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Better Photography

I fell for the pitfall of digital photography: shoot first, think later.  Digital cameras led me to believe that click is cheap. It’s not.  It cost time, and a lot of it!  Time to process all the pictures produced under click-euphoria, but also time to deal with distracting, non-essential, on-camera functionality.

Looking back, I found my 1999 film photos appealed more to me than my 2009 year digital photos.  Nevertheless, I bought a new dSLR, worthy descendant of my last film SLR.  Using it was an Eureka-moment.  Professor Luca Vascon analyzed (content warning)  my feelings on the Italian 360° panorama photographers mailing list.  It took me another few months to articulate my findings.

Back in the days of film all cameras shared the same film.  They were in essence physical interfaces to the mental process of framing and capturing a moment on film.  Manufacturers were focused on improving the interface between the user and the film, leaving it to the chemical companies to focus on improving the film itself.

When digital components replaced film,  camera manufacturers allocated more resources to their development, to  the detriment of the optical and mechanical components.  Product managers deciding the feature mix within the available price budget for each model in the product line preferred the faster product cycles of the digital components, trading them off against the mechanical and optical ones.  More mega-pixels, larger display, faster processors.  All become obsolete faster, helping to more turnover.  But what about viewfinder and other optical components? and the mechanical ones?  The trade-off is particularly noticeable at the lower end of the product range where little budget is left for them.

Once I became aware of the issue, I retrained myself:

1. Use a Small Memory Card. Shoot RAW+JPEG to make the memory limitation even stricter.  Quality over quantity.  At the end of the day the limitation to the equivalent of a single roll of film (36 exposures) sharpens your thinking.  Photography is a process of the mind, not of the trigger-finger.  Become conscious of the process.  Think before pushing the trigger.  Analyze the scene, what you want to communicate, how to frame it.  Wait patiently for the magic moment.

2. Don’t Use the Display. Forget about live view and interact again with the scene through the viewfinder.  Hold the camera close to your body.  Feel it.  Become one with it.  It’s your camera the moment you can navigate its controls blindly.  Free your eyes and your brain to roam the scene.

3. Focus on the one Single Task. Review the captured image only when you’re back at the base.  Forget about the histograms and other in-camera review tools.  If you’re unsure, take a second shot with different settings and select the best one back at the base.  In the field, give your full attention to the subject.  After a while your relationship with your camera will be so symbiotic you won’t need to think of exposure anymore, it will come as natural as shifting gears when driving a car.

4.  Less is More. Make a conscious decision to leave non-essential gear at home.  Setting up the tripod and changing lenses is a distraction.  Deal with the limitations of your chosen gear rather than juggling with the extra weight.

5. Don’t Post-Process. Resist the urge.  Even if you’re a technophile and you know that you could extract that extra something by manually processing the RAW file and retouching the photograph, try sticking with the out-of-camera output, or at least with the output of an automated development script running on your computer.  Reserve post-processing to a very few exceptional cases.

6. Exception, maybe? Some shooting techniques do require post-processing.  Whether it is panorama-stitching or HDR-compositing: will it add to the picture? or just to the pixel count?  Consider first the story you want to tell and then the technique you use.

7.  Share and Archive, Quickly! Every photo shooting has its own folder.  The convention for the folder’s name is YYMMDDname where YYMMDD is the date and name is a meaningful but short (no spaces!) name.  The folder goes through three stages:  first pictures are downloaded from the memory card, sorted and pruned.  Then I run them through an automated script that does neat things for me such as making resized copies to send to mom.  After the pictures are shared with the relevant friends, the originals get into the archive.  The archive is organized by year and month, so there is some redundancy in the archival path of a photo session: /YYYY/MM/YYMMDDname.  Redundancy is good: I keep the whole archive on a RAID and an extra offline hard disk.  The size is too big for optical media.  I try to move a photoshooting folder through sharing and archival within one week, but sometimes I’m just too busy or too lazy.

8. Most Important. Enjoy it!  It’s fun, at the end of the year, to go into the YYYY archive folder and look at all the pictures.

8 Responses

  1. i disagree with almost every point.
    1. 4 GB cards give about 120 shots, shooting brackets yeilds 40 photos. I wouldn’t dream of anything smaller.
    2. Forget the viewfinder and squinting. Composition varies on your angle to the viewfinder, live view doesn’t suffer from this limitation. 10x digital zoom yields great precision for focus.
    3. Ever shoot a wedding? Light changes from room to room and even part of the room. You need to verify for exposure on each light change.
    4. Being a professional makes gear transparent when you understand your gear and why you need each piece, when you need a different lens you need a different lens or when you need some extra light.
    5. What? Thats analogous to taking your film to walmart to get prints instead of doing it yourself.
    6. What is the point of that photo? The strawberries arent bad though could use some pop.
    7. Archival by date makes it a pain to hunt for photos. Archival by client, location makes it a breeze.

  2. Very very good tips, as always…. Keep going, Thanks

  3. @anonymous: these are the things that worked for me. Obviously YMMV. You could at least have had the decency to identify yourself – there is nothing wrong in what you write if it works for you.

    As far as your points go, just a few questions:

    So your camera has picture-in-picture live-view, with the display showing simultaneously the whole composition and an overlay showing the area of interest for focusing at x10? and you can zoom in freely into any area of the picture and wander around to see how other areas of the image are affected by the current focus setting? with aperture/depth-of-field preview? in real-time?

    I shoot weddings on very special occasions. From your remarks I guess you are a commercial photographer. Have you considered that sifting through 4GB / 120 shots is 4x more time consuming than sifting through 1GB / 30 shots? And that time is money? Your competitor could either be 4x cheaper than you, or be 4x more profitable.

    You’re right, light changes indeed, all the times. And your eye has what it takes to pick up those changes and adjust the camera settings accordingly. And there is even a little light meter at the bottom of most viewfinders.

    I agree with you that a “professional” understands his gear and knows which piece would be ideal for which situation. But what if the situation is less than ideal? If the perfect gear is not available? That’s where the talented creative photographer makes a difference, like a racing pilot compared to a cab driver. The racing instinct needs to be honed and trained. Talent alone is not enough. I’ve seen amazing photos shot with a cell phone, and boring ones shot with the best and most sophisticated gear money can buy.

    The photos embellish the article and avoid this. The strawberries are straight out of camera JPG. No human time has been wasted processing them. Automatically resized and slightly sharpened (ImageMagick). That afternoon I preferred to use my time and the self-picked strawberries to make ice-cream and enjoy it with family and friends.

    Last but not least: you may be confusing archival and retrieval. Clients, locations, names, etc. all go into a calendar database, fully searchable. If your methods works for you, good for you. Mine works for me and I have no intention to proselytize it on you.

  4. Perhaps I was a bit harsh.
    They aren’t bad tips for the “journey” but not quite so appropriate for the “destination”.
    Being put into a corner by your lack of gear, or a “zoom lens” for example force you to learn to compose and find the shot/location/composition, rather than taking the best shot you found with your zoom lens.
    I don’t trust light meters as the last judge before moving on, because some scenes require more or less light. Sure with a ton of experience, you can know you need to be over or under one stop that your meter says, but a test shot will confirm it. Delivering your appropriate exposure so you don’t have to push or pull it in camera raw.

    Content over technical expertise is great, but the combination yields amazing results.

    Yes, the 5d Mark ii is a great camera, once you use it you can’t go back.

  5. @anonymous: You were not harsh. You were and are judgmental. Just who do you think you are to judge whether my tips are appropriate for the “journey” or the “destination”? You don’t trust light meters but you do trust test shots. Waste your time shooting the test and that magic moment is gone. The day you’ll learn to trust your eyes and your guts you might discover that your “destination” is actually just a “milestone”; that there is more to the “journey” than you’ve ever imagined; that you can do better than pushing up and down boring wedding photos in a RAW converter. Of course you still need to earn your bread and butter, but don’t let it kill your creativity and your curiosity that motivated you to go into photography in the first place, or you won’t be much better than the Walmart employee shooting passport pictures.

  6. Here I’m!
    I agree, Yuv. And methods you are proposing are going in the right direction, they all leed who follows them to a more intimate and correct relationship with the image. I mean the Image we have got inside flows through conscious and unconscious filters, and we do not want the technical unconsciousness of the machine to gain the control.
    One thing that made me going back to take pictures was gaining back my own time and rythm. Gaining back the possibility NOT TO shoot, when it was not interesting to me.
    Another thing that I mis, technically, is a lightweight but solid reflex camera with a real bright, clear wiewfinder that lets me focus my way some good light primes. Nikon D700 has got it, but it is damn big and heavy.
    I got back to film. Mainly Contax RX with 28mm sometimes 50, 85mm, Rolleiflex 2.8F.
    I shoot less, I shoot better.

    to the Anonimous up there.
    Here we are talking about nothing that concerns professional photography.
    The definition of a professional photographer is someone who always brings home a consistent, constant quality product that satisfies the customer. He is a good artisan. Period.
    If you are a genius but not a good artisan, you can not define yourself a pro photographer

  7. Yuval,

    Thank you for providing such good food for the thought. I also appreciated the debate with the professional wedding photographer. It makes so clear that there is a striking difference between a creative and a technical mind.

    The former is mostly concerned with the creative process itself and the possibilities it can open up while the latter is more concerned with precision, consistency, and such. It seems so unlikely to me that those in this second category can more qualified to capture those magic moments. There’s just too much distraction with displays, controls, gears, environment conditions and such.

    While most people may have confidence in a trained, experienced technician, and perhaps that’s what most people look for when they want to hire a professional, it makes me think that perhaps it is precisely those moments in a wedding (or any other special occasion) that are so magical, so profound, so beautiful, which may sometimes be all but wasted.

    Thank you and please continue to share your thoughts. I am just an amateur photographer anyway, and I know very little about photography and the creative process behind it, but I still shoot on film (Canon EOS 5), although I’m waiting for my first dSLR (EOS 1D Mark II) camera in the mail. No need to worry, I am not overexcited about it, and I just had to move on to digital as local labs are no longer processing chromes.


  8. @Euler: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I don’t think that ‘creative’ and ‘technical’ minds are mutually exclusive concepts. In the Libre Graphics world I met plenty of people talented on the creative and on the technical side at the same time.

    The qualification ‘professional’ has been abused so often that it has lost any meaning. It is even used to qualify an operating system against other versions of the same system, and while it was the top qualification when introduced, it has meanwhile slept down in the ranking as creative marketing types try to cater to the need for superlatives.

    In my opinion ‘commercial’ is a more precise term to define what you call ‘professional’. And I am confident that you, as an amateur will eventually produce better photography than the commercial photographer, simply because as an amateur you are driven by love for photography while the commercial photographer is driven by profits. If better quality means less profits, quality will suffer in commercial photography. Take a look at real estate listings for a practical proof.

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