Tricks of the Trade

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I’ve been doing a bit of non-photography reading around process lately and not surprisingly some of what I have read can apply to photography. In my research on process improvement, I came upon a quote that said: “Don’t waste time learning the “tricks of the trade”. Instead learn the trade.” This is a great piece of advice for photographers no matter where you are on the path to learning photography.

When I first picked up a camera with the intent to learn photography, I studied the exposure triangle and used manual mode for the longest time. It was only when I fully understood  how aperture, shutter speed and ISO were related that I moved to using Aperture Priority and Exposure Compensation. These days new photographers start out on Program or Automatic Mode or even Aperture Mode and they come to fully understand exposure only later. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, I do see the advantages of starting out learning the trade as it were, rather than the tricks of the trade. Light is the raw material with which photographers use to make photographs. If you understand its properties and how to manipulate it at a fundamental level using your camera, you will make more meaningful photographs much more quickly. That’s the paradox of taking time to do the hard work to learn this craft. Sometimes the longer route is actually the shortest way to get there. Here are some other suggestions that might be useful for you.

Buying New Gear
Temptation lurks ever present for us photographers as camera manufacturers continually upgrade gear in an attempt to dominate the market. The fact is you don’t need to buy new gear to make good photographs. If you like to create HDR images, you were perfectly able to create your images before they added that feature on to the latest cameras. The more technology takes away from our thought and hands on process, the more distant we are from this being a craft in the truest sense of the word. Leica might be one manufacturer who understand this. In a recent announcement Leica will create a new camera with just three settings: aperture, shutter speed and ISO. And no LCD screen at the back. You don’t need to buy this camera though to buy into the notion of less technical distraction and more mindful presence when making photographs; just go out and make pictures with what you have.

Using Presets and Actions
Presets and actions can be a great way to learn post-processing techniques. I am just not convinced that they are a good place to start and they are certainly not a good place to stop in terms of learning this craft. Photoshop actions can be challenging to learn and to create on your own but instead of spending money on buying them from other photographers, spend money on a Lightroom or Photoshop course. You will learn about the power of Lightroom and Photoshop beyond just presets and actions and it will help you work more effectively with the software. If you do have presets and actions, take a closer look at them and try to figure out how they work. Explore what will happen if you change the position of the sliders or if you turn off one of the layers. There is no substitute for a eureka moment when it comes to learning.

Learn to Evaluate Your Work
This is one I struggle with myself because it is human nature to be our own worst critic. All the great photographers I have become acquainted with through their work and writings have an acute sense of what is a good image. It is not something they outsource to others to decide and certainly not on social media. We need to learn how to evaluate our own work, to be able to look at a set of images and decide which are the strongest ones to include in a story, series or portfolio. We must be able to articulate why we choose one image over another for inclusion. Certainly we can get input from others especially as we learn the editing process but do not be tempted to rely on the opinions of others to know and understand the value of your work.

Building Your Portfolio
Group workshops are a great way to meet other photographers who share your interests. Many photographers also use them as a way to add to their portfolios and from an economic point of view it makes sense. Someone makes all the arrangements for you, hires models, shows you how to light and might even set it up for you. It is an excellent way to learn but in my opinion, it is not the way to add to your portfolio. I’ve seen similar images made at the same time by different photographers. They show up on their websites and are submitted to magazines and competitions and it is difficult to take that work seriously because it doesn’t feel real. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on a tour, look for interesting things to photograph close to home or head out on the road on your own. Here’s a series from my friend Eric Kruszewski who spent 14 days traveling across America. It was a change from living and traveling abroad traveling to 26 countries over five years. Today Eric is an editorial photographer whose work is represented by National Geographic Creative. He didn’t get there through any tricks but by being one of the hardest working photographers I know.

At the Bangkok Photo School, we are committed to teaching the trade. Our November class is now full but you can add your name to the wait list here. If you’d like to know when new classes are announced, sign up for our newsletter. You can also email us with your enquiries or suggestions.