The obvious way to improve your photography is to study photography. But once you’ve had some success with the main principals of photography, you’ll be eager to go deeper and learning more photography principals won’t get you there. Rather than piling on more and more knowledge, you first need to go deeper with what you’ve already got.
Journal writing is the best way to go deeper with your photography. Through journal writing you discover what you’re actually struggling with, hone your creative vision, and measure your growth over time.
Great minds throughout history have kept a journal of some sort. A journal is like a laboratory where you can get messy with your thoughts, vision, and creativity. You can work things out in the pages of your journal and bring them to life in the real world.
Journal writing will take you into a deeper creative mindset, helping you do far more with those photography skills you’ve learned. The problem is that many photographers aren’t sure what to write in their journal.
Here are several ways to use your journal to achieve deeper creativity with photography:
1. Don’t worry about writing well
If writing well comes easily for you, then go ahead and write well in your journal. But if writing doesn’t come easily for you, do not try to write well.
You’re not writing for the sake of writing well, you’re writing to stir up your creativity and improve your photography.
“There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.” – William Makepeace Thackeray
2. Write to get out of ruts
As photographers, we find ourselves in a rut every now and then. We become dissatisfied with our photography, our photos don’t excite us anymore, and we begin to hate picking up the camera. If this hasn’t hit you yet, be ready. It seems to come out of nowhere, and can be devastating.
Ruts will cause you to quit unless you figure out how to get out of them. Your journal is the perfect place to do that.
At first, it will be difficult to be honest with yourself as you write. You’re always hiding what you really think from other people, and it’s rare that you actually go deep into your own thought process. But you need to be honest in order to get yourself out of a rut.
I hit a rut a couple of years ago and discovered these things about myself through journal writing:
- I have no vision
- Photos I love the most feel raw
- I wish I could be a kid with a camera again
- The idea behind a photo is more interesting than the photo itself
- I’m so awkward when it comes to people
- Chaotic photo sessions are my favorite
- Unless I’m working, I don’t pick up my camera anymore
- The things that used to excite me don’t
- I don’t know what to say about my photos
- Do I hate photography?
As negative as many of those thoughts sound, I learned a lot from them.
I learned that I love to explore the world with my camera. There is joy in finding a chaotic scene, looking for patterns, and then bringing some order or beauty to the scene through my photos.
Sometimes you have negative feelings for different reasons than you think. I didn’t actually hate photography, I just had blocks that I didn’t know how to get past. Once I got things out on paper, I could see what was standing in my way.
In the middle of my photography rut, I took a camping trip with friends. I decided to just follow the kids around and join in the play with my camera. Being able to do whatever I want, even exploring crazy ideas, seemed to make all that frustration and hatred of photography melt away.
If there is something that really bugs you about your photography, or you have a vague sense of disappointment in your work, writing in your journal will help you identify your specific frustrations.
3. Track your improvement
If you don’t track your improvement, you will have no idea how you’re doing.
When you’re tracking a goal, it’s better to measure how far you’ve come rather than how far you have left to go. It can be discouraging to look ahead at how far you still have to go, but encouraging to see how far you’ve already come.
Tracking your improvement will help you to understand how far you’ve come on your journey. Many people are discouraged simply because they have no way of seeing how far they’ve come. Write it down so that you can see.
I felt stagnant with my family photo sessions so I began tracking how I felt, what went well, what went wrong and ideas that I had toward improving.
4. Clarify your vision
“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” – Jonathan Swift
Vision is an aspect of photography that very few people work to develop.
We can see with our eyes and organize our photo according to the rule of thirds, but how do you see things that are invisible? How do you put invisible things in your photo?
Writing in my journal helped me to see the invisible things that I already love to photograph.
Spontaneity, chaos and awkwardness are not things that you can see, though they can be expressed visually. It’s in the fleeting expression that a portrait subject gives, the unpredictable nature of toddlers, even in the ability to push through and photograph a bridezilla well.
Prior to journaling, I had no vision – after journaling (for a few months) I could finally see. My vision is about bringing order and beauty to raw, chaotic scenarios through my photography
You can take your photography to new places and new levels once you have vision. You will gain vision when you write about invisible things and can see them in front of you.
Keep a list of your favourite photography quotes, they’re likely a clue to who you are as a photographer.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
“If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough.” – Robert Capa
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” – Robert Frank
“I don’t just look at the thing itself or at the reality itself; I look around the edges for those little askew moments – kind of like what makes up our lives – those slightly awkward, lovely moments.” – Keith Carter
“The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!” – Ted Grant
On the camera
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” – Dorothea Lange
“For me, the camera is a sketchbook, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
“The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong.” – Susan Meiselas
“Don’t pack up your camera until you’ve left the location.” – Joe McNally
On the nature of photography
“I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” – Diane Arbus
“Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies.” – Diane Arbus
“The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.” – Edward Steichen
“I realize more and more what it takes to be a really good photographer. You go in over your head, not just up to your neck.” – Dorothea Lange
Your favorite quotes are a clue to who you are as a photographer, and they’ll help you see that you’re not alone in your approach to photography.
6. Dream up the future
Dream big in the pages of your journal. While you’re at it, dream too big. After a little while of dreaming too big, you’ll be far more capable of doing those big things you never thought you could before.
You’re already working through frustrations and tracking your progress toward goals. This means that you’re learning to create the process that helps you achieve those (too) big dreams.
Maybe you’ve got this wild idea of taking a long trip and documenting your journey. You’ve got yourself fired up within the pages of your journal. But is it realistic in real life? Probably not. Can you afford it? Can you handle it? Not likely.
Go ahead and feel the frustration of dreaming too big, and having that dream start to fade away. Feel it until you realize it as a deep frustration. Now work through that frustration in your journal. Fight your way to make it real.
Thanks to my journal, I almost signed the lease on an expensive studio space. But backed out at the last minute. I had dreamed a little too big.
However, I’ve grown a lot as a photographer since then. I kept working through my frustrations and weak points. One of the problems was that I didn’t have a proper vision for the studio. So I’ve been refining my vision and building a community of amateurs and professionals whom I will share my studio with. I’m building something now that will already be alive and ready for a studio.
I dreamed too big. But now I’m quickly growing into that dream thanks to my journal.
7. Don’t write at all
Your journal isn’t only for words – put sketches in it too. Even if you can’t do it well, a basic sketch can help capture an idea you have for a photo. Don’t be concerned about buying proper pencils and a sketch pad. Just cram everything in your journal.
You might even consider printing your “sketch photos” to put in your journal. Sketch photos are the photos you take on the way to capturing your final image. Sketch photos are a way of photographing a scene in a variety of ways, making subtle changes until you get your photo just right. Sometimes the process takes a few minutes, but it could take months or years.
The perfect journal
Many people will avoid writing until they find the perfect journal. They’re waiting to find a journal that inspires them to write. Perhaps a hand-crafted, leather-bound journal with beautifully textured paper. After purchasing such an exquisite journal, they’re still not able to write. Don’t let this be you. You don’t need a nice journal, you just need to get your thoughts out (get the nice journal later on).
You don’t need to feel good to journal. In fact, journaling when you feel miserable may be more helpful. Get it out and written down. Confront it, and begin to grow as a photographer.
The perfect journal is messy, full, and always in use. And it will help you to become a better photographer.
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