How Many Decisions Do You Make?

Trying to keep a balance between writing about things that are gear-related (e.g. reviews) versus things that are use-related (e.g. technique) is something that I've been juggling going way back into the 1970's, first with filmmaking, then computers, then with the outdoors, and these days with photography.

But it isn't an either/or game. It's all part of the same game.

What game is that, you ask?

It's the game of making decisions about the thing you're going to do. My mom—who's an artist—recently said something to me that caught my attention: "It's been so cold in the studio that I'm thinking about going back to watercolor because I can do in the house without creating a mess." 

That's a decision. 

In fact, it's a decision to undecide a previous decision (she's been painting with acrylics a lot lately). 

We photographers make thousands of decisions, and every one of them impact the images we end up making. Many of those decisions start with gear. Obviously, it's difficult to take a good photo of a distant small bird with just your smartphone. If you're an architectural photographer, perspective and linear distortion mean you might make different lens choices than another type of photographer. 

One thing that comes up time and again is that I see people struggling with the wrong type of decision. In particular, I see people worrying over brand, pixels, dynamic range, and a host of other gear-related things when these really aren't aspects that truly inform the eventual photograph. 

Let me put a strawman proposal out there: if all you're doing is shooting for the Web, social media, and sharing, you can mostly ignore sensor decisions. You don't need to care what physical size your sensor is, how many pixels it has, or whether it can capture 10 or 14 stops of dynamic range. At even 2000 pixels on the long axis—way more than you need for sharing via the Internet—most modern imaging systems are going to produce highly usable photographs in most situations you can submit them to. You don't have to make a sensor decision.

True, we're at the point where many folk have 4K video screens in their homes, and that requires a bit more than 8mp (and would be best produced from a 36mp Bayer sensor), but how many of you are really moving images from camera to your big screen in the living room? Or someone else's living room, for that matter. 

The thing is, if you start by making extra decisions that you don't need to and you continue to complicate every downstream point with additional decisions that you probably don't need to make, photography gets pretty dull and complicated and not at all fun. 

So let's back up a moment and talk about the decisions that absolutely make a photograph: what, when, and where. That's it. What, when, and where. If you can throw in a why (story), you're shooting with the greats. 

Curiously, only one of those decisions you have to make actually translates into something directly related to gear: when is about the shutter. At what moment you pressed the shutter release, and whether the shutter speed captured the when you were targeting. (Note: long shutter speeds create something other than a fractional moment in time, they capture motion through time. Yep, another decision, though still about when.)

The what and where (and maybe why) decisions are more about composition: what did you include? Obviously, if the viewer doesn't know what is the subject or doesn't think the where seems unique, the resulting photo isn't communicating, and that's something we want it to do.

So there's a corollary to what and where: did you remove all the things that didn't contribute to answering those questions? If the what is Uncle Henry but there are people all around because he's hanging out in a museum, is it clear that the what is Uncle Henry? It might be the extra people and the environs answer the where, but here's the next part of decision making: getting the balance right. 

Personally, I like the Sesame Street approach. Above/below, Front/Behind, Dominate/Subordinate, etc.  (Aside: my office for four years had a TV outside of it that was always tuned to the PBS satellite feed, and repeats of Sesame Street for different time zones dominated that feed during the day. I probably know all the 70's/80's Sesame Street references by heart.) The what probably should be one of those pairs, the where the other. As in Uncle Henry is in front of the large crowd milling through the museum opening. Or an alternative approach: the crowd was so large finding Uncle Henry is a bit like finding Waldo.

I'm intentionally avoiding talk about gear in this article. Ultimately you use the gear to accomplish the primary decisions you're making about the image you're taking. We can get all gear-full if you'd like: if Uncle Henry is in front of the large crowd milling through the museum opening, what might we be deciding about focus and angle of view? Well, the focus is on the what: Uncle Henry. We only need just enough focus on the where to know it's a museum. f/4 maybe? ;~) Meanwhile, "large crowd" can be accomplished a couple of ways, one with wide angle to include them all, the other with telephoto to make it seem packed.

Okay, what's our decision making here? I want to take a photo of Uncle Henry at the very crowded museum opening. The what is Uncle Henry. The where is the museum. The when becomes an interesting bit, doesn't it? This is where the great photographers start to get creative in their decisions. What if we put the camera on a tripod, had Uncle Henry stand perfectly still, and let the crowd mill around behind him in a long exposure? The artwork and Uncle Henry are stationary and well seen, the crowd is ephemeral. Indeed, by blurring the other customers and keeping Uncle Henry sharp, you've made it blatantly obvious to the viewer of the photograph who the photo is about, haven't you? 

Before I go deeper down this track and fully develop this article into a longer one for the technique section, I want you to perform an assignment for me. The next time you go out to take a photograph, I want you consciously be aware of every decision you make to take it, and to write all those decisions down. (And by the way, choosing to set something to "auto" is a decision.)

Once you have the complete list of your decisions, I want you to go back and challenge yourself on every one: Why did I have to make that decision? Why did I make that decision instead of another? Did I miss any decisions that I should have made? Would it be clear to someone else looking at my photo what decisions I made? 


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