Not satisfied just taking snapshots? Looking to see your surroundings more intimately, make yourself more at home?

jonahkesselcom-screenshotSo was I, and so I looked to photographers I know to be in a position to give some great answers.
First up, Jonah M. Kessel, award-winning journalist who does “cinematography and visual journalism,” most notably for the New York Times. – Check out his website at to see his great work, but don’t forget to read on for his great answers!

Q: What is the necessary balance between skill and gear, in your opinion? Should one aspiring to produce good photography go for the best possible camera body and glass, or start with whatever is at hand until skill with that really exceeds what’s possible? How does one even find out how much more is possible and worth it?

One can take wonderful pictures with horrible cameras. I’ve seen photo exhibits made from disposable cameras. However, the people who used these cheap cameras were very good and experienced photographers. I think for aspiring photographers there is a minimum tech/gear level which will let you experiment with the medium and understand how it works.

Specifically, I think a good mirrorless or DSLR is necessary. It’s not that starting with a point and shoot is a bad idea, but for you to really spend time to understand how much you really want to be a photographer, you need to have a camera which not only allows you to control it, but does what you want it to do.

Another thing I’ve found in my life is better equipment has fueled my passion to learn more. It’s like playing tennis — if you play with someone better than you, you’ll get better. I find this to be true with equipment too. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have to put the time in to learn how technology is working and how to use it. The easiest example of this is with super shallow depth of field. Anyone can spend money and take a super shallow photo and “wow” someone. But understanding how and when to use depth of field is a different story.

Lastly, I think it’s important to remember that the entire idea here is to tell a story. So the question is — what type of technology allows you to tell the story you want to tell? If you don’t have that, you don’t have the right gear. Story is king.

Q: Similarly, what’s the importance of (individual) style and perspective as opposed to (outside) location, scenery, subject, etc. in producing interesting photography?

Style is not something you can buy at a store. It comes with time and dedication. However, I think if you are happy with the pictures you are taking, the stories you are telling and the money you are making, that’s what’s important. If people start trying to define your style, then so be it. But really, if you just stay true to your passion and mission your style will develop naturally.

Q: What makes a good (and noteworthy) photo, in your opinion? It often looks as if we are just too influenced by what everyone likes or what some models tell us to be good – and so, what’s a good balance between taking these pictures just for ourselves (even if they are meant to be part of a professional portfolio, artistic project, or otherwise meant for public consumption) versus focusing on how they could be of greater interest to our audience?

Popularity is like a snowball rolling down a mountain. This is the nature of the internet, and likes and photography as well. It can be a real problem because often things that deserve attention don’t get attention. This is the nature of photography in the social media and internet age. However, this certainly, in my opinion, does not make for a good or noteworthy photograph.

I think the principles that define what a noteworthy or good photograph are, are largely the same as existed many years ago. Good pictures tell stories. They describe a moment and go beyond that. A good picture allows a user to understand what’s happening before and after the moment that’s been captured. They allow you to even understand what’s happening outside of the frame of the actual picture. Good pictures have the ability to control what part of the photo we see first and then where our eyes go to after. They use light, shadow, color and shape to tell stories — all in a fraction of a second.

Q: Thinking of that makes me wonder: How often do you take pictures that you think speak about something, by themselves, only to find that others are not moved by them?

Often. Not only with audiences but with photo editors as well. Sometimes I’m slapped in the face with how subjective photos can be, in the end.

Q: In your case, maybe I should also ask about the evolution towards videography…

The place of photography in the internet age is certainly in question. On one hand, photography will always be an art form, without question. But on the other hand, the business equation of photography has changed a lot. Consumers have the ability to create images that they often deem are “good enough.” Publications can’t monetize on photography in the same way they used to be able to. And as print runs diminish and print publications turn digital, video has become a potential revenue stream.

Preroll advertisement in online video has become a substantial source of income for lots of sites, although not all. But while a publisher can now put a video where a photo used to go and slap an advertisement on top of it, we can’t make videos as fast as someone can take photos and it costs more money. At least, if you expect any quality out of that video.

Nonetheless, the boom in demand for online video and even the creation of the online video marketplace over the past 5 years or so has birthed an entirely new type of photographer. I’ve seen some people refer to us as “Generation 5D” because we came from still photography backgrounds and we all started shooting video when the Canon 5D came out.

For me, I moved towards video for multiple reasons. I really love technology. All the cinema technology that has come into the hands of independent film makers opens up tons of creative doors for us that were not available even 5-6 years ago. I also moved into video because it simply gave me more independence to create content that could “live on its own.” With photography you really need to sell your pictures with written stories. However, video has a lot more value independently. On top of that, there’s a lot less video people than photographers. So in a nutshell, professionally speaking: demand for video has grown, while competition shrinks. Simultaneously, there are more revenue streams with video.

Sometimes I compare it to being a waiter. In my mind, taking pictures is like serving breakfast in a diner. Being a videographer is like serving dinner in a fine dining restaurant. The breakfast waiter has to turn a lot more tables to make the same money as a dinner waiter. Same is true with video. A photographer might have to work 5 days for the amount I would earn on one video. But it all depends. Money and value in the photographic industry is all a bit funny and doesn’t always make sense. But that’s a different story…