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Give yourself a gift of excellent photography

Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs)

Keywords: mastery, art, bgs

In this second part of "mastering the art of photography", I will continue exploring what mastering this art form entails. The objective of the series is to discover any of the processes and methods supporting the photographer who's interested in achieving consistently better results.
Several readers have been giving their feedback in our Café on the first part and I invite you to do so as well, after you have read these first two parts. Learning together is so much more enjoyable and it plays a big part of what our community is all about.

The road

Considering mastery a road rather than a single, achievable goal is probably helpful and by doing so we are getting less worked up by the idea of this big "mastery thing" to start with and we can enjoy our steps along the way, no matter how small we may think of them. It is the way I personally look at it and I can feel thrilled about learning something new that I can apply and see that it is indeed working, improving my results.
It is also clear that trying to capture all what photography means, all disciplines into one big catch-all objective is likely not the best way to go about learning to excel in photography, but maybe to rather pick a specific genre, one that you feel most passionate about.
I don't think the easiest pick is necessarily the right one, but rather it should be the genre you are most passionate about. You shouldn't start photographing apple trees just because landscapes don't run away while you are exhilarated about photographing people. In that case, you should understand what tickles you about people and then follow up on that, if it feels true.
Wanting to achieve excellence, mastery, in one specific area of photography can be part of my vision, my idea of what I want to achieve. It can be a vision I share with others, or I keep it my personal secret. If I though have a vision of what I want to achieve, the likely hood that I will achieve it is higher.

Passion & joy

I am very passionate about early morning landscape photography. Does that genre even exist? I love the early morning, waiting for the nature to wake up, at least the part that I can easily notice thanks to visible light, where I can stand, or sit, to wait for the first light to enter the lens through my tripod-mounted camera. 
I feel connected with this kind of photography as it resonates within myself. I often find that waterways, lakes or the sea is something that adds to the feeling, increases my joy even further. I love the moody, underexposed photograph that reminds me about the rivers and lakes in the deep, calm forests of Scandinavia.

Manitoba Morning, 2004

Manitoba, Canada, a morning in 2004.
While waiting for the sunrise, a beaver crosses the water on the lake somewhere in front of me.
Mornings like these are the motivation for me to continue my journey.
Did I know that I was passionate about this kind of photography before I started my journey? No, I did not. Back in 1998 I knew I wanted to connect with nature more and that the camera I had just acquired could help me in doing so. It replaced a simpler SLR that had been used to document my daughter's first ten years and later my son's; a very common reason for purchasing a camera, heavily exploited by camera vendors targeting young fathers up until the smartphone came on the block, that is.
Quite soon I came to understand that my "trick to get myself out in the nature more" worked. This urge has strengthened over the years and I am able to collect joyful moments that I build upon, that are meaningful to me. It is no longer a trick, but a purpose in itself.
So the first recommendation for the road is to pick one discipline of photography, not two, three or five, but one. You can always change the genre later, should you find that the one you've picked does not resonate well with your own, true passion. As life changes, your passion might change as well. 
"Mastering the art of photography" does not mean that you master all genres of photography ever invented by man, rather that you excel in one or the other.
Your personal flame of passion might burn bright when you see beautiful birds, big game wildlife, flowers in all magical colors, macro photographs of insects, bumblebees in flight, event photographs with lots of joy and action, smiley or sexy people in glamour style, fast cars racing down the track, perfectly lit and romantic home interiors, motor-cross bikes kicking mud, basketball players hugging and crying, environmental portraits of workers using natural light, or any other kind of photograph you can imagine.
Even if you burn for post-processing, digitally altering any image you have captured, I would assume you have also picked a genre and have a strong interest in one or the other photography area at the first place and that post-processing came in as a requirement afterwards. If not, then maybe your passion is indeed about imaging per se, maybe some specifics in it and not about photography. That is also ok! "Mastering the art of digital imagery" is not my main focus of this series though.
Once you have figured out which genre resonates with your inner, you probably want to learn all there is about it. If not and if learning feels unimportant to you, then you have either a) picked the wrong topic, b) photography is not for you or c) congratulations, you are a master; you have reached the final destination and you may exit the train right now.
To the rest of us, being interested in photography and not (yet) masters, we continue our ride.
If you feel lukewarm about the genre that is "yours", ask yourself the following question: What would change my feeling about it in such a way that I would truly enjoy it?
Maybe the topic is fine, but you are having mixed feelings about the results you achieve? Or is it really the discipline itself that is wrong for you? Do you feel the need to travel long distance to get exceptional results, but money is keeping you down? Ask yourself tough questions to understand your own, true motivation. Most of the time we will find ourselves giving answers not related to photography, but to all kinds of things happening in our lives or being reflections of our needs and desires. Improving or changing these non-photography items might improve your photography as well.
But, often it comes down to learning. We feel good about our choice of photography discipline, but the results are not at the level we want them to be. This notion might even be amplified by constantly comparing our own results with those of others. I am touching on this later in the article, but if you are comparing your own results with others a lot, I bet my old Nikonians cap you are not spending enough time on your own work.
If, for example, your discipline is people photography, you might want to know all there is about perspectives, focal lengths and people's "bubbles". You might want to experience how it is to enter the bubble of a person with a wide angle lens, being very intimate with the subject versus shooting on a "safe" distance with a 200mm telephoto lens, or how it feels to shoot from above, from below, from the side or to rotate the subject while you are standing still, or while you are both moving. You likely experiment with poses, where subjects are either directed or free-wheeling, what kind of light is working better, if it's indoors or outdoors and to what degree you feel the need to control vs. adapting to the given circumstances. You then figure out what resonates more with you, which then opens a path to explore further on your road.
You might figure out that you can apply the same knowledge of perspectives and bubbles to less animate subjects like trees and landscapes. Maybe you see parallels between different genres of photography and you might learn by applying the same skills in two different ones.
No matter which area you are picking, you will need to get the basics covered, that is you need to know the tools well (enough) and to acquire the basic skills. You don't need to be a master of all aspects of the tools you use to achieve excellent results; you don't need to know the specific menu item code of a given camera model to consistently produce above average results, but you need a profound base to build upon and the tools are definitely a part of this. Depending on your requirements of your genre, this base might include artificial lighting or camera-panning technique combined with people skills.
Critical to understand is that tools are tools; Tools are not making masters, masters are using efficient tools effectively.


Closely related to being passionate and finding joy in your photography is motivation. It is very hard to stay motivated if you cannot enjoy your photography for extended periods of time. As mentioned, I feel joy in the presence of nature experiencing it. Not necessarily only through the lens, rather being aware of it and then capture some part of it. It is the aware moment that fills me with joy that is the drive for me to continue. Helpful in this is when I sometimes can share the awareness with others, but I also enjoy it solo.
If you see that your results become better over time, you will find yourself motivated as well. Receiving positive feedback is of course important and few of us, especially when we are beginners, can take harsh critique well. Often missing are good teachers, or guides with the right human touch. More than one potential master has probably been axed early on by a rude fellow human resulting in not pursuing the passion in the end.
There has been a lot of discussion over the years in the community on how to stay motivated with tips and tricks shared. It is a key ingredient in becoming better, because losing motivation will often lead to giving up. Not because you have reached a level of excellence, but because you could not muster enough will to stay on the course.
Some of us motivate ourselves by changing equipment in the chase of the better lens or camera body, in a way outsourcing the motivation and our responsibility to the vendor. Others might find motivation in altering their images at a high frequency, to see which kind of image they like better.
We are going to come back to this theme of motivation and staying true to the course throughout the series. But, please let me and the other readers know what keep you personally motivated by posting your thoughts on this in the Café.

Do it for yourself

This is a kind of an ego trip, in a positive way. What you do on your trip is for you, not for anyone else.
I believe that to become truly excellent, we must first relieve ourselves of the addiction of getting constant, positive feedback, constant gratification in every thing we do. Results only count as far as I can use them to measure my own process against, not because I want to show them to others. The loop of capturing, producing, evaluating, improving, capturing... is key.
But, I said above that feedback is important, so how can it now be a solo trip? It really comes down to where on the journey you are. Time and time again it is found out, in the military, in sports, in academia, and in many professions that positive feedback helps. 
Maybe the quest for feedback follows a waveform, just like so much does in nature. Starting out with you needing more positive, external feedback, and as you move on you require less, work with yourself to then again at a later stage reach out and expect more external input, but in another way.
After I have grasped some of the basics in the discipline of my choice, I think it should matter less if I get feedback or not. It should not matter much if my network on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram loves or likes what I am doing. The first thing to understand is that I am doing this for me. I am. I create. I experience. I improve.
At a certain point I need to turn inwards to become better. It is a mindset, both understanding that I am on journey, maybe at an early part of it, and that what I am doing is for me; not for my dearest ones, not for an audience and not for the wows.
Doing it for myself makes me more robust and less prone to give up.
It is the same for a fine food chef wanting to become excellent. If he or she would collapse each time they hear that a guest/eater doesn't like this or that, they would become a very sad person. Instead, doing it for the joy of indeed mastering a part of the process, to ensure consistency in certain specifics and then enjoying the result themselves in their own closed-loop, is a key to stay on track. This ensures that a sudden headwind might only need that you, the skipper, tack a bit or start the engine and just keep steady.
At one point of the road, you might find that giving others of your knowledge is all about you yourself, but that giving is indeed providing you with joy; giving as an “ego trip”. The community would not be what it is without so many members giving so much to others. The motivations involved for giving are likely various, but can be seen as us on our path of mastery. Are you capable of sharing what you know in such a way that it is easy and interesting for others to understand what you are giving?

Photography as a profession, as a passion or both

If I plan to turn my passion of photography into a profession, I am probably up for a lot of surprises. There are some 454 million people right now on Facebook that claim to have "photography" as an interest. One can assume that a few percent, or some tens of millions of these are working on becoming professionals in this very moment in a market where images are commodity with a price tag of zero, or close to it.
If we let our passion become a profession we often lose our love in the process. We might not be willing to work as hard as required, to be as organized as we need to be and to talk up clients at any moment, or to live for months at a time at no or low pay.
There are members in the Nikonians Community that have turned their passion of photography into a profession and where they are truly enjoying their life, at least most of the time I would assume. It is possible, but it is not for everyone. Some 10 percent of the members in our community are professionals, meaning that their main income stream comes from photography and related activities, often teaching photography, maybe combined with writing their own books and for magazines.
Becoming a master has nothing to do with turning it into a profession, or vice versa. Rather, being excellent in something is a luxury. It is a luxury gift we can give ourself if we spend enough time, focus and determination on it.
Many professionals are masters in certain areas. If you want to become a good teacher of photography, maybe you don't even need to be a master in the art of photography, but rather in the important meta stuff, like being a person-person who's excellent in dealing with other people, listening and giving profound, personalized advice.
If your motivation to master the art of photography is to become a professional, you can achieve it. You can do it, but it is a tougher road, with less fueling stations than one where you are able to find other motivations to drive you.

Who says you are a master?

Probably not yourself to start with. Think of this as an exercise in humbleness. It is not important if you are able to title yourself a master or not. It is of potential interest to grab a title of e.g. "Master of this or that" if you are going to market yourself, if it is a profession where you are selling your produce. In this case it makes more sense that you have studied creative arts and that you have done a few years earning a BA or a Master in a relevant field, and maybe to have a few other, decorative titles from one or the other institute. A title is not a pre requisite to give yourself the chance of truly becoming excellent in an area or two of photography.
Humbleness is a part of this ego road trip. Sounds contradictory? Let me try to be a bit clearer; you can for sure become a master in the arts of photography with a complete absence of humbleness, while being a very unlikable or even a horrible person. I am though personally more interested in the combination of not being a horrible person, at least not appearing to be, while trying to achieve a certain excellence in an area of photography that interests me. Knowing that I don't know is a good start to identify what I need to learn to proceed. If I am ignorant about the complexity of the task, not being humble about my lack of knowledge of the items I need to learn to succeed, I surely have set myself up on a most problematic tour.
Next week we are digging in further what it means to get on the road:
Is mastering the art of photography related to art? Is that important to begin with? Who decides what art is? Are certain roads towards mastering a discipline shorter than others? Plus for sure more.
In the meantime, I hope you join the others and me in the Café and share your thoughts.

Part 3 - Is it really "art"?

if you don't want to give feedback or your thoughts on this topic in the Cafe, you might want to move on to part 3 of this series.
(9 Votes )

Originally written on October 18, 2017

Last updated on December 30, 2020


Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on November 1, 2017

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

Nathan, thanks for your kudos and thoughts. Many of our experiences are similar to yours, I think. Keeping ourselves inspired is one of the keys to progress. Do feel free to post your thoughts in the Café thread as well, so we keep our "common thoughts" in one place.

NATHAN FRISBY (natpat) on November 1, 2017

Humble thoughts could be much like the realization that I need to improve on my composer skills?? Great article, I enjoy the time and relaxation of photography more as I grow closer to retiring and the fact that my many years of spending countless hours pursuing game as a hunter. I have given much thought to what genre that I could consider myself being good at and reached "Nature" as my great theme of pursuit. Flowers, wildlife, and landscapes will all fall into my passion and I would find it very hard to select just one. Motivation seems to be there most all the time, finding time while continuing to work full time puts limits upon my chances to do just that. My need to improve is there and I know this, the desire to sit and process photos on the computer for countless hours is limited by the fact that I already spend 40 hours or more a week in front of split scenes. The recent trip that my wife and I took driving through, WV, VA, NC and TN gave me new refreshed motivation and I think this traveling might just lead to more practice and additional subjects. Keep the progression of this article going because inspiration is needed.

Joseph Tomasello (jtsnake624) on October 26, 2017


Bo Stahlbrandt (bgs) on October 21, 2017

One of the two c-founders, expert in several areas Awarded for his valuable Nikon product reviews at the Resources

Thanks for the kudos, Tom, much appreciated. Please do comment in the Café thread as well :-)

Tom Jacob (sevendayimages) on October 20, 2017

Awarded for his continuous knowledge and images sharing with community members Awarded for his win at the Best of Nikonians 2016 Photo Contest Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas. Awarded for winning in The Best of Nikonians 2019 Photo Contest 
Winner of the Best of Nikonians Photo Contest 2020
This member has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art and science of photo Winner in the Best of Nikonians Photo Contest 2021

Excellent article Bo, and well written. Enjoyed reading it, and I must say I do agree on the points you bring up. For me the #1 factor would be is something that brings out the best in us and we can use it to get better, even when we don't realise it at first. Looking forward to the next chapter :) Cheers, Tom