketed thanks to digital cameras, but I think this can dilute people’s respect for good photography.

Sadly, most people who hire the cheap $200 photographer will never appreciate why the “overpriced photographers” charge so much, if I may be so bold.


7. Learning to See is a Skill

Elliot Erwitt
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Bruce Barnbaum is the author of the book The Essence of Photography which contains tons of wisdom. His description of the issues that face a photographer is right on. But perhaps the most important skill to photography is learning how to see and this is honestly much more difficult than mastering anything technical.

“A photographer cannot be a casual observer. A photographer has to look for the relationships within a scene, whether that scene is a studio setup, a street scene, a landscape, an architectural setting, or any other scene you can conceive of. A photographer has to see the relationship among numerous objects in the scene in terms of form, line, tone, color, and he must see those relationships within the three-dimensional vista in front of his eyes.

A photographer has to notice that moving six inches to the right may create a better set of form relationships in the tree-dimensional field in front of his eyes; or see how a portrait subject may stand out against either a black or white background, or if he or she would perhaps look better against a more complex interior, exterior, or landscape background.”


8. The Darkroom is Tedious

That’s right. It wasn’t until I’ve started spending the last five months in a darkroom at a photography school did I truly understand how much artistry is required out of black and white film photographers.

Not only do you have to learn to see creatively in terms of black in white, your negative needs to be properly exposed, developed right and then finally you just may have something worthwhile to print. It takes me 30 minutes to develop my own film, followed by at least 1 hour at the enlarger trying to get my tones right. And that doesn’t even include shooting!!

My education in photography is a constant pursuit, but as with anything the devil is in the details. Photography is a medium of art that’s accessible to everyone today, but when it’s done well, it’s definitely deceivingly simple.

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