Abell concise and me ranting - Dreamstime

Hello again. It has been a while since my last blog. Things have been rather hectic. But, here I am again back on the trail of discovering how to become a better photographer through the gems of wisdom imparted by some well-known masters of light.

First off, let me thank all of you who visited and liked my Shadow69 Photography on Facebook. Your encouraging remarks are invaluable and help my motivation no end.

I came across a few quotes from Sam Abell which I found to be intriguing. To be honest, I was not familiar with him before, but the fact that he has worked for the National Geographic (to my mind one of the best showcases for exquisite photography) was enough to get me hunting for examples of his work. I was not disappointed. If like me you are not familiar with his body of work, definitely check him out.

It matters little how much equipment we use; it matters much that we be masters of all we do use.

I bought a Canon 5D MkII at the beginning of the year, a few months before the MkIII made its appearance. A friend of mine teased me about it “Aren’t you behind the times a bit?”, “Wow you bought a new camera 4 years after it came out!” Actually, I wouldn’t have bought it at all if something hadn’t gone wrong with my 5D. I am not one of those who make owning the “latest and greatest must have gizmo” an objective in life. In this high speed world where nearly anything you buy is obsolete a month after you plunk down your hard-earned cash for it, I prefer the familiarity and comfort of holding on to the “devil” I know (now isn’t that a comforting thought for my wife). This never ending vicious cycle of craving the latest, biggest, best and billion feature (99% of which will most likely never actually be accessed) packed camera simply bemuses me (ok so I am easily confounded, but at least it helps me save a little money now and then).

But most importantly, this phenomenon only seems to help propagate that pet peeve of anyone who considers him/herself an artist or craftsperson (I am being political correct just in case).

How many times have you gone to a family gathering or walked around on the street with your shiny, big DSLR and telephoto zoom and had people come up to you and remark:

“Wow, that’s a really great looking camera. It must take really great pictures.”

And upon hearing that how many times have you said to yourself

“Must stay calm. Must not unleash the fist of death now. Must not forget to breath.”

I suppose it is only to be expected. In this consumption driven society, we are endlessly preached at and encouraged to believe that there is some technological gem that can do everything for us and do it better than us. For the previous generations it was all about making life that little bit easier: a vacuum cleaner was there to “help” clean the house, a washing machine was there to “help” you save time… But nowadays, everything seems to be there to “do it for you”. A calculator will multiply 6 by 2 for the kiddies so they don’t have to use their brains, a Xbox is there to entertain your children so you don’t have to spend any time with them, so on and so on. The list is seriously endless. Hell, there are even people sitting in some dark room who will make sure that your character gets to level 70 with all the brilliant weaponry in the “World of Warcraft”! Hello people, you paid cash to play that game for your entertainment, and now you are paying even more cash so someone else plays it for you!!!! What the bloody … (expletive censored because this blog will be converted to audio so that no one has to learn how to read).

Ummm… sorry I forgot to take my fried pelican pills. Feeling much better now.

So yes, back to Sam Abell’s first quote. In brief, it isn’t the device you hold in your hands that makes a great picture. It is you and your skill that makes the picture. The emotional reaction you have, the details your eyes and brain focus upon, the framing that speaks to you… True creation comes not from the tool, but from the one wielding the tool. A true creator is one who works out what and how to do something using what is at hand and deducing how to break through the limitations that may be imposed by the tool. A machine, as of yet (thank God), has not been devised that can replace any of the complexities that allow the human being to be a creator.

Because photographers... think things through and... it isn't luck, and it isn't random and it isn't accidental. It isn't.

OK, so what took me a page to rant, Sam Abell said it in one sentence. Good photography is not just the tool; it is about working out a problem. Art is also science. Photography is a set of complex equations with a ton of variables: size, speed, light, distance... It is about adding elements and subtracting elements, setting boundaries while trying to remove others. If I had known, I would have paid more attention in physics class.

A mad, keen photographer needs to get out into the world and work and make mistakes.

Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice… did I already mention practice? Oh did I? Ah, but did I say it enough? Don’t think so… practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice...

But seriously, that’s the only way any of us are going to get better. I went to a photography workshop. One of the instructors was running around snapping away with the camera like mad. And I was thinking to myself, I wonder how many times she has run this workshop? I wonder what she is going to do with the pictures. Why isn’t she bored snapping the same subjects over and over again? In my experience, curiosity has very rarely been lethal to me, so I asked. And she replied that she didn’t know what she was going to do with the pictures, it didn’t really matter but if there was a really great one, she might think of something, but otherwise it was just practice. Silly me.

Weeks later I was watching a series of YouTube videos about photography after having just relegated a whole bunch of shots taken earlier to the virtual dustbin of my computer, and the instructor’s reply came back to haunt me. I was amazed by the ability of photographer in the video to figure out what to do and take quick-fire decisions during the shoot, and was wondering how he knew what he had to do to get the shot just right. Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice… wait for it… even more practice.

Above all, it's hard learning to live with vivid mental images of scenes I cared for and failed to photograph. It is the edgy existence within me of these unmade images that is the only assurance that the best photographs are yet to be made.

Practice, practice, practice… oops sorry, was running on automatic.

Ye Gods, isn’t that one just so familiar? How many times have I arrived home with an invisible hand squeezing and twisting my guts because I had not taken a camera with me and had just seen something that I would have loved to commit to my digital memory storage (which seems to be more reliable than my organic one these days). Doom, despair, gloom, darkness, hopelessness. Ah but old Sam Abell is not so pessimistic… an opportunity missed may not be lost to him forever, but is a promise of a more glorious photograph to come. Amen.

As always, I end with a personal request. Please, if you have enjoyed this blog or like my portfolio, please visit my Facebook page Shadow69 Photography and click on “Like” to show your appreciation and support.

Photo credits: Abdul Sami Haqqani.

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July 03, 2012


Dear all thank you for taking the time to read the "rant" and for your kind comments. A special big thanks to those who visited the Facebook page and clicked on Like. If you have any suggestions for the page, don't hesitate to share them with me.

July 01, 2012


This was a great read and very well written. Thanks for sharing your story. See you on Facebook.

June 29, 2012


great blog, it seems you are not only gifted as a photographer but also as a writer, what about creating a photo- book?
Besides, I agree 100% in your thoughts about the hectic in staying always up to date buying the "latest" , if you have a look at my portfolio you will see that nearly all of my 1300 photos have been made with a 5D MK II. I do think about going for the MK III but just coz as a wildlife photographer the shooting speed and new autofocus may help me but as you see there are many action pictures like flying hummingbirds made with the MK II!
all the best in your professional future!

June 29, 2012


fantastic rant! I laughed, i cried, i agreed!

June 29, 2012


Thanks for the blog. Do you watch the training sessions on Creative Live? It can be a fantastic way to expose yourself to new ideas and focus more on creating images than just acquiring gear (not that I'm an expert on avoiding buying things!)...

June 29, 2012


Thank you for your wonderful “rant” – informative, entertaining, and a great read!

While you may not be the first to remind us that it is practice not equipment that makes us better photographers, few have said it so well.

The breadth and quality of your images clearly show that you follow your own advice. I couldn’t resist clicking every image. Thanks again.

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