There are three rules that seem to be thrown out “by the pros” at new photographers all the time, ideas repeated constantly as part of the “how to be a better photographer” lectures.
- You Must Shoot Every Day. You Must Carry Your Camera Everywhere
- You Must Shoot in Manual Mode (and turn off autofocus, too!)
- You must shoot early in the morning or late at night, not in the middle of the day
And they’re wrong.
Okay, they’re not completely right — cliches are cliches because they are truths spoken until you’re tired of hearing them. These are truths that aren’t really true any more because they need to be updated to the current state of the art in photography. And so I will:
You Must Shoot Every Day. You Must Carry Your Camera Everywhere
This rule has a good intent — to get you in the habit of taking photographs and learning to see with your camera. In the day when people shot film and sent their film off to labs to be developed and printed, this rule mostly made sense.
Today, the photographer is also the lab; to be a really good photographer, you have to not only be strong behind the camera, you have to be strong behind the monitor; you have to work on both your capture skills and your processing skills — and because of this, telling people that they have to shoot images every day is a bad idea. It sets the mental mindset that the capturing of images is what matters, not the creation of the best possible images (this is, by the way, my only possible criticism of The Best Camera, and it’s a minor one as its strongest).
What we should be telling photographers is not to shoot images every day, but to work on their craft every day — although even that bothers me, because if you turn this into a grind, you’re going to turn people off on it. Weekends exist for a reason, and you shouldn’t be setting tasks that remove the joy from it.
What this rule is really trying to do is create the habit of thinking and acting like a photographer: that means spending the time to improve your skills and learning to see and think through your photography, to build the habits that allow you to be ready when a photo opportunity happens — and have your gear handy so you can capture it.
And THEN go back to the digital lab and create the best possible image out of that capture.
The core of the rule is good: becoming a better photographer takes time and commitment, you must be willing to invest in improving yourself, and that takes time behind the camera — but it also now takes time in the digital darkroom, and in many ways, the darkroom can be more important to taking that step from “pretty good” to “wow” as the capture.
Don’t just carry your camera around and take random pictures of random things and think that’ll make you a better photographer. Honor the intent of the rule, which is to commit the time and energy to your craft, both in the field and in the lab. Time spent taking pictures outside of your comfort zone and of subjects you don’t normally shoot is a good idea, but spending time honing your photoshop skills is at least important, and honestly, I think it’s more important to shifting the quality of your images to that next level.
You Must Shoot in Manual Mode (and turn off autofocus, too!)
The intent of this rule is good — if you just stick your camera in “P”rogram mode and let it make the decisions, it will save you (mostly) from taking really crappy pictures (mostly), but it will also prevent you from taking really great pictures, because it’s going to navigate the capture into the safe, conservative areas. As good as digital imaging is getting these days, no camera can make decisions that lead to the best possible images — not without help.
But the idea that photographers have to shoot in manual mode comes from the days when cameras were stupid; that’s far from the situation now, and if you follow this advice blindly you will be hurting your ability to take the best possible images because you will be cutting yourself off from taking advantage of the intelligence being built into modern digital cameras.
The more I read the writings of today’s top pros and the more I hear them speak, the more I realize that THEY are spending less and less time in manual mode. This rule isn’t wrong, but it needs to be updated.
The core of this rule is this: you can’t be a great photographer on autopilot. If you don’t let the camera control the capture, it will not try for a superior image but to avoid a disasterous one; you’ll get mediocrity. This is less true with every generation of digital camera coming out, but ultimately, it’s about who’s in charge.
If you let the camera be in charge, your images will be “safe” and safe images are rarely great.
This does NOT mean you have to shoot in manual, though. What it means is you have to spend the time and energy to learn what the camera can do — all of it. And then take advantage of what it can do and adjust it to make it do what you want. That doesn’t mean shoot manual, but it does mean know WHEN to shoot in manual. It also means knowing when to shoot in Aperture mode, or Shutter mode, or using exposure compensation or bracketing.
It means knowing when to adjust white balance and when to leave it alone, it means knowing how to take advantage of autofocus and when to shut it off and use manual focusing. It means understanding aperture and depth of field, it means knowing the noise characteristics of your camera so you use the proper ISO setting to eliminate that noise — or accentuate it.
There are a lot of capabilities in that camera body — learn them and learn how to take advantage of them. If you are shooting in manual mode, you are making your job harder than it has to be, and in fact, you aren’t putting yourself in control of the camera.
“shooting manual” is the code for telling the camera what to do. Today, there are many ways to do that beyond turning off the camera’s brain and doing it all yourself. If you aren’t taking advantage of them, you are hurting your ability to create the best possible images. In some ways, this makes your job more complex, because there are more variables and options to learn and consider. In practice, once you understand what those options can do and how to take advantage of them and once you learn the quirks of your specific model of camera, many things open up and your life as a photographer becomes easier.
What’s important is that you teach yourself how to take advantage of and control the features, so they don’t control you, and to do it so it becomes part of your habits of creating good images. It’s not enough to be able to think about how to take the next image, you have to just know and do it — otherwise, images will be lost before you get the camera set up.
It’s not about manual mode any more, it’s about not being in that green P of Program mode, and it’s about knowing how to adjust how the camera thinks so it does what you want, not what it thinks you want. Once you and the camera learn to think together, though, you’ll make many beautiful images.
Me, personally? I spend 95% of my time in Aperture mode, and 90% of the adjustments I might have used manual mode for five years ago I do via exposure compensations instead.
You must shoot early in the morning or late at night, not in the middle of the day
This is “the golden hour” rule; that time just before and after dawn, and before and after sunset when the light when you avoid the worst of the glare and shadowing and the oblique angle of light brings out the colors of your subject.
The reality is this: the golden hour can definitely enhance photos. If you can shoot then, do so. I certainly do. That’s assuming you don’t get up at 4AM to find your dawn shooting fogged out or a lack of any cloud cover giving you — well, blah, boring dawn sunrises.This also presumes THAT YOU CAN re-arrange your schedule into the golden hour. If you are a photographer who isn’t a full-time photographer, that’s not necessarily easy and sometimes not possible.
I take a different view. For many of us, simply being able to go out and shoot is sometimes a challenge. I’m lucky to get to the Grand Tetons, spending a week of dawns and sunsets there waiting for the “right moment” is practically speaking impossible; in fact on my yellowstone trip, we got down to the Tetons for a partial day starting mid-morning. If you follow the “golden hour” rule, I might as well have not brought the camera.
Yeah, right. Fat chance.
So I turn this rule on its ear. It’s not about shooting only during those golden hours. Instead, I think of it in terms of what can I shoot that is compelling when I’m able to shoot. As it turns out, I think my Teton landscapes turned out pretty well, but there were other shots I was hoping for — especially the fall foliage aspens — where it simply didn’t work; in fact there was only one shot I took I felt worth keeping:
And that’s the key to rethinking the “Golden Hour” rule: don’t lower your standards because of the timing of your photography; instead, find the photography that works given the timing. Maybe that means going into the trees and shooting macro instead of landscape, or focusing on animals or birds instead of trees or mountains. Maybe it’s using a different filtration to cut the glare, or a different look to the location, such as my “blue” shot where I went for the distant hills and emphasized the blue haze instead of fighting it. For my Mt. Moran shots, I not only added both a polarizer and an ND, which allowed me to go with a slow shutter speed, which cut much of the ripples and accentuated the reflection — moving the emphasis away from the mountain with the fairly flat lighting. Is it a killer photo? It’s not Galen-Rowell-Alpenglow killer, but I rather like it (although I overdid the sky in post and want to fix that some day, a bit too much polarizer), and I really like the blue photo as probably my favorite of the day’s shoots.
I think they hold their own, even if they were taken mid-day in the glare of a full sun. And it sure is better than not taking the photos. This rule teaches the mindset that if you aren’t doing it “by the book”, you might as well bother. And some days, that’s true. If I’d visited this spot in mid-June instead of late september, the lighting would have been a lot harsher and it probably wouldn’t have been worth pulling out the camera.
Which is my point. What I don’t like about this rule is that it’s defeatist. My rule is different; it’s that you should pull out the camera whenever you can, and then go find the pictures that are worthy of being taken. This rule is, in fact, in direct conflict with the first rule, which says you should be shooting every day, because it’s telling you not to shoot unless conditions are perfect.
Me? I shoot whenever I CAN shoot, given I have a “real” job and a life and all of the complexities that keep me away from the camera. I’ve been trying, frankly, to get to Mono Lake for three years now and still haven’t seen the damn thing, much less photographed it. Maybe in 2010. Think I’m going to only take the camera if I can do the golden hour dance? Fat chance. If I can get there, I’ll have my gear in hand and find shots worthy of being there for.
Or maybe not. Some days it happens. But as in my Teton’s trip, if I’d followed the common wisdom of only shooting in the edges of the day and avoiding the glare of mid-day, I’d have zero shots of the Tetons. I broke the rules going for my aspen foliage shots, too, and while I threw out almost all of the shots, I kept one, which is better than ZERO.
So here’s why these three rules are wrong: it’s not about shooting bad shots every day just to be shooting, it’s about working on your craft on a regular basis to become a better photographer, but not working so much you grow to hate doing it. It’s not about “shooting manual”, it’s about being in control of your camera and bending it to your will to get the image you see, not the image the camera wants to hand you. And it’s not about the Golden Hour (although, dammit, if you can do it, do it!), because if you wait until conditions are perfect to shoot images, you own’t shoot very often. It’s about thinking about how, when you do pull out the camera, to take images that are up to your standards.
The “Golden Hour” rule really bothers me, because there’s an implicit “it’s okay to not bother” approval given. It’s never okay to not try; it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to throw out 100% of the day’s shoot if what you try didn’t work — but it’s never okay to not try.
So here are my three rules, the ones I think “we” should be telling new photographers instead of these three rules:
- Commit yourself to being the best photographer you can be. Spend as much time as you can with a camera in your hand, but spend what time you have on practicing creating the best photo you can at that time.
- Learn as much about your gear as you can, and understand how to use the capabilities to create the image you want to create.
- There’s always something worthy of a photograph if you choose to look for it. It is better to take photos at a “bad” time than take no photos waiting for a “good” time. When you take photos, take the best possible shots available rather than bad photos of what you planned to shoot. Flexibility and an open mind wins out over giving up.
I mean, seriously, who in their right mind does bird photography in a white-out fog, anyway? Wouldn’t it be better to head for the Starbucks and wait for better weather?