imitate to improve

posted in tutorials at November 20, 2011

Q:   Hi Laurence.  My favorite photographer of all time is XYZ.  I’d like to be able to shoot like he does.  Any tips?

A:    It’s tempting to just say “XYZ is XYZ and you are you.  Just follow your own unique vision.”  However, that advice is lazy, unrealistic and totally full of crap.

The process for becoming a master at pretty much anything is well established. It’s a formula.  It’s been repeated time and time again for just about any endeavor.  Let’s look at some examples:

- You want to improve your golf swing.  You go to a PGA professional.  He videos your swing.  Next, he’ll put it side by side on a split screen with tape of Adam Scott, Ernie Els, or some other tour pro with a beautiful swing.  He’ll explain the moves they are making and try to get you to visualize, then incorporate those moves into your own swing.  You practice and practice until you “get it”.  You improve.  Notice how the instructor doesn’t say “just follow your vision”.

- If you’re a tenor sax player studying jazz improvisation, one of the first things your instructor will have you do is to transcribe and learn some of John Coltrane’s solos.  Is he trying to turn you into a John Coltrane clone that plays exactly like he does?  Of course not.  The idea is to learn why Contrane’s solos work and to learn his techniques.  Over time, once you’ve developed a repertoire of techniques from various players, you’re on your way to being your own player.

- You’re an architecture student.  You’ll be taught the styles and techniques of famous architects that came before you such as I.M. Pei or Frank Lloyd Wright.  You’ll be shown how they use line, form, and shape to create a certain aesthetic to their buildings.  You’re not going to turn into Frank Lloyd Wright, but you’ll understand why these techniques work and you’ll keep them in mind as you begin to develop your own style.

I think you get it.  Becoming an artist is not a formula, art is not a formula, but the process for improving at just about anything is.

Okay, let’s talk about photography.   Hopefully, your style (a combination of technique and artistic vision) will evolve over time.  An important part of this evolution is borrowing from other artists, be they photographers, painters, cinematographers, etc.   A glance at XYZ’s portfolio tells me that he’s also borrowed liberally the techniques from other photographers before him.  It’s the way of the world.

As to how to go about learning to “shoot like XYZ” and incorporate their techniques into your repertoire, there are lots of ways to go about this, but if you’re looking for a systematic process, here’s what I would do:

Step 1: analyze.   Pick out a few images from the portfolio of the photographer you admire that best represent their “look”.  Now pick them apart.  Write your analysis down.  Ask yourself a bunch of questions.  What was the background?  Position of the subjects?  Pose?  Facial expressions.  Camera angle.  What lens?  Depth of field?  Natural or artificial lighting?  What was the tone of the image (light, dark, whimsical, emotional), etc.

Let’s look at an example.  Here’s a photograph of Emma Heming (Bruce Willis’s new bride) taken by Steven Klein for W Magazine.

Location/backdrop:  a stairwell from some type of commercial building.

Wardrobe/makeup:  black teddy-thingy, dramatic boots, big-ass necklace and bracelets, furry fingerless gloves, slick pageboy style hair with heavy, vampire-ish makeup.

External design element:  the television with Bruce Willis’s unsmiling mug on it

Pose:  sitting on step, leaning back, arms spread, one hand on television, looking down with eyes open, neutral expression

Composition:  roughly rule of thirds with subject on left-hand side, lower (about waist-level) camera angle

Lens:  definitely a wide angle, probably due to the cramped confines of the stairwell.  Maybe a 35mm or 24mm.  You can tell it’s a wide angle from the distortion – the subject’s foot/leg are much bigger in relation  to the head than normal.

Camera settings:  everything’s in focus, so probably f8-f11 or something like that.

Lighting:  definitely at least two strobes, both camera left. One is above the subject and one is below.  You can tell because the shadow of the stair rail and the light under the subject’s thigh point to a low strobe, while the light on the subject’s face and the shadow underneath the arm point to a high strobe.  The light is relatively hard on the lower strobe- you can tell by the sharp shadow lines – but relatively softer on the higher strobe (look at the shadow of the arm touching the television).  So I would guess that the lower strobe is direct flash without modifiers and the upper strobe had a softbox.

Post processing:  nothing too dramatic, although it’s clear that the color temperature was lowered to give the image a blue-ish tint.  Possibly this was done by gelling the strobes, although it may have been done in post.

While it’s important to analyze individual images, don’t stop there. Analyze the entire portfolio.  What are the overall techniques that get replicated over and over?

Step 2: replicate the image.  Now that you understand the techniques behind the image, do your best to replicate it.  If you’re a wedding photographer and you’re replicating an image you saw on XYZ’s website, try that same pose/composition/lighting at, say, your next engagement session.  Or use some of your friends to replicate it.

Step 3:  repeat.  Keep doing this with different images until the techniques become second nature.

Step 4:  integrate.  Okay, you’ve learned some things from a photographer who’s come before you. Now what?  You don’t want to be just a cheap imitation of the original, do you?  This is the fun part.  Start incorporating a few of the new techniques you’ve learned, but in your own compositions.  Use your own poses. Try new ones. Add different lighting techniques.  Maybe different post processing.  Different lenses.  You get the idea.

Step 5:  evolve.  Over time, you’ll incorporate the ideas of many photographers that have come before you.  That’s a great thing because understanding lots of techniques opens the door to creativity.  You’ll only be limited by your imagination, not by a lack of understanding of how to “achieve a look”.

But don’t fall into the trap of developing a portfolio with a mishmash of different styles that you’ve learned from other photographers.  That’s what most photographers do and why they don’t end up in high demand. (see my blog post on Standing Apart from your Competition).  Understand the techniques, sure, but eventually it’s important to turn them into your own signature style.  Then one day, there will be other photographers out there trying to emulate you.

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  • uchechukwu

    Brilliant analogies. I love your work and modesty. Peace. (November 24, 2011 | 05:53pm)

  • Aaro
    Twitter: aarography

    I remember while starting off with photography I'd get so excited (and I still do) when I can create an accurate imitation of the style of someone I respect. "Active viewing" (like "active listening" for a musician) has been an incredibly important aspect of my growth as a photographer. All that being said, thanks for your blog post--it's refreshingly practical in a sea of "just create your own style" blogs. (November 27, 2011 | 05:27pm)

  • Carlo Parducho
    Twitter: carlo_parducho

    Good analogy. Particularly like the 1st sentence haha. How do you feel about adding a twitter button on the "SHARE THIS ONE:" thing? (November 27, 2011 | 06:21pm)

  • Sister Betty

    Yeah. You're not doing enough with social media. A twitter button, at least. (November 29, 2011 | 09:17am)