Getting better, that is a constant theme in just about everything photographic. Is it just human nature or is it just the nature of photographers? Whatever it is, getting better at our craft is a huge part of what it is to be a photographer. You know what I’m talking about. You do it, we all do it, that’s why you’re reading this blog post right now. You’re hoping that some pearl of wisdom will leak out of my pea brain that will help you be a better photographer. I’m just as guilty of it. I’m constantly looking for that piece of advice of a posting, that one statement in a video that will trigger a response in my head to send me out clicking. But quite often, I find some of my best learning comes right from my own files.
I was looking for a specific image of a specific aircraft for a client. They wanted a particular angle, which while important to the client, didn’t really excite me at the time I took it so it wasn’t one of the images I finished for myself. In the process of locating the image, I came across the original Nefs of the AZ Wing of CAF B-17G “Sentimental Journey.” A favorite of mine, I never was satisfied with the 24×30 print. I didn’t like the blue reflection of the sky in the fuselage. I didn’t like the gesture in the frame and I wasn’t satisfied with sharpness. The image, which is now almost 4yrs old, was selected as a favorite 4yrs ago. That’s a LONG time ago in the life of a photographer!
In my own files, I found what 4yrs later I think is a better image. Why is it better? Since the photo itself is 4yrs old, it’s not because I shot it differently. Rather, what in my mind as a definition of what makes a better image has changed. At the same time, while software offers more options, how I use those options has evolved as I’ve learned more. What I have learned (and has stuck in my mind) then affects how I see and how I communicate. By looking at my own files, I’m not finding “new” images that can be reprocessed, but can find what new lessons have taught me that can be put into action.
But more importantly, by looking at your own files when you put that camera to your eye, you see better when you go click. While I might fine that one file that I can reprocess to produce a better image, more importantly that one file might click in my own mind an important lesson I want to put into practice in the viewfinder. Ya, you run the huge risk of seeing images you’ll say quietly to yourself “that sucks, what was I thinking” but that’s OK, you learn from them just as well. Why is that? Because we are our own best teachers!
An over active imagination? Ya, I have one of those! My love affair with rocks is pretty well known and that’s due in part to my imagination. For example this one at Lake Tahoe, it looks like a fish monster rising its head from the depth to spit out some chewing tabaco on us dumb photographers getting up early on a bald sky morning to shoot rocks. Perhaps a little more nuts is not only seeing this but then shooting to bring it out. Getting down near water level with D800 (ya, even wanted extra detail in the head) with the spooky sharp 18-35 and then processing it in Perfect Suit 7 B&W. Of course, when I say out loud what I was seeing, I was perceived as nuts and that is probably very correct. But then getting up early on a bald sky morning, is nuts!
After posting a photo of the B-26, I received an email from a reader. It told telling me about his father, a WWII vet and B-26 pilot who really liked the photo I had blogged. I sent the dad two prints of the aircraft, a small gesture of thanks for his service. …this is why we must share our photography!
I wanted to let you know my father received the prints you mailed him. They are absolutely gorgeous and he was so excited and happy to see them. He pours over every detail and keeps telling me what a good airplane that was. I asked him what he liked best about flying. He got very still and quite for a long minute, then smiled and said “cloud hopping, the sense of speed”. For a moment he was back in 1942, young and strong and confident, a 21 year old Citadel cadet, flying the most advanced aircraft in the world with all of life still ahead of him. He wasn’t just remembering his youth he was reliving it, feeling what he felt over 70 years ago. What is such a moment worth when you are 92, nearing the end and in constant pain from arthritis and cancer? Everything.
Yeap, I was there, sitting in the audience with my jaw hitting the floor and Sharon shaking me back to the real world as I heard him utter those words! And the scary part, what really concerned me was, the audience didn’t even hear him. They were way to tuned into comments that had dollar signs in them, what so many think is why photographers are in business. While it is a necessity, money is not why the successful and long term photographers are in the business of photography!
Dave’s class at Photoshop World on the business of Sports Photography was simply freakin great! I don’t care where you are in your sports photography business, or any business, he had inspiration and pearls in every sentence. Though he gave away the secret to success in photography within the first five minutes of his hour long presentation, it didn’t even come up during the Q&A, which still has me scratching my head!
First, understand that Dave is not only a dear friend, I hold him and his talent in the highest esteem! There simply is no one better than Dave so when he speaks, I listen! What’s the secret Dave let out of the bag? Well it had nothing to do with image quality though that is essential for longevity in the business. It had nothing to do with camera brands, how old or new your cameras are. It had nothing to do with how much camera gear you owned. It certainly had nothing to do with file formats. And while he didn’t say it in his words, every single image he presented during his talk screamed light and color so while not stated as important verbally, it sure in the hell was visually. Yet that’s not the secret Dave let out of the bag.
And I have to admit, I’m leery about giving away the secret here, now, since it was put out there and missed the first time. But I figure since Dave was the first to let it out of the bag, no one can point the finger at me. Yet, I wonder if my putting it out now, if it won’t just be missed again so why bother. Then I received an email from my last MLP, Bob, relating all his successes using this very basic yet primal element in a successful photography business and decided that if at least one photographer hears the secret and applies it, than it’s worth repeating.
I’ve been home only 23 days in 2013, the rest of the days I was on the road working. Now, this isn’t bragging, I don’t say this seeking sympathy. This is a simple statement kind of stating the success of my time behind the camera. It has everything to do with the secret to success. In fact, you could say it’s at the heart of it, which was almost the opposite of what the audience was seeking at Dave’s talk which is probably more why my jaw hit the ground.
What’s the secret, why have I made you wait this long to hear it? Well, I figured that if you really want to know the secret, you would read this. And if you really don’t, then you’re not even reading this now. And if you are just skimming this, I know the secret will remain the secret. Here is it, just like how Dave said it so matter of factly, emphasized with great images larger than life on the screen behind him. “Success comes from hard work! Why? Because few others want too!” Yeap, that’s it, that’s all there is to it.
Is it sharp? This incredibly important question is asked of me almost hourly as photographers look for filtering on what they should and should not buy. It’s pretty simple, we must have a sharp lens because we must have a sharp image. We can never forget that the second element the mind’s eye seeks out is sharpness. At the same time, one of the prime reasons we delete a file is because, it’s not sharp. So sharpness is very important to our visual communication! The main tool we use to achieve sharpness is the lens. So it’s ability to resolve what we focus on as sharp logically makes the lens very important. And for this reason, we spend alot of money, many spend countless hours shooting charts and reading reviews on the web, and send poor Moose emails asking if the lens he is shooting is really sharp. To the last part, I can answer with some simple logic. While you wouldn’t know it by how much I blog, I actually do have a photography business and one that after 30+yrs, is still going very strong and growing. That is because I deliver to my clients in part, a very sharp image. No sharpness, no clients, no business and, no blog. So the lenses I depend on have to be sharp, it’s real simple business.
Yes, I’ve heard, read and been sent many a lens report telling me the lens I’m shooting isn’t sharp. That’s because those folks snuck into my office and tested my lens for me. Really? I think Adobe’s “new technology” preview at Photoshop World tells the story more accurately. Adobe is working on a future technology called “anti-camera shake” that when boiled down takes care of an ancient photographic issue I call pilot error. Simply, the camera wasn’t held still when the photo was taken. This causes an unsharp image that is not the lenses fault. In all of my years, I’ve only seen three lenses that were themselves unsharp. All the rest of the problems put before and lenses sharpness where in fact, pilot error. Either in the capturing of the photo or in the post processing of the image. I’ve been pounded of late with the question if the new 80-400AFS (top image) and even more, the new 18-35AFS (bottom image) are really sharp lenses. The 80-400AFS question comes from the lens is replaces. The 18-35 comes from its price. Photographers by their very nature are, well, let’s say skeptics to be polite.
Yes, the lens used is a very important part of the sharpness equation, there is no doubt. I bigger and more important of that equation though is the photographer! There is only one time you can sharpen a pixel and that’s when you focus the lens. And to that you can add DOF, depth of focus which most call depth of field. How can you truly measure if a lens is really sharp? To be honest with you, I don’t know the perfect, 100% technical answer. For myself, the 24×30 print has always been my measuring stick along with the checks from our clients. I want to leave you though with this thought. How many photographs have you seen in print that were not sharp? I’ve seen a lot which begs the question, is sharpness as life or death as some make it out to be? Can a photograph tell it’s story is the image isn’t tack sharp but just sharp? Sharpness is important, don’t get me wrong but I just don’t think it’s worth having a heart attack over worrying if the lens you have or want to be is the “best.” If you, the photographer behind the lens is doing their best, then that lens will be the best. That is guaranteed!
Do you know why they paint drunk tanks pink? Do you understand what it is about red the can change your life? If you’re a photographer, you must read Drunk Tank Pink NOW and find out these and many other answers that will directly impact your photography!No, Adam does not talk about f/stops of camera brand. What he talks about are some of the most useful tools you can have and use as a photographer and, they are all free! Have your doubts because of the title of the book, listen to this interview on NPR and thank me in the morning!
I’m often asked how I approach a location such as Death Valley. The basic scenario is one has just a couple of days to make the photos, the clock is tickin as soon as your feet hit the ground. How do you make the most of that time? The first issue with this is the pressure to produce. How many photos do you need to have from a locale to say simply in your photos, “It was gorgeous?” Do you need 1000, 100, 10? I would contend you need only that 10 if that many. Think about it, when you show off images to your friends about a location you were just at, don’t you grab your smartphone, bring up that one image that exemplifies all that you were saying about that location? If that’s the case, then how many images do you need from a trip to really say, it was gorgeous? One?
With that in mind, when I go out to shoot, it’s just that one image that I’m looking for. That means chasing the light is just that, a chase for that one image. In this example, we left the Furnace Creek Inn and pulled out to Hwy190 and I looked right, I looked left and based on what I saw in the clouds, we headed south (turned right). I was looking for just that one shot, the one with the light that would simply say, gorgeous. Now in this pursuit we don’t always succeed but there are benefits going on this chase with this goal in mind. When you’re looking for the handful of images rather than the cards full, the pressure is off, the spending time looking at crappy pictures in post is gone, the guilt of trying to make those crappy pictures that you took that you feel you need to fix since you have them, is gone. At the same time, the failure rate it higher since you’re going on an all stakes adventure.
We had some clouds and more importantly, some sky. It had socked in all around us and there is nothing worse than that. So we turned up Artist Drive and hiked up the ridge and sat. Ya, sitting is a favorite shooting technique of mine, watching life unfold. In this case, watching the light paint across the landscape waiting for that one little beam to light up or not light up the foreground. So we went out for the afternoon and put all our cards in making the photo into this one location, this one time. And this time, the photo Gods rewarded us with a couple of photos that simply said, “It was a gorgeous afternoon.” So perhaps the next time you head out if you’re looking for a path, focus in on the light and making just that one solid, clean, romantic click. You might just experience the rewards of chasing the light.
“Amazing,” Incredible,” Beautiful!” “Love it,” the accolades that can be heaped on an image posted on the web can give you that, ooooooie warm feeling all down under. I wonder, does that really help our photography though? I wonder this in part looking at images that sometimes get posted. You know the ones, you look at them, you look around the room, you look back and them and you simply shake your head. There are simply some images that definitely fit the, “In the eyes of the beholder” category. But with that addictive accolade drug if you hit it right waiting out there, many take the risk when they shouldn’t.
One of the hardest things to do in photography is be our own best critic. Ever wonder why that is? Ever wonder why a year after you look at your favorite image it is often not you favorite so much anymore? They are all wrapped up in the same issue, our own emotions! Yeap, we have an emotional investment with our photography and that’s how it’s supposed to be. We are supposed to put our passion in each pixel to the point it reaches out and grabs the hearts of others. In that process though, something at times goes wrong. Our emotional tie to our photograph causes the blinders to come on.
Picking the images to share and those not to share is a hard learned lesson. It’s one that takes a whole bunch of time to master, if mastering is even possible. What was for such a long time referred to as editing images, the term editing is now more often thought of as post processing, rather than selecting those images that best tell a story, grab the heart. But editing is what a lot of posters need to learn.
Where do you learn this? Now we’re getting down to the $64mil question. While we love our families, they are not the best judge of a good photograph. Many put images into contests, which might be some valid measure but having been a judge in a few contests, I have my doubts. Having your images critiqued has always been a very popular method of getting feedback. That’s only if you can put away the hurt feelings, really hear what’s being said and then remember to act on what you’ve learned. So you might be asking then if these aren’t so hot, what is a good way to get feedback you need about your images?
I have two suggestions and I’m here to tell you that following them means grabbing the bull by the horns and going for one helluva a ride (hence my bull moose photos with the blog). Both of these methods require time, money and a real open mind. They require being honest with yourself, parking your emotional investment in the photo (not to be confused with the passion you put into the photo) and really listening to the reactions your photos bring.
The first way I’d recommend is a simple gallery showing. I’m not talking about trying to get your images in a gallery, but rather getting them on the wall at a restaurant, bakery, library or airport. Spend the time and money on getting that wall space, picking the images, getting the prints, getting them framed and then, and this is the important part, sit in the corner and watch the viewer’s reaction to your images! Ya, with pencil and paper watch the reactions or, lack or reactions to your photographs. And with both, figure out what is getting reaction and what isn’t. This is hard, I did it for years and while it taught me some things, I’m still learning.
The best way as far as I’m concern can really hurt the most, but it pays the biggest dividends. And that’s putting your images in front of those masters of visual communicating. The editorial photo editors are the best teachers when it comes to images that reach out and grab viewers. And they are the best, though at times very brutal, to tell you why your images don’t work. And that’s where the lessons lie, some of the very best in the world. Of course, this means you have to learn how to get your images to those folks in the first place and that is a whole other story for another day, or week.
Don’t get me wrong, I want to encourage you to keep sharing your photography and if that means you do it on the web, that’s killer! What I want to encourage you though is to share those special images, go with the quality over quantity approach. An editor told me long ago, “You’re only as good as your last published image,” a quote I always think about when putting out images. It’s a natural way to keep raising your own bar to put your best foot forward.