How to Become Great at Photography

Written by Elsa Madrigal

I recently listened to a podcast about How to Become Great at Anything produced by Freakonimics radio. The basic premise of the show is how natural talent is seldom enough to become truly great at a skill. In humankind, rapid improvements at a skill are often accomplished by leaps and bounds over generations. Marathon records are broken, young  musicians  (including children) play better and complex pieces at a much younger age than before.  Photography is no different. Advances in technology, creativity, experimentation, all and any improvements have produced what now appears to be an overwhelming amount of photographs. Yet, many photographers struggle to ‘feel’ their work is adequate, and many struggle to articulate through photographs what they truly want to say. They struggle to feel connected to their work and to feel great about it. While I am not trying to claim greatness, I can claim that I have gained a bit of confidence, enough to feel good about my darkroom prints. I compiled some factors, which combined, can make you great.

1. Leverage Technology

Technology is definitely a factor. For instance, racing shoes and athletic clothing are much more optimized now and contribute to faster race times.  Photography has benefited immensely from technological advances over the last century. Unfortunately these can be rendered useless when a brand new camera overwhelms the amateur photographer with 50 buttons and 5,000 menu options. A weak foundation of the skill used with a fancy camera won’t necessarily translate to great photography.  In fact, the best teaching tools are those which strip away the bells and whistles and only delivers the essentials. Many teachers recommend a manual film camera to learn about photography. In professional settings, the advanced features of a camera will be a great aid to enhance creativity, but without knowledge of the essentials, they will be a hindrance. 

2. Talent is not Enough

Talent is also a factor, but not the only factor. A person born in Kenya is unlikely to become a record-breaking marathoner by talent alone, no matter their genetic predispositions. There are hundreds, if not thousands of talented athletes and yet only a few prop to the top. Photography these days seems commoditized. Paid gigs are often a race to the lowest price, and many photographers struggle to stand out above the rest.

3. Build up your Knowledge

I read a lot about photography, and I am well versed enough in technical aspects, but it has come with an investment. And it’s currency is time. I have been reading for several years and just last year I had to Google “what is a prime lens”. In photography, as in anything, you must always be open to learning and put time into it.

4. Find your Teacher/Guru

The main contribution to stepping one’s game at anything, according to the podcast, is working with a teacher. This is the main ‘success’ factor, according to Freakonomics. This person is preferably a master and guru in his or her own right, and would be someone who has been in the trenches and knows the nuances, tips and tricks of the field. Someone who, quite possibly knows what failure looks like and has persisted to eventually find the path to  success.
I have taken photography classes for several years now with Ignacio Alvarez. He has become, besides a mentor and guru, a good friend and like a second father. He is not afraid of showing us new techniques (or reviving old ones). Using his vast experience with analog and darkroom photography we have done many techniques seldom practiced anymore. He goes above and beyond the extra mile for his students.  If there’s something that is not in the curriculum that you are interested in learning, he will gladly teach you, often outside the classroom in his own time.

5. Find your Inspiration

Likewise, gurus often inspire us with examples of those great masters who have come before us. The internet enables us to find interesting and awe inspiring photographers. Their life is often as interesting as their work (Jerry Uelsman, Sally Man, Graciela Iturbide, Pedro Meyer, and the list goes on).
Our Lady of the Iguanas – Graciela Iturbide

6. Develop your Aesthetic

Creativity is unlimited  and gives plenty of room for one to find your own “aesthetic” and initiate projects based on what piques your interest. I have many themes on my portfolio, in which I apply with intention my knowledge to express my creativity. I find darkroom meditative and although I have plenty of options to work with digital photography, the process does not enhance my creativity.

7. Locate your Tribe

Ignacio had his own studio and is currently a teacher at Truman College. He teaches in one of Chicago’s last standing darkrooms in a community college. He also teaches special workshops and digital photography classes. His meetup group is also a lot of fun, often we go all over Chicago to explore.
My darkroom classmates are now more like trusted colleagues, providing tips, inspiration and encouragement. We often surprise each other, never knowing what kind of image will show up next from their travels or photo shoots. We have participated in shows together, and are willing to lend each other a helping hand when we are stuck. We move each other forward.

8. Make Mistakes and Fail Fast

This is contrary advice to what people may tell you. The good news is, the faster you fail, the quicker you will get to learn good habits of photography.  You will make every mistake in the book, not once, but several times. By the time you are done, there will be many photography essentials that will become second nature. Changing settings in your camera in an instant will become like walking or breathing. In film photography there are often what’s called ‘happy accidents’, but knowing which settings cause you to blur an image, or help you get a double exposure will make you happier, I promise.

9. Share and Feel Good

In the darkroom we go through the entire process from shooting to developing and printing. How you feel about the work is as important as the process of creating it. We all need that positive reinforcement. At their request, I have gifted prints to family and friends. Knowing they feel good about having a handmade print makes me happy, because ultimately what makes them happy also makes me happy. Sharing photographs is awesome, regardless of your choice of social media or website. However, many fall into the trap of collecting ‘likes’, instead of contemplating the work. Ultimately, what makes you happy is what you should care the most about.
There you have it. My version of ‘How to be great at Photography’ (or really, anything), according to me and Freakonomics.

10. Last Step

Now grab your camera and go shoot.