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Taking better photos is up to you

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Taking better photos is up to you

Why better kit is mostly an illusion. Simple ways to get more out of your photography


Most photographers have occasional bouts of wondering why they bother taking photos, or how they could ‘improve’ their photography.

Well, Keith isn’t immune to this – it’s part of what we all do in creating photos, whether personally or as in our case running a photo business and working with clients.

Here are some of Keith’s thoughts and approaches to being a photographer, along with some personal ideas that help and things that don’t.

Keith at fish creek falls

So, what brought this on then?

Photography is something I enjoy, as well as for the last 15 years being my principal source of income. The business side of things is pretty solid, and where we can improve things, it’s in hand.

I’ve written quite a few articles about the business side of being a photographer and I’d suggest that most photographers running a business tend to have issues with the business side, rather than photography.

This note considers the creative/enjoyment side of my photography, which whilst it matters in the business, should, I hope, be of interest to those of you just doing your photography as a hobby.

Two things in particular set me off ;-)

Same old prints?

I’m testing another printer for one of my printer reviews and as such need to find a collection of images to print, once I’ve tried it with some of my standard test prints.  I have quite a selection of images from over the years, so no problems there.

batch of test prints

From a technical point of view I’m quite happy with printing, indeed I recently wrote up my top ten reasons for prints looking wrong

However, only the first 9 of the problems deal with technical issues of printing – the 10th is in many ways the most significant. It asks if your pictures are any good?

It was just one of those days where the doubt creeps in…

I got the distinct feeling that all I was printing were the old favourites, not many new images.

Fortunately Karen, who runs Northlight’s photo business (also my wife and talker of sense on such occasions) pointed out that for printer testing it actually helps to be familiar with how the photos can look as prints…

Annoying fan-boys

For many years I’ve devoted a few pages on the site to keeping up to date with camera and lens rumours

As such, I check a variety of sites and forums, as well as receiving the odd ‘rumour’ directly – these range from reasonable to pure wishful thinking (and beyond).  I tend to keep the rumour pages on their own, since I’d rather the site known for the articles/reviews. That said I know plenty of people find them entertaining.

Normally I gloss over some of the comments/discussions, but this morning I dipped into a particularly dreary discussion about the merits of Canon’s as yet unannounced full frame mirrorless camera compared to various Sony offerings. A mighty powerful wave of ‘This really doesn’t matter – I just don’t care’ washed over me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t maintain many of the technical reviews and articles on this site if I didn’t have some considerable interest in the techy side of photography, but the tech is there to do a job, not be an end in of itself.

For some reason my normal enthusiasm faltered and I wondered.

I guess it was all this that helped mildly irritate me about that enthusiasm about upcoming new mirrorless cameras that we know nothing about.

Anyway, it was time to have a think about taking some photos…

My list of things to do about it – taking better photos

I’m not putting this forwards as ‘the plan’ or whatever. You’ll see plenty of such articles around the beginning of most years (photo-a-day etc.) It’s just a few things I need to remind myself of every so often.

Take more photos

Always my number one bit of advice. If I regularly had a phone with me I might use that, but since I don’t it needs to be me taking a camera with me – not just when I’m on a paying job.

The emphasis is on more photos – so deciding that I’ll spend a month next year visiting somewhere interesting might be a nice idea, but it’s not addressing the immediate issues.

Back to black and white

I’ve lots of info on this site about digital Black and White photography, but I realised recently I’ve not been doing it nearly so much as I used to.

Both as a way of looking at things to photograph and the changes in compositional style, it can break habits and help you think about the whole process from view to print.

Look at more photos

Time to look through my bookshelves and visit 2nd hand bookshops.

I may rarely remember photographers’ names, but I do like looking at pictures – sometimes quite rapidly, looking for things that catch my attention and wondering why.

I’d personally advise against looking at something like Instagram and its spurious notions of ‘popular=good’ and approval from the anonymous masses… YMMV

Take photos with making a print in mind

Keith and a large printIf you actually start to think about taking photos with the aim of making a print, then it does have an effect on the process.

It can help if you visualise a space on your wall and think about what shape and size of print you’d like – maybe the shape and even the colour scheme it has to go with.

All these things can give a gentle upset to your usual photo taking techniques.

Or, how about going somewhere ‘nice’ or ‘interesting’ and seeing if you can create a print of the scene. Even if you come to the conclusion that it’s a wonderful view, but just doesn’t work as a print, you’ve thought about it…  (see my B&W Print of Staithes for an example).

Pick a lens, any lens

Have you a lens you don’t use much? Take it out and see if you can come up with something different or interesting. perhaps combine it with a different choice in subject matter?

Yes, it is a bit of a technical exploration too, but there is the element of your limited choice of view making you think about what and why you’re taking a photo.

It’s one reason I quite like doing lens reviews of more unusual lenses.

Read more and play the piano more

Those are my two things, but maybe there are things you’ve let slide and don’t do so much any more?

They could be sporting or anything different that you  ‘just don’t do so much’.  OK, for me, sporting activity slid by the wayside before my teens, but it really could  be anything.

Sometimes worrying about your photography is just a natural passing phase. Someone commented to me the other day that they were concerned that their photography wasn’t ‘improving’.

Sounded fine until they were unable to give me any means by which they could judge or define, yet alone measure the concept of improvement.

Oh, and it won’t be…

Pick what works for you, but my own choices almost certainly won’t involve moving back to film.

I often see all kinds of hokum talked about the merits of film, but many such endeavours are at heart a search for a different and new challenge of technical mastery without admitting that’s what it’s really about.

I can respect people trying it for the challenge of learning new techniques, and all that can follow from that, but be honest about why. Using film as of itself does not make one jot of difference to artistic/creative results IMHO – different but the same…

A while ago I noted that If digital is too easy, then you’re not trying hard enough. If I want to explore new artistic directions, I have more than enough technical kit and expertise (printing for example) to explore artistic directions without wrapping it in some new technical ones (that I last explored in the 1990’s).

Social media – give up on the likes

I’ll also avoid the ‘tyranny of the like’ where people mistake the approbation of assorted anonymous individuals as being in someway meaningful.

A considered comment (positive or negative) from someone I know and who’s work I appreciate, is genuinely helpful.

Twitter likes etc. are part of our photo business marketing that may or may not contribute to the success of the business. In many ways, for my actual photography, they are simply not real…

Enough of this – go out and take those photos

Yes, all photographers go through this.

In a way it’s great for the technical challenges to have been largely met, but the challenge of making ‘good’* photos is still there for anyone to tilt at.

*- whatever you choose that to mean…

Just one more thing…

I’ve mentioned ‘technical mastery’ a few times.

Why do I take photos?  It’s a question many photographers ask, and for many the real answer is often ignored (if even acknowledged).

Many photographers I know (especially men) regard photography as a technical skill set to master. It may not be (widely) admitted, but it’s there.

This often comes about after initially taking photos to record events/places/children/pets. It’s the point where a ‘decent camera and lens’ makes a difference.  Making technically excellent photos becomes an end in itself.

When the tech mastery approach fails

The ‘problem’ is that with modern kit and editing software it’s easier than ever to make a technically good photo. This had led to a steady stream of people simply wondering what to photograph next?

The camera makers continue to oblige with increased technical facilities, whether more megapixels, better ‘dynamic range’ or even the introduction of affordable ‘medium format’ cameras. Add to that better monitors and printers/inks/papers and there’s plenty to keep you busy and spend your money.

However, visible advances in the results are getting harder to see – to me the diminishing returns are clear. That ‘mirrorless’ discussion I was reading just shouted it out to me.

Sure, Keith, but you do this stuff too…

Indeed …I’m not (nor would I want to be) immune to techy explorations myself – it’s part of the reason I started writing articles and reviews on the site, but at least part of my excuse is that it’s there to benefit the photo business ;-) I’ve long believed that knowing the tech inside out means I get to ignore it most of the time, until it’s there to make a difference.

In the photography world, the tech mastery approach was starting to fail by 2010 and by now (2018) if you want to take technically great photos, then you can, at a very reasonable cost.  From my business POV it means that the competitive advantage you get from mastery of a new product/technique has a much reduced shelf life.

So, what to do?

Take some of my own advice – our workload is light at the moment, so I have the time. I’m off to make a coffee and pick one of my photo books from the bookshelves.

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