Photographers, like all artists, are subject to hero worship. We all tend to idolize the masters we’ve learned from, whether these maters were mentors we apprenticed with or just pros who wrote great books or made amazing tutorial videos from which we learned valuable techniques. I’m no exception to this. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to watch a lot of great cinematographers at work and I’ve been truly in awe of what they can accomplish. I came later in the game to still photography and much of the knowledge I gained was from reading and watching videos. I’m truly grateful to the pros who’ve invested incredible amounts of time in the materials that have helped me develop the skills I have today.
This is not to say that I haven’t learned a lot just by going out and trying different ideas, coming back and reviewing my photos, processing them to make them as awesome as I can and internalizing the lessons from both success and failure. But almost every time I shoot, I find myself listening to the imaginary voices of my favorite pros as they advise me where to place my strobes, what kind of diffusion I should be thinking about, which lens to use, how to frame the shot, what stop to shoot on and how to position the model.
Hearing these voices doesn’t drive me nuts. It calms me, reassures me. This is not just because I’ve learned to tune out the voices of people I find annoying, but also because I’ve been successful at summoning the exact voice I need to hear in each situation.
When I’m framing a model against the setting sun, I hear Chelsea Northrup’s voice reminding me not to have the horizon cut her off at the neck or line up with her eyes. When I’m shooting a closeup with an 85mm lens I hear Karl Taylor remind me to stop down to ensure the depth of field is enough to keep both eyes in focus. When I’m asking an assistant to position a reflector, I hear Joe Edelman explain how so many people place it too low and end up with unnatural fill light, plus catch lights below the center line of the eye. I’m so, so blessed to live in an age where I have access to so much knowledge about photography from the perspective of so many people.
"Is your horizon straight? Is your strobe in the right place?
And what about your leading lines?"
But it’s not only when I’m standing there on location, camera in hand setting up the shot, that I hear the voices, and that’s a good thing. By far the most useful voices are the ones which criticize each image as I review it, mercilessly cataloguing all the weaknesses. The model’s smile looks unnatural, the tilt of the head is strange, the shadow under her nose is too long and you didn’t give her enough chin room. Also the horizon is too low and the subject is overexposed relative the the background. And speaking of the background, it’s too busy. And you’ve dressed your model in garish colors that don’t complement the scenery. Do you even know what you’re trying to say with this image?
These voices are relentlessly critical, but rather than silence them, I respond to them internally by answering their questions and addressing their concerns. More often than not, the changes I make result in a better photo than I would have had if I’d just relied on my own experience shooting.
The voices I’ve learned to pay the most attention to are whose which come to me during post processing. I’ll never forget one YouTube video made by one of my absolute heroes, Joe Edelman, as part of a series he used to make called “Images Reimagined.” He took what was already quite a good photo and transformed it into something absolutely stunning. This video, more than any other, inspired me to think very hard about what I could to do make my images better. Now every time I post process an image I ask myself “What would Joe Edelman think? Would he crop a little tighter? Would he lighten the highlights in the hair a bit? Would he enhance the colors in the pupils? Would he tidy the wrinkle on her sweater?”
This spills over to other kinds of photos too. But when I’m processing landscapes (or portraits which feature beautiful scenery), I don’t hear Joe Edelman. I hear Serge Ramelli. Even if I don’t want the image to look like it would if he processed it, hearing his imaginary voice ask me questions about what I want it to look like promotes a useful internal dialogue. When I’m working on an SFX image, I hear my good friend Pete Leong tell me to use a luminance mask to make the light painting really pop. Every type of photograph calls up a different voice, or a different set of voices and they each remind me of some useful technique or some aesthetic principle.
Now, here’s the hard part. When I’m finished editing, or rather when I think I’m finished, I imagine showing the image to Scott Kelby and listening carefully to his ideas. I pretend that I’m going to submit to Critique the Community on F-Stoppers channel and try to imaging what score they’d give it out of four and all the different ways they’d tear it apart. That’s when I start to see all the flaws. And there are invariably lots of them. The flaws might not be big flaws and they may relate to matters I have no real control over, but that doesn’t stop me from beating myself up over what I could have and should have done better.
An image is never finished. It is only abandoned.
This self-interrogation is a really important ritual for any photographer who wants to get better, and every photographer should want to get better. As Joe Edelman says “Let you best shot be your next shot.” I repeat this mantra to myself all the time and this requires discipline, because it forces me to realize I’m not the king of anything. Importantly it also makes me take a look at the photo I’ve just “finished” and ask myself if I’m really, truly done. Could there be more contrast in the sky? Should I clone out the couple sitting on the rock by the sea? Maybe I should add some more clouds, or perhaps I should use the healing brush to clean up a few more flyaways. Do the edits I’ve performed to reduce skin glare look natural? Do they work at all resolutions of the image, or do they create resizing artifacts? It seems a photographer’s job is never done.
But honestly, a photographer’s job has to be done at some point. Some famous author (it might have been Gene Fowler, but don’t quote me) once said that a book is never finished, it is merely abandoned. He may as well have been talking about editing a digital photograph. The trick is to know when it’s time to abandon the image and send it out into the world, where it will be either admired, or criticized, or both.
The purpose of this article is to get across the point that that asking yourself the right questions at every stage of the creative process, from conception to export of the finished photo is vital if you want to do your best work and especially if you want to keep raising the bar. Exactly what the right questions are depend on what kind of photographer you are, whose work you admire and how good you really want to get. For me, asking “What would Joe Edelman think?” has never failed to help me get a bit better with every shot I take.