Sublime performance in photography, as in any human skill, is down to three things: emotional engagement, commitment to challenging, repetitive practice and feedback. True expertise comes from a passionate focus on process, not outcomes. But that’s not the traditional way photographers go about learning their art. Whether taking a degree in the subject or trying to develop their skills as an amateur, they go out with their camera and they try to take great shots. They buy books by the shelf load – I know, I have most of them too – and they go on courses and workshops hoping that they will discover the secret of great image taking. They improve, but not by much; and they become disillusioned.
The route to greatness in photography is, as in almost all areas of human accomplishment, through practice. So, contrary to what I have said above, read and take to heart the advice in The Master Photographer. Get your camera out and practise the skills you need until your shutter finger aches. But don’t go for easy practice: go for practice that is hard – so hard that you often don’t get it right. We call it deep practice and in photography that makes taking one of the core skills – say focusing, or use of light – and, forgetting all else, working on that skill. Two other things are important – before and during your practice build your emotional commitment to the task and when you have practised check what you have done as quickly as you can. Build the skills one at a time and let your non-conscious brain work for you rather than against you.
The Cheetah Cub
I took this shot in a wildlife reserve in South Africa. I had been practising the basic constructs of exposure, focus and technical quality for about two years before this opportunity arose to sit down in the bush with a female cheetah and four cubs. I had my Nikon D700 with 70-200mm prime lens set on aperture priority, matrix metering, f5.6, ISO400. At those settings I knew if anything happened I would be able to freeze the movement with a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second. The trick was to be able to catch and hold the focus on a very fast-moving animal as it sped towards me. The two years of deep practice in focusing paid off with a winning shot.