There was a business book written called 'What Got You Here Won't Get You There' which I have never read. But the title is something I think of often. In photography we have this moment after we have learned about our gear, after we have learned the basics of composition and after we have learned a few tricks on how to approach a scene. It is a moment when you look objectively at your photography, see how far it has improved but then see how far you have yet to go...but how do you get there?
I subscribed to various on-line training like Kelby Training and learned a great deal. Some of those videos really helped my photography a great deal. After three years however, I began to see the learning curve flatten out. Kelby moved to video and some obscure niche photography like Arial photography. So I let my subscription run out.
I moved to film and the learning curve restarted. I pushed, I pulled, I bulk loaded, I set up a darkroom and I developed my own film. All are tasks that must be learned and are fun to try out. None of them intrinsically help improve my photography.
Being a member of the last 'library generation', I took my dilemma to books. I went through my photography books to see what the masters shot, how they shot it and what made their images so magnificent. Being a member of the first 'internet generation', I also went to the internet.
On the internet, I found all sorts of excellent resources, each with their own opinion as to what makes a great photograph. The books, on the other hand, did not try to tackle the concept head on. They showed shots of the masters, discussed what made the pictures interesting but did not try to derive a formula for success.
After a great deal of looking, I have come to the conclusion that there really is no set of rules that define a good photograph. If the subject is strong and composition is weak the picture may still be a memorable one. Color, B&W, good composition, strong subject, emotive, timeless, abstract, obvious, straight and photoshopped. I have seen people make great photographs following and violating all the traditional rules of photography.
So should be give up the search? For that answer I turn to the book called Magnum Contact Sheets, which shows the contact sheets of the masters. Here you can see that even people with an eye, who understand the rules of photography and when to break them, still take a bunch of crap images. They may have a higher hit rate but they still fail much more than they hit.
The one element of great photography that I see as the only absolute necessity of a great image is that the photographer got out there. You will not take any good pictures sitting at your desk. You need to get your camera out and make a ton of mistakes. Then, somewhere down the line, you will start to see your hit rate improve.