What separates a good photographer from a great photographer is not necessarily skill or vision. The thing that’s needed in order to become a great photographer—or great anything—is awareness.
When I was learning yoga in my 20s, twenty years ago, it was very important that I be aware of the position of each of my muscles and coordinate my moves with the inward and outward flow of my breath.
The visible—what the observer saw—mattered less than what happened in my mind: did my mind guide my body through the asanas or did I daydream and let my body move on autopilot?
The thing that applied to yoga twenty years ago applies to photography today.
Once you have passed the initial stages of apprenticeship—once you know your equipment and have become friends with light—the only thing stopping you from taking great photos is your mind; whether you pay attention or not.
Awareness is hard and uses up a lot of energy. I remember being drained like a bathtub after my first longer photography shoots a few years ago. The exhaustion I felt was partly physical—there is always some acrobatics involved in getting the right point of view—but it was also mental.
My brain was just not used to the strenuous workout I was suddenly demanding from it.
One such workday I lost that awareness.
I had finished a high-powered five-hour photo shoot that went from one location to another. Everything had worked as scripted, and I loved the speed and ease with which I captured the desired photos. The sun was shining and, before the shoot ended, I found myself in a swimming pool with my camera—still taking photos, still full of energy.
Then it ended. We’d got the photos we needed, and the shoot was over.
Except, I had booked another photo shoot for that day and I had to come up with a new batch of energy, without which there would be no awareness, either.
What makes that day so memorable is that I had no energy left. Like Icarus, I went from heights of success to what seemed like the depths of failure. I flew too close to the sun. Triumph turned into defeat.
The only thing separating one from the other is awareness—or the lack thereof.