My thought process when shooting

One of the more common questions I’ve been asked recently (aside from what my Photoshop workflow looks like) is what my thought process is when shooting. This basically breaks down into two streams – am I in control of the situation photographically, or not?

By that I don’t mean whether I’m out of my depth or not; it’s about whether I have the ability to direct exactly the elements in my frame. The order doesn’t mean that one item is hugely prioritized over another; it isn’t. It’s more a case of if I have no choice,then which comes first?

In a controlled setting – studio, tripod, portrait, macro, landscape etc
Lighting
Perspective
Framing/ composition
Subject positioning
Reflections/ specular highlights
Edges
Exposure
Focus

The first things you’ll notice is that the subject doesn’t even enter into the equation – why? Well, it might as well be taken as given the there will be a clear subject to the image if I’m going to bother setting up lights to photograph it! This too, is the main reason why one would work in a controlled setting – the ability to perfectly light your subject, as well as control the composition precisely. You’ve got all the time in the world to perfect focus, and the exposure you select falls out of your lighting choices; this is why some minutae like reflections and subject positioning take precedence: simply because they can.

Perspective comes before framing, because you’re working in a situation where you have the luxury of choosing and fine tuning your perspective for every shot – no matter if that requires a ladder and telephoto. Your subject and light will wait for you.

It’s also worthwhile nothing that the processing I do in Photoshop for controlled images is very different to uncontrolled ones; I don’t have to use gradients to even out light; I don’t have to do shadow/ highlight recovery to control my dynamic range; I don’t have to spend time getting the color balance perfect. It simply isn’t necessary, because if you know what you’re doing, you should have gotten it right in camera in the first place.

In a non-controlled setting – photojournalism, street, travel
Lighting
Subject (interchangeable with lighting)
Framing/ composition/ perspective
Edges
Secondary subject
Exposure
Focus
Shoot a burst
Reset camera settings to a neutral position

Without light, your subject is invisible. And without a subject, framing is pointless; if your composition is poor, then the edges don’t matter; if you don’t have a clearly defined primary subject that’s supported by strong framing and well lit, then secondary subjects are meaningless.

There will be situations in which you’ll see the shot, and have not much time to react; this is where having a strong working process helps. I shoot aperture priority; I’m always adjusting aperture, exposure compensation and focus distance on the fly (if I’m using a manual focus camera) depending on the lighting conditions. When it gets dark, I frequently kick over to manual mode, take the camera out of auto-ISO and rely on my internal light meter. It’s not that difficult to get a consistent exposure when shooting manual; do it enough and you can usually judge the right exposure by eye – more often than not getting within 1/2 stop or so of the ideal exposure, which is well within the post-capture adjustment latitude of digital. This continual ‘fiddling of the dials’ does have the downside of making it look as though I’ve got some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it does result in my camera always being ready to shoot – and this makes me pretty quick on the draw.

This is why I place the technical execution – exposure and focus – last, because a strong composition will always be a strong composition, regardless of whether it’s tack sharp or somewhat grainy. If you capture something amazing, nobody will care what it was shot with because a) they’ll be too busy looking at the subject, and b) it’ll probably make the rounds via the internet, which as we all know, isn’t exactly a high-fidelity reproduction medium. When photographing under conditions where you are continually responding rather than being proactive, it’s better to get a shot with a strong idea rather than one with strong technical qualities but no idea. Nobody ever criticized Robert Capa for camera shake; but by the same token, I don’t think Annie Leibowitz was ever rushed on a shoot, either.

I want to add a note on the framing/ composition/ perspective portion – I do the majority of my work with just one or two focal lengths – 28/85mm; especially when it comes to travel and reportage. The simple reason is because I’m so familiar with the perspective and field of view of these lenses that I can frame without having to bring the camera to my eye; it’s as though I’m always walking around with the frame lines suspended in my field of vision. Sticking to one or two lenses and training yourself to see this way can also hugely improve your response time – being able to previsualize/ precompose the shot hugely improves your reaction time, and avoids having to waste time in framing. I then usually take a burst of a few images both to alleviate camera shake (the middle one is usually sharp because your shutter finger isn’t moving) and to perfect composition, especially around the edges.

In summary, controlled situations are all about getting the picture perfect – because you have the control and ability to do so. Reactive situations are about being always prepared and ready to get the shot – some things can be done in advance, such as setting exposure and anticipated subject distance, some things can be done in parallel, like looking for light, subject and framing; others you have to adjust for afterwards, for example, uneven exposure across the frame – there are gradients in Photoshop to take care of that.

How you choose to take care of the details is up to you; but the general advice is to make sure you take control of the things which have the biggest impact on the audience of your image first. MT

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Enter the August 2012 competition: Compact Challenge – here!

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Comments

  1. Thanks Ming! Just curious when you’re walking around with two primes are they on two bodies? Within the few seconds involved changing lenses often the shot is gone.

    • Yes and no – for paid assignments where I can’t afford to miss a shot, yes; for my own work, no. Typically I’ll choose one FL and natively see that way, though sometimes I might use a smaller body for the secondary FL (e.g. Pen Mini and 45/1.8 to give 90mm).

  2. I’ve been waiting for this article. Thanks Ming!

    Very informative and helpful to see your thought process at work, and in turn assess what I still need to work on to improve. My problem has always been (and continues to be) viewing the subject with blinders on, to the exclusion of the other elements you mention. I see something in my mind, but inevitably fail to translate that image to how the camera sees it. The result: very, very bland pictures, missing one or all of the elements you mention.

    I’m going to try a few self-exercises with the goal of sharpening the awareness factor of each of these elements the next time I shoot.

    Separately:
    1) What have you found to be the most difficult subject/situation to shoot — given the priority of elements you listed?
    2) What element of your photography are you still struggling to improve?

    • Thanks Don. Try just looking at your subject briefly to identify it, then not looking at it thereafter – use your peripheral vision. That’s what I do a lot of the time.

      1. Anything unpredictable, like wildlife or children; or anything where you can’t change the physical elements or lighting (like ugly buildings for clients)
      2. Everything! :)

      • Thanks for the peripheral vision tip, Ming. Will aim to hone that into a habit.

        1. Haha! Agreed about photographing children. Whenever I get a good shot of kids, it’s often because I got lucky and fired off enough shots.
        2. You’re being too modest! :)

  3. Always interesting to read how a photographer’s brain works. Just wondered about your reference to the two focal lengths you refer to. Clearly the 85mm is on the Nikon (or OM-D with 45mm) but the 28mm focal length has me thinking since you don’t rave about any 28mm lenses on your Camerapedia page (other than perhaps the Leica 1.4/24 on a M8). So what 28’s are you using?

    regards
    Guy

    • Actually, for the M8 it was the Zeiss ZM 21/2.8 Biogon and the Leica 21/1.4 Summilux ASPH. For Full frame, it’s the Nikon AFS 28/1.8 G and Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon. Trying to get one of those new pancake Voigtlanders to try out, too.

  4. Pretty much agree with everything mentioned here. It is amazing how quick our brains can process all of this in uncontrolled shooting scenarios. Agree especially if you shoot RAW that technical execution is not so important, can always be corrected later.

    I think the hardest part is the secondary object – I tend to find even if I can frame a strong subject, the secondary can be distracting and trying to balance this with missing the shot entirely is a fine line!

    I also agree on finding only a couple of focal lengths that suit you and sticking to them, or you can get lazy and use a zoom :)

    Congrats on the 1 million hits!

    • Thanks. You can of course fix it afterwards, but the bigger the fix, the bigger the hit you’re going to take to image quality. Put it this way: the better the file you start with, the better the result.

      • Yes and No. Yesterday I had a file that looked fine in JPEG, but looking at the RAW it was terribly under exposed (a typical trait of the X100). Correctling the exposure was a breeze and I could not really see a loss of quality – but admittedly it frustrates you to see a pic so under exposed when the JPEG looks ok….

        • Could be the dynamic range optimizer perhaps? Part of the issue with the RAW file could be the default tone curve doesn’t match the camera JPEG. Take a look at your shadows, if the blocking of dynamic range (posterization) will be especially obvious with anything shot above base ISO.

Trackbacks

  1. [...]   One of the more common questions I’ve been asked recently (aside from what my Photoshop workflow looks like) is what my thought process is when shooting. This basically breaks down into two streams – am I in control of the situation photographically, or not? By that I don’t mean whether I’m out of my depth or not; it’s about whether I have the ability to direct exactly the elements in my frame. The order doesn’t mean that one item is hugely prioritized over another; it isn’t. It’s more a case of if I have no choice,then which comes first? …  [...]

  2. [...] One of the more common questions I’ve been asked recently (aside from what my Photoshop workflow looks like) is what my thought process is when shooting. This basically breaks down into two streams – am I in control of the situation photographically, or not?By that I don’t mean whether I’m out of my depth or not; it’s about whether I have the ability to direct exactly the elements in my frame. The order doesn’t mean that one item is hugely prioritized over another; it isn’t. It’s more a case of if I have no choice,then which comes first?  [...]

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