Great advice from regular contributor and freelance professional photographer Russell Smith.

By Russell Smith.

This weekend I was shooting an event for an organisation close to my heart, Diabetes South Africa, when it occurred to me that it is only when we are shooting in a ‘free environment’ that we really play and push ourselves!

What do I mean exactly, you ask?

I have mentioned the importance of always shooting and testing in a previous post. Our eye and its ability to ‘see’ is like a muscle that needs to be trained and honed. The more you are using it and looking through the lens the better you will start to see. We make a million decisions when we are pressing that button – the best light, frame, what to include and leave out, if the subject has the right expression and position, are the styling and props working, etc. The more we shoot the better we get at making these decisions. No amount of assisting or reading books or paging the internet will train us like shooting ourselves. And the more we do, the faster and better we make these decisons and so we develop. Constantly shooting will perfect your skills and capabilities – be it paid or unpaid work, the important thing is to be shooting (and not for the sake of shooting, but in a way that will test your limits and help you become a better photographer).

But there is more:

When we are put into a work environment on set with heavier stress levels to perform and get the shots out at a high level, the chances are that we will fall back into what we know, our default way of shooting which is tried and tested. We would be stupid to try a whole new lighting set-up or change all the variables in that environment. I have often brought in the odd piece of lighting equipment to try out on a working shoot, but would be hesitant to change it all. So we light, compose and manage the shoot the same way we have been doing all our shoots up until that point. That is all good and well; you may say that its the portfolio that the client bought into, but then how do we grow as photographers?

We need to push our boundaries and take ourselves out of the comfort zone.

I openly admit that many of my most creative opportunities have come from clients’ requests, but I recommend shooting when you are not working – not only to build your portfolio and push the limits of your creative mind, but to use what you know under stress free conditions to extend yourself. What I mean by a test can range from a studio arranged and set up with models, stylists and assistants, to a walk outside with your camera. What is important is to be shooting for yourself and to be exercising your ‘seeing’ muscle – to try new things and possibly adopt what you have tried into your work. We all have our own unique way of seeing the world and capturing it in camera, but that is not to say that there are not ways to sharpen our skill and abilities further. My message here is not to change how you shoot but to keep perfecting all the time and that is often easier to do when you take pressure out of the equation.

The more you shoot for yourself, the more you start getting a feeling for what you love to shoot, and therein your style can be born.

Freelance photography comes with a lot of unpredictably busy and quiet times in your schedule, use the down time to expand your default, to stretch your seeing muscles and to progress as a photographer. We owe that to our clients and ourselves.

Post originally appeared on Russell’s blog. Russell is a prominent food and portraiture photographer based in Cape Town, but also enjoys to document his travels.


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