Any time you take up a new hobby or activity, there's invariably a phase of guesswork. You bumble around, trying to emulate the masters of the craft, but really having no idea what you're doing, or where to begin. Despite the frustration that accompanies this phase of learning, it's a valuable step in the process of improvement. It's a time of experimentation, far more valuable than the best theoretical knowledge that can be gained by reading manuals, books, and internet posts without ever practicing. Through experimentation you have a reference point, a foundation that can be built upon, and you learn which questions are worth asking.
Such it was for me when I took up photography a few years ago. I read my camera manual over again and again, learning the functions, features, and capabilities before heading out camera in hand to blunder around the city, taking some pretty terrible photos along the way. Slowly however, my images began to improve, mostly due to diligent shooting, and subsequent questioning of what was separating my images from so many of the great images of photographers I looked up to.
Despite the value of this experimentation and self-guided learning, there are a number of things that I would have liked to figure out a whole lot sooner than I did. So without further ado, here are the top 5 things I wish I knew when I took up photography, (or at least learned a lot sooner than I did).
1. Crank Up The ISO
That's right, I said crank up the ISO. As someone who was primarily interested in landscape photography when I started, it was drilled into my mind by almost every source I encountered to keep the ISO as low as possible at all times if I wanted clean, noise-free images.
The thing about the “Maintain Minimal ISO” rule however, is that it's one of those rules that you should adhere to strictly – except when you shouldn't.
To be clear, maintaining a low-as-possible ISO is definitely a good thing when the conditions allow for it, namely when you're shooting from a tripod, or handheld in bright conditions. It's never the best decision to crank up the ISO far beyond what you need to achieve your desired shutter speed. Where I went wrong was taking the rule so seriously that I placed a high emphasis on maintaining a low ISO at the expense of a faster shutter speed – resulting in a lot of blurry photos.
It wasn't until I read an interview with a photographer who shot primarily live music events that I liberated my restrictive views on ISO. When asked about his settings for shooting live music, he said something along the lines of “I'll take some noise over a blurry photo any day”, and looking at his featured photos in the article and their capture settings, indeed the lowest ISO of any of the images was 3200, and often quite a bit higher.
Having trashed more than a few photos due to blurry subjects at this point in my photographic career, I immediately realized the truth in his philosophy, adopted it immediately, and haven't looked back since. These days, any time I'm shooting wildlife, sports, music, or in low light, my ISO is probably 2000 at a minimum. I get rid of what noise I can in post production, and if the image is sharp, I'm happy with whatever noise is left over.
2. Invest In High Quality Lenses & Always Take A Nice Lens Over A Nice Body
I won't go into too much detail here as I outlined the concept more thoroughly in the previous posts, but I'll give an overview.
First, regarding the lens vs body debate, a lot of new photographers are drawn towards spending the bulk of their budget on an expensive camera body with the goal of upgrading to better lenses later on. It's easy to see why so many make this mistake, bodies have so much technology! Buttons, knobs, dials, LCD screens, lights, menus and more, surely the body attributes more to image quality than boring old lenses.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Most experienced photographers will tell you that if you're confined to a set budget, invest the bulk of it in one or two high quality lenses and opt for a cheaper body. Not only will nice lenses do more for your image quality than a nice body will, they will hold their value better, and remain relevant indefinitely, where as todays newest body will be outdated within a few years.
Now that you've decided to invest in lenses you need to decide which lenses to invest in, and this is really what I would have liked to know years ago. In short, I wish I would have known to invest in full-frame lenses immediately even though I was at the time using the Nikon D5100, a crop-frame camera.
Full-frame lenses generally have not only higher optical quality, but better build quality, and can be used on both crop sensor and full-frame systems. By buying full-frame lenses from the beginning, you avoid having to replace your entire lens collection if and when you decide to upgrade to a full-frame camera.
When it comes to in the field shooting, one of the things that that improved my photography the most was the concept of “exploring the scene”. Basically this means not setting up your camera in the first position you come across and being satisfied with that. It means testing and trying out a number of different angles, compositions, lenses, shutter speeds and depths of field. Many of the shots you try won't be keepers, but by giving yourself options to consider later, even if it's two compositions instead of one, you give yourself a reference point and raise your chances of walking away with the best shot possible
For me, it was during a video course on post-processing that I was working through where the photographer went through some of the outtakes of the shoot, that the concept really hit me. In fact, the concept of working the scene probably improved my photography more than anything I learned from that course in terms of post-production. In this short snippet of the course - which wasn't really meant to be a focus - I saw that even this professional landscape photographer had more than a few photos from the scene that really weren't that amazing. The composition, focal length, or some other factor was holding the scene back from revealing it's full potential. Only through trial and error, exploring the scene, had the photographer been able to capture their definitive image of the place.
Since then, I spend a lot more time scoping out a scene before I even take my first shot. For me, I find that it's really useful to first walk the scene without my camera and make note of interesting features, potential focal points and then to walk the scene again, this time with camera in hand, shooting test shots as I go. I find that my vision for the potential of the image in terms of composition really comes together when I'm viewing the scene through the lens, but the initial walk around sets me up to make the most of the available features the location has to offer.
If I'm using my tripod, I'll be sure to move locations at least twice from where I first set up, even if I'm really happy with the images from the initial location. I'll generally also make a point of trying both vertical and horizontal compositions, and often try a couple of lenses, to ensure I walk away with something I'm proud of.
4. “Photography Is An Art Of Exclusion”
In terms of framing and composition, I had to undergo a mindset shift when I heard this quote while reading Ian Plant's Visual Flow, a great ebook on composition that taught me a lot about looking at a scene and capturing it effectively.
For whatever reason, it seems that most of us, when we first get into photography look at shooting from the perspective of “What do I want to include in my shot?” or “What can I add to my shot?” In reality, the most effective photographs are notable not only for what the photographer decided to include in the scene, but the fact that she found a way to exclude the distractions and elements that took away from the scene, leaving only the essentials, and thus increasing their impact.
By thinking carefully about your compositions in this way, you ensure that your subject remains the star of your image
There's a famous story of Michelangelo who, when asked by a fan how he was able to carve the masterpiece of David, replied “It was easy. All I did was chip away everything that didn't look like David.”
While we as photographers may feel a closer affinity to painters in our art, painting is an additive process, where the artist starts with a blank canvas and then chooses what he can add to create and enhance his vision. In this respect, we should look to the mindset of a sculptor, choosing what to chip away from our image through creative composition, until all that we are left with is the essence of the scene.
5. Patience Is A Virtue
This is a lesson that I'm still learning and constantly striving to improve. It goes hand in hand with exploring the scene, and can have a drastic effect on the impact of the scenes you capture. Rarely do you walk up to a scene at the very most optimal time, snap your photo and be done with it. In fact, I generally try to arrive well before the expected prime time to shoot, giving myself time to set up, explore my options, and decide where I want to be, so that when the light is right, all I have to do is trip the shutter.
It's not always easy though. For landscapes, it often means getting up at ungodly hours to get to your location before sunrise, or staying out well after dark when shooting sunsets and night scenes. With wildlife, the required patience is even greater, often requiring hours of waiting in hope of getting that one shot. The payoffs are huge however, and not only in your ability to capture the scene at it's best.
I've found that by slowing down my process, photography becomes a much more cathartic, immersive and even meditative experience than when I'm rushing through a scene, snapping as many shots as possible. A common struggle of photographers - especially while travelling - is the feeling that, when looking back, you only experienced the place through your camera, and were never present. When I slow down, take my time, and put no pressure on the conditions to produce, I find that I'm actually able to absorb a lot more of the experience and the place than I would without my camera.
Especially with travel and street photography, patience demands that you observe and think about the routines, movements, and expressions of your subjects, in order to capture and preserve their essence. It can be hard to force yourself to get out of bed early, stay out late, or wait out the conditions, but I promise you that taking time and waiting for the scene to materialize is one of the biggest differences between a good image, and and a great one.
What are some things you wish you knew when you first got into photography? What are you struggling to figure out right now? Let me know in the comments or shoot me an email, I'd love to chat!
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