Musings on Getting Better

The other day, I took delivery of a strobe to add to my studio gear.  I have a fairly big shoot coming up and wanted to try a slightly different config for this shoot.  Nothing too fancy here – it’s simply some head and shoulder type shots but they need to be “business” shots.   Nothing cute and fancy about these – for me, that is.   Recently, actually before that even, I got thinking about the various ways I’ve progressed over the years. 

At one time, back in the 35mm days, I was a very serious amateur that did a bit of free-lancing at the time.  I also owned a photo retail store and had quite an interesting career that surrounded photography.  Then, a career change took me away from that for about 30+ years and over the last few years, I’ve regained my passion for this hobby.  Digital made things easier in some aspects, but more difficult in others, but it was nice to see that I could still “see” Smile  My current career as a Business Analyst, has given me the skills to be a little more methodical in my thinking, hence this entry on learning.  Oh – and I also have done a lot of training – not photo though – concepts are the same.  Sooo…. I guess one of the key root questions in photography – How does one get better in the art itself?

In the beginning…. Smile  Thought I would toss that in there…..  I feel that in order to even think about being a better photographer, one needs to have a bit of creative talent.  The ability to see things “differently” for lack of a better term.  To me, it’s one thing to look at picture and ask the question “How did they do that?”, turn around and continue on, and totally another to try to sit there and figure out how they actually did do that. Smile  Like any hobby or creative venture, it’s getting to that next step or at least taking it.

The vast majority of folks who use cameras, use them to simply take snapshots and basically that’s it.  Their only concern is catching the moment (not that that’s a bad thing),  and their world simply stops.  Let’s face it – today’s technology does a pretty good job from the technical side of exposure, etc.  Composing or understanding some of the “rules” – totally different issue.  There’s a big difference between a photo and good photo Smile  I’ve seen some photos that are simply not good and person thought it was a great photo.  To each their own.  I’ve also seen some great shots embedded in a photo and all it took was a little cropping to make it a great photo – they simply didn’t fill the frame.  To me, this brings up the issue of that “line” between the casual photographer and the more serious photographer.  Let’s explore that a bit.

IF one does want to get better at the “art” itself, I feel that there’s this combination of learning the art and learning your equipment that comes into play.  I mean, let’s face it – something as simple as understanding how the Rule of Thirds works and applying it to your camera will move one forward almost instantly.  BUT, in saying that – how many folks even know about the rule?  OR learning the basics of exposure and being able to tie that in with what the camera can do?  Technology, to me, has come a long way in assisting with the exposure piece.  Even the pointy shooties or phones for that matter, do a surprisingly good job, all things considered.  Sooo.. what are some of the “blockers”?

This is a little subjective but in most places, I sometimes think that “other” technologies surrounding our respective lifestyles is HUGE blocker.  We need to make a living, so photography like any other hobby is exactly that – we “dabble” the odd time and leave it at that.  Quite simply, there are other things that need to get done.  Fair enough.  Even with me, I have a surprisingly limited amount of time in today’s world for photography itself.  My knowledge spans over 15 years in 35mm film plus motion picture and now digital.  When I first got going in this, photography was my only hobby.  Today, I’m an IT Consultant, have revenue properties, write blogs, and a myriad of other things and if anything, I have less time now than I used to pursue this hobby, which I am loving dearly.  BUT, I still try to keep learning at every chance.  

In understanding the “art” and basic things to getting better at photography.  To me there are two pieces to this.  The first, is getting the information about the art.  The second is implementing what you learned.  In other words, getting out there and using your camera.  Todays technology make this a very inexpensive proposition to the film days, so taking a lot of photos shouldn’t be that big of a deal.  Results are instantaneous.  A big part of your learning should follow along these lines.  You take a photo – it didn’t come how you thought.  Was it you, or was something set wrong in the camera?  OH – do you know what your camera is capable of?  Smile  To me, it’s amazing how many folks I run into that  tell me that they are having trouble using their camera because they had trouble with the controls.  What – they didn’t read the manual?  They didn’t try taking photos with the settings to see the result?  To me, the term point and shoot, can be a but misleading.  Those little pointy shooties can be surprisingly complex.  the other thing.  When they say point and shoot, did you know that basically meant a sunny day or using the flash (within their limitations).  Not necessarily those cloudy days, or funny lighting conditions.  To me, creativity is one thing – knowing your camera… well… you need to know.  We seem to always be in a hurry  and one wants to be good instantly.  Sorry – doesn’t happen that way.  It comes with time.  Sort of like buying your first set of golf clubs and expecting to qualify for the pros Smile  Sorry again…..

For me, it sort of goes along this path.  From the photo side of things first.  I may see a photo or perhaps a technique that interests me.  I try to figure out how the shot was done and then figure out how I would take that shot.  I usually can’t duplicate the shot due to location, so I have to apply the same technique to something different.  OR, I look at something and it dawns on me that there’s a shot hiding in there Smile  Same thing – How do I pull of the shot I “see”.  Then, I grab my camera and take the shot or shots.  Sometimes….. I get the shot.   Many times, I don’t get the shot right away.  Some of the factors – lighting didn’t come out, exposure might be off a bit, composition wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.  Sooo… I start to experiment.  Adjust settings. bracket the shot, change  composition – maybe set up an external flash, add filters.  Oh yeah – I also take notes Smile  Sometimes, I can only get close and have to rely on software (though I hate doing that).  All breaks down to understanding your camera and also what YOU know about getting that shot.  AND I take as many photos as I need to.  Deleting stuff after is easy Smile  Notice I said after.  Yes, I’ll punt the shots that were simply bad right away.  The rest – well, I’ll leave them until I get  a chance to see them on screen.  I’ll give some examples.  I went looking for a location one day to get a cityscape of our skyline.  I found the location, the lighting was what I wanted.  I took about 20 shots that encompassed location more than exposure and got what I wanted.  My wife has plants.  She had this one rose that I wanted to capture a pic of.  The lighting wasn’t ideal and I ended up using flash with hi speed synch to get the shot.  That shot took a couple of hours and close to 100 photos to capture a couple that I thought were good enough to show anyone else.  I kept about 10 and punted the rest.

And then there’s the equipment.   I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen people jump to DSLR’s because they thought it would get them better pictures Smile  Quality is one thing – yes, the DSLR will get you a high quality image but so will a pointy shooty if taken in the right context.  It ain’t the camera!!! I have a lot of cameras – we won’t get into the extra stuff I have for the moment.  What most folks don’t seem to understand – a DSLR has a LOT of extra functionality.  That functionality takes a long time to learn – if can’t take advantage of that, it’s gonna sit in your closet colleting dust because it was either too bulky or too complex to learn.  Even the entry level ones aren’t necessarily that easy to learn.  More important – you don’t get one of these to keep in “Auto”.  You can actually get a camera that does more, is smaller and likely less expensive.  A DSLR can actually do more but you need accessories – that means more money.  AND more bulk.

Let’s assume you already have a camera.  Or maybe you are looking at moving “up”.  Perhaps even from your smartphone.  What typically will happen?  We happen to be going by the camera section at a department store and the thought occurs – “I should get a new camera.” Smile  It’s only then, you try to formulate in your mind the “why”.  Some questions here – have you figured that “why”?  Have you hit the limits of your camera?  Are those limits enough to justify stepping up?  Yeah, it can be a tough call, but it’s a good reality check too. 

When I look at new gear, there’s very little impulse – well sometimes there is Smile  I buy gear to fill some specific thing that I can’t currently do easily.  Notice – I said “easily”.  When it comes to cameras, I stepped up to DSLR’s in very small steps.  I knew I ultimately would end up there because of my history – I just wasn’t in a hurry to get there.  When I decided to move up from the pointy shooty class, it was because I wanted something that could deal with low light.  It was a big shortcoming on a vacation I took, and when I got back, the hunt started.  My thoughts were to get a camera that was advanced enough to handle low light but at the same time, for me to grow and find out more about the aspects of digital photography in a more serious manner.  The camera I got was the Fuji X10, which, at the time, was one of the more advanced cameras out there for a compact advanced camera.  I  still have that camera and still use it Smile  I used that camera for about 6 months exclusively.  Two things came out of that – for some of the stuff I was doing, I was running out of battery power, coupled to flash range on some events I took photos at.  Second – it only had a 4x zoom, which was a bit of a restriction for a few things I wanted to do.  I got extra batteries – fine.  I then looked at units with a larger zoom.  That prompted my journey into travel cameras.  At the time, I was commuting and time was a huge factor, so being able to stuff a camera in my daypack was convenient.

Between the two, my passion for photography began to grow and I started to do more and more, and with that came more cameras.  I wanted to get more serious, but DSLR’s were still a bit “out there” for me.  I wanted a more advanced unit, but wasn’t sure where to go and one day, I chanced on a Nikon 1 J1 on a clearout.  This is an interchangeable mirrorless unit, but it was pretty well fully automatic.  It was a cheap buy as I got two lenses and the body for under $500.  It was a chance to play in larger sensors to see what they could do.  There were certain aspects that caught my attention immediately.  For certain things I did – scenery, close ups – the colors were richer.  Image sharpness was the same at normal viewing but when I enlarged to crop – the image quality held up.  I used that for about 3 more months, and then I had an opportunity to be a backup photographer at a formal event.  I knew I would need way better gear and I made a decision to stay with mirrorless.  I got the Panasonic GX-1 with two lenses and spare batteries.  I got the gear about two months in advance of the event to ensure I would be comfortable with it.  Wow!  What a difference to the Nikon in performance.  Mind you – the extra control was what I was after.  BUT, the big shortcoming there was flash power.  I was restricted to about 20 ft. and around 100 flash shots per charge.  That meant a lot of battery swaps.  I had the Fuji X10 as my backup.  This event prompted my move to DSLR’s.  I got chatting with the pro about her gear – she had Nikon.  What I did notice were a couple of things – her flash cycle times were literally nil compared to me at a couple of seconds.  No battery swaps – she didn’t miss a moment.  She also mentioned that I did a good job with what I had.

I had to make a hard call here.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go in this direction and moving to DSLR’s was too early.  I knew that.  BUT this event got me into another one about 4 months out for the same group.  A couple of weeks later, I found a sale on the Nikon D3200 with a kit lens so I got one to “dip my toe in”.   THAT put me into a whole new space and from there, it basically “got me back”.  It also flushed out certain things I wanted to do.  I love my scenics and close ups, but one area that wanted to explore was portraits.  I decided on flash and strobes.  I already had the flash units and strobes were a natural migration.  I now have 3 bodies and a bunch of lenses and a pretty full blown portable studio.  I do a fair number of events. Some paid, some volunteer but it’s also carving a possible future path.  Still out there on that one.

Did I stop using my other gear?  On the contrary – NO.  In fact, I didn’t sell any of  my gear – I still use them (so does my wife).  I look at it this way.  As much as I love my DSLR’s, I’m not tied to them either.  There are times when I need them for their versatility and functionality.  BUT – for other stuff, I don’t need them.  ANY of my other gear will do just fine.  Even when I take my DSLR’s, I’ll take one of my travel cams with me and in many instances, use the travel cam first.  For what I shoot and use photos for, the others are more than adequate.  I get the results I want and that’s what counts.

I can be impulsive at times, but when I need a piece of gear, it’s at the point where my purchases are very targeted.  They have to fulfil a very specific function.  Have I made some bad buys?  Sure – who hasn’t.  BUT in saying that, I’ve also made some buys that have moved my photography to a whole new level and expanded my capability too.  Here’s a good example of moving up.  I was at an event taking some casual photos for my reference.  I noticed this bulb thingy that was on top of the pro’s flash.  I asked about it.  It was the Gary Fong LightSphere.  For me, up to that point, I was using reflectors and softboxes on my flash.  His comment was to the effect that if I got one of these, I could probably get rid of the rest in most instances.  I started to research and got one.  Man – was he right. What  wonderful things.  I have two plus all the accessories.  That was one thing.  The other big thing came out of the research.  One of tutorials was about Nikon’s CLS (Creative Lighting System) and using High Speed Synchronization.  After seeing that, my mind went nuts on how I could use that.  The blocker – my D3200 and D5100 didn’t have high speed synch.  I would have to move up to the next model body – a D7100 or D7200.  I found a demo D7100 (saved me about $700).  This was on a clearout and last years model, but it got me “in the game”.  And WOW!  I couldn’t believe the extra functionality I got!

Learning curve – this camera is targeted at the serious amateur and possibly semi-pro category.  After about 5 months and more than a few thousand photos, I’m still finding out stuff.  But, I can do the stuff I normally do without blinking.  For the novice – they could be out taking photos instead of trying to learn.   One of the big pitfalls I’ve seen, is that most folks quite simply don’t take that many photos.  Interesting in one sense, as more photos are being taken more than ever, but at the same time, I feel that many simply don’t take enough photos to get familiar with even their cameras let alone try to learn.  To me, I think this is a very common thing.  One wants to “look the part” without the knowledge backing it. 

Anytime I get a new piece of gear – back up.  Let’s look at what I do when I get a new camera – maybe this will help more.  I’ll use the example of my most recent “smaller” cameras that I got.  It was the Nikon S9900.  The reason I got this one was two fold.  First, it has an articulating viewer – handy for doing low shots.  Second was the 30x zoom.  It’s also quite a small unit, so handy too.  Once I set  it up.  The first series of test shots were to ensure that the metering was consistent to my other Nikons.  I normally set my ISO to 200 and put the camera in Programmed Auto mode with matrix metering as well as matrix type autofocus at the beginning.  This gives me a good idea of how the camera sensor renders generally.  I also set the camera to the “vivid” setting.  I found that overall color rendering with my Nikons is pretty well the same across all my cameras.  I find the photos “bright” with a slight emphasis on blue – not noticeable if you haven’t shot across various brands.  Once I get those shots, I will try the under and over exposure setting to see what they do and ensure that the EV values are what I expect.  And then, I’ll fiddle with the zoom – perhaps take a few shots at various zoom levels.   At this point, I will know what I can do with the camera under normal conditions.  THEN, I’ll grab a coffee and start to go over what’s in the menu to see what else is hiding there that might be useful and to familiarize myself with the menus themselves.  What I am after at this point, are the places where I need to get at changes fast.  ISO, metering, autofocus, etc.  The things that I may change “on the fly”, so to speak.  I do look at the Scene modes, though I rarely use them.  For me, I target myself to start using the camera as fast as I can. 

Once I get fairly comfortable with the camera itself in being able to use it for most normal things, I’ll then start looking at the more advanced functions.  Some of them I may use, others I probably won’t.  Like Wi-Fi and GPS – no use to me at this time.  Generally speaking, there is a bit of a charge in the battery, so I’ll use it for a few shots or until the battery is drained and then charge it overnite.  Then, I may or may not use it the e next day – it depends on what else I have on my plate.  If I can I will, if not I don’t sweat it.  On a smaller unit, I’m usually not concerned with learning a lot at the beginning – I’ve done this for more than a few cameras (I own 15+), so it’s come naturally.  BUT, if it’s something I’m trying to learn on my DSLR, that’s a different story.  It sometimes takes a bit of scheduling but I will try to block out several hours if  I need to learn a new technique or something like that.  I count on the fact that I will be taking a lot of test shots to perfect the technique.  I’m at that point where if something like portraits needs some tweaking, it’s worth taking the time to learn and be good at it. 

Onward……

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About gkamitomo
IT Busines Analyst

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