So, What Makes a Great Photographer?

The best photographer’s never take pictures. That’s simply not how they roll. So, what separates them from the rest? The answer might surprise you!

Ansel Adams, Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958
Ansel Adams, Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958

Ansel Adams famously noted that he made pictures; he never took them. When you consider his technique (as well as many of ours today), you would have to agree that his (and our) images are clearly made. Do you think his original negatives were perfect or he had some secret squirrel knowledge about light? Think again. Ansel’s most precious gift to the world was helping us understand light better, work with negatives more creatively and coerce stunning images to form magical experiences. From an admittedly “Adamsesque” perspective, photography is about capturing, taming and becoming creative with light and image. To this day, Ansel’s systems and understandings drive my work; they have made me a superior photographer in every aspect. However, Ansel Adams wasn’t great on his own. His passion for sharing California’s Sierra Mountains solidified his place in the hearts and souls of the world. His camera was how he remembered. His print was his language. These things were secondary.

Migrant Mother - Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange, on the other hand, employed her camera to tell the stories of those with no voice. As a documentary photographer, Dorothea used her camera, light and image to tell stories to the rest of the world that needed to be told. Her images, like her intrepid Migrant Mother (1936), still tears at our hearts and souls. We feel this woman’s anguish and fear. Dorothea introduced the faces of depression, resettlement and Japanese-American internment to the world’s conversations. Dorothea’s currency was that of truth and revelation. Her images demonstrated the inefficacy of words. Dorothea taught me the importance and nobility of telling stories unable to be told the less fortunate.

Henri Cartier-Bresson told stories of the street. He roamed city streets with his Leica (an affordable, compact and average quality camera at the time – he was not a wealthy man), famously with only a 50mm lens, capturing life as it was. His rig was simple. He felt the 50mm lens captured a view most closely related to what the human eye could see. He could hide and pop out his camera quickly to capture amazing moments in time. His idea was simple: capture real life as it happened. He started the street photography movement that has done nothing but gain popularity ever since.

Alfred Stieglitz used his camera to raise photography to an art form. Stieglitz, a wonderful photographer in his own right, saw photography as something that had intrinsic value in the otherwise self-important and haughty world of fine art. Stieglitz’ mas

Henri Carier-Bresson

tery of tone, texture and composition enabled him to make photographs that were more artistic than documentary in nature (although he reverted back later in his life) – a breakthrough that introduced photography as an artistic medium. He is credited with starting the modern art movement in America, and brought many artists (including an unknown Ansel Adams) along with his wife, Georgia O’Keefe, the attention of the world in his influential New York galleries that catered to the elite collectors of the day.

So, what makes a great photographer? In a word: passion. The camera in your hand is only half of your story. The best photographers combine their passions and cameras to create unique artistic voices that become far more distinct than postcards and snapshots. The camera is their tool, the photograph their medium and their passion converge to tell stories, document moments in time and express artistic visions possible. I refer to this as artistic voice. The best photographers have them; the rest don’t.

When I explore images, I look to see the passion of the photographer within the image. Explore Adam’s, Lange’s, Bresson’s and Stieglitz’ works. Their passion is palpable and their images become timeless as a result of that passion. My passion for exploring the innate beauty, geometry and texture of manmade objects, especially machines, is a signature of my work. I believe they reveal compelling stories of their creators. I equally have a passion for the minute details of a larger scene because that’s where I find the most interesting revelations. I am also developing a passion for street and day-in-the-life styles of photography. I believe people feel my passion in my work – and that’s precisely what defines a quality photographer. It’s also something every person with a camera should aspire to achieve. The results transform you from a mere picture-taker to someone who is far more interesting, compelling, valued – and happy with your photographic pursuits.

Wet Day by Alfred Stieglitz
Wet Day by Alfred Stieglitz

So, what does your artistic voice sound like? What are you passionate about? Is it only one thing, or perhaps two or three – or more things? Pay attention to your passions because they provide the most important clues as to the equipment you will need, the technology you will require, the strategies you will employ and the approaches you need to develop. Ultimately, your passions determine the type of photographer you will become. Who are you?



Kevin Williams

Cinema Director

Explorers Like Us Cinema Productions