I’m going to be critical for a second, because I find myself periodically falling into the “digital photography” trap and struggling with all sorts of questions. Is my camera good enough? Are my lenses ideal? Should I switch systems? Is it time to upgrade yet? And so on. Gear Acquisition Syndrome, as it is affectionately called, perhaps to diminish its importance, is a camera maker’s dream. The current trend in digital photography is to focus on the “prosumer”, an easy target: keep asking someone if their camera is the best they can have, and eventually they’ll realize it’s not. Tell your (relatively insecure) amateur photographer that this year’s model improves on the one they already own, and they’ll start to question things. Review after review after review, that point will be driven home. Someone stepping into photography these days will immediately assume photography stands for Image Quality, Lens Sharpness, Autofocus Speed, Wi-Fi and who knows what else. The only thing a beginner photographer is told by the industry is that a better camera will take better photos. Which, in itself, is true. But it’s not the only truth.
As I said, periodically, I find myself falling into the “prosumer” trap: checking reviews, waiting for the next big announcement, hoping it will (soon enough) be my turn to upgrade. Yet knowing very well that there are better, and far more rewarding things I could be focusing on when it comes to photography. To remind me of that, I’ve made myself a list of photographic rules. These are basically things I’ve come to learn, and need to explore further instead of chasing the next best “tech” improvements. Here goes:
1. Use the gear you have.
This point is obvious, but always needs to be brought back into perspective. The idea is not to stick to the same 3.2 mpx camera you started out with in 2002. Upgrades are sometimes necessary. But upgrading your gear will do nothing to your photography if you don’t put it to good use. If you want to be a better photographer, you need to be out taking photos.
2. Spend more time reading about photography than about cameras.
Knowing how much more dynamic range a new generation of sensors may have will do nothing to help with your composition, subject matter, attention to light and so on. As I’m reading more and more about photography, and digging into its (rich and rewarding!) history, I find my photos getting better by leaps and bounds. Appreciating good art will make you a better artist.
3. Don’t over process
What will your photos look like in 20 years from now? Combining wet-plate effects and film scratches at this point in time might seem interesting, but in 20 years from now no one will remember Instagram. The many overblown film filters we seem to like these days will seem like a strange fad. I’m all for using subtle film filters, digital cameras these days seem to produce the most clinical looking photos they have ever produced. But there is a world of difference between subtle hue shifts and crazy Instagram-type filters.
3.1 Mind the grain
A side note to over-processing, too much grain can be a bad thing. Grain on screen and PRINTED grain are quite a different thing. If you decide to use grain in your post-processing, make sure you test it out in print before adopting it across the board.
4. Print your photos
I have (re)discovered the joys of printing photos, and I have to say, it puts the entire photographic process in perspective. What you see on screen at 100% and what you see printed are two different things. I have a lot to say about printing photos, but I’ll leave that for another post.
5. Mind the exposure, don’t rely on autoexposure
Cameras lie. They are built to render the photographic process as easy as can be to anyone and everyone. And by doing that, they generalize. They are calibrated for your “typical” use scenario, and as you move away from “typical” photos you need to rely less and less on autoexposure.
6. Mind the auto white balance
I have switched my camera to custom white balance and set it to 5400 k. Since I shoot RAW, this is not an issue, I can always tweak it in post processing. But having it set to a fixed value (which is just about daylight or what most flash guns will provide) allows me to better appreciate the quality of light. Auto white balance tends to tone down certain types of light, and more often than not, that exact quality of light is what made you take the photo to begin with.
7. Don’t chase shallow depth of field
This is a tricky one. Since I shoot micro four thirds (which translates into a wider depth of field for “equivalent” lenses) it’s obvious that I would be biased. Maybe. Under certain circumstances, I do wish my f1.4 was a “true” f1.4 (FF equivalent). But I’ve started stepping down my aperture more and more. Historically, wide depth of field was something everyone was after. I feel this universal pursuit of shallow depth of field is, again, a digital era construct pushed so people WANT the bigger sensor. The truth is, sometimes, an image where only your subject is in focus can be less interesting than one in which your eye can move in and out of the background as well. Experiment with both, but don’t make “shooting wide open” a mantra.
8. Always carry a camera with you
Make photography a matter of habit, a part of your life, and not just a hobby.
9. Don’t be self-aware in your pursuit of photography
Why do you take photos? To share them online and get likes on Facebook, Flickr and 500px? To express an opinion? To document something, be it your family, a wedding, etc? To sell on stock image sites? I’m not saying any of these reasons is better than the other. But whatever the reason behind your passion may be, make sure it touches you personally and you’re not doing it because you think that’s what will get you ahead in the game.
10. Take photos of the people and things you love
Perhaps the most important on the list. In 20 years from now, I’ll probably care much less about the street or landscape photographs I’ve taken, but will very much cherish the photos of my daughter and my family. Don’t neglect the things you love and care about in the pursuit of a certain style of photography.
And there you have it. Google+ announced recently that over 1.5 BILLION photos are uploaded to the site every week. That’s a very thin slice of the photos people upload, and an even thinner slice of the number of photos that are taken. Photography is now more accessible than it has ever been (every cell phone is a camera) so the question is what do you do with it? Should everyone taking photos with a cell phone look into the history of photography? Probably not, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. But for the “enthusiasts” out there, I feel the discourse needs to change. There needs to be less talk about gear and more talk about photography as an art form.
Painting after all, has never been about what bristles are in your brush.