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Photography is not a Spectator Sport
© 2007 KenRockwell.com

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July 2007 (also in Italian, Dutch and Polish)

I'm an Idiot

I've considered myself a serious photographer since I was 5 years old. I was pointing my Instamatic cameras through home-made telescopes as a little kid. Later I borrowed my parents medium-format cameras, and I bought my first SLR in 1973 at age 11.

I read every book I could find about every technical aspect about reciprocity failure, Petzval sums and concatenated filter transmittances. My dad was an engineer, so our family dinner discussions were about power series, cyclotrons, angles of view, Airy discs and logarithms. Anything technical has always been as natural as breathing to me.

Using my allowance and thriftiness, I acquired everything from a Minolta 16mm fisheye to a 1,000mm Celestron C90 telephoto by high school.

I knew that I could photograph anything I could see, and photograph it accurately. There was nothing, be it macro or astronomical or in dim light, which I could not capture. I was prepared for every photographic opportunity that presented itself. I had arrived; I was a photographer because I had all the gear and I knew how to operate it.

No; I was an idiot. Did you catch the spoiler word in my logic, "anything that presented itself?" I was a spectator. I thought that photography involved taking pictures of things that came along. NO! You have to get out there and find things. Finding and seeing are the hard part. They are what make a photographer. Taking a picture of what you find is the trivial part.

I didn't realize this until 1989 when I went to enter my company's calendar contest. This calendar had an eye-catching photo for each month.

Going through my Grand Œuvre of over 15 years of sharp Kodachromes in which I knew were many masterpieces, I found squat. My photos sucked.

I realized my photos sucked as I looked for the masterpieces which apparently I had never gotten around to making, even if they were, and still are, preserved on archival 300-year dark-storage Kodachrome. I found technically excellent clichés, which were of course returned unused from the calendar competition.

Even though I was an expert about every photo technique, I never bothered to use my natural technical ability to turn my gift of seeing everything differently into innovative photographs.

At this point I resolved to stop worrying about technique, which I had mastered over 15 years ago, and use this ability turn my weird vision into photographs.

Getting Out There

The only way to make decent photos is to get out there and make them. They don't happen by themselves.

Getting out there doesn't mean snapping away at pull-outs in a national park. Getting out there means getting up hours before dawn and hiking out in the woods to get in place in time to set up and watch the sun rise. It means missing dinner with your friends and family while you catch the last light in some remote location.

Nature and outdoor photography is a pain. You have to get to the right place at the right time, and then only sometimes does the right weather and lighting happen. You can guess, but you never know what's going to happen at dawn or sunset until it happens. You have to be there and set up every time, because if the conditions happen and you're not set up, you can't get there and set up fast enough to catch it.

Even when I bust my butt to get to a location, the next morning I'd still rather sleep in. That's right: I'll travel for days or hours to get to someplace photogenic (or not), and it still takes all my effort to wake up in the dark and get out there instead of going back to sleep saying "it probably will be overcast anyway."

We've got to get out there, get set up, and wait and see what happens. More often than not, we get crap, have breakfast, and go back to sleep.

Memorable shots require persistence. You must keep getting the right place at the right time of day every day so you're there on the one day in a year that glorious conditions might happen. Ansel Adams' "Clearing Winter Storm" happened because he lived there every day, not because his bus tour stopped there on vacation.

Luck is opportunity met with preparation. A great photograph is luck, opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime natural occurrences, and preparation is being there with the right gear and knowing what to do about it.

Even when I've gotten out and set up for dawn, sometimes I'm too lazy to want to shoot off a sheet of film, thinking I've already made a shot like it. My favorite shot of Lone Pine Peak was made on a frigid morning that thought was like every other, and almost didn't bother to pop a sheet of film into my 4x5" camera. It's cold at dawn; you'll usually want to pack up and get back to sleep instead of standing out there freezing your fingers off adjusting cameras.

In the summer, Tioga Pass in California's High Sierra is saturated with mosquitoes. We come back bloody after shooting.

If I don't go out of my way to make photos, all I make is crap.

Ansel Adams didn't waste his time reading about lenses on the internet; he got out there, tried them, and then went right out and made real photos. Ansel was an avid backpacker. Ansel was out there so much that he was too busy photographing to get back to San Francisco to be present for the birth of his first son (Alinder Biography) or his first daughter. I wouldn't suggest this, but you can see how dedicated some people are.

You've got to get out there to get great photos, and you may have to miss sleep, miss dinner or maybe even miss your kids getting born. You can't pop open a huge camera case and expect photos to appear by themselves, but this is the dream put forward by most camera companies.

Other Kinds of Photography

Every kind of photography requires work.

Want to photograph models? Daren in San Francisco has to work like crazy to find, develop and schedule all these women. They don't just ring his doorbell.

My friend humanitarian photojournalist Karl Grobl only makes his photos because he's risking his health and safety getting out there. Karl is only home for a week or two at most, and then he's off again for a month to the filthiest third, fourth and fifth-world countries to document untold human and natural kindness and cruelty.

Jack Dykinga is out backpacking all over the uncharted Southwest wilderness to get his shots. He's not sitting at home reading his own excellent books about it or snapping from a roadside rest stop.

The best shots I see are from people who push their envelopes and keep doing it.

The best photos I've seen of the Sierras were from a backpacker who made the point of getting to the right place every night, then ensuring he got up every pre-dawn and shooting. His stuff was remarkable because he was out there enough to have enough photos from which he showed only the most incredible sunrises, not the ones that happen every day.

I'm humbled when others show me great shots of our local San Diego beaches that I missed because they were out in the surf while I was in front of my computer writing this website.

Light waits for no man. You're either out there, or you miss it. Forever.


Photography is a creative art. You have to make a photo; you can't take it.

Making photos, like making anything else from scratch, is difficult.

Too many people mistakenly confuse a camera with an iPod or DVD player. It's trivial to play, analyze or critique someone else's music or movie, but infinitely harder to create that music or movie yourself.

Many people love to watch sports, talk about it and analyze it forever. Anyone can watch football, talk about what a great or sucky play another made and spew rosters and stats. It takes a very different guy to get out on the field to play and get hurt than to sit and watch it.

Likewise, these same couch rats will analyze and talk about cameras on the internet all day long, but aren't out there photographing.

This became violently apparent when someone wrote me thinking one of the examples I presented on my site as a sharp photo wasn't. When I asked "not sharp compared to what?" he responded "compared to another example" of some other lens reviewed on some other website. I realized I had uncovered a new, lower level of non-photographer.

Just as every high school kid can quote you the specs of every Ferrari ever built, it's unlikely that he'll ever drive one. Likewise, there are people who will never own a camera, but will research and talk about it forever on the internet.

To make photographs, you have to stop analyzing and go make photographs.

Buying every expensive camera on the planet won't help at all. Someone with vision and a $135 Canon A550 will create far more fantastic photos than a passive collector who owns every camera on the planet.


Typewriters don't write Vonnegut novels, iPods don't compose Brahms symphonies, and Leicas certainly don't create Salgado photos. It beats the dickens out of my why anyone would think cameras create their own photos.

You can watch others do photography, but the only way to make good photos is to get out there, get up early, get dirty, and just do it.


If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

Thanks for reading!



Caveat: The ads below come from a third party and I don't see or approve them. They are sent to your screen directly from a third party. They don't come from me or my site. See more at my Buying Advice page. Personally I get my goodies at Ritz, Amazon and Adorama.

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