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Guest Post: Gary Dowd on excellence in our craft

Gary Dowd is Humanitarian Photographer, Producer, Writer, Creative Director and Photojournalist extraordinaire!

Anyone who knows me knows I love networking almost as much as I love photography. One of the latest folks I have connected up with is an excellent photographer and multi-media producer named Gary Dowd.  We have had great discussions about how photography and visual storytelling is changing and more. We are even working on planning some future workshops together which I am excited about.

As I got to know Gary I asked him to guest blog on something he was really passionate which he has been kind enough to do. I know you are going to enjoy his thoughtful ideas here on excellence in our craft. Enjoy!

My 1967 Triumph Bonneville 650 was very “customized”, a nice way of saying it was a patchwork of parts all put together.

This was my 1967 Triumph Bonneville 650. I loved that motorcycle. Riding it, I felt like I was a part of a grand history and tradition. Actors Steve McQueen and James Dean were synonymous with Triumph motorcycles and to me, the British motorcycle was the standard of mechanical excellence.

Looking back, I’m probably very lucky I survived owning that bike. It was very “customized” – a nice way of saying it had parts from this, parts from that – and not all were designed to play nice together. The Triumph I rode was no longer an example of excellence – but it wasn’t until years later that realized it. It was a make-do attempt and at best, a mediocre one at that.

Mediocrity in any given area or discipline can masquerade as excellence. It happens all the time. Sometimes it’s intentional; sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge. Either way, only until we understand context and gain knowledge can we then recognize the difference between the two. And that is the crux or point of a decision we have to make; accept mediocrity and settle for less than our best effort – or reject it and strive for excellence.

As visual storytellers we must learn to differentiate between mediocre and excellent images if we are to tell visually and emotionally compelling stories.

As I look back at my early efforts in photography and video, I see a lot or work that would be a stretch to even call mediocre. But as I’ve grown in my understanding and experience, so has my understanding of what excellence should look like. Now I simply can’t be satisfied with anything that is less than my very best effort. If I don’t consider it to be excellent, then how can I expect anyone else to?

Now, let me take a moment to clarify one thing; I do think there is latitude for personal interpretation of what excellence is, especially in the creative arts. One man’s creative excellence may be misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. This isn’t the excellence I’m referring to. I think most would agree that in photography, video, and other creative mediums, there are standards and best practices that help us define excellence.

So why is mediocrity tolerated in our chosen and beloved craft, or anywhere else for that matter? As the poster says, “It takes a lot less time and people won’t notice the difference.” As a choice, mediocrity is characterized by a complete lack of self-criticism. Sometimes, lack of self-criticism is simply born of laziness. My advice? Run away as fast as you can.

Unintentional mediocrity is different. In scientific terms, it’s the “bell curve principal” at work. Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, called it “The Supreme Law of Unreason”. Simply stated, if you take a sample of 100 random people and measure anything – height, weight, blood pressure, IQ, for ex., the majority will fall towards the mean, or middle, with a few individuals clearly above or below the norm. Simply put, I think that the majority of people simply don’t know any better. Which also means that they can learn.

So where’s am I going with all this? As the cost of technology has decreased, more and more people have access to some pretty sophisticated equipment. Now, almost anyone has access to hardware and software that only a few years ago was available to a chosen few – typically ones who studied and practiced to become masters of their craft. Today, if you want to believe all the ad hype, anyone can be a master if he or she has the right tool. Technically speaking, that can be true – to a point.

We must not forget that while equipment can help us achieve excellence in communicating our vision, simply having expensive equipment doesn’t mean we will be excellent.

It used to be that one studied and practiced to master one’s craft. There is a process of learning and application that cannot be circumvented. It may be shortened or altered by technology, but it cannot be avoided if one is achieve excellence. In order to master something to the point of excellence, we must go through what I call “The Steps of Awareness”, and it’s truly a lifelong, dynamic process. The learning curve never stops for the one who is committed to achieving excellence.

So, what can you do about it? The good news is that it’s not rocket science.

First, be critically honest about your work. Learn by studying the excellent work of others and choose to strive for excellence in your own work. Don’t be afraid to fail – but be willing to learn from your failure. Pursue what you love and practice, practice, practice intensely. Seek expert feedback on your work (that can be a hard one). Become a crusader for excellence. Stand up and don’t be afraid to say “it ain’t good enough, it can be better”. Say it to yourself. Say it to others, especially your clients. Say it loud and often.

Craft and Vision offer great resources that can help you pursue excellence in your photography and storytelling.

A good friend (and one of my favorite photographers), David duChemin, has published a wonderful series of ebooks under the title Craft and Vision. They’re fresh, with lot’s of info, exercises, and knowledge and they’re super affordable. If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend adding these to your own resource library.

I think you’ll find it incredibly exciting to discover that you’re capable of getting far better at your craft than you ever imagined.

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10 steps to better portraits: a review of “Forget Mugshots”

Don't miss the awesome photographic resources found at Craft and Vision.

Over the last couple of years David Duchemin and the crew at Craft and Vision have put out some amazing resources for aspiring and professional photographers. The latest eBook by David Duchemin titled “Forget Mugshots: 10 steps to better portraits” is an example of this and will surely benefit even the most seasoned professionals!

There are number of great things I could say about this eBook, but if I had to choose just one thing I would say what makes this resource so great is that it not only talks about making great portraits, it challenges you to go out and do it. Like Malcolm Gladwell says in his book “Outliers: The story of Success”, those who become great in something do so primarily because they put in at least 10,000 hours of practice!

Like the other Craft & Vision ebooks, the regular price on this book is only $5, however, I have some discount codes available for my readers; these discount codes are valid through Saturday March 17th. Buy Forget Mugshots using this link and the discount code MUGSHOTS4 to get the book for only $4. If you want to buy a few of the other Craft & Vision ebooks, buy them using this link and use the code MUGSHOTS20 to save 20% off your entire order of five or more PDF ebooks.

In closing is an overview of the David’s 10 steps, with images I created employing these helpful hints.

RELATE: A key to make great portraits is to slow down and take the time to relate to your subjects. When you do you will find that people let their guard down and your portraits will become more authentic.

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT: This Indian boy was running around in this field with his friends. I was hoping he would stop and even get down so he would be surrounded by the grass...and eventually he did! the flower was just a fun addition.

USE THE RIGHT LENS: I came upon this guy in the middle-of-nowhere Rajastan! When I took this image I wanted to capture his whole bike as well as the road that he had used to get to the middle of nowhere. To do this I needed my Canon L series 16-35mm 2.8.

USE MORE THAN ONE FRAME: The more I kept shooting, the more this woman's smile grew! Some times one frame is all you need and other times it is not enough!

UNDERSTAND THE SMILE: Not all smiles are equal. When you are shooting try to get people to move past the fake smiles we all put on and really open up in some good-old belly laughing!

WATCH THE EYES: Where your subject is looking can dramatically change the feel of image. Try having them look in different directions and see how it changes the portrait.

PLAY WITH THE LIGHT: For this portrait of a Rajasthani shepherd I played around the light and decided I liked the image best with back-lighting.

CONTROL YOUR BACKGROUND: Unless there is a reason for something to be in the background, keep all unnecessary items out. For this portrait I wanted to include the chalkboard because I was doing portraits of schoolchildren in rural Rajastan.

GET LEVEL: Whenever I am doing images of kids, I love to get down on their level. For this image, I got down on my knees because I loved the angle she was looking and the catch-light in her eyes. Point of view can make a big difference in the feel of our images.

POSE CAREFULLY: I worked with this woman to get her positioned just how I wanted her to capture her anticipation of school children coming by soon on India's Independence day.