Whilst it would be impossible to cover absolutely everything you need to know to be proficient in photography in a single article, the aim of today’s piece is to provide the amateur to hobbyist an idea of the things to keep in mind in order to be able to focus on producing images. It’s something that’s been quite frequently requested in the past few weeks – perhaps a sign that my reader base may be shifting somewhat – so I’ve decided to take a crack at it in a way that makes it both accessible yet still somewhat relevant for the more advanced photographer. Where applicable, the section header links to a more detailed article. I’ll approach this from a in the same sequence as I’d normally deal with my own photographic workflow, in a sort of annotated checklist format.
Planning the shoot
- Reconnaissance matters: although you can shoot anything with any lens and camera, it’s not going to help you if you’re going birding with a fisheye. Sometimes it’s worth checking flickr or other communal image sources to see what other people have shot in the same location. I’ll do this but not spend a lot of time on it because I don’t want my perception to be pre-influenced by what I’ve seen in others’ work; however it does give me a good idea of what to expect.
- Ensure you have enough supplies and spares: fully charged batteries, empty memory cards, cleaning cloths etc.
- If it’s outdoors, time of day matters. Whilst it’s perfectly possible for you to just go and see what’s there, I’d recommend at least finding out which direction the sun is going to be shining in (or how much artificial light there is). No point going if the attraction you want to see is going to be completely in shade.
On location and while shooting
- Don’t bring too much gear – unless you’re on assignment, then bring everything you might conceivably need because ‘I forgot’ is not the kind of excuse that endears you to clients. Less will mean less physical strain on you, and will put you in a generally happier and more conducive mood for photography. Make sure you know where everything is, and as stupid as it sounds, double check the bag before you leave – I somehow managed to go to Japan without any spare cards on my last trip (!) – not a deal breaker because there’s pretty much a Bic or Yodobashi on every other corner, but this might not be the same if you were in the middle of the Andes.
- Be aware of your surroundings – especially in dodgier locations, where you will probably stand out as a target. Unfortunately, the more interesting the location, frequently the more dodgy it is too…
- Stay hydrated. It’s good for you, and sunstroke is extremely unpleasant.
- If you’re shooting digital, then occasionally take a moment to check your files (more often for critical scenes) and use the protect key; this will prevent accidental deletion. There’s also no harm in shooting several frames – both as an insurance policy and because it’s always preferable to have more images now rather than no alternatives later. If you’re shooting film, then get a second frame for critical shots. I’m not advocating unnecessary chimping, but I’m sure we’d all rather know that you misfocused or motion blurred the shot now rather than at a point where it’s no longer repeatable.
- I generally organize my bag/ pouch or pockets in such a way that there’s only one item of equipment in each compartment, both to prevent scratches and also to facilitate easy access and avoid accidentally dropping something out when reaching for something else. Lenses go in their own silos or pockets without front or back caps, but with the hoods attached – i.e. ready to shoot – to facilitate quick changes.
- Don’t wait til the memory card is empty or battery is exhausted before swapping in the spare – you might miss something critical in the process, especially with reportage-style photography. I generally swap out at 20% remaining. Film is a different story, of course – rewinding time is unavoidable, but for cameras with multiple backs, you can always keep a spare loaded and in your bag.
- Use the blinking highlights warning on review if you have one; this should help avoid exposure errors.
- Figure out what magnification level on the LCD review corresponds to actual pixels and use that when evaluating critical sharpness.
- Always look for good light first. Hint: good light has shadows; shadows define the contours and depth of an object, and help to impose the impression of three dimensions in a two-dimensional space.
- Most framing is instinctive, but it doesn’t hurt to do a quick check to ensure that you have a balanced frame with no dead space, and the edges don’t cut anything off.
- Ensure your subject stands out from the background.
- Avoid distracting backgrounds where possible.
- Avoid the central-focus trap: you can always focus and recompose, or use a different focusing point.
- There is such a thing as too much bokeh: that’s the point at which you have no idea what’s in the background, and it might as well be anything – it isn’t adding anything to the context of the subject or helping you tell a story.
Know your camera/ medium
- Experiment it enough that you know what the buttons do, and how to change commonly encountered settings – I’m talking about things beyond the usual exposure variables, along the lines of # of focusing points, AUTO-ISO behaviour, autofocus behaviour, etc. Lack of familiarity leads to fumbling, which means missed shots. And it only gets worse with new cameras and infrequently used ones – I have no doubt that if I don’t regularly shoot with the Hasselblad, I’m going to forget how to load it one day.
- Having some idea of framing accuracy is very important, too – especially with cameras that do not have 100% viewfinder coverage. Rangefinders are notorious for this, and vary quite a bit: the M8s and M9s have different amounts of ‘extra’ outside the frame lines. If there’s too much, you can always fine tune the crop later, but if you’re not familiar with the frame lines, you might not know how far you can push the edges at the time of capture.
- Under this section is also familiarity with autofocus behaviour: know what you can do, what you can’t, and how to change modes and focusing points. Also spend some time running AF fine tune on each of your lenses – especially the fast aperture ones – to avoid the disappointment of finding that all of your images are perfectly composed but have sharp ears instead of eyes…
- Always half press the shutter to engage focus before pushing all the way to release; give the camera enough time to lock on, too.
- - It’s also important to know the properties of your lenses – the most critical parameters are optimal apertures and field curvature behaviour, I think. The former will keep your technical image quality high, the latter will avoid the focus errors from recomposing after focusing. I’ll also throw into the mix the fact that different lenses of the same notional focal length have slightly different angles of view, too. It’s not uncommon for a 50mm to be a 53mm, or 49mm.
- For those running multiple camera systems and sharing lenses with adaptors, it’s worth knowing which combinations work and which don’t – any other way is a false sense of security which makes you believe you have a certain amount of range coverage, when in actual fact you may not be able to use that combination til f8 or f11 – rendering it impractical for available light work. Legacy wide angle lenses and short-flange mirrorless systems are a notorious example, for instance.
- If you’re using film, make sure you know the properties of your medium: dynamic range, native color response, etc. – unfortunately there’s no shortcut to just being prepared to burn a few rolls in the name of experimentation.
Don’t underestimate the importance of stability
- The biggest improvement to image quality is almost always by getting a more stable platform: aside from avoiding deterioration in resolution due to camera shake, you can also use a lower ISO which means better color and dynamic range; in addition, it’s easier to focus precisely if the camera isn’t moving – regardless of whether you’re using autofocus or not. Stability is also one of the fundamentals of good shot discipline.
- Use a tripod if you can.
- If you’re going to use the lens or camera body stabilizers, give them a moment to settle in before shooting – after a half press for a few seconds, you’ll notice that the viewfinder image is considerably more resistant to sudden movement. I suspect it has something to do with the gyros collecting enough information for the system.
- Where possible, brace yourself against something that isn’t moving. However, don’t tense your body as you can’t keep perfectly still, and the rigidity means that any slight amount of shake will transmit to the image.
- Don’t jab at the shutter button – after half pressing to prefocus, gently roll your finger to release it. Keep it depressed until after the shot is taken – this avoids motion blur when letting up. In a similar vein, I find that shooting bursts of three can help avoid blur induced by pressing the shutter button. My experience is that this technique only works if you’ve got a burst mode above about 4fps.
- Make sure the weight and load rating of your tripod or monopod (and head, of course) is appropriate to the camera you’re going to use on it – light is easy to carry, but isn’t stable. A difference in weight is quite obvious: I can’t get consistently sharp results with the D800E at all shutter speeds on the 1-series Gitzo Traveller (it also only weighs 900g), but I haven’t had anything but tack-sharpness with the Gitzo 5-series systematic – even when shooting the Hasselblad, whose mirror kicks like a mule.
- Lock everything down before shooting and use mirror lockup and the self timer if possible – this minimizes any possible vibrations caused by the mirror cycling.
- Don’t extend the column if you can help it; it’s effectively like putting an un-braced monopod on top of the tripod legs.
- Spread the legs of the tripod as far as they’ll go (some curvature-induced tension helps keep thing stable, too).
- Use the appropriate type of metering for the situation, and have an idea of how your camera is going to respond – it’s worth knowing, for instance, that the Leica M8s and M9s underexpose severely when there are point light sources in the frame at night, or that the modern Nikons have a matrix meter that’s more closely weighted to the spot exposure over the subject than in previous versions.
- Good metering technique avoids overexposure or underexposure and any subsequent decline in image quality caused by trying to recover in postprocessing. I’ve got a two-part series on this topic that begins here.
- Ensure you have fully charged power packs, and plenty of spares – you’ll be surprised how fast flash batteries drain.
- Know the sync speed of your camera and guide number of your lights: this way, you know both how much flash power you’ve got if you need it (ability to drown out ambient) and what the working range of your lights is.
- Bring any and all modifiers you think you might need: reflectors, scrims, diffusers…diffuse is good, and looks natural.
- Practice beforehand to know what kind of effect you’re going to achieve with what light positioning; I generally keep things as simple as possible because it helps to maintain nice, distinct shadows – remember lighting 101.
- I’ve also got a whole series of articles on this topic that begins here.
Post shoot – editing, sorting and postprocessing
- Back up your images immediately – I download the cards to my computer, run time machine, and have enough spare cards that the used ones generally don’t come back into circulation until I’ve had a chance to fully process and archive that shoot – this way, I have effectively three copies. It’s useful if you accidentally delete something, or want to revert to the original file. I’ll also run time machine periodically through the editing and postprocessing process, so I have an up to date backup.
- Clean your equipment, charge the batteries, stick everything in the drybox etc – basically, prepare it to be ready to go for the next shoot. I tend to reset my settings to a ‘ground zero’ so I know how the camera will behave when I pick it up – even after a long hiatus. You never know when you might be called upon to shoot something in a rush. Occasionally rotate out your spare batteries to ensure they stay topped up, too.
- Editing is the iterative process of deciding what’s ultimately worthy to share/ show/ deliver: it’s both being critical about deciding what doesn’t really work, and figuring out what you need to do to get the compositions that work into a final, finished, state – and if that’s enough to deliver the result you’re aiming for. I’ll do this process in several stages: immediate duds get binned in-camera; a second cull and rating after importing, marking the 5* images as ones to be processed immediately; then as I’m processing, I’ll delete more as I go along – perhaps the postprocessing I had in mind didn’t work for the composition, or wasn’t possible to do in a natural way. There’s a final cull of the postprocessed images, too – all in all, with digital, I generally discard somewhere between 95-99% of everything I shoot – partially because I shoot multiples and bursts out of habit (and mild paranoia) – and partially because I’m incredibly critical of my own work; if you’re not, nobody else will be objective for you. I’ll throw away anything that’s a near miss, even if it’s 99% there. In general, it’s good to leave some time between each of the stages – somehow, images mature – or perhaps more accurately our own vision clarifies, and it becomes obvious which images will work and stand the test of time, and which don’t.
- Postprocessing is the bashing you do in Photoshop to ‘develop’ your RAW files: it’s converting raw data into final output data. It isn’t about saving misses – although with some once-in-a-lifetime shots, it might be – but it’s about figuring out how to best present the image you’ve captured, or any touchup required for commercial considerations. It’s very, very important not to overdo it; this will look unnatural. It’s always possible to go back and add a bit more – i.e. turn up the dial from 8 to 9 – but it isn’t possible to go the other way.
- If there’s the slightest chance that you’ll need to go back and work on the file again, process in a non-destructive way and save as much data as you can – i.e. adjustments in layers, retouching in layers, and a 16-bit Photoshop file. This makes it both easier to make future incremental changes, as well as avoids quality loss induced by compression. That said, I generally know what the final outcome of my own work is going to be, and I’ve almost never had occasion to go back and reprocess – so I save these as maximum quality JPEGs. For client work, it’s Photoshop and TIFF only.
- Get a graphics tablet for postprocessing and retouching work: you simply can’t get the fine control you need with a mouse.
- Don’t overdo the sharpening: this is one thing that cannot be fixed afterwards. It’s possible to add grain to give the impression of detail, but it isn’t possible to remove haloes to avoid the impression of ‘digital-ness’.
- Save multiple copies if you’re going to make changes or try different versions; make sure the filenames are different too to avoid accidental overwrites! I usually use a suffix of some sort – ‘bw’ to denote black and white, ‘copy’ to denote the small version I upload to flickr, and perhaps the color space and MP count to annotate intermediate versions.
- Calibrate your monitor to ensure what you see is what other people see! Work in a large-gamut color space to preserve as much tonal latitude as possible.
Backups and archiving
- Only one point here: do it frequently, often, and in many places. You can never have too many backups or archives. Keep things both physically and digitally secure to avoid plagiarism; I don’t put anything full-resolution online or in the cloud because you will never have full, exclusive control of the image again. Negative or print storage is a bit trickier – a fireproof safe is probably a good idea, as are scans – but nothing can really replace the originals. Store them carefully, preferably in a dry, chemically neutral environment – pay attention to the sleeves etc.
Hopefully this has given you a bit more insight into my own photographic workflow – I did cover this very briefly in an earlier article, but felt that perhaps some detail was lacking. MT
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