There is an idea out there amongst some teachers and students of photography that the method of making a great photograph can be reduced to a formula. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because a lot of teachers and students actually believe in this fairy tale. It sneaks in to our consciousness because large amounts of photographic education happen through articles just like this one you are reading, which is by nature a one sided conversation that often leaves out many important thoughts and ideas. Articles have to be so condensed that the full depth of a photographer’s approach is difficult to communicate.
But what’s so what’s wrong with formulas?
The problem with formulas for making photographs is that they are not really formulas…they are recipes.
A formula is something that, when followed exactly, produces the same results every time, and assumes a controlled environment. Formulas work great for chemistry, for making the drugs that heal us and developing solutions to process our film (at least for those of us who still use film …but not so much for the dynamic nature of photography.
Making photographs and making prints is much more chaotic than what a formula can fully encompass. In crafting creative expressions, following the same formula will not produce the same results every time because the conditions are never the same, and every file or scan always needs something different to bring out its full expression. What we need are not formulas but recipes.
Recipes are great for making photographs, as long as you don’t treat them as formulas. Why? Have you every tried to make your grandmother’s famous recipe, and had it come out tasting completely different than the way she made it? The reason is that there was some small change (or series of small changes) that completely altered the final result. The small change may have been an assumption on the cook’s part, or a methodology, or the necessity to use a certain stove or pot, or any number of different physical conditions that needed to be replicated exactly to achieve the same result.
But the most important part that is left out is us, and what we bring to the making of the dish. When we cook, or when we make photographs, there is a part of us that we bring to the process that is involved in the making and expression of the ingredients that can’t be distilled into 2 cups of this, a tablespoon of that, and 350 degrees for so long.
That’s why recipes sometimes don’t work right, and they never work if you think they are a formula. We need to understand that we must bring a part of ourselves to the process…that in fact we are the most vital part of the process of expressing ourselves, and in making a dish worth eating. The missing ingredient is always YOU, and if you don’t add yourself in, the dish will fall flat.
It’s why we can’t turn another photographer’s recipe into a formula because we do not bring their experiences to our cooking. But by looking at and trying their recipes, we can learn about their approach, and learn about the universal qualities of our materials so we can combine those ingredients with our experience to make our unique expression. That’s vital, because in the end, it will be our expression that will stand or fall based on our efforts, not on the strength of the person who wrote the cookbook we used.
We may end up not liking another photographer’s recipes, or the results they produce, or we may not be able to replicate them, but that’s okay. What matters in the end is that you are growing in your understanding of the expressive qualities of the materials that are the ingredients in photography. That knowledge allows you to write your own recipes for each photograph and print, and to create results that satisfy you. That approach isn’t a magic potion that instantly makes you the photographer you want to be, and it isn’t easily bottled and sold, but where in life is their such a potion? It means you have to get in the kitchen and start cooking, make mistakes, and throw away a lot of bad dishes. I can’t think of many things more exciting!