I'm always looking for things to help provide motivation and inspire me to get the camera gear out and go shooting. Sure, I'd like to say that I'm always up for going out to take pictures, but that just wouldn't be true. There are times that I get in a bit of a photography “funk”. I think we all experience those times now and again. The motivation, inspiration, creative vision, or whatever you want to call it, just isn't there to get us out the door with our cameras to make images.
Don't get me wrong; I love photography. It is one of my passions (along with pizza and ice cream). However, there are times that a little nudge is necessary to get me off the couch. One great way to push yourself in the right direction is to study the work of others. Not only the incredible imagery, but also the words of wisdom from those who have ‘been there, done that'.
This article will take a look at a few great photography quotes that can help to motivate and inspire you and me to get out of the occasional funk and get our shutters clicking again. Many of these will be familiar and almost all of them are attributed to some of the most famous photographers of our time. They are not only inspirational, but also educational. The many nuggets of wisdom contained within these sayings can provide a lifetime of learning. We just need to take them to heart and put them into practice.
One final note before getting started: this is far from an exhaustive list of great photography quotes, or people who said interesting things about photography. These are but a few that I have found interesting and I hope that you do, too. Take some time to research and learn from the people on this list. You'll be glad you did.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” — Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams doesn't really need any introduction. He's just one of the greatest landscape photographers ever. Not only did he leave behind some of the most recognizable and incredible imagery, his words of wisdom have been an inspiration to photographers for decades. It's no wonder that several of his quotes are represented in this article. His quote about ‘making' a photograph is one of my favorites. Anyone can take a snapshot. Making a photograph takes patience; good subject and composition; an understanding of light and shadow; and interesting perspective and place. I discuss this more in my last article.
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” — Dorothea Lange
Ever since I started taking photography seriously, I have seen the world differently. Every nuance of light and shadow takes on different meaning. Just like there is a difference between hearing and listening, there is a big difference between looking and really seeing.
“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” — Ansel Adams
I've always been partial to landscape and nature photography. As such, my images typically do not contain human subjects. In fact, I often go out of my way to avoid people in my photos. Ansel had it right again when he made this statement. It's satisfying to make photographs that are enjoyed by others. Just be sure to please yourself first.
“One should not only photograph things for what they are, but for what else they are.” — Minor White
You know the saying, “there are two sides to every story”? In photography, there may be two sides; there may be two hundred sides. Our photographs should tell a story, but look for stories within the story. Choosing different framing, perspective, angle, settings, or some other parameter can do this.
“One doesn’t stop seeing. One doesn’t stop framing. It doesn’t turn off and turn on. It’s on all the time.” — Annie Leibovitz
If you find yourself continually discovering photographs in your mind's eye on the commute to work, when out with the family, and just about any other time you are not doing photography, then you can relate to this statement. Just now, as I was sitting at my kitchen table writing this, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and lit up one of the few trees that has leaves in this early spring. When I saw that glow, I quickly grabbed the camera and headed out the door for a shot. I kid you not. That fantastic light was gone before I made it out the door, but you get the point.
“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” — Jim Richardson
This is so true, especially in landscape photography. Check out this great article by Rick Ohnsman – and the amazing images associated with it – if you have any question about the meaning of this quote.
“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” — Yousuf Karsh
Pre-visualization is an important part of making great images. Having a good idea of the image you want to create – before you even pick up the camera – may improve the chances that you have a successful shoot.
“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.” — Alfred Eisenstaedt
Those of you who are portrait photographers know this very well. Take the time to get to know and connect with people before sticking a camera lens in their face. You'll have much better results.
School is always in session and we should always be learning new things to improve our photography. Photograph by Rusty Parkhurst.
“It's one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it's another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” — Paul Caponigro
Here's another quote for those of you who do portraiture work. It is similar to Ansel's quote about making an image, except with an emphasis on people photography. Taking the time to get to know the person and their story will result in much more meaningful portraits of them.
“Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow.” — Imogen Cunningham
A little more whimsical quote, but I like it. This is the approach I want to take to my photography. I never want to settle for ‘good enough'. My goal is to continuously improve, even on a daily basis. The best way to do that is to shoot as much as possible.
“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” — Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams primarily used 4×5 and 8×10 view cameras for his landscape work. Suffice it to say, the digital age has changed the way we do photography, sometimes coming back from a day in the field with hundreds or even thousands of images. This quote still holds a lot of truth, however. To be honest, most of the hundreds of images on my SD card after a day of shooting can be thrown out. There will be a few worth spending time editing, but there may not be any good enough to make it into my portfolio. Your portfolio should be the absolute best 10 to 15 images you have ever created (for a particular genre). If you are able to replace those with better images throughout the course of each year, then that's a very good year.
“No place is boring if you've had a full night's sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film.” — Robert Adams
Take a walk around your yard, neighborhood, city block, a local park. It may seem uninteresting because it is nothing new to you. It's not boring, though. Try looking at things with fresh eyes, from a different perspective. Discover new things and interesting ways to tell your story. Ok, so most of us don't shoot film, but this still applies.
“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” — Diane Arbus
There are many layers within a well-executed photograph. Peel each one back to see what else there is to know about the scene. When you think you have it figured out, create another image, because you probably don't.
“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.” — Edward Weston
Ah yes, the “rules” that we must follow. Learn them, use them, love them….and then break them. Read this article by Pete LaGregor to learn more about these rules and why there are times it is just fine to break them.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson
How true is this? I would say very much so, based on a review of images in my Lightroom Catalog from very early in my photography journey. I have surpassed this number many times over, which is easy to do with digital cameras. The problem is that I still see plenty of my images that [forgive the colorful language] suck. The real truth here is that the more you shoot, the more you will improve. You will also have plenty of failures, but that's part of the learning process as well.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” — Ansel Adams
Can it really be that simple? In a word, YES! Although I would throw in that you also need to know the best time to stand there.
“If your pictures are not good enough you are not close enough.” — Robert Capa
Robert Capa was a combat photographer and photojournalist who documented the course of World War II. He didn't just talk the talk, he really walked the walk, risking his life to capture the savagery of war. His life came to an end at the early age of 40. Cause of death is stated as “stepping on a landmine” (Wikipedia).
There is obviously not likely any image worth risking your life. However, keep this in mind as you look for ways to create more dramatic and compelling images.
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” — George Eastman
George Eastman knew a thing or two about photography. If he says that light is important in photography, then we all should listen.
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” — Robert Frank
Another tip from my most recent article is to slow down. Don't just grab the camera and begin blasting images in every direction. Take the time to soak up the beauty of a scene. Let your eyes really see what is happening and enjoy it before ever touching the camera.
“To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.” — Elliott Erwitt
This is another quote urging us to not be lured into thinking that we have nothing to shoot close to home, or that we need to travel to exotic locations to make good images. To put it simply, if you are not seeing interesting things to shoot where you live, then maybe you need to look at them in a different way. And yes, it is easier said than done.
“Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.” — David Alan Harvey
The images you create should be more than just documenting the scene. Capture the mood, the action, or the feeling of what it was like being there. This will make the images much more interesting, and ones that the viewer will connect with on a much deeper level.
“Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment.” — Ansel Adams
Pre-visualize, plan, and taking it slow are all great tips for creating good images. We all know what can happen to even the best laid plans at times. There are things outside of your control that can ruin a shoot. Do your very best to be prepared, but also be prepared to fail. It will happen. What you gain from that experience is up to you.
“The two most engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” — William Thackeray
William Thackeray was a British author who lived from the early- to mid-1800s. I'm not sure if he ever picked up a camera, but this is a powerful quote about one of the things that makes photography so great.
“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn't need to lug around a camera.” — Lewis Hine
Lewis Hine was a documentary photographer who used a camera for social reform in the early-1900s. His incredible collection of images tell many stories that could never be told with words alone. My hope is that my photos can do the same.
“There are no bad pictures; that's just how your face looks sometimes.” — Abraham Lincoln
I thought this one was funny, but also holds a lot of truth. I have no idea if ‘Honest Abe' practiced photography as a hobby when he wasn't doing all that important presidential stuff. Probably not. I think the point is that sometimes the story to be told isn't necessarily pretty. It just is what it is.
We can all learn something from the many great photographers and artists that came before us. Take a moment now and then to look back and ruminate on their images and words of wisdom. It will make you a better photographer.
As I previously stated, this is by no means an exhaustive list of great photography quotes or great people who were photographers. Please share your favorites in the comments below.