You’ve heard me rant about the big camera companies flogging cameras that they promise will allow you to “shoot like a pro” or “unlock your vision,” or similar desperate crap. So it should come as no surprise that my blood pressure begins to go up when I read about so-called teachers flogging plug-ins for Photoshop or Lightroom that “turn snapshots into great shots.” Bullshit. Shame on them.
Amazing photographs are not made with plug-ins or Photoshop actions. They are made with the imagination and the heart and the mind.
David is on a rant, and it’s well worth your time. I’ll wait here.
Back? Good. he’s right.
There’s a lot of marketing hype around how buying this latest thing is going to solve your problem. Grab this camera, and great pictures will happen. Buy this plug-in, and it’ll take care of the processing for you. As a society, we’ve become focussed far too much on finding the magic cookie, the secret shortcut.
In photography, they don’t exist. You still have to take a lot of bad pictures as you learn what it means to take great ones. Some days you’ll get lucky and a great picture will pop out, but what you need is to build the ability to make great pictures, not get lucky and have them happen. No camera, no plug-in, no tool is going to be the magic cookie that gets you to that point.
Where I think David goes a bit off message is in giving all of these tools too little credit for what they can do while speaking too much on what they can’t.
I remember my high school days shooting with a manual Nikon on Tri-X and doing my own developing and printing in a dark, smelly darkroom. And loving it. I shot Velvia and sent it off to a lab, not known whether I actually had pictures (much less usable ones) for days waiting for them to come back so I could see them.
I look at the kind of work Galen Rowell did with the gear of his day. On Film. Waiting for the lab to send it back to see if the images succeeded. And I sit and wonder what someone like Rowell would do today with a 1DX and modern lenses. Sometimes I think we’re so used to modern technology we forget just how much better things are than when these classic images that drew us into the field were made, and we kind of take it for granted because it is in fact so much easier for us than to succeed at an image than it was for someone like Rowell.
(my thought on Rowell and the 1DX: he’d probably sell it and buy a 5Dm2 on the used market and plane tickets to somewhere worth photographing. but that’s just me…)
Rather than just talk about what these modern tools can’t do for you, stop and think about what they CAN. What does digital photography, modern camera bodies and their low-noise, high-ISO capability, sharp, crisp lenses (with image stabilization and autofocus), digital workflows and all of the bells and whistles of these tools give you that someone like Galen Rowell didn’t have?
To me, the primary thing these bring you is a margin of error. Before digital, you couldn’t chimp the LCD and adjust the image on the fly. Either you got the image or didn’t (and wouldn’t know for days….) — and if you didn’t, you might not find out until you were a few thousand miles away and two years from your next attempt. Or you’re shooting at ISO 50 on Velvia and that rare bird refuses to come out of the shadows deep in the brush. Or it’s afternoon and you lose two stops of light just as the mule deer arrive in the meadow for dinner.
Today’s photographer has so manx advantages out of the heroes that dragged us into the field that it’s almost scary. I have found myself standing somewhere like Tunnel View and working on an image and suddenly realizing just what it might have meant to try for that shot on my old Minolta 3xi, or that old Nikon FG.
Back in the “Good Old Days”, it was hard enough to get the shot. Today? We have the ability to get the shot with a lot less stress and angst and worry, but beyond that, with the added margin of error, we have a lot more ability to get shots that earlier generations would miss (or be back in the bar having given up already) — and we have the ability to move beyond getting that shot and experiment with other shots, or other techniques or to try other things to see what happens.
Then, when we get back the post processing tools — and the plug-ins and other helpers — let us fine tune the shots in ways that we couldn’t even dream about ten years ago, much less emulate. For me, these tools aren’t so much about what they allow me to do; almost everything you can do in something like Viveza or Silver Efex Pro you can do in Photoshop or Lightroom — what they do is allow me to be a lot more effective and efficient.
And yet something I see a lot of photographers do is try to take away all of these tools. I understand some of the reasoning behind that — it goes back to David’s rant about these tools not taking the photo for you, not magically creating that special photo. But far too often, it feels more like guild initiation; if you don’t learn to do it the way we did back in the Good Old Days (i.e., “suffer like I did when I was learning this stuff”), you’ll never really be a “real” photographer. And that’s bull.
I see photographers telling people not to chimp. I see them telling them that the only way to shoot is in manual mode. I used to see them telling people that “real” photographers didn’t use autofocus, but if they are still saying that, nobody seems to be listening (so there’s a sign of progress!). A lot of this boils down to “you have to learn to do it the old fashioned way, or it doesn’t count”.
I don’t buy that.
This is one reason I think Trey Ratcliff has become such a popular photographer and teacher online — he’s embraced the new technologies and techniques and works to teach people how to become to become great photographers through modern technologies, not despite them. (that, and he’s a great photographer).
I think this is a transitional phase: teachers tend to teach what they know and how they learned. As we grow up generations of photographers who cut their teeth digitally, this “to become one of us, you must learn as if you were shooting Velvia” mentality will fade. As someone who dropped photography for years and came back because of digital, and have been relearning the craft from scratch on digital, that can’t happen soon enough.
Look at what modern digital technologies are doing to Â enable new and innovative forms of imagery: time lapses and night photography are exploding right now as people are figuring out how to take advantage of modern cameras. In the digital dark room, you’re seeing many fascinating innovations from focus stacking to using blending modes (Ben Willmore showed a fascinating way of erasing people out of an image using many multiple shots and the lighten blending mode in a recent Creative Live seminar), to the joy of being able to decide to convert to monochrome on the spot and not having to worry about swapping film to do that. Or thinking to carry black and white film on the trip in case you want it…
The thing is, none of what I’m talking about here is about magic cookies. There are none. You still need to learn the techniques. You still need to put in the time and you still need to shoot a lot of really ugly (and/or boring) shots. No tool is going to shorten that circuit to competence. But I think that by pushing the message that the way forward towards competence is through treating it like the past is more of a hinder than a help.
We need to push the message that none of these tools are going to magically make you Galen Rowell. In fact, you can work at it the rest of your life and you won’t become Galen Rowell. In fact, you shouldn’t want to. What you want to be is you. And the best you you can be. To quote Joe Gideon:
Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?
Victoria: Are you going to keep yelling at me?
Joe Gideon: Probably.
We should be teaching people how to become the photographer they can be through embracing and leveraging this technology we have, not by telling them to avoid it. We have to reinforce the message that none of this technology is a replacement for vision and judgment, and it’s about mastering the technology and being in control of it, not sitting back and pushing the button in autopilot. You need to understand the modes on your camera and how to use them — not hide from them. You need to know how to twist the knob and push the sliders in Lightroom, not just bounce stuff around and hope something good happens.
That takes work and practice. There’s no shortcut, no magic cookie.
And in the spirit of sharing the pain, let me relate a few things I’ve inflicted on myself as I’ve tried to push myself from going out with a camera and hoping for good images to going out with that camera and demanding them out of myself. None of these are things I’ve seen other photographers suggest as exercises (that I recall), but I found them to be very useful is learning how things work so that I could make intelligent decisions on controlling the gear to do what I wanted. Be aware that the goal here is to learn the gear, and you are going to throw out a lot of really bad, failed images as you practice. That is both expected and a good thing.
Go out to a place you like to shoot. Put your camera in aperture-priority mode and shoot for 30 minutes, working to take as many good shots as you can. Yes, you can chimp the LCD, that’s why it’s there. If the images aren’t right, how are you going to fix them? Then fix them and keep shooting. (hint: exposure compensation is your friend. Do you know how to adjust it? Time to learn). After 30 minutes, switch to shutter-priority mode. Shoot the same area, same subjects. Again, you’re going to find that in some cases shutter priority helps, in some cases it’s going to make you crazy. How do you adjust to make the images work? (hint again: exposure compensation. plus ISO adjustments). After 30 minutes, put the camera in manual mode. Now you have to figure out how to dial in your exposure. How can aperture or shutter priority help you nail images in manual mode? What happens when you’re in manual mode and you walk into those deep shadows? Now what? After 30 minutes of manual mode, relax.
Go home and load up all of the images. Now you want to go through them and see if you can figure out which ones technically work and why; which ones technically fail and why. Given what you did on the shoot, when does it make sense to use Aperture priority? When does it make sense to go manual or shutter priority. What does each mode do to help make successful pictures, or drive you crazy and screw things up?
Do not be surprised if 95% of the images in the first round of trying this are dings. Seriously. Go out and do this multiple times. Shoot different locations, different types of imagery. When you go out to shoot, you’re not trying to make keeper images, you’re trying to learn how to understand and control your camera and decide which operating styles to use in what situation.
After you’ve done this three or four times, you should be able to show up at a place and think to yourself “aperture priority, F8, exposure compensation +2/3″ Â and dial it in without thinking. And then you’re controlling the image making rather than depending on the camera to make the right decisions.
Rinse and repeat until this becomes second nature. Depending on the material and location you prefer to shoot, you will likely find yourself shooting primarily in Aperture or Shutter priority — but knowing when to switch to the other and when to use them to dial in an exposure and then put those numbers into manual mode is the key to this exercise.
Pop quiz: if Aperture or Shutter priority mode is so good at handling managing exposures for you, why would you ever go into manual mode? (hint: the way your camera is not always consistent because of movement, even if the light is. And consistent exposures can make your life in post processing a lot faster and more efficient once you learn how to sync your post-processing changes from one image to many — if they all start at the same baseline. Consider that an extra credit exercise borrowed from the post-processing class)
Now that you’ve made Aperture/shutter/manual part of your toolkit, time for metering modes. You can adjust how the camera meters a scene in any number of ways — spot, center-weighted, evaluative. If you’re like most people learning this stuff, there’s a good chance you’ve never changed that setting, or you almost never do. Maybe you’ve figured out using spot metering at times. Maybe not.
So once again, grab your gear. For this one, it helps to choose a shooting location with options, especially scenes with shadows, other scenes with contrast, subjects with color and texture, etc. Pick three or four metering modes, and shoot a variety of subjects and scenes in each for 30 minutes. Watch how the exposures and histograms come out. look for patterns on which metering modes work in specific situations and when those metering modes fail. It really helps to do the same set of scenes with each mode under similar lighting, so this is one time when brutal mid-day light and nasty shadows actually helps. REmember, the idea isn’t to generate usable/good images, but to learn how the camera reacts in given situations and how to take advantage of that to get good images by knowing which mode to use in specific situations — without guessing or just letting the camera decide. It Â is also useful to take a set of images in manual (having chimped in a good exposure) to compare against.
When you’re done, back to the computer. Load up the images. Study each set taken in a specific mode, and see if you can start to figure out how the camera is making those decisions. How does your camera body change exposure in center-weighted vs. evaluative? which kind of scenes do each work best? When does spot metering make life better? And when does spot metering screw you over?
After doing this post-processing study, go back out to another location and shoot again. instead of shooting 30 minutes in each mode, take a scene and choose a metering mode to shoot it in. How did that mode work? Or did it fail? If you change modes, do you get a better exposure? why?
After three or four rounds of this kind of shooting, you should be able to look at a scene and choose a metering mode appropriate for it almost without thinking; stick the camera in aperture or shutter priority, dial in an IOS, do your exposure compensation and get the shot. Or realize that what you need is manual exposure, drop into automated mode to chimp in the right numbers, and then shoot away. And know you’re getting the shot, instead of hoping you are.
One more significant tool in that camera you need to learn to control: autofocus. Like metering modes, your camera has multiple autofocus modes: it may be as simple as spot mode and across the field, or there could be as many as half a dozen modes that adapt AF. And you may only be able to AF on the center of the image, or adjust the location point for the AF to adjust to. By now, you know the drill: set a mode, shoot images. Watch how the AF reacts and when it locks on and when it fails, or locks on to the wrong thing. Are you getting AF where you need the image sharp? Are you nailing focus on the eyes? Or like it happens too often, the nose? Which eye?
Try out each AF mode. Learn how to move the AF point around the image. When does spot AF help? when does it screw you?
Oh, is your AF still tied to half-pressing the shutter? If so, how are you going to use AF to focus on her eye and then recompose for the portrait? learn how to move AF automation to another button so you control it rather than fight it. Trust me, doing AF, shifting the lens to manual and then recomposing? It’s lame; you’re doing it wrong. (if you don’t understand what I’m suggesting, listen to Art Morris).
As you get more comfortable with controlling how AF works so it works FOR you instead of you waiting for it to work, start thinking more about depth of field, also. If you have live view, practice using it to dial in and verify focus. If your body has depth of field preview, learn how to use it without fumbling for buttons.
Then go home and load up all of these images and go through them. One by one. At 100%. and specifically identify where the sharp focus hits, and whether that’s where you intended it to be. Or need it to be. Where should it be? And if you missed, how do you get it there next time?
Then go back out and practice your autofocus again. And again. Until you control the AF system and know what ti’ll do, so it serves you, instead of the other way around.
All three of these exercises are aimed specifically at putting you in control of the camera, of leveraging it’s capabilities by knowing how to operate it so it does what you tell it to do, instead of pushing the shutter and praying it does the right thing. And they’re intended to help you master the camera instead of taking on the idea of learning how to do this by disabling all of those capabilities and treating that wonderful modern camera body as a Nikon FG “as a learning tool”.
And when you finish working through them, you’ll be able to pull out the camera, size up the scene you want to take, push a few buttons, and nail the image, because now you’re in control, not the camera’s autopilot.
And along the way, you’ll take a few thousand really bad images that you throw away (if you don’t, you’re not working these exercises seriously enough), but in those bad images you’ll find understanding of how to be in control of the situation so that you can succeed at taking them rather than fail.
And that will, when you’re through this, put you a lot further down the path from “push and pray” to making consistently good images — at least from a technical standpoint. None of this technical geekery mastery turns you into a great photographer, though — but the more you control your tools instead of deferring to them, the more you’ll be able to consistently create the image you see when you push the shutter. And the more you comfortable you get at controlling your camera and making all of these decisions and mode shifts habit, the less time you spend thinking through how to make the camera bow to your will, and the more time you can spend thinking about the subject you’re trying to capture. And THAT will make you a better photographer.
Although I can’t promise it’ll make you a good one. Neither can Joe Gideon… That’s still up to you putting in the time and repetition, just like any dancer has to to unlock the potential within. But if you don’t master the tools, you’re making that process that much harder for yourself.