Five things I’ve learned about photography

40-plus years of picture-taking experience, boiled down; let this be a lesson to you.

I’ve been doing photography since the late 60s, when I was 10 years old. I’ve learned a few things and they have little to do with f/stops, shutter speeds, or the latest gizmo. Here are five things to think about and discuss that you might not learn about in school.

If you want to learn photography, there are more choices than ever, from college-level programs to online courses such as Adorama's partner, the Perfect Picture School of Photography, and all of the free content that you can find here at the Adorama Learning Center. There are wonderfully written, useful books by some of the top photographers of our day, including Adorama partners Joe McNally, Tamara Lackey, and Bryan Peterson.


But some advice comes from experience, rather than in a classroom or from a book. Here's mine.


First, a word from the Department of Redundancy Department

“Ah, photographers, the most cautious of men,” the somewhat dated saying goes. “Never to be found without wearing both a belt and suspenders.”

In photography, redundancy is good. This is why experienced photographers bring backup. We bring backup batteries, more memory cards (or film) than we think we need, zoom lenses with overlapping focal lengths, and of course, a back-up camera body in case the main one decides that this is the day it will go on the fritz.

We bring tripods even if we’re shooting at hand-holdable shutter speeds because we are sticklers for sharpness, and if you make a blow-up print, people will see the difference. We bring flash units to supplement (or sometimes, entirely replace) existing light. And we pack our chargers and spare batteries with our carry-on luggage just in case the airline loses our checked bags.

We also follow a “measure once cut twice” mentality when metering a scene. Even if we are old-school types who are able to calculate exposure based on the “sunny 16 rule”, we meter anyway. Knowing exposure helps us to overrule what the meter says when that makes sense. We shoot “just one more” as a precaution, because someone might have blinked.

It’s all good, this redundancy of gear and thought. But sometimes, it can weigh you down. Sometimes, it’s better to have a single lens and handheld tripod because if you brought all that extra stuff, you might be too busy setting up and miss the picture.

The bottom line? Keep thinking, and always plan, even if the plan is to say to hell with redundancy.

Good isn’t good enough: OK shot of a placid corner of Liberty State Park in New Jersey, but I’m not done yet. I decided, although perhaps it might be redundant, to walk around this scene and see what else there was…

Keep shooting, change the angle, change the context: Being redundant and moving around a bit, I included the Elizabeth Shipping Yards in the background, I got a photo with a totally different feel that would interest a totally different audience.

1. Enjoy the process

Are you having fun yet?

As a photographer, I spend a lot of time thinking about technology and technique. Am I holding the camera steady enough? Is the exposure on target? Am I using the right gear? But while I have spent decades trying to execute good photographic technique, it is, ultimately, not a goal in itself. The goal is to feed your creativity, because when you are creating, you can feel joy and fulfillment as you bring home great shots.

Whether you’re in photography as a business or a hobby, it is, at the end of the day, a creative endeavor. I have learned that process of creating a successful image is something to savor and enjoy.

There is a moment of creative nirvana that I try to reach when I am taking pictures. That’s when I am totally immersed in the process—both getting the exposure right and watching all the elements come together in the viewfinder: composition, lighting, and the decisive moment. When I’m totally immersed in the process, time passes unnoticed, and life’s problems fade away. All that matters is capturing the image. I call this being in The Zone.

Getting to The Zone can require patience, practice, and preparation. Zen and the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel, and Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, are two excellent books that offer philosophy and specific exercises to help you reach that state of mindful mindlessness that I refer to as The Zone. Believe me, it’s worth the effort trying to get there.

When I reach The Zone, life is very good. I am creating, expressing, and using the right side of my brain to its fullest. When the shooting session is done, there is an afterglow that could last minutes, hours, or even days. I don’t reach the Zone every time I shoot, but it is a goal, and it makes all of the learning and on-the-spot exposure calculations and planning worth the effort.

I end up with some pretty awesome pictures, as well.

2. Look at great photographs

One of the keys to becoming a great photographer is to look at great photographs. Not just any great photographs, but ones that speak to you, that resonate. Every person’s taste is different: for me, a great street photo by Garry Winogrand, Elliott Erwitt or Henri Cartier-Bresson can really get my creative juices flowing. Others may prefer a Robert Glenn Ketchum, Ansel Adams, or Minor White masterpiece, and still others may love flipping through Sports Illustrated or National Geographic—both homes of fantastic photography—for inspiration. Don't know any of the names mentioned above? Google them!

But when you look at great photos, don’t just look at them. Study them. Reverse-engineer them like Joe McNally does for his own photos for AdoramaTV. Figure out how the photographer go the shot, or what he or she was looking for. What is it about the form, the action, the colors, lighting and other factors that makes this photo work for you?

Then, go out and shoot, preferably as soon as possible after looking at the photos. Don’t worry about copying a style or influence, that’s how visual growth gets started. Study the photos you take “under the influence” of work you love, edit down to the ones that work (don’t be afraid to ask for expert help but you, ultimately, are the final judge of your own photographs), go out and shoot again. Do this over and over, and you’ll be on your way to taking great photos of your own.

Masters of Photography is a good place to start online if you’re looking for great photography.


World’s Fair, New York, 1964 by Garry Winogrand.
This photo changed my life: When I saw this classic Garry Winogrand photo for the first time, I realized this is the kind of photography I always wanted to do. That was in 1976. I’ve never regretted the decision to become a street photographer.

 New York City, 2008: A recent example of my work. Am I still shooting under Winogrand’s influence, more than 30 years later? You bet! Photo by Mason Resnick

3. Learn from the best

Find yourself a master photographer, and get him or her to teach you. I will never forget the lessons I learned from my teachers, Garry Winogrand, Walter Chandoah, Peter Moore, J. Ross Baughmann, Herb Gogo, and others. Not only did they teach me technique, but in their very individual and different ways, they inspired me to follow my visual muse. Their enthusiasm for photography became my enthusiasm.

Yes, you can take a photography class in a community college or adult ed program, but that barely scratches the surface. Learning from a successful photographer and an experienced teacher can make a huge difference in your development as a photographer from a creative, technical and even from a business point of view (after all, a commercially or artistically successful photographer/teacher can give you some tips about getting exhibited, or building your photographic business.)

The key to learning from a master photographer is that you get your worked critiqued by the very best. Put maximum effort into the class (do all the assignments and then do some more) and you will get an outstanding return on your investment. If you are in New York City, consider taking a Workshops@Adorama class, which are taught by a who's who of top photographers.

The lessons I learned by following Garry Winogrand (left, holding the Leica) around the streets of New York during a 2-week workshop have lasted a lifetime. That’s what happens when you find a great teacher. Photo ©1976 by Mason Resnick


4. Finding a teacher: Start online!

While this was once a difficult goal unless you lived near a major city with a good choice of photography education programs (such as New York’s ICP), in this Internet age there are many more options. Adorama’s partner online school, the Perfect Picture School of Photography, offers dozens of courses that you can take from the comfort of your desktop, ranging from 4-week classes to intensive 6-month stock photography workshops. Bryan Peterson, who runs the PPSOP, teaches a 6-month course in creative photography that, if completed, can lead to a contract with a major stock agency!

Workshops@Adorama often holds special events with legendary photographers that have inspired hundreds of attendees. Here, legendary photographer Eric Meola (right) leads a special seminar at Adorama.

Adorama’s Workshops@Adorama offers classes for photographers at all levels, located in the Adorama Building in New York City. We have had inspiring workshops with some of the biggest names in photography, and practical classes in Photoshop, lighting and even wedding photography by the masters.

So in summary, learn with the best, and you’ll see your photography soar. Class dismissed.

Your most important piece of equipment is your brain

Nowadays, sophisticated cameras offer many options. We are dazzled by artificial intelligence-based metering, exposure focusing, and autofocus. We have long-reaching zoom lenses, face recognition, fast burst rates and seemingly infinite image storage on cards that have so much space our “shots left” readouts say 999 because they don’t have enough digits to reflect our 32MB cards’ capacity. We have image sharing web sites and social media that hold billions of photos, with millions of new images uploaded daily.

And yet…

One of the most successful photographers of the 20th century, Henri Cartier-Bresson, had a single camera—a 35mm film Leica rangefinder—and a 50mm lens. He didn’t even have a light meter. He shot film, hand-holding for every frame. He stopped every 36 exposures to rewind and reload. He had to wait until that night or the next day, or perhaps longer, to process the negatives, make contact sheets and study them with a magnifying loupe to see the results. And with that simple set-up, he built a body of work that would influence generations of photographers and help to define photojournalism.

What piece of equipment did HCB use that we don’t use enough?

Nothing beats using your noggin: Your camera can’t make make compositional decisions, such as tilting the camera to create dynamic diagonal lines, no matter how simple or sophisticated it is.

In these days of technical marvels, we tend to forget to use our brains. A camera can’t compose, see how colors, light and shape interact, and yet we rely on its sophistication to “take great pictures” for us when all it is capable of doing is making a technically correct exposure. It’s up to us to modify exposure to fit a mood or situation, find a good place for the camera relative to the subject, and decide what to include within the frame, and what to leave out. So whether you’re using the latest DSLR, MILC, a smart phone, or an old all-manual film camera, don’t forget that the most valuable piece of equipment you own is sitting there, right between your ears. Use it wisely.

While my camera could give me a perfect exposure of this shot, it took knowledge of Tennis, the right choice of lens and camera settings, and the ability to position myself appropriately in order to get this action shot. In other words, I had to think and plan to get a shot like this of Hiroyasu Ehara in action at the U.S. Open.


Your turn: Share something you've learned about photography; leave a comment below!

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