How to Think Like a Photographer

As a photographer, it is not enough to just imitate the style of the greats. Anyone can produce a photo that looks like someone else’s. What is important however is to think like a master. Here’s how…

Don’t just emulate or imitate the style of someone else’s photography or art — learn how to think like that person. You must think, feel, and see like a master to become one.

You see, it is not enough to have the tools to do a good job. Anyone can buy the tools. Anyone can have that great, expensive camera, lens, or filter. That special software can be downloaded and those effects can be replicated by anyone. I mean, absolutely anyone.

Think about this. Everyone who has even the cheapest cell phone camera, has a better camera than all of the photographers of the last century. What’s in your pocket is better equipment than Ansel Adams ever had.

When you’re studying how to produce a great photo, you should start by studying a photographer whose works inspire you. Learn all about them. Buy their books. Look at their photos and study their use of color, composition, and subject. Are their colors strong or weak? What do they shoot? How are their compositions laid out? But don’t stop there. 99% of people stop there. Go further.

I’ve done this with numerous photographers whose works I like. For example, I bought photo books by Peter Lik whom I admire. I looked at his photos in these books, measured them, determined how much color saturation there was, sketched out how he did his compositions, read about him, found out what kind of gear he uses, visited several of his galleries all over the world, found out how he displayed and printed his works, watched videos about him, and generally learned his whole history. Then I moved on to another photographer whose works I admire, and another, and another. I’m still studying these same photographers and others – looking deeply into their works past and present and understanding how they do what they do. I follow them on Facebook and Twitter. I read their blogs. I try to know them as deeply as I possibly can.

peter lik book notes

This is my Peter Lik book. Orange paper shows sketch of composition and they’re on almost every page of every Peter Lik book I have (6 books). The green paper shows photos sizes used in the book (I measured each to know what aspect ratio he used).

By doing these intense studies on the photographers I admire, I learned something very valuable that goes way outside of simply knowing how to make great photos that look like theirs.

I learned how these photographers think.

It was quite by accident that I came across this, but there I was one day, getting ready to shoot a photo and I said to myself “how would Peter Lik do this shot?” Shockingly, I answered myself and realized that I know exactly what he would do and how he would think about and set-up the shot!

So I learned not only what equipment to use and the mechanics of creating a great photo, but also how the photographer whom I admire actually thought. Then I realized that I know how every one of them that I studied would think. I now can not only shoot like a great photographer, but I can mix and match the styles of all of the great photographers that I studied. I can actually take the best from each. They’re all in me, and by mixing their styles along with my own, I have established my very own unique style.

When you copy from one person, it is called plagiarism. When you copy from many, it is called research. When you mix your style with what you’ve learned from copying others, it is called original.

I haven’t stopped studying and learning what makes a great photo and what other people like. I’ve visited art museums and taken photos of the paintings. I’ve tabulated the number of views that photos get and what people want to see based on their likes. I’ve plotted out what elements of a photo are most liked by others. I’ve asked for critiques by other photographers.

But, you know, there’s one thing you really, really have to realize: I’m not special. I’m not any different from you, basically. The only thing that I’ve done differently is that I keep going and keep studying. Photography is my hobby. I’ve got a day job, a second job, other hobbies, and a home life that I enjoy. I have practically zero time to do anything with photography. Yet, I do. How is that? All I can say to you is to find those tiny bits of time (lunch hour, get up early, go to bed late, 5 minutes before walking into work, etc.), study when you can, shoot when you can.

You can do this too. I’m not special. Neither are the great photographers you may admire. You can do this.

Bottom line: It is really amazing how much can be learned from observation and study, and if you go that extra 1% more, the payoff is phenomenal. It’s true.

Thank you for reading what I wrote — I hope you enjoyed it!

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