Going Deep

I know the importance of highly trained awareness of the “moment” and the immediate and intuitive response of the photographer. It should be obvious to all that photographers whose images possess character and quality have attained them only by continued practice and total dedication to the medium. – Ansel Adams 

Before I start, let me make one thing perfectly clear:  I’m 100% in favor of experimentation, exploration and fun.  That last one is supposed to be at the heart of all this, right?  So if it isn’t fun, then why bother?

Okay, on to the topic.

Many photographers today tend to try many things.  It could be HDR, macro’s, nature, travel, portraits, and even a wedding or two sometimes.  That’s cool if you’re having fun, as I said.  Enjoy.

When I look at the Masters though, rather than spread themselves broadly across many of these disciplines, they instead went deep into one particular type of photography and devoted many, many years to developing that craft – and in the end usually produced art that will last forever. Forever.

Ansel Adams, for example, dabbled briefly in color but then devoted his entire professional life to perfecting black & white.  Even near the end of his life, he said he still had a lot to learn about it.  When you hear that – that he was still learning even in old age and in one type of photography – it dramatically illustrates the type of commitment and true discipline that is required to become a Master.

Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”.  I think that may have been true in the film days, but with digital and high frame rates, I’ve known people who can shoot 10,000 photographs in a week (hell, Chase Jarvis will shoot that in a weekend).

The point being that to elevate yourself above the millions of other photographers out there, you don’t need the latest and greatest whiz-bang giga-pixel whatever.  What’s needed is to go deep into whatever makes your heart truly happy.  That could be a specific type of photography, a particular subject, a particular style, whatever, so long as you explore every aspect, nuance, subtlety and perspective of it.  And when you think you’ve risen above the masses, then push yourself to go into uncharted waters.

What makes you unique?  What makes your photography unique (those are two entirely different, but related, questions).  If you can honestly answer those questions, then no one can look at your photos and say “I could have done that”.  Instead they’ll ask  ”Wow, how’d they do that?”

Can you answer this statement in 10 seconds or less?:  “I’m a ___________photographer specializing in ________________.  You can find my work at __________________”

The bottom line is that if photography is a hobby and one week you want to shoot travel photography like Sam Abell, then the next week nature like Art Wolfe, landscapes like Ansel and then the next week do portraits like Greg Gorman or HCB…that’s fantastic.  Have fun.  Enjoy every minute of it.  But don’t put any unnecessary pressures on yourself thinking that you should be shooting at their level.  Your talent will likely allow you to end up with some beautiful photos that you and your friends will like.

If you want to truly master one thing, then dive deep.  It will take years of study, but in the end you (we) might – just might- end up with art that will last Forever.





  1. Very true! On this recent week “away”… I decided to take only one camera, and be happy with that. I found myself concentrating better, and letting go of what I might be missing.

    To answer your question above… I think I could feel in the blanks pretty easily. It was over 10,000 pictures ago when I could not. Photographing my surroundings… close to home is my passion. I think it was this last trip that convinced me of this. 🙂

    Great… reassuring article you have written.

  2. I am still in the process of exploring what makes my photography unique… I guess I am a sucker for photoshop at the time being and I still do a wide variety of different photography… I used to like nature shots but now I really love people and street.

  3. Very thought provoking post Mark. I am of two minds about the idea and still pretty much in agreement with the idea of totally exploring and idea to get to the truth of it. I however think that the unique view and vision that one develops isn’t limited to a ‘type’ of photography like landscape or travel but is part of the individual so it will show no matter what the subject that is in front of a persons lens. The real learning is to learn what you really see as you not what you have been told is good or proper for a certain type of photo. Sounds easy and it isn’t, that to my mind is the diving deep into a subject. This will have me thinking for a while I am sure.

  4. Thanks everyone. Ray, to calrify what I was saying – it isnt’ necessarily one subject. “That could be a specific type of photography, a particular subject, a particular style, whatever”

    It could be an approach, a theme, a style, etc. As you said, it’s getting to the essence of whatever it is, which can take many years.

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