It’s a given that photography as an art form is a creative thing. Even in it’s most scientific and commercial forms some creative license is usually found. But, no matter how it’s being used, photography is a technical skill too. The physics of recording light is always present. The usual path for a photographer is to master the technical so that they con concentrate on the creative. With today’s being sometimes smarter than the operator, the technical craftsmanship of photography is continuously being seen as less important. Personally I think this will be a dividing line in the future between amateurs and professionals. No longer will the price of equipment or how many trucks you can fill with gear be the badge of those who set out to master photography. But that’s a whole different issue for another time.
If you do think you want to reach for a higher level of technical skill here’s something to think about. A job of the photographer is to control the variables within the frame. Everything within that viewfinder is your absolute responsibility. No excuses allowed. If the angle isn’t right; you move or you move your subject. If the light isn’t right, change it. If the exposure isn’t right, it should be. You are also responsible for working within the physical constraints of everything within the frame. If you can’t change it you have to work around it. If there are a hundred people on set you are in charge of making sure that they are exactly where you want them to be when you trip the shutter.
Everything falls into two basic categories; things you can change and things you can’t. You can control you’re shutter speed, aperture, and usually ISO to a point. You can control when you take the photo. That ‘Decisive Moment’ that Cartier-Bresson talked about. Perhaps you can control where you stand, camera height, and camera angle. Flashes and lights can be moved and adjusted. There’s a thousand and one things you can influence. Choose wisely.
Then there are those things you can’t control. Weather, unexpected gear failure, people being late, etc. While you may not be able to really change those things you can usually find a way to work around them if you thing about it. Experience helps ease the process, but you only get the experience by dealing with the issue at some point.
A professional (not just identified by being paid, but by being skilled) controls the things they can control and doesn’t let the things out of their control, control them. Once you let the uncontrollable things take over, you have lost control of your set. If the sun is too bright and contrasty you find shade. If it’s raining you get under cover or inside. You have a backup plan, even if you don’t really know what it is you can make one on the fly. Maybe you have a cheap sync cord for when your pricey radio triggers fail. No matter what, you work around the problems so that they aren’t problems. Perhaps it’s knowing that it’s best to reschedule if possible instead of wasting more resources. No matter what though, you stay in control.
Don’t take this to mean that you have to be a master of every single nuance involved in a shoot. If you’re a travel photographer you’re not expected to fly the plane to get to your destination. Would anyone hire the pilot to take the photographs? But you are expected to gather the people around you that will fill in your weaknesses better than you ever could. You stay in control of you shoot by making sure others are controlling the variables for you. If you try to extend beyond your skill set, you start to loose control again. If you want to learn web design then by all means take the time to do it. If you want a well designed site to promote you photography by next week then you may want to pay someone to do it while you learn on your own. Otherwise you loose control over the quality of the presentation of your photography work because you didn’t work around your lack of skill in building websites.
As your skill set as a photographer expands and improves, so does the amount of things you can control. Late models or assistants aren’t an issue because you’ve built a reliable team; you know how much light you need and where you need it, you already know secondary places to go if something happens at your primary location. You’ve seen trouble and you’ve beaten it. You have the confidence to do it again without breaking a sweat. The average Joe that dropped the cost of a used car so he could have a ‘cool’ camera would be frustrated and clueless. The camera couldn’t outwit the situation for him.
So, plain and simple; learn control. Once you have control you expand the limits of creativity.