Having made the rank of master sergeant in the Army, I wish I could say I’ve also become a master in the art of photography. Far from it. When I look at the work published by National Geographic, Getty, AP or Reuters, I’ve barely reached the rank of specialist in comparison.
But even in my own journey, I love mentoring others. I get a kick out of sharing some tip with a young photographer, when he suddenly lifts his chin, dead-stares into my face and says, “Why hasn’t anyone told me this before?”
Nothing I do in my photography is a secret. I simply hope to share tips and ideas that have helped others (and myself) grow in this craft.
But before we go any further, I need to emphasize something: It’s the small stuff that become big. Let’s not pretend that this list will blow anyone’s mind. But I hope it will help you refine your process. I photographed and wrote a story on an orthopedic surgeon once who was also a President’s Hundred rifleman. He obsessed over the process of things: from grilling the perfect steak to doing surgery on a complete hip replacement (the two were unrelated, thankfully). In training for his rifle matches, he would spend hours in his basement aiming the barrel into a corner of the room, conducting dry-fire drills, over, and over and over again. For every trigger he squeezed in competition, he must have squeezed a thousand more in practice. Like rifle marksmanship, this craft requires work. There are no shortcuts, no secrets, no “god codes” to beat the game. Either put in the effort, or don’t be surprised when your work doesn’t improve.
Embrace the suck
You will suck. A lot. And then you will suck some more. Then you will take one great picture. It will give you joy and hope and satisfaction. It will motivate you. Then you will suck even longer. You will continue sucking as you work. Then you will suck a little less. Then, eventually, you will look back at that one great picture you took and think, “Wow, that image kinda sucked.” Then, eventually, your work will improve.
I’m with you in that pain. It’s incredibly frustrating having that beautiful image unfold right in front of your eyes, taking the shot, only to realize you missed the moment. For whatever reason, the shot didn’t come out the way it was meant to be. Either you fired too late, or your settings were jacked up, or you abandoned the image too soon. For every image in my portfolio, there are probably 50 or more others I should have had that were better than the one I got. As you grow and become more intentional, your odds will improve.
There’s a video out there, five-and-a-half minutes long, of a skateboarder trying to land a trick off a set of steps in a parking lot. For five straight minutes, the video shows clips of him failing the landing, over and over again. At one point he smacks his head off the pavement. But he doesn’t stop. He perseveres. Finally, at the 5:10 mark, he lands the jump. Those first five minutes of video are edited down from likely hours-worth of attempts. It was the stereotypical “if you fall, you must get up” lesson on life, but it was so tangible and true.
Double barrel shooting
Stop going out with only one camera. When I cover Army assignments in the field or in fast-paced environments, I shoot with two cameras. I strap a wide angle lens on one body (usually a 24mm prime, but sometimes a 24-70mm, or even a 16-28mm), and a telephoto on the other (70-200mm, sometimes with a 2x converter). Too often photographers go out with a lens that can “do it all” (such as a 24-105mm), only to come back from a shoot with hundreds of images that all look the same. Having two bodies with two very different lenses will help you see images that you never considered before. It will also help you capture shots you were missing before.
The one exception I would make is if you are documenting something more personal or sensitive in nature, where barging in with two cameras would totally destroy the mood of the story.
Also, for you senior public affairs NCOs and Officers reading this: Quit sending Soldiers out with only one camera. You’re setting them up for failure. Fight the budget battle and buy your Soldiers the equipment they need. Otherwise, be content with sucky pictures.
Shoot stories, not pictures
Stories carry a narrative. They carry depth. When on assignment, think of the greater narrative unfolding around you. Don’t cover just the action, but the before and after, too. The quieter moments can hold a lot of emotion. Sometimes a single photo can punch with its own entire story, but don’t shoot and publish 15 images that all convey the same part of the story. Think of every photo assignment like a writing assignment. If each image were a paragraph in that story, would they all tell the same thing? Get in close and capture that intimate, difficult or powerful detail. Then back away and give us a sense of place and scene. It’s entirely too easy to shoot images cropping people at the belly button or chest. Get closer. Give me eyes and teeth. Document both action and reaction. Photograph images that reveal character and people’s personalities, not just what they do as their job.
Feed your camera raw meat
Stop shooting in JPEG. Whether Canon, Nikon, Sony or other, your camera (most likely) can shoot in a RAW format. Always shoot in RAW. Always. RAW files allow you more control when color correcting, adjusting exposure or even salvaging images that were blown out or under exposed. Whenever you edit from a RAW file, you will produce a much “richer” image in return.
Yes, RAW files take up more space. A ton more space. Invest in memory cards and hard drives. You should go out with a minimum of two 32GB memory cards on every assignment. That doesn’t mean you have to fill them! But have that memory space available.
Framing is caring
We have all heard the rule of thirds in framing, but more importantly, I follow a three-step rule to framing my shots: Fill the frame. Control the background. Capture the moment.
Fill the frame: To be honest, when I shoot images, I typically frame the shots about 15 to 20 percent wider than they need to be. Later, when I edit on the computer, I crop that sucker down to include only what’s essential. Play with cropping a lot! Sometimes playing with a single image for five minutes on cropping can open up options you never considered. Cropping down an image (even cropping drastically) can have a huge impact.
Control the background: Sometimes moving a foot to the left or right, or crouching down a little, can significantly improve the shot. Be intentional. Think about each frame. Look not only at what’s in front of you, but what’s behind the subject. Some of it you can remove with cropping, but a lot you can’t.
Capture the moment: Now that you’re in place, that’s when you want to burst through that moment. I’ve seen so many photographers (myself included) abandon a shot too early. They’ll shoot two or three frames and then move on to something else. Sometimes that spot you picked could have been perfect if only you had shot four or five more frames! Wait for that perfect moment to come, and burst through it (or time it perfectly if you can!).
Anticipate and be patient
For many years, I had photography Attention Deficit Disorder (sometimes I still do). I would jump around nonstop trying to chase everything, afraid I might miss something.
There are times when you can anticipate the action before it fully unfolds. Make a decision. Pick the best spot. And wait. Then, when the moment is right, shoot that image. Sometimes you will have to move because there’s a better spot somewhere else, but once you make your decision, stay in place. Doing this will feel wrong at times. It will feel like you’re missing everything else. That may be true. You might miss an even better shot elsewhere, but you have to learn to make decisions on what’s important to document and what’s not important. If you chase every flying object, you will not grow in your decision making. Yes, there will be times when you have to chase and run after a shot, but there will times when the best thing you can do is pick one spot, sit and anticipate.
Earn their trust
Nobody likes a public affairs Soldier who shows up dead-smack in the middle of a training event, takes a bunch of pictures, asks questions (disrupting everyone), then disappears. You need to show up early. You need to be there when Soldiers are planning and preparing. This is good for several reasons: You will get better information. You may capture images you didn’t consider. You will earn the trust of those Soldiers. That trust will result in better, deeper stories. Yes, there will be a point when you have to take off to edit your work, but it’s not unreasonable to put in 14-hour days (or longer) when covering stories. Get the work done.
Submit for awards
Awards are nice, but notice I didn’t say, “Win awards.” I said, “Submit.” You don’t get better by winning awards. But you do get better by submitting. Why? It’s not just because it drives your competitive spirit or fuels your desires or passions. It’s more important than that. By submitting, you will be forced to look back. You will have to look back at 12 months of sucky photos and assess your strengths and weaknesses. It will help you realize where you need to improve. Also, because most awards competitions have categories, it will help you think of ideas or themes that you might not have considered before. Always look at past years’ winners. Study them. Learn from their talent. But most importantly, if the judging is “open” or has a live stream, watch it, listen carefully to the judges’ comments and take notes!
Embrace the criticism
Not all criticism is created equal. Some is more helpful than others. But whatever you do, don’t try to defend your work against the criticism of others. Embrace it. Take it all in. Be humble. Maybe they’re right. Maybe you really do suck. True, sometimes you will hear from three different people, each saying something completely different and contradictory. I’m not saying to please your critics. You can’t, and you never will. But make the effort to learn from their critiques. Take time to truly digest what they’re saying. Try out some of their recommendations. If those ideas work, put them in your toolbox. If they don’t work, keep exploring and keep seeking feedback. Join online groups, but stay away from toxic “communities.” Seek out communities that really want to invest in improving others.
Find a mentor
This is probably the most important thing you can do, but I leave here at the end because if that’s all you remember then you’re good shape. Also, mentorship is true in every area of life, not just photography. Just like seeking criticism, also seek out one photographer whose work you respect and admire and who is willing to spend time with you to review your portfolio, give you encouragement and help you grow.
If you’re a military photographer, free to reach out to me. I’m always happy to give you an honest review of your work, photo website or portfolio.
Then, I hope to hear back from you in 12 months, when, hopefully, your work (and my work) will suck a little less.