Photography as a Practice (Praxis)

Mary Andrade and Greg Duncan at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA

Praxis is a way of learning that involves a recurring passage through a cyclical process of experiential learning.  Another way to look at praxis is a cycle of experience, reflection, generalization, and application – Then do it all again – experience, reflect, generalize, and apply.  This is the best way to learn to be a good photographer.

A few words on Theory

When I say theory, I do not mean it like a hypothesis, but as a proven scientific or social scientific fact.  There are many proven theories and best practices about landscape and nature photography.  We all should learn these theories in order to make better photographs, for example:

  1. Use the rule of thirds
  2. Use leading lines
  3. Gray sky in color photographs looks poor
  4. Watch your edges – do not have small items “leak” into your photograph or “leak” out.
  5. Look for strong foreground subjects
  6. Sunrise and sunset light is the best

These are just a few rules of thumb for making good landscape photographs.  You learn these rules; you apply them in the field; and, sometimes, you find that they do not always work.  That is why you you have to get fluent enough to know the rules, but to break them or adjust them when you need to.

Joshua Tree Sunrise and Moonrise

A few words on Practice

Several recent books have popularized the “ten year rule or 10,000 hour rule,” i.e., it takes ten years or ten thousand hours to become an expert at something (to find out more see Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin).  It takes a long time and lots of hours to become an expert, but it takes even more, it takes deliberate practice.

There is no shortcut to becoming a fine landscape photographer.  You need to study books and websites to learn the “rules”.  You need to look at what the masters did and what the current best practitioners are doing.  Lastly, you need to get out in the field and try stuff.

For example, you will find that everyone has been to the Antelope Slot canyons in Arizona.  If you want to be a good photographer, you need to go there too.  Not only that, you need to go there and have a plan.  You need to compare what you shot to what the best of the best shot, and you need to learn and change.

Antelope Slot Canyon

Antelope Slot Canyon

Deliberate practice is the system or habit of learning by assessing your learning needs; making a plan; executing on that plan in the field; evaluating your results; getting coaching; and then making changes in the field the next time – sound familar?  THAT is PRAXIS.

  1. Assess your learning needs.  You can do this by comparing your photos to those of others that you really like.  How are yours different and why?  Composition?  Exposure? Subject?  Ask for an assessment by a professional workshop photographer.  Have them review your photos and get critiqued.
  2. Make a plan.  Mary and I set up an annual photography calendar to plan our trips, both long ones and short ones.  There are always a few key places we want to go to.  We usually go on 1-2 workshops a year and 1-2 longer trips on our own.  We also have some old reliable spots – the Huntington Gardens in San Marino is near our home and we go there 6-8 times a year just to practice.
  3. When we are out in the field, we use resources to plan our trips.  For our last Oregon trip, we used several books and Jack Graham as our guide, but we also planned on shooting the covered bridges and old barns on our own.  We looked at many photos of the covered bridges and old barns to get an idea of what we were trying to do.  We then tried to execute well in the field.  We are also lucky that we can use each other for “in the moment” coaching.  When one of us is having a “problem, ” we consult each other and try to figure it out together.  This is a good reason to photograph with a trusted friend, teacher, guide, or spouse.
  4. When Mary and I return from a trip, we usually have about a 1000 images.  We each self edit down to 250-500 and then we do a joint edit to get down to 200, and then a final edit to get to 100 or less of the very best photographs between us.  It does not matter who made the photo, we are looking for the “best of the best” for our photo books and website.  We are, at the same time, giving each other coaching and feedback on what we like and do not like and why.  Most of the time we agree.  We have also been known to get on the phone with Jack Graham and have him do a photo review with us.  As a beginner, this was absolutely necessary.  Now, I feel like I can do a pretty good job of critiquing my own photos based on the “Jack Graham method.”
  5. Lastly, you have to get out in the field again and practice what you just learned.

Peter and Jack at Horseshoe Bend, Page, AZ

A Final Word

All of the stuff in this blog is not new.  In fact, most of it is at least 2500 years old.  It all started with the ancient Greeks and their idea of Arte, or personal excellence.  Remember Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?  It is all about Arte.  A more recent book that I just loved is Shop Class as Soulcraft.

There is something deeply satisfying about mastering something difficult and then doing it repetitively with successful and consistent results, knowing that it is not luck, but the natural outcome of hard work and practice.  Honestly, one of the things I really don’t like is when someone sees one of my photos and says, “You’re so talented.”  I usually say thank you and then assert that I am not talented; “I work hard and practice a lot.”

To see more of our photos, please go to www.pamphotography.com

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5 thoughts on “Photography as a Practice (Praxis)

  1. I think you spelled practice wrong praxis? –way over my head…… but thanks for the kind words. You guys guys have donw so much on your own in growing as photographers. I take a litle pride in knowing I might have helps in a small way. I’ve been at this too many years and I am still growing every day…. remember—When a musician on the street in nYC was asked how to get to Carnigie Hall”. his ( or her–PC of course!) answer was —“practice”! —( praxis?)—love you guys!–Jack

  2. Peter – Great reminder to all of us, and I love the shots of folks in the field. Couldn’t agree more with your final words about the deep satisfaction of hard work and ‘natural’ talent. My answer in that situation is to quote Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Keep writing! – Mark

    • No, not really. See my blog on processing ethics. It is really dark, so the exposures are up to 30-60 seconds, so you need a tripod. In the Nik software, I usually make everything ten percent brighter, ten percent more contrast, and five to ten percent more saturation. I have seen many slot canyon photos overcooked, but I think these look pretty natural.

  3. Pingback: Why and How to go on a Photography Workshop? | pamphotography

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