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.
Have you ever struggled with figuring out how to see like your camera does? There are two parts to that, one of which I mentioned in my last post where I briefly discussed the coverage of your camera viewfinder. The other part is learning to see with different lenses on your camera. Conventional wisdom says that a 50mm lens is as close to how we see with our eyes and that is main reason why that lens is so popular. Figuring out what will be in your frame using other lenses takes lots of experimentation and noting the results.
One tip I found useful came from my photography mentor who once gave me an old slide frame. In the days of film, he used to carry around a slide frame without the film in his wallet. When he saw something interesting, he would use the frame to help decide what to put in his picture. The final photograph would depend on what he wanted to say with the image.
For beginners, the slide frame is a good little tool to help understand what would be in your frame if you used a wide angle lens versus a telephoto lens. Maybe today it is just as easy to slap on your 28-300mm zoom lens and just go make pictures. While that is true, using the slide frame has the added advantage of slowing down and thinking about what you want to say with your photograph. Sometimes I walk around without my camera and use the slide frame to do just that. You can also concentrate on learning to see rather than making pictures.
Here are a couple of photographs that illustrate how the slide frame works. This first photograph demonstrates what you might see with a zoom lens. The focus is on the details of the Japanese lantern and there is no other information in the frame. You can see that there many other things I could have included but did not. The second photograph demonstrates using a wider angle where the entire lantern is in the frame. Here we see more of the context in which the details exist i.e the lantern is part of a Japanese garden and the garden is near the water.
These two photographs also demonstrate a technique used in visual storytelling where you, as the storyteller, include photographs that establish for your audience the context without using words or narration to announce it. Typically a wide angle shot is used as an establishing shot but a detailed shot can also be used to establish the main idea of your photo essay or story. Knowing what you want to say will inform which photograph you make.
Habits are the foundation of our successes and our failures. That is why, as a photographer, it is important to develop good habits. When it comes to photography, there is such a thing as “a happy accident” but you cannot grow as a photographer if all your strongest images come as a result of things that are out of your control.
By looking at my mistakes, I’ve discovered five things I need to pay attention to that would have made the difference between a good photograph and an image that is not usable. The idea was to create a checklist of things I need to pay attention each time I am making pictures.
Shooting in Raw
I can count on one hand the number of times I have photographed only in JPG before I developed the habit of making sure my camera was set to shoot at a minimum in Raw or Raw and JPG. If you always shoot in Raw the chances of your camera being set to shoot in JPG are slim but it is better to be safe than sorry so I always check my settings. Raw files are the digital equivalent of a film negative. The files hold all the information you need to work with your images in post-production in order for you to get the final image you see in your head. JPG files do not keep all the information and while you can work with them to make changes, you simply will not have the creative flexibility you have working with Raw files.
One third of the exposure triangle, ISO can often be overlooked. It is easy to set it to Auto and to let the camera do the work for you. However the camera does not concern itself with the quality of your image and there may be instances where you need to control the ISO to control the noise in your pictures. If you are photographing at night and using a tripod, to improve image quality, you can adjust your ISO down instead of relying on Auto ISO. Whenever I head out, I check my ISO setting and usually reset it to the default ISO 200 or if photographing at night, the maximum ISO I would consider using e.g. 2400 or 3200 depending on the camera I’m using. On more sophisticated cameras, you can program your default settings and include ISO so that with the press of one button, you know what you have used for your ISO.
I often use spot metering. On my Nikon D700 I have a function button I can use as I am shooting to switch quickly between matrix metering and spot metering. Not all cameras have function buttons that can be programmed in this way and if you have set your metering to spot metering and forget to change it back, you might wonder why your photographs are not properly exposed. You might miss that decisive moment before you realize you are on the wrong metering mode so always check your metering mode before heading out or use the programmable default settings to bring you back to your normal settings.
Unless I am looking for a shutter speed for creative purposes such as panning where I set the shutter speed depending on what moving object I wish to photograph or painting with my camera where I want a longer exposure, I photograph in Aperture Priority mode. (For more tricky exposure situations I do shoot manual and set my own aperture and shutter speed.) When I use Aperture Priority, the camera will decide on the shutter speed. However it cannot decide if the shutter speed is fast enough to keep the image sharp. The general rule is if you are shooting at a focal length of say 50mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/50 seconds to ensure your image will be sharp. If your focal length is 300mm, your minimum shutter speed is 1/300 sec. I have lost too many potentially good photographs because the shutter speed has been just a few fractions of a second too slow. All it takes is a quick check of the focal length you are using and keeping an eye on your shutter speed.
Corners and Edges
I’m not a purist by any stretch of the imagination but I like to “get it right in-camera” as much as I can. I do crop in post-production but I am very happy when I look at an image and see that I have everything within the frame that should be there. Not all camera viewfinders cover 100% of what is recorded when you press the shutter. If you check your camera specifications, you can find your camera’s coverage. For example, my Nikon D700 has 95% coverage and that means I will sometimes include things in the corners and along the edges of my image that I had not intended to include. The Nikon D4S on the other hand has 100% coverage and what you see is what will be recorded on your sensor. Even if your camera viewfinder has 100% coverage it is a good idea to pay attention to the corners and edges as your frame your images.
Making good photographs and developing good habits go hand in hand. Incorporate them into the way you make pictures so you don’t give them a second thought and you will be one step closer to consistently making better photographs.
Do you have any good habits you can add to the list? We’d love to hear them!
The name Junichiro Tanizaki may not be familiar to many photographers but his 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows is a read I highly recommend. Today we have a number of tools at our disposal to bring forth details from the shadows in our pictures but Tanizaki’s essay makes a convincing argument to do otherwise.
There is a whole genre of photography that seeks to reveal and embellish every possible pixel and I have never quite understood the appeal of it. For me, the mysterious exchange between light and shadow plays to my imagination and keeps me engaged with an image far more than when it is completely lit. I liken it to the silence between the notes where it has been said music really resides or the empty spaces carved out within a room where you feel your body can breathe.
Recently I was visiting friends in the American Midwest and we spent a few afternoons driving around, getting lost on county roads lined with fields of corn and beans and beans and corn. It was hot and the sun followed us everywhere. We stopped at a country church that had a cemetery with grave markers from the early 1800’s. I couldn’t find much of interest to photograph there even though all around there was so much history. The light was too intense and even in the shade of the trees, everything felt so exposed. I wandered around the church itself which served as the local Legion Hall and probably explained the lack of religious symbols that would distinguish it as a place of worship. I had to look very hard to find the sense of peace and tranquility many of us perceive in churches and temples but it was there. A small window with a weathered frame softened by a white lace curtain that hung gently inside. Not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination but enough shadows to illuminate the quiet mystery of the place.
As photographers we are fortunate that our tools can help evoke this feeling even when it may not be naturally so present. There are two things I can consistently rely upon when working with light and shadow: exposure compensation and spot metering.
Exposure compensation is used when photographing in an auto exposure mode such as aperture or shutter priority or even program mode. It allows you to control the amount of light and shadow beyond what the camera believes is the correct exposure. On most cameras this exposure is shown on a sliding scale with a reading of 0 when the camera is left to calculate the exposure. By moving the scale either up or down, you are letting the camera know you want to change the exposure. That scale can go up and down to a maximum of two or three stops and usually in 1/3 increments depending on your settings. I often dial in some exposure compensation when photographing especially when I make a few pictures and realize what I see on the back of my camera is not what I had envisioned in my head.
Spot metering is when the camera uses a very small area of the frame to decide the proper exposure, typically 1% or 2%. By focusing on a key detail within the picture, you can control how the entire image is rendered. For a majority of the time, you will select the matrix-metering mode. In this mode, the camera looks at several areas within the frame and measure the intensity of the light and calculates what it believes to be the proper exposure. Different cameras will measure in different ways (they will use more or less points or different calibrations) so if you use more than one camera to photograph a scene, you might notice the images do not look the same. I use spot metering quite often to the point where I have programmed one of my Function buttons to switch between matrix and spot metering.
You can try to accomplish a similar look in post-production but remember that when you are out making pictures, you are essentially collecting information on the scene you are photographing. The dynamic range of light you gather at the time you are making your photograph is fixed and you cannot retrieve what is not there. It is always better to try to capture as much as you can in-camera rather than rely solely on Lightroom or Photoshop to do the job for you.
Recently I decided to give the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan a try since I hadn’t upgraded to Lightroom 5 yet. The jury is still out on whether the monthly subscription plan is right for me but I am enjoying the latest version of Lightroom (LR). Since I had to reset my preferences with the new download, I had a chance to go back to Gavin Gough’s photographer’s workflow bible and revisit key workflow elements like camera calibration.
“Selecting a profile is an important first step when we begin to process images and…without it we are destined to be processing our precious photographs with little more than guesswork”. ~ Gavin Gough
When you photograph in RAW format, the image you see on the back of your camera is a JPG preview that has been processed by your camera based on the picture style you selected. The file you download to process is the original RAW file and it does not contain any information that was applied to the JPG preview. If you look at the Camera Calibration in the Develop Module, you will see the profile of this RAW file is the default Adobe Standard. Your image will look something like this, very flat.
To achieve “the look” of the JPG preview, LR has additional profiles you can apply that simulate the picture styles of your camera. It is pretty smart and will make specific profiles available depending on the camera you used. For example, if your images have a .NEF extension (even if the file has been converted to DNG format), LR knows that is a Nikon RAW file and it makes a set of profiles available that map to the Nikon picture styles. Not all camera brands are represented in LR but they are slowly adding profiles. I have been using my Olympus OM-D EM-5 almost exclusively for my farm project but the Olympus profiles have only recently been added to LR 5.3 Camera Calibration. Here is what the RAW file looks like when I apply the Camera Natural profile.
You can stop here with your processing if you are happy with what you see but I usually go further. Your first option is to make adjustments within Camera Calibration but most people will prefer to make adjustments within the Basic or Tone Curve or Color panels instead. In the final image below, I have made adjustments outside of Camera Calibration to achieve the feeling of freshly harvested tomatoes from the farm.
To learn more about processing your images including creating your own custom camera calibration profiles, pick up The Photographer’s Workflow today and just a reminder that Gavin Gough’s Photographer’s Post-Production is currently available for $39 using the discount code “ppp439“.
Although many tend to think of photography primarily as a way to show people what they saw, I have to agree with the famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh who at the close of his commercial career recalled his overall approach of always being aware that “the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.”
There are no formulas for this, no shortcuts although some have said that we should spend equal time observing and thinking as we do in making pictures. For me this has been a good place to start. All too often we head out with a camera and just photograph whatever tickles our fancy. This is a good approach if we are practising our craft, something akin to musical scales which are not to be confused with the real performance. To make really good photographs, we need to approach our photography with more than just what we see.
Many artists will tell you to carry a notebook and with good reason. Ideas can pop into your head at any time through a thought or an observation and you need to write them down as they occur because they can disappear as fast as they came into your head. I used to think that if something was a really good idea, there was no way I would forget it. Sadly I think many a good revelation has been fleeting because of my lack of discipline in carrying around a notebook. Writing down ideas at the moment of their conception will allow you to forget about them and to come back later and see a connection which can point you in a direction. You will only record a thought or an idea because it meant something to your heart or your mind. That is not to say everything you write down is going to be good or even directly useful but what you write in your notebook will create a map for what you are thinking and what is important to you.
The really good ideas for your photography happen slowly. They need time to incubate and percolate before they can take a form that is both useful and instructive for you. The best ideas will reveal themselves because when you encounter them again through your notebook, you will have the same or a similar feeling as the first time they came to you. The not-so-good ideas won’t resonate in the same way.
One of the best tools I have found that works for me is the virtual notebook. I use the program Evernote to record ideas, thoughts, pictures and links I want to remember. It is on my desktop computer and the information syncs to the app that is on my iPhone and my iPad. Information is organized according to “Notebook” but there is an added benefit of being able to use tags so I can connect articles I’ve read to current or potential photography projects and more. Using a virtual notebook is also good if you are prone to losing your notebook.
I used think of notebooks as a bit pretentious but now that I am using them on a regular basis I wonder how I would have remembered half as much as I record in them. For photographers who subscribe to Karsh’s view of making pictures, notebooks are essential and you can never have too many of them.
Street photography is a genre that owes some of its enormous popularity to the growing urbanization of our spaces. As people move from rural areas and cities expand, finding landscape locations to photograph has meant traveling further distances, which isn’t always possible when you have limited time. When my mentor pointed out to me that street photography is akin to landscape photography for people who live in cities, I decided to test that theory by looking at the most common landscape photography tips and seeing if there were any similarities. Surprisingly there were more than just a few.
Foreground, middle ground, and background
One of the most common landscape tips is to pay attention to objects throughout your scene. By including something of interest in your foreground, you can draw the viewer’s attention into the frame and by incorporating objects in the middle, you can help their eye travel through the picture and hopefully include something of interest in the background as well. This tip is often cited to give a feeling of depth or three-dimensionality to landscape photographs. Street photographers have the same concept except they call it “layering”. This technique is frequently promoted to give depth of interest to street photographs but the goal is the same, to make use of the entire frame to engage the viewer.
This is a favourite tip of many landscape photographers and is frequently applied when discussing long exposures involving water. By extending the length of time your shutter is open, you can give the feeling of moving water especially if all other elements within the scene remain stationary. Long exposures can also be employed to photograph star trails in a big open sky at night. If you live in a city, it is almost impossible to see the stars but you can still capture movement either through panning or by simply finding a background that works for you, setting a longer shutter speed, and letting people move through the frame. Street photographers often use this technique when they find interesting signs or buildings that aren’t going to move and they want to include a human element to juxtapose and infer meaning.
Skies and Skyline
Often the difference between an interesting landscape photograph and a boring one is the presence of a dramatic sky. Pending inclement weather or interesting cloud formations can change a scene so much so that seasoned landscape photographers will consult the weather report before deciding when to head out to specific locations. In the city the skies may not play as prominent a role when there are towering high-rises and seemingly little sky to see especially when they are polluted. If you treat the skyline as an extension of the skies, framing with that in mind can add the drama that might be missing. This could be as simple as including interesting architecture or historical landmarks at the top of your frame. Often these elements will give viewers an indication of where the picture was taken as geological landmarks often do in landscape photographs.
When first starting out in photography, many people will buy a camera with a kit zoom lens i.e. 18-55mm or something similar. If you develop an interest in landscape photography, you will likely want a good quality wide-angle zoom lens such as a 16-35mm. Going wide allows you to capture big scenic landscapes that give the viewer a sense of the open space. The typical street photography lens is a medium zoom lens (Jay Maisel actually uses the Nikon 28-300mm) or a 50mm prime lens however some street photographers like to use a 35mm prime lens. This lens allows you to get closer without raising too much attention of those around you. It also enables you to incorporate much more of the environment which also makes it easier to use the “layering” technique mentioned earlier.
Water is an important element in landscape photography and many photographers find reflections irresistible subject matter. The best time to photograph reflections is early in the morning when the waters are calm and the light reflected has a different quality from the light that falls on the trees and landscape. You can often take a relatively ordinary scene and improve it by including a reflection. Shooting reflections is almost standard for street photographers because there are so many windows or reflective surfaces (such as cars) in urban environments. Here too the quality of light is important although photographing at high noon is preferable for getting reflections in cityscapes. You can take a relatively boring street scene and if you add in reflections of buildings or people, you can create more interesting pictures that will grab the attention of viewers. Here’s a link to getting creative with reflections by JJ Michael who teaches our Beginner’s Class.
Spend time scouting
If you listen to the stories behind some of the strongest landscape photographs, you will find the photographer has spent a lot of time researching the location. This includes a great deal of time scouting the location in terms of vantage points and understanding how the light and different weather conditions will work to create a better photograph. It is not uncommon for them to come back repeatedly to the same location in pursuit of more ideal conditions. Street photography can also benefit from location scouting especially if you are photographing in your neighbourhood where returning on a regular basis is easy to do. Research when the light is ideal and look for patterns in foot traffic or times of the day when local merchants might be following their routines such as receiving deliveries. Not only will you improve your chances of making a stronger photograph but you might also find something interesting that would have been missed otherwise.
Get into position
The other night I was out trying to figure out the best spot for me to photograph the Super Moon. I used an app called Light Trac to figure out the best place to be in relation to the landscape and the moon. JJ Michael wrote about a simple app here. Figuring out when the moon would rise and where it would be on the horizon when it would appear the largest was important to make sure I was standing in the right spot for the best opportunity to make the photograph I had envisioned. While there is no such app for street photographers, thinking about your scene and figuring out the best spot to make your picture takes away the randomness that leaves almost everything up to chance. Maybe that is the allure of street photography for some but to me, you shouldn’t be relying on happy accidents to become a better photographer. For his series “Dream Life” Australian photographer Trent Parke understood the light he needed to achieve his vision to the point of being obsessive in finding the right spot to make this photograph.
The parallels between landscape and street photography may not be apparent at first but like many aspects of photography, technical skill and “seeing” can be transferable. Our next Beginners class starts August 27th and JJ Michael will be teaching the fundamentals and maybe a few tips in this post. We still have some spots available so register today!