Learning Photography From My Mistakes
By Adrian Klein
In the beginning, long long ago when high end digital cameras were only 2 or 3MP (really less than 10 years ago) I had all the wrong ideas of what I needed to do to be a better photographer. It was only about four years ago that I started to figure out everything I did not know and boy was there a lot. Some of these may seem obvious, most are to me now but you know the saying “you don’t know what you don’t know” and that is exactly how it was for me. Fast forward four years…this summer I led quite a few photo tours and one thing a number of people shared with me is their appreciation for truly trying to help them with their photography, to help find the ‘key’ so to speak. Of course I was just being me and my response is that I would rather not see people go the longer and more aggravating route I went on which was figuring out everything the hard way in the beginning, making too many mistakes. This was mainly because I was not open to receiving help, I thought having a better camera would create better images, and glancing through the manual and a couple Ansel Adams books would suffice for knowledge gathering. Yeah that was close, not. What I want to share with you are some of the thoughts, processes, concepts and general disillusions I had about what it took to be a good photographer before the light bulb turned on. This is only a few of them as there are more that I will most likely add as a Part II for a later blog entry.
EQUIPMENT – Don’t rely on your equipment to create great photos.
Having the latest greatest DSLR or the newest version of Photoshop is not going to make you a better photographer. My early thinking was that I always needed newer equipment; you know the latest camera with more mega pixels is always better. Breaking News… Canon is releasing a 85 MP DSLR tomorrow, pre-order today so you are not left behind! Well no worries, you won’t be left behind even if my statement was true. Don’t get me wrong I do upgrade and buy new equipment from time to time but I don’t think it will make me a better photographer in the overall scheme of things. During my experience photographing with my peers and many clients, I have seen the contents of photo bags run the gamut from small with only the basics to big and full enough to hold a body, and I don’t mean camera body. Some of the best photographers I know travel light and or don’t have all of the most expensive equipment. There are reasons to buy better equipment and spend the extra money yet my point here is to make use with what you have first if you cannot afford more. Most of what will make you a better photographer will not come from getting a better camera or lens or upgraded software. I remember one of my mentors that has a successful studio making sales figures most photographers could only dream of. The primary camera she had at the time, the prosumer Canon 20D, and this was only a couple years ago when many more expensive and higher MP DSLR’s were on the market. Keep your photography equipment wish list handy and bite into a little at a time while working on other components that can truly improve your photography.
LESS – In many cases less can be more.
Avoid the rapid fire machine gun approach without a reason why. Early on I just shot and shot and shot to no end without a reason why and no true understanding of my settings that I was changing to make the image different. I was thinking they would be more than snapshots, most were not for a variety of reasons. These days people even when they know their camera are firing off up to 9 separate bracketed exposures with one click of the button. Having a group together doing this sounds like we are in a battle zone and I should be running for the armored Humvee! This may be warranted in a some cases yet a scene with a dynamic range of a few stops does not need 7 or 9 exposures separated by one stop each. Simply because memory is dirt cheap does not mean we need to capture exponentially more images now than a few years ago. I do fully understand things have changed from the days of film where it was always deciding what to shoot whereas today its more of deciding what to keep once you get home. I am not saying I don’t bracket or shoot extra images to get the shot, I certainly have and will when needed. But I think we have gone a little too far in how many images we capture and not really thinking it through. Again thinking more is better is not always the case. A person that does this for a hobby, without much time to process or review, and accumulates multiple trips can easily get overwhelmed just trying to weed through the thumbnails at home if they are bracketing every single scene and capturing a plethora of scenes. A question I get is do I bracket on every single scene I capture and my answer is no. I bracket when I need to and sometimes I still use filters in the field that will allow for less or no bracketing. Some of you may disagree with me here and there is no wrong approach. I am merely trying to get folks to think about what they are doing and if more is truly better then of course then that is what we should shooting for.
FEEDBACK – Is valuable and part of the learning process.
Putting your images out in the open for feedback in social online forums is a great way to start. Share your work with others is important for most of us to help grow as photographers. This is not something I did in the very beginning and wish I would have sooner. Of course my reason is the same reason as most folks, and that is they are afraid to put their work out in the open to be looked at, commented on and judged. I hear it all the time with folks new into photography that they don’t have thick enough skin for it, so they say. I won’t say that it’s easy to do if you take everything very personal yet the value you get is worth it especially early on when you are trying to learn photography and create a style. Many pieces to the puzzle I learned from feedback I received from online forums, personal feedback from peers and during contests. Now with this I will state the flip side and that is all of us as photographers are different in what we like and our tastes, this is a good thing. Yet with that means that you will never make everyone happy and even the best photographs can receive feedback or comments that are not ooohhs and aaawwes, this is good too. You will need to know what you can ignore or realize is another photographers own personal take which may not be something you want to use if it means changing your overall style or intentions. I think back to my first image post over three years ago on NPN. It was not greeted with many positive comments but the comments were constructive and helped me improve that image and others going forward. Even though I have pretty much fell of the social media scene this summer (getting back on-board soon) I hope to see you posting your work online. I have been inspired by many great images seen posted by photographers I have never heard of. I am sure there are others getting ready to post for the first time that will not only learn from it but inspire others too. Here are a few of the many available that I have used and still use today.
Join at least one photography organization to force you to get to know other photographers is a good thing. This is one of the key pieces that really helped me realize all the things I did not know and helped the light bulb click for me. Not to mention I met some really fantastic like minded folks that I am still in contact with years later. Beyond that some benefits they provide have helped me in other ways from business questions to insurance. Even if it’s a camera club you join that is fine. It does not need to be a professional organization unless that is truly your aspiration. If you have issues with long term commitments then realize the benefits of doing a short photography workshop or seminar. These will allow you to increase your knowledge, see new places and mingle with people that have similar goals and interests. Any serious nature photographer can tell you they may spend quite a bit of time alone for photography, travel, etc. Yet the vast majority of us do like some level of human interaction in small or large groups and this is where doing a workshop/tour or joining a group/organization will help balance things out. There are many options and here are just a few samples of professional organizations at a national or larger scale. Which orgs you join will depend on the type of photography, where you live, the benefits they offer and your aspirations. Often the ones at your city or state level are the best bet for more frequent in person interaction and networking but all of them have value in one way or another.
COMPOSING – Taking time to compose will show in your final work.
Spend more time composing and less time clicking the shutter. There will never be a substitute for this. Okay, never is a strong word so how about not anytime in the coming decades. This is something I definitely failed at in my early days. Cameras and software will continue to evolve to the point that processing to almost any look we like will take even much less effort than today and the dynamic range we see with our eye will be caught with one image in camera. I see this all in the next 5 years or less at the pace things are moving. This means as photographers we need to step it up with our eye helping us decide where to place the camera will be even more important. You cannot correct composition or poorly setup image after the fact. Sure cropping works and is okay to do but should not be relied on as a crutch just because you have more mega pixels than you feel you need. Not to mention sometimes its not as simple as cropping, its that the camera should have been higher, lower, different ISO, wrong f/stop, etc. Remember I already mentioned my early and poor approach of machine gun shooting and this applies here as well. Sometimes I wander around a new area studying it for hours before I even reach for my camera. Once you have that camera setup on a tripod you are a somewhat less likely to move around especially in areas that require you to put away your gear to move around safely. Next time you are out try composing the scene with your hands and thoughts before you even take your camera out.