You Don’t Need to be Good at Photography

You Don’t Need to be Good at Photography

2000 1125 Juliet Schwab

I’m here to tell you that you should enjoy photography without feeling any obligation to be good at it. For most of us, this is a hobby and hobbies are supposed to be fun. I should add that “good” photography is a combination of objective and subjective judgements. It’s one thing for a photo to be well exposed, composed, and focused (although even the usual rules can be applied subjectively in various situations), but it’s another to assign artistic merit. We all have images, either our own or others, that we love despite their imperfections, and we all know famous artists whose work leaves us cold. So whatever “good” is, I’m less interested in whether your photography meets that standard and more in telling you that you shouldn’t feel bound by it.

I began thinking about the pressure to be good at hobbies a couple of years ago when I read an article (unfortunately now pay-walled), headlined “Revel in the Joy of Doing Things You Will Never Master.” The author encouraged readers to pursue their hobbies not to excel at them, but simply for the pleasure of doing them.

I have several hobbies I’m not good at – I’m a slow runner, and I doubt I’ll ever paint a watercolor anyone would pay to hang on their wall, but I run and paint anyway because they’re hobbies I enjoy. So I didn’t immediately associate this premise with photography, because it’s the one hobby in which I’ve developed some actual skill. But the reason I’ve become a decent photographer is from photographing long enough and sustaining enough interest in photography that I eventually stumbled out of mediocrity.

Malcolm Gladwell has popularized research showing that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. That is an awful lot of time, and many of us don’t have enough time or inclination to master even one nonprofessional skill, let alone to enjoy whatever comes after having mastered it. And in the first few hours of attempting anything new and doing it imperfectly, we will at some point inevitably ask ourselves why we do it at all.

There are many answers to that “why?” A lot of them boil down to enjoying the process. If you shoot film, it’s probably not because it’s easier to make good images on film. There’s the finite length of film rolls and the lack of instant feedback, plus every mistake you can make with manual exposure and focusing, plus the light leaks and sticky shutters you might not discover until the film is developed. But we shoot film for the tactile, visceral enjoyment of handling a well-built machine, for the way film and classic lenses render tones and light, for the delayed gratification of the results and the corollary that it frees you to live in the moment you’re photographing, for the rabbit holes we can go down when we discover a new piece of gear or technique – or insert your own reason here. Photography is a gateway to an infinite variety of experiences.

One of the reasons we photograph is the joy of creation. The process results in a product we often want to share, and the easiest way to share images in 2021 is online. And we all know that social media can intensify our desire for positive feedback on the results of our endeavors, to the point that we view those shareable results and the feedback on them as the purpose in the first place. We become wrapped up in the transactional aspect of sharing our photos, with “content producers” (or, dear God, influencers) trying to satisfy content consumers.

But publishing content, which most of us do for free and which is an optional step in the artistic process, doesn’t mean we owe it to anyone to produce content they’ll like. If you’re shooting for a client, you owe them images that meet their expectations, but if you’re simply sharing your images online, what debt do you owe your viewers? For the split-second it took them to see and judge your image? Is it an affront to anyone else if you break technical or artistic rules of photography, or shoot a camera or film stock in a way that doesn’t follow the usual advice from a thousand different sources? How often do we caption our photos with apologies for their flaws, as if we need to forestall anticipated criticisms?

It’s fine to put out flawed photos. We’ve all done it. And sometimes these flawed photos are our favorites, as James wrote in a piece on embracing imperfection.

When I shot my first roll ever through a TLR, I struggled to get horizontal and vertical lines straight in the dim, 65-year-old viewfinder. Five years later, it’s still a struggle, I’m just more persistent.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to improve or excel at a hobby, and one of the joys of photography, as with any hobby, is seeing improvement through practice. There can be satisfaction in many aspects of the photographic process, and that includes learning and improvement, undertaking long term projects, setting goals and meeting them. But nobody needs to practice or learn on any schedule but their own. Growth often happens in fits and starts. You can put down your camera for a month or a decade and pick it up again. Hobbies don’t judge you for being bad at them or even quitting them, temporarily or permanently; it’s other hobbyists who do that.

We’ve all run into those photographers who are affronted by other photographers’ failings, and to some extent I understand where they’re coming from. Once you think you know how to do something right, it’s very tempting to tell others they’re Doing It Wrong. If you find yourself gatekeeping, I offer a couple of reasons to resist.

First, any use of film sustains demand; professionals and serious amateurs aren’t going to keep film manufacturers and processing labs in business on their own. Every roll of film sold and shot helps us all in the long term.

Second, unless people ask for advice, they’re probably going to be hurt by unsolicited criticism. An ill-timed or snarky comment might discourage someone from enjoying their hobby, and it won’t do any good besides making you feel better about yourself. Consider whether you’re offering help someone will appreciate, or just showcasing your expertise.

Finally, gatekeeping limits your own openness to new ways of seeing and photographing that might strike you from unexpected places. I have as much GAS as anyone, but I love reading reviews or scrolling through hashtags for cameras I already own, because other photographers inspire me to shoot them in new ways. Of all the infinite moments in infinite places that can be photographed, we each choose to capture a certain few, and it’s magical to see how other people do it. Even those of us who are monkeys at typewriters occasionally tap out a line of Shakespeare; someone whose photos you find amateurish might still create something that interests or inspires you.

The reason I’m so glad to write for Casual Photophile is the ethos of this website: anyone is welcome to be a photographer, and the only rule is that you should enjoy it. If you share your images, someone out there may benefit from seeing them in a way you would never have anticipated, and you along with the rest of us will benefit from your engagement in the film community – not Instagram-quantifiable engagement, but interactions between real humans. If you want to be good at photography, that’s fantastic, and there are plenty of resources for that. But remember that it’s a hobby, and the only way you’re doing it wrong is if you’re not having fun.

For more thoughts on the process and philosophy behind photography, check out these articles.

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Juliet Schwab

Juliet Schwab is a freelance photographer and lover of all things ancient, especially history, languages, and cameras. She lives with her husband and three kids in the American capital, which as a Seattle native she considers the other Washington.

All stories by:Juliet Schwab
13 comments
  • What a wonderfully inspiring article Juliet. You’ve certainly hit the photographic philosophy argument well and truly on the head. I’m a musician, and the same philosophy applies. Students have often asked …”is guitarist A better than guitarist B?”… My answer is always…”A and B are the same, but differ in their approach, preferences and supporters”…Both can hold a tune together during a thirty-day tour of two-hour concerts, so what is the measurable criteria that defines better? I guess this applies to all branches of the arts meaning that we are all striving for a perfection that does not exist. Thanks for sharing.

  • Merlin Marquardt July 15, 2021 at 7:14 am

    Very well said. Thanks.

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach July 15, 2021 at 10:42 am

    Beautiful read! I think this article encapsulates so much of what I like about photography, all the different aspects. Back when I started shooting film as a hobby, little over a year ago, I felt the need for a creative outlet that writing, modelling and gaming failed to fulfill, I guess, because I was so focused on the results that the whole process of failing and improving just stressed me out. I wanted to have something presentable that I could take to the tabletop as soon as possible, and anything less than perfect went straight to the trash.

    Photography, on the other hand, is completely relaxing to me. It’s something that I can do while out on a walk with my wife, during a trip, a hike, or even on a daily basis, completely by myself, wandering about town, and since I don’t get to see the results right away, I can focus completely on the process. I can make it completely mine, shoot however I feel like and experiment. While my skill is really nothing to write home about, I can actually say that I’ve gotten better with every roll, both objectively and subjectively, and that this builds up confidence to experiment with different aesthetic choices. It’s kinda like knowing the rules to break them, and still get something beautiful in the end.

  • What a terrific essay!

  • This is a keeper, so well put, thank you. And your photos are beautiful!

  • marcusterrypeddle July 15, 2021 at 6:24 pm

    Excellent essay. I often pressure myself to produce photos that are good enough to put on my website and impress the world. And that’s not a helpful attitude for an activity that’s supposed to give me pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve my skills, but maybe I should start judging my photos based on why it was satisfying to make them.

  • Like the others have said, this is a great article. Sometime I wonder why I use film, but your words have reminded me of all the little enjoyable moment. Thanks.

  • Great!
    Sorry, super great!
    Sorry, super super great!
    😉

  • Jerome (EarthSunFilm) July 16, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Absolutely this!!!

    Two years ago, I got into film photography to get pictures of my garden. Since then, I have wandered far more deeply into photography than I ever imagined.

    I doubt my flower portraits will ever be considered fine art, but the images are special to me because they are images of flowers I grew and cared for.

  • Khürt Williams July 17, 2021 at 1:29 am

    👏🏾

  • Michael Hertz (mhertzphoto) July 18, 2021 at 4:28 pm

    Amen to this!

  • You may not be a great photographer, but you are a Master at lifting the spirits of people who are not great photographers.

  • That’s exactly what I needed to read/hear at this point. Thank you so much for this encouraging article!

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Juliet Schwab

Juliet Schwab is a freelance photographer and lover of all things ancient, especially history, languages, and cameras. She lives with her husband and three kids in the American capital, which as a Seattle native she considers the other Washington.

All stories by:Juliet Schwab