Ellen Borggreve • Studying the Masters

It is canon in the photography world that we can gain a great deal from paying attention to the great works of the past. But are we oversimplifying? Ellen Borggreve has some answers

At some point we have all heard the advice to study the masters if we want to improve our photography, develop our vision and discover our own style. I have given this advice many times, but if followed without constrictions, it might have the opposite effect of what I am trying to achieve.

I usually advise my students to take note of five photographers they really admire, study their pictures carefully and write down why they like their favourite pictures from these photographers. The first pitfall is that this answers the question only on a superficial level. You could state something like: “I really like the epic scene and the epic light. I would hang this on my wall.” This might lead you to believe that you need to go to that exact same location and wait for that epic light to turn up. This more superficial way of studying a picture will lead to copying, mainly because you believe that the sum of elements that make up the picture is what you like and you only need to visit that place. This is the reason we see so many pictures of the same locations everywhere.

I have nothing against visiting hot spots in general, but I would like to argue that this way of admiring a photographer’s work sells your own vision short. If you dig a little deeper behind the reasons for really liking a picture, you ...

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