I’m not much of a historian, but one figure from the past has really taught me a lot in life – and his lessons have carried through to my photography. That person would be Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, the early 20th century Antarctic explorer.
Shackleton led a most interesting life and was obsessed with conquering the continent of Antarctica. Despite being one of the first people to (unsuccessfully) attempt reaching South Pole, his journey was by far the closest anyone had come to attaining this goal up to that time. For doing this, he was knighted by King Edward upon returning to England. Unfortunately for Shackleton, Roald Amunsen of Norway and Captain Scott ultimately beat him in reaching the South Pole.
Shackleton then turned his attention to what he said was his one remaining Antarctic goal – he wanted to cross the continent from sea to sea, via the South Pole. No small feat, indeed.
Shackleton and his crew then set sail in their ship, The Endurance. Unfortunately, she became trapped in the polar pack ice and after several months, was destroyed by it. Shackleton’s mission went from one of crossing the Antarctic continent to one of saving himself and his crew. It would be two long and grueling years, but he succeeded and became a national hero.
Shackleton’s crew often referred to him as, “The Boss.”
I have been to Antarctica twice and on the way, I was fortunate to stop at the island of South Georgia which is close to the Antarctic continent. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet with stunning scenery and abundant wildlife. If you like penguins and seals, you will be in heaven if you visit.
If you visit South Georgia, one stop you will most likely make is at Grytviken. In the past, it was a major whaling station where slaughtered whales were processed. This station was abandoned a long time ago and now there is a scientific research outpost where the British Antarctic Survey has several staff.
In Grytviken, I was fascinated with a whalers cemetery located there:
Cemeteries don’t normally hold my attention, but this one did. If you look closely, I have circled (in red) a gravestone next to the front of the fence. This is the gravestone of, “The Boss.”
I have been here twice in my lifetime and have been mesmerized each time. And, if I return to South Georgia, I will probably visit Shackleton’s grave site again.
There is something very special written on the back of the gravestone – here it is:
To say that Shackleton was a “driven” and “focused” man, would be an understatement. He knew what he wanted and if his plan did not work out, he was nimble enough in his thinking to change course and set new goals.
Robert Browning was Shackleton’s favourite poet and the quote above perfectly summarizes how he approached life and his goals. And as I was to find out later, it has served as inspiration to yours truly.
Each time I visited Shackleton’s grave, I always thought about life and what I want to get out of it. Photography is a huge part of my life, so I have set some pretty lofty goals for myself. The bottom line is that I want to be the best photographer that I can possibly be and will do everything in my power to do so. Whether my images end up on the covers of numerous magazines, or in someone’s wedding album, I want to know that I am producing the best images that I am capable of creating at that time. Plus, I want to continually grow as a photographer.
When I speak to photographers or teach, I often ask the question, “What do you want to do with your photography?” Some people want to improve so they can create some nice photos to show their family and friends. There are others though who want to be featured in National Geographic or similar publications. If you are in the latter group, you probably have some work to do in order to achieve your goals.
As I thought about my life’s set prize, I came up with some basic rules that have really helped me in my journey to becoming better photographer. I am sharing them and hope that they will be of assistance to anyone wishing to attain their life’s set prize in photography.
It is true that the best photographers can use a pinhole camera to create beautiful images but I am willing to bet that it would be a lot easier if they used a more capable camera. Remember, a camera does not make a photographer, but having a decent one certainly helps.
Purchasing the best camera equipment you can afford is important. Modern digital cameras are packed with many great features and the image quality can be astounding. Even cameras from 4 or 5 years ago are still very capable imaging machines.
Just purchasing a decent camera doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to take great photographs – it takes patience and skill. Those who succeed in photography understand how their camera operates plus they take the time to learn about lighting, exposure and composition.
Have you ever heard the following?
. “WOW. That’s a great picture. You must have a really good camera.“
Don’t be offended if you ever hear this in the future – you and I both know that it takes skill to get a great shot. Sure, some people get lucky once in a while, but getting great images doesn’t happen on its own. It happens when you take the time to learn how to use your camera, both technically and artistically.
Read the manual. Learn how great photos were created. Practise. That will set you on the path to becoming a better photographer.
I am guilty of not doing this at times. I will find something that works really well for me and then one day, I realise all of my images are starting to look the same. Then, as soon as I change what I am doing, my images change. Funny how that works.
If something is not working out for you, try something different. Change your perspective. Change your lens. Change the lighting. Shoot from on top, shoot from below.
A couple things to get you thinking outside of the box – shoot portraits with a wide angle lens, then shoot landscapes with your telephoto. How does that change the way you shoot?
Here is an exercise that works really well for me – take a prime (fixed focal length) lens and shoot with it for an entire day. Shoot everything with it. Then try the same thing tomorrow, but with a different lens. This alone will force you to think/see things differently and hopefully expand your vision.
There are many talented photographers who offer courses and one on one training. Spend a little money and get some photography education. Investing in yourself will go a long way in improving your photography skills.
I find that people will have no issue spending a lot of money on camera gear that they may not need, but they may not invest in themselves. Get in front of some talented photographers and absorb their knowledge. Find one who is willing to give critiques of your work – it is amazing how quickly you will improve when a skilled photographer tells you what you are doing right and where you can improve.
Even if you cannot take a course in person, there is a lot of useful information on the web. For a photographer wanting to learn the tricks of the trade, there have never been so many options to do so.
I did not learn this rule in photography school, I heard it for the first time on my wedding day. The minister who conducted the wedding ceremony gave my wife and me a message, “A happy person usually makes a happy partner – and one important element of being happy is to always keep learning and growing as a person.” Very true words.
Never stop learning or growing as a photographer. The day you think you know everything about photography is the day you should put away your camera for good. One of my mentors used to say all of the time:
“Today, I want to be a better photographer than I was yesterday.”
As a photographer, those are words to live by. Say that to yourself every time you pick up your camera.
There is a lot to learn in photography – cameras constantly improve with expanded feature sets, new software appears almost daily and there is no limit in expanding our vision. Apply all that you have learned in creating your images – you will be astounded by how much you will improve if you continue to learn and apply your knowledge.
One thing is really easy to forget: enjoy the process and the journey. Photography is fun – at least, it is supposed to be. And of course, if you have taken your camera to an exotic location, don’t forget to stop and really enjoy where you are.
Sometimes, we photographers get so caught up in trying to capture the perfect picture that we don’t fully enjoy what is right in front of our eyes. The best image you will ever create is by putting your camera down and just taking in everything through your senses – all of them. There are places I have visited that have impacted me greatly – and that was before I even picked up my camera. No camera could ever record the emotional impact a wonderful place/moment can have on you.
So, don’t forget to smell the roses. Or in my case, finding a good local beer and watching the sunset. In fact, I will go do that now…
We receive a small commission when you purchase any item such as cameras, lenses, books and other items from our sponsors (Adorama, Amazon.com and B&H Photo) using the links provided on this website. Doing so does not cost you any more than purchasing items directly from them – plus it helps us greatly in paying the costs associated in running this website.