Study The Masters

Nikon D810 with Nikon 70-200mm f2.8G; ISO 100, f2.8, 1/200s @ 135mm, this is inspired by my favourite photographer Paolo Roversi’s photograph of Natalia Vodianova. My lighting is different and my model looks a little less sombre but the similarity is there – not a direct copy, I used my knowledge of Roversi’s work to influence my own work but it ultimately has my own flavour.

Learning photography is often a lot like learning a new language, especially when you consider visual language, its elements and how they relate to photography. In order to become proficient at the new language you need to be able to read it, write it and speak it. One of the ways this relates to photography is learning to “read” other photographer’s photographs.

The photographs of those who have gone before you are most likely available for you to view in some way, shape or form – perhaps in a book that you can buy off of Amazon, an image on Google Images, an image on the photographer’s website or as a pin on Pinterest. Their work is the product of decades of experience in wrestling with their creative voice and trying to express what it is they wish to say through their photography in their own vision and style. Now study their work.

As you view each photograph ask yourself:

  1. Do I like this photograph or not?
  2. Is it a good photograph or not?

Remember it is quite possible that you can dislike a really great photograph and conversely like a really bad photograph. That’s ok and there is nothing wrong with that. What you like or dislike is subjective. The important thing to remember is that a good photograph makes you feel something whether that is distaste or adoration.

  1. What about the photograph do I like or dislike and why?
  2. What about the photograph makes it good or bad and why? (Is it technically flawless? Does it convey a deeper message or meaning?)
  3. What about the photographer’s choice of perspective and lens adds to or detracts from the photograph?
  4. What about the photographer’s use of light?
  5. How has the photographer used craft (gear, settings and technique) to express his artistic vision?
  6. What about the photographer’s composition and how does it add or detract from the photograph?
  7. What visual language has the photographer used? Some examples: line, shape, form, texture, pattern, balance, contrast. How does this add or detract to the photograph and convey the photographer’s vision?
  8. What can I learn from this photograph and possibly apply to my own photography?

What do their images tell you about the photographer? What mattered to them and what did they find beautiful? What do they think and believe about the subject they photographed? What are they trying to express through their photographs?

Time for an exercise. Study this photograph and while you do, answer all the questions above. This will give you a feel for how to study a photograph. Click on this link:

Avoid imitating a photographer’s work. Sure you can learn a lot from copying their work and you’ll most likely do that initially but at some point you will outgrow the imitation much like training wheels on a bicycle. You will reach a point where it is time to go out on your own and create your own work that expresses your own vision. Use what you know about other photographer’s work to build and improve your own work.

Some masters for you to start with:

  • Henri Cartier-Bresson
  • Ansel Adams
  • Richard Avedon
  • Annie Leibovitz
  • Steve McCurry
  • Elliot Erwitt
  • David LaChapelle
  • Yousuf Karsh
  • Irving Penn
  • Margaret Bourke-White
  • Peter Lindbergh
  • Gary Winogrand
  • Don McCullin

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