Step away from the equipment counter. Get a grip on yourself first.
This article originally was published as a week-long series of shorter articles on bythom.com back in 2010. Those articles were in the news section and ephermeral. You can find them buried in the archies on this site, but I thought they should have a more substantive presence. So I've resurrected and re-edited those shorter articles here as a single article.
I've written a lot about equipment and business, but let's not forget the real center of attention. That would be you, the photographer. This article is going to spend some time dealing with the human side of photography.
It's really easy to forget what it is we're buying cameras and lenses for. In case you've forgotten, it's to create images. Much as the car makers would love to have us get all gooey eyed about displacement, fuel injection, and traction control systems, the camera makers want us to pay attention to megapixels, autofocus sensors, and noise reduction. But what we should really be paying attention to is driving or photographing. A car is really only a device to get us from point A to point B. A camera is really only a device to take pictures.
Some of those complaining about megapixels and high ISO capabilities obviously weren't in the same gyms with film cameras I was in during the 70's. Today's equipment so blows what I was using to shoot Bill Walton or Henry Bibby out of the water, I'm not sure what all the complaints about missing equipment are all about. Yes, I'm starting to sound like your father: you don't know how good you have it with a D5 and today's lenses. Or even a D7200 and consumer lenses. Take me back to 1973 shooting freelance for ABC Sports and give me a choice of an F2 shooting some sort of Ektachrome 400 pushed a stop or a D3400 with the kit lens, I'd pick the D3400 with the kit lens. That's how good we have it today.
First and foremost, we take photos. So we need to start there.
What do we need to create an image these days? A sensor, something to control the aperture and shutter speed, a lens. Great.
Assignment #1. Go get your D70 out of the gear closet (I know you have one; if you don't, pick the old camera you do have) and put a plain old 35mm lens on it (50mm equivalent for those crop sensor bodies). Set the camera to manual exposure mode. Turn off autofocus. Now head out the door and spend an hour or two taking some pictures. Gee, that was easy, wasn't it?
Now be honest with yourself. What things did you really miss? Not a heck of a lot, probably. Oh, you probably missed out on a few macro opportunities or the hawk flying by, but I'm betting that you experienced a bit of the joy of photography again. Simple, to the point, totally focused on the photography.
Okay, now take that card out of the camera and stick it into your computer. Pull up a few of the images you shot and post process them. They look pretty good, don't they? (If you found that you missed on exposure or focus or timing or framing, then you discovered something else: you've been leaning on automatic crutches for too long—you need to reconnect with the decisionmaking of photography.)
I'm pretty sure 99.99% of your reading this didn't actually do the little task I just gave you. Almost all of you imagined what it would be like and you certainly brought your pre-conceived notions with you on that make-believe journey. If we're going to get anywhere this week, we need to break you of that bad habit. You actually need to perform the assignment. It's why nearly every beginning photography class in college starts with the basics.
We have some clear building blocks that need to be understood: exposure, focus, perspective, etc. And rather than be lazy and let some automated system designed by a non-photographer engineer in a cubicle in Japan do the work for you, it is highly useful to make sure you understand and have mastered those building blocks.
So set your camera on manual exposure. Try using manual focus (even if you do this via Live View or on the LCD of your mirrorless camera). Pick a prime lens and understand what happens when you use your feet to "zoom." I don't want to see you back here reading more until you've spent at least a half hour with your equipment doing just that.
Yes, I meant it. Go do that assignment first.
Assignment #2. I've got another short assignment for you, as well. For the next eight hours I want you to really notice every photograph you see. Don't let the onslaught of images wash over you to the point that it just dilutes everything into a blur. Stop and study every image you come across. That means your walk from the office to the train station is going to take you a lot longer than usual at the end of the day, so plan accordingly ;~).
For every image you see that's not your own, I want you to first make a snap assessment: it works, or it doesn't work. I'll let you decide what "works" means for now. Conciously give everything a thumbs up or thumbs down. Next, try to figure out why it works or doesn't work. Sometimes it might be something simple like "it's big and bold" or heaven forbid "the grafitti overpowers it." But there's always a reason why you think an image works or doesn't work. Start compiling those reasons. By the end of the day you should start to see patterns to those reasons. Excellent. You've made a good start.
Enough for now. You've got new homework, so get started. When you've formed some opinions on your assignements, be sure to let me know what happened.
Moving on. If you made it this far we know who's really still trying to complete the assignments and who's been going through the motions by reading as fast as they can. I've given you two homework assignments. And yes, when I first posted this I did receive excuses from some of you about why you didn't do the tasks. The dog did not eat your homework. A little rain doesn't mean that all photography is shut down for the duration.
So, those of you who haven't been slacking off, you can gather round me at the front of the room. The rest of you: you still have a homework assignment you need to do, so get cracking.
Assignment #1 was to pick up your basic camera with a prime lens and revert to a one-lens, all-manual ritual for a short photography session. There's much that can be learned from this little lesson, as simple as it was:
- Your exposures were wrong or inconsistent. Oh dear. That tells you something very fundamental: you've been leaning on the camera's automation as a crutch. What are you going to do when the camera doesn't come up with the correct exposure? If you fell into this category, you have a new assignment: take your same simple manual setup into as many different light situations as you can and work on mastering exposure. It isn't that hard. I'll even allow you some simple aids, like the manual exposure bar. But you really need to be able to set a manual exposure. The camera is not always right.
- Your exposures were right on. Congratulations. Your new assignment is to repeat the assignment, first taking a shot using manual exposure, then letting the camera do it automatically. Bonus points for using an external meter, spot metering or centerweighted for your manual exposure, while having the camera perform matrix metering. I think you can guess where this is headed: how were the camera's matrix decisions different than yours?
- You had a difficult time focusing. Certainly, you need more practice, so get thee practicing. But think about this question: if you're having a hard time focusing, how's it any easier for the camera to autofocus? Do you really believe there's a magic system in there that gets it 100% right 100% of the time? And if you're using anything other than Auto Area AF, you're doing some of the directing of the focus system, so any lapse in focusing on your part needs to be looked at very carefully. Those of you complaining that you couldn't see the focus need to get a Hoodman Loupe and use Live View. As one of you reported: "Turns out that little 'in-focus' indicator inside the viewfinder is way more important than I realized it was - it was the only way I could judge focus, and damn if it doesn't work! I'll be paying more attention to it in the future." So, to those of you who balked because they can't focus, repeat the assignment, please.
- You nailed the focus. Great. Did you do better than the camera? It might surprise you to know that quite a few people report that after this assignment. This is an indication that the autofocus system doesn't work the way you thought it did, or that you're not controlling the autofocus system enough. But I'll also wager that you were more creative in setting focus manually than you are with autofocus. What does it say if an automated system lowers your creativity?
- You felt like you had to move too much. Wrong answer. This is an indication that you're using a zoom to do all the heavy lifting. The problem with this is that you never change your perspective (see next). A related answer is "I had to get closer." Good! Americans in particular have this habit of not violating personal space. Americans tend to stand back from everything, using a longer lens to get their framing. If you have to move closer to your subjects, you have to interact with them. That's not a bad thing. Repeat the assignment and move twice as much as you did the first time! Better still, use a wider prime and shoot the same subjects.
- You discovered that your pictures looked different. Using only one focal length tends to make you move in order to frame your shot. Moving to frame changes your perspective. When you start changing perspective between shots you get pictures that leave differing impressions of foreground and background relationships. Heard about the 3D craze going around Hollywood? Well, you just discovered 2D. All good. You need more practice, though. Take two primes of different focal length and start exploring moving in relationship to your subject.
That's enough analysis for now of the first assignment. We can do more, but surely at least one of those things I noted above applied to you and started your mind down a new path. Don't be afraid to explore that path. It's rare that it's a dead end, but even if it is, you still learned something (knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do).
Let's deal with some comments from those of you who did the first assigment:
- "I don't need to do this assignment." With all due respect, yes, I think everyone, including myself, needs to go back to the roots every now and then and get a more manual, direct connection to what we're doing photographically. Even if we use all auto all the time in real life (I don't, but that's beside the point). There are two aspects to the go-all-manual assignment: (1) learn where your weak spot is; (2) learn where the camera's weak spots are. I don't know a pro in any discipline that can't tell you in excruciating detail what his tools do and don't do. Or what she can or can't do well. Those that want to raise their game need to make sure they aren't making assumptions, but are acting on reality. So don't skip the assignment because you think you know what you're doing. Verify it. You might be surprised.
- "I'm happy with where I'm at." I understand that, and everyone gets off the train at different stations. If you've already gotten off the train and you're happy with that, then by all means, skip reading the rest of this article. No one said that these were mandatory assignments or that the results will go on your permanent record. However, since the focus on this Web site has been on getting better—both getting better equipment and using it better as a photographer—for over a decade, I have to wonder why you're still reading along. Just make sure that you're not being defensive and are truly happy with your current abilities and the work it produces.
- "But advanced and automatic tools have their place." Where did I write that they don't? The issue here is whether you really know what place that is and what that automation is achieving for you or hiding from you. Judging from the homework comments I've seen so far, almost every one of you discovered something you had been taking for granted by going all manual for a short period. Taking things for granted is not good, it tends to lead you into a dependency that will someday bite you where you don't want to be bitten. (Hmm. That implies that you do want to be bitten somewhere. That can't be right. ;~)
- "I don't have time to shoot every day." I understand and appreciate that, too. I've been there. But you need to understand that the old "how do you get to Carnegie Hall" joke is relevant here: practice, practice, practice. And practice needs to be a regular part of your life, not something you do six months from now when you suddenly find you've got an unplanned afternoon available. I specifically limited the first assignment to a small camera and lens so that you could do things like shoot for half your lunch, or as one site reader reported: "I walked the three miles home instead of drove, taking pictures along the way." This is the old "take time to smell the flowers" adage. If your life is really centered around an 80-hour work week and you have no time for photography, you've made a decision. That's fine. It's your decision, and I respect it. But don't then write to me two day's before your vacation asking what camera equipment you should buy and what you need to know to take better pictures on your respite.
One other interesting thing that came up when I first wrote this article is this: some of you said that you paid for auto features and you just wanted them to work and that you'd be fine without any manual features at all. On the other hand, some of you are wondering where the all-manual digital Nikon is (e.g. FM3D). To the former group, see bullets 1 and 2 above and re-read. To the latter group, yes, this seems like a product that should be, but isn't. Even the Df didn't quite get us fully back to the old manual world.
Assignment #3. Here's the next assignment: take a close look at your image base and figure out what focal lengths you've been using a lot. You don't have to be anal about this, just review your previous work enough to know which focal length you're not using very much.
Okay, here's the assignment: use your unused focal length!
For instance, I've noticed that when I use the 24-70mm, almost every image is at or near 24mm or 70mm. So I'm going to go out, set the lens at 45mm, and shoot. No zooming! Just use the unused focal length. Likewise, you can do this with lenses. Surprisingly, my 135mm f/2 and 200mm f/2 haven't been getting much love lately, so it's off to the zoo with just those two lenses, no others. I want to make sure that I'm not using those lenses because I haven't needed them recently, not because I don't know what they'll do for me. We all get in lazy habits (and using auto features is just another form of this). It's always good to check whether you're doing something because it's the right thing to do, or because you're getting lazy. I think I'm getting lazy, so I'm going to go play with those two lenses and check.
Next, I'm going to write about some of your responses to Assignment #2, that of taking a close look at every image you were confronted with during a finite period of time. I'm going to use your comments to drive a few points I'd like to make. Let's start with one comment that stood pretty much alone:
- "I was in San Jose. No art on the hotel walls. None at the company I was visiting. None in the new terminal at the airport." Hmm. I knew that the photography business was hurting. Now we know why: it's those pesky Californians again, thinking they can do without buying photos. (Just kidding folks.) Usually when you enter into a no-photo zone like this you don't notice at first. You do notice that something is different, but you don't immediately make the connection between the blandness and monotony you sense and the lack of imagery of any sort. In some ways, I find places like this a relief, almost like taking a visual nap. But they're getting more rare all the time.
- "Images are everywhere." This was the more common response, and the more usual experience. There are places, like Times Square in New York, where you are so bombarded with huge imagery that all the techniques used in those images get their dial pushed to 11 in an attempt to stand out. But all this image pollution does bring up a question you have to answer: how do you create images that stand out? The answer is in between these first two bullets: editing. In an environment where you're not being assaulted by images, one really well done (and often complex) image simply bedazzles. In an enviroment where you are being constantly hit by imagery, simplicity and some solid use of negative space often stands out. In both cases, you're editing against the environment in which the image stands.
- Things that stood out: lack of distractions, sharpness, lines, negative space, stories, unusual lighting, mood, structure. I'm not going to comment in detail on this. But one of the things I was hoping that you'd figure out about this assignment is simple: if you don't know why someone else's images work, how do you know when yours do? As someone trying to be a better photographer, it's not that you're attracted to an image that's important, it's learning why you're attracted to that image. This gives you a starting place to explore in your own work.
- Snapshots versus Record Shots versus Photos. Aha. The purpose of the photograph might make a difference. Consider, for instance, these three approaches to getting images for a wedding: (a) giving every guest a one-use disposable film camera; (b) hiring a photographer to record what happened; or (c) finding a photographer whose style you like and hiring them to recreate the experience of your wedding. Which one of those photographers would you rather be, and why?
- "I saw shots with the subject dead center that were great." Of course you did. You didn't really believe that the Rule of Thirds is a rule, did you? Rule of Thirds (and most other things you learn from others in Composition 101) is a crutch that doesn't get you very far. Subjects and what you want to express with them tell you how to compose, not rules that are inflexible. If you want a better idea than Rule of Thirds, think Balance. Sometimes a slightly offset subject like Rule of Thirds produces is balanced, sometimes it isn't. Sub-point to consider: balanced with what?
- "Is it me, or do 99.99% of those HDR photos look unrealistic?" First off, a lot of HDR users don't yet know how to process for subtlety, nor do they understand that cramming 12 stops of information into 5 (what we can see on paper) is going to cause some problems. But one thing that's happened with HDR is something that is common in imaging (and art): fads. If all images always looked the same, we'd get bored quickly. In that world, once you've seen one picture of the Eiffel Tower, you've seen them all. (Even the Eiffel owners recognize this, as they've changed the lighting on the tower at night many times.) So, when something new comes along and has some success, it gets jumped on by everyone and becomes a new arrow in the quiver. As a photographer you can respond to this two ways: (1) track the fads and be quick to take advantage of them so you look current; or (2) avoid the fads entirely because then your images will end up just looking like everyone elses. Note the images I sometimes put at the top of bythom.com. Many times when I post an image there, I get "how did you do that" questions. I'm not going to tell you. At least not until I complete the project I developed that image for. Why? Because I spend a lot of time and energy trying to do something different in my imagery. It stands out at the moment. If it becomes much copied, then I have to move on and develop another new style.
Finally, I'll wrap up my responses to all your homework assignments. Again, my apologies if I didn't manage to answer your email individually when I originally posted this article. I did read all of them, I responded to many, but the volume just was a bit overwhelming.
- "A lot of Internet participants seem to care more about technology than composition or producing interesting images." Exactly. I know I get hung up on the technology, too, and many come to me for help in understanding it. Technology will keep marching on and on and on... But we can't lose sight of what we use that technology for. I try to write technique and imaging essays, for instance, but the number one question I get about most of them is almost always has some basis in the technology ("what focal length is that?"). You've got to get past all that technology and into the aesthetics if you want to create great images. Great painters argue about brush quality, sure, but they spend more time arguing about the final images. Parts of the assignments were there to help you get to that. Others were there to help you tackle the basic technology decisions you've been leaving to Nikon engineers.
- "Why a 35mm lens?" I was thinking DX, and that's about "normal" for DX. Why normal? Because it forces a perspective that a lot of people don't use much any more with zooms that have large ranges. If something's close to them, they go wide. If something's far from them, they go telephoto. I wanted you to move your feet, not your zoom ring. Hidden in that move is something called perspective.
- "The smell of smoke I discovered was that I had to think before every shot." Unused circuitry tends to blow a fuse, maybe even a capacitor, when you try cranking it up again after a long nap. But thinking is good before pressing the shutter release. I'm amazed these days at how many people press the shutter release, then think. That's not to say that there aren't times when you have to press the release and trust that the camera does the right thing. Some spontaneous events happen quickly and without warning, and you won't get a picture of them if you dilly dally around trying to finesses a bunch of manual decisions. However, back in the film days, the greats managed to capture those same moments. They did that by anticipating, and by training themselves to think and respond faster. But the thing I want everyone to do on this (and almost any future assignment) is think. Make sure that you're in control, not the camera.
- "I took fewer shots." I've been commenting a lot about workflow lately. Workflow begins before the shot. Some of you are increasing your post shooting workflow by not doing enough workflow during the shoot. The number one thing you find upon returning home is that you throw away a lot of the images you took. Doing that takes time. Had you spent more time thinking about what you're trying to do and getting things right before pressing the shutter release, you might find you'll delete fewer images later. And you're likely to have fewer images to process in the first place. This isn't to say that you shouldn't bracket something you're unsure of (focus, exposure, white balance, composition, whatever), but to try to eliminate as many things that you're unsure of as you can while in the field.
- "I took better shots." This comment usually came immediately after the one in the bullet above. Again, it's the old slow down and smell the roses thing. Go slow. Be open to photographic opportunities. Evaluate your decisions. Consider what they mean. Take a picture. Consider what you might have missed. Retake your picture.
- You all hate the manual focus ability of modern DSLRs. Even the focus confirmation light gets some slams. The problem is that you have to look down to see it so now you'ure not looking at where the sensor actually is. Not a problem on a tripod, but handheld, some people have issues tracking the two. One user had a great suggestion that I've fleshed into something slightly more substantive: make the active AF sensor change color when it achieves focus. Simply changing it from red to green would do, and this is what the mirrorless cameras often do. If you really wanted to get sophisticated, the left bracket could emulate the left confirmation arrow, the right bracket the right arrow to help you know which way focus is off. Unfortunately, these types of suggestions almost never get back to the camera companies.
- Matrix metering comments abound. One particularly apt observation was this: "...the matrix meter does a better job of getting the whole scene exposed into the tonality that can be captured, sometimes at the cost of the subject. I do a better job of getting the exposure of the subject right, at the cost of sometimes losing highlights or shadows." Well, there's a lot to think about in those two sentences. Be sure that you take the time to consider what they mean.
- "I covered the back LCD to make sure I was sure on my decision without chimping." Scott Kelby had a variation on this assignment on his site at one time that also had you cover the LCD. Personally, I don't buy into this approach. The problem is the same one that we had with film: the feedback loop is too long. If all you're trying to do is test your decisions, then sure, cover the LCD once to verify that you've got it. But the one thing that digital has that film never had is the ability to evaluate decisions quickly. The feedback loop is near instantaneously—and even quicker with mirrorless systems that show exposure and processing in the EVF—and that's the best way to learn: with quick feedback loops. The only thing you have to watch out for is that you start using the feedback as the decisionmaking crutch. Many people use this technique: Shoot, Look. Change something. Shoot, Look. Keep changing something until: Shoot, Look, perfect. No. You need to Think, Shoot, Look. Reevaluate, Shoot, Look. Skipping that first step is what makes the LCD a crutch. Doing that first step makes that LCD a tool.
- "My bad exposures weren't because I set them wrong, but because I completely forgot to set an exposure at all a couple of times." This was part of one of the primary teaching points of the exercise. When we start leaning on the all-automatic features of our cameras, we start letting the camera make decisions and we don't think about them much, if at all, any more. To the point where we can shoot for periods of time without ever considering something. I wanted to bring your thinking about everything back up front, while you're shooting. I don't want you to get home and discover that you should have thought about what the camera might be doing, but didn't.
It seems that quite a few of you took the time to see what would happen with this assignment. Thank you for induldging me. That many of you came away with some insight, however small, makes it all worth it, I hope. I hope by re-editing and re-posting this article more of you will take the time to do the three assignments and put some serious thinking time into the results.
All of us get stuck creatively from time to time. All of us get over-reliant on automated features from time to time. The way you break that is to stop doing what you've been doing and try something different. Sometimes those experiments are dead ends. But more often than not you learn something useful that takes you somewhere new and better.