How to be a better photographer

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Shoot happy. Somewhere over Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia

Question, statement or suggestion and directive? Or perhaps all of the above? I believe very few people are truly 100% happy with their work. I know for a fact I’m not, and most people at the top of their game never are: that’s a big part of why they are where they are. The gulf is one of education: when you start out, you might not know what’s wrong – but you know something is missing. When you’ve got experience, you’re searching for that fifth element of serendipity to bring the magic. But what can we actually tangibly do to keep pushing the game along? I’ve come up with ten things both from the world of photography and beyond, some of which I put into practice now, and some of which I’d like to. Read on if you dare.

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On critiques and critiquing

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Something here is off: but why? And how can we make it better?

The above image is meant to be an example: something is deliberately off. But if we didn’t know, how can we fix it? I feel the art of the critique is something that’s unfortunately both underappreciated and under-utilised. There’s no shortage of images online, and this number keeps increasing – but on the whole, it’s difficult to say that volume has any correlation with quality or discernment or curation. If anything, the opposite: volume smothers refinement. Responses to images have been simplified to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ or some very strange animated GIFs, or worse, vitriol about something relatively minor and unimportant element of the image. Neither is really constructive – the photographer receives no useful information with which to make a better image the next time around. Consideration is rarely given by the audience when making a comment – this can be very dangerous because as the audience, you have no idea if the image was a throwaway or something the photographer believed was the absolute best they could do, and put their heart and soul into. Encouragement and discouragement are equally likely outcomes. Given photography is really a conversation – it is important to talk to (or at least gauge responses from) one’s audience – today we ask, ‘how can we raise the creative and technical bar for images?’

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There are two obvious definitions to layering: the literal splitting of the frame into planes of different distances, and the metaphorical addition of implied meaning through careful choice of subjects and subject placement. Ideally, an image should employ both to reward the viewer on further contemplation and to provide a visual that isn’t overly literal or one-dimensional. Unquestionably, a degree of ambiguity is required too, especially when working with implied meaning. But how can we consistently make images that fire on all cylinders?

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The difference between trimming and cropping

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This may seem like nitpicking, but I assure it isn’t. There is a fundamental difference between trimming and cropping; I had a lengthy email discussion with a reader recently on exactly why it makes a difference – both compositionally and conceptually. There’s a third ground too, which is very much intention-driven – and unlike situations that require attorneys, photographic/creative intention is much easier to prove.

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Tension and balance

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Two of the most common words I hear used when describing images are ‘tension’ and ‘balance’. I’ve got a good idea what the latter means, and how to translate it into an image – but the former is much more nebulous. A brief look around online also showed that they’re both not that well understood, or badly defined, too. At the risk of putting my neck on the block, I’m throwing my contribution into the ring, too. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section…

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Photographing concerts

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This is a slightly unusual topic for me: concert photography is something I’ve done quite a bit of, but never generally publicise because it falls out of my preferred commercial work. I started with being interested in the music first, in the mid 2000s; I shot a number of small venues locally, and these actually formed some of my earliest work – licensed to musicians and the like. Sadly, musicians are much like photographers: 99.99% of us are broke, but there are a small number of rockstars who make it into the big leagues. There are a few more who do okay and get by; we’re thankful we can sing for our supper and not drive a desk. That said, I have never (and will never) be on the other side of the microphone.

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Tilt shift 101

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No, they’re not broken. But your wallet will be after buying a set.

One of the most frequent things I get asked about is the use of tilt shift lenses; it isn’t surprising given the apparent complexity of the hardware and lack of any clearly understandable documentation or literature. There are plenty of good technical explanations of movements, but often they leave the reader more confused than when they started especially if you do not have a background in optics! This article will therefore aim to address the whole question of camera movements in as straightforward a manner as possible – necessitating some simplifications. Read on if you’ve ever been bothered by insufficient (or too much) depth of field, or geometric conversion of verticals with a wide angle…

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Repost: HDR, the zone system, and dynamic range

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My eyes, my eyes! I had to work quite hard to make this as a) I don’t own any of those filter programs and b) I don’t do this kind of hyper toned, overlapping HDR. The actual, final version of this image is at the end of the article.

Note: I’m reposting this article as a refresher before I talk about something a little harder to define in the next one.

HDR/ High Dynamic Range photography is perhaps one of the greatest blessings and curses of the digital age of imaging. On one hand, we have retina-searing rubbish that’s put out by people who for some odd reason celebrate the unnaturalness of the images, encouraged by the companies who make the filters that make doing this kind of thing too easy – and on the other hand, there are a lot of HDR images out there that you probably wouldn’t have pegged as being anything other than natural. There is, of course, a way to do it right, and a way to do it wrong. I use HDR techniques in almost all of my images – I live in the tropics, remember, and noon contrast can exceed 16 stops from deep shadows to extreme highlights – we simply have no choice if you want to produce a natural-looking scene.

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Repost: Defining cinematic

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Given we’re in the first day of the Cinematic Masterclass with Zeiss in Hanoi, it seems only appropriate that I bring back this classic post for another round – with new images, of course! 

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Photographic detox, part two

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Part two: get creative (continued from part one)

The camera companies and retailers are going to hate me for writing this, because it’s not going to sell any more equipment. If you were hoping for a quick solution that involves a credit card, I’m sorry too – there is no substitute to better photographs other than hard work. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or creatively liberating – after all, isn’t that one of the key reasons we shoot at all?

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