23 Nov 2015 The Mental Checklist to Make Better Photographs (Podcast 498)
About two years ago I wrote an article for Craft & Vision’s PHOTOGRAPH magazine called The Mental Checklist. I’ve discussed this in parts in the podcast both before and since that article, but today I thought I’d wrap my ideas surrounding this into a fresh episode.
It’s hard to believe, but this podcast turned ten years old in September this year (2015). If you’ve followed along over the years, I hope you’ll agree that my photography has gotten a bit better as time progressed, and what I’m going to talk about today has played a big part in my development as a photographer. More importantly, I think the things that I’ve learned and employ in my own photography now, can help us all to improve, so I hope this will be of use to you.
My original article was in Issue #5 of the Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH magazine, if you’d like to check that out, but this isn’t a straight reprint. I’m actually expanding this significantly without the length constraints of the magazine.
I’d been doing photography as a hobby, later developing into a passion, for some 20 years before I started this podcast, and was of course confident enough that I had something that could be of value to others back then in September 2005 when I released episode 1. Looking back at much of my earlier work though, I had some shots that weren’t bad, but a lot of my work was nowhere near the quality that I’m creating pretty consistently today.
Some of my improvement will have without doubt been organic. Just doing something with intent for a long time will hopefully lead to improvement. I was a guest on This Week in Photo last week, and we talked a little about 365 projects, where people commit to shoot every day for a year. I’ve never done one of these projects myself, but when I’m in a situation when I shoot every day, like when I’m away on one of my tours, the camera becomes an extension of my arm and brain.
There are not really many long spells now when I don’t shoot at all, but in the past I would go weeks, sometimes months when I didn’t shoot very often, and then, when I pick up the camera again, it feels a little rusty and disjointed. You sometimes make stupid mistakes just because it’s not coming totally natural.
But, when we shoot every day, operating the camera and making creative decisions becomes much more natural and fluid. The technology kind of fades into the background, and it’s much easier to get into a state of flow and just create the beautiful work. The reason I mention this here in this context, is because the podcast gave me an incentive to shoot when I may have otherwise not left the house with my camera.
Of course, you don’t have to start your own podcast unless you want to, but I do think that finding a reason to shoot, or even making a commitment to shoot, on a regular basis, can greatly help to improve your photography. Think of a personal project, or multiple projects that will keep you shooting regularly. On TWiP last week, this came up because we were talking about the OKDOTHIS iPhone app, which gives you photography assignments and inspiration, so you might want to check out that app as well.
Question Your Process
Shooting more often was only part of my improvement though. Some of the episodes that I had started to create are what I call travelogues, where I walk you through a particular shoot, or a tour, talking about my experience, and what I was thinking as I made each photograph that we look at as a real-world example. Most examples initially were taken from my image archive, so I’d go back and look at my settings and recall my thought process after the event, then write about it to share that experience with you.
As I thought about these images though, I’d often realise that there was a better way to have done what I did. Although I’d try to work this into the episodes too, I’d kick myself for making a stupid decision in the field. This in itself was helpful, because I would keep these mistakes in mind, and try to avoid them in the future.
The major change in my photography though, came as I did more work after starting to create the podcast. I found myself thinking about what I’d write in a future episode as I did my photography. And, just like when I realised that I had made a stupid mistake when I prepared an episode from archive images, I realised in the field that I was doing something stupid, but now, because I was still in the field, doing the photography, I was able to correct the mistake, sometimes even before I released the shutter.
This of course means that I was improving right there in the field! Preventing mistakes before I made them, and getting better results than I ever had before, simply by running through my processes with intention, asking myself questions about each of my creative decisions.
Intention Behind Every Frame
Again, you don’t need to do a podcast to start doing this yourself. Just being more intentional and asking questions about each decision you make will improve your photography. I’ll give you a sample list shortly, but the important thing to note here is that I’m not talking about doing this once per shoot, or doing it a few times then assuming you’ve improved and stopping. You will start to do this to some degree with every image you shoot. Once some decisions have been made, you can move on to different questions, but there should be thought and intention behind every frame.
Refine Your Composition
I often show you the resulting, final image as I talk through my travelogues, but one thing I sometimes do on workshops, is show participants the images that lead up to an image that I am happy with. In my Mental Checklist article, I talked a little about a series of images that I made of the Tatsusawa Falls in May 2007, as this was one of the first shoots that I really noticed myself being totally intentional about my process and creative decisions.
Depending on what I’m shooting, I sometimes take a walk around my subject without shooting first, but more often than not, as my subject starts to come into sight, I start shooting as the scene presents itself to me, especially when there isn’t a lot of time, or the scene does something for me right at that point in time. Rarely though do these first frames become the final image that I’ll show people or add to my portfolio etc.
Here we see a few frames that I made as I approached the Tatsusawa Falls (below). I started off wide, at 17mm, capturing the larger scene with the lush green foliage around the falls, but this wasn’t really doing much for me. I asked myself if including that white sky was worth it to get the foliage in, and the answer for me was “no”, so I continued to move in closer.
I moved over to the right side of the falls, closer still, but quickly realized that this wasn’t working either. I’d removed the sky, and kept some foliage, but the feel of the images was getting worse, not better. I’d also noticed earlier that there were some branches with leaves over the front of the falls, and I really liked this look, but they were not really visible in the shot from the right side, so I moved towards the front of the waterfall, until I got to the centre frame in this series (above).
I continued to work in, really concentrating on the one branch and its leaves, and the falls, just with a line of rocks along the bottom of the frame, but this felt a little too constrained. My favorite from the set ended up being the fifth frame, which I still have in my Nature of Japan portfolio today, more than eight years later. Some of you might recognize this shot from the old graphic that I used to use for the podcast in iTunes for a year or so.
In addition to the composition, I was, of course, asking myself other questions that led to the final result. I decided to leave my White Balance at the Daylight preset for example, partly because I generally do, but also because I really liked the late dusky blue tones of the image as it is without any white balance correction. I also decided to go for a long shutter speed to make the water all silky like this. I would normally use a Neutral Density filter for this, but as it was so dark by this time, I was getting a 2.5-second exposure at f/11, ISO 200, so I didn’t need an ND.
Of course, the questions that you ask yourself will differ by subject and situation, but here is a sample checklist, of the sort of things I might ask myself as I shoot a landscape scene.
- Can I use a tripod or does it not make sense right now?
- Should I shoot through the viewfinder or use live view?
- Am I using the right focusing mode for this subject?
- How can I compose the shot to lead the viewer to my main subject?
- Are there any leading lines that I want to use, or avoid?
- Is my composition effective, with the balance, drama or serenity I want?
- Is the foreground important, or distracting?
- Would this scene look better in portrait orientation or landscape?
- Can I tell a bigger story by going wide?
- Can I tell a more intimate story with tighter framing?
- Is the lens clean?
- ?Should I position myself higher or shoot from ground level?
- Is my camera/horizon straight, and if not, does it need to be?
- Are the edges of the frame free from distracting objects?
- If not, am I happy/able to remove that distracting object in post or should I find a different composition?
- How much depth of field do I need?
- Shall I use a fast shutter speed to freeze my subject’s movement or a slow one to record the movement or flow?
- If I need a faster shutter speed, do I change my aperture or ISO, or both to achieve that?
- Should I use a polarizer, neutral density or any other kind of filter?
- Does that filter need cleaning?
- Should I use a cable release or self-timer?
- Do I have time to check my exposure?
- Am I blowing any highlights, and if yes does it matter?
- Has the light changed since I started shooting? If so, do I need to adjust exposure?
- What’s behind me?
- Repeat and refine.
Like I say, these are just a sample of questions, and I change and adjust these all the time, but let’s think about why I might even be asking myself these questions.
Using a Tripod When Possible
Firstly, I like to use a tripod whenever it makes sense to do so, so my question is never “should I use a tripod” but whether or not I can use a tripod or whether or not it makes sense to do so. For landscape work, I almost always use a tripod. Even if I’m hiking a way to my subject, I don’t leave the tripod behind. Being without a tripod removes many creative options, such as long exposures, and also adds an element of uncertainty to my photographs.
For example, however careful I am about my composition, and checking the edges of the frame for distracting objects, as you scan the edges of the frame, the camera moves when you hand hold, so you can never fully control your framing. When using a tripod, I can carefully scan the edges of the frame and recompose to remove distractions or make a conscious decision to remove something later in post, but that’s not something I like to do if it can be avoided. This isn’t an ethical decision, rather I just don’t like spending time in Photoshop cloning stuff out if I can avoid doing so.
I also like using a tripod because it enables me to use Live View. When we look through the viewfinder, we see the world framed, but it’s still three dimensional. That enables our brain to jump forwards and backward in our scene, and that can lead to us missing something that doesn’t look good when overlapped.
When we switch to Live View, we see a flat, two-dimensional rendition of our scene, just like the final photograph, and this can help with composition and noticing things that could ruin your photograph later. So we can recompose or change our aperture/depth of field to avoid that if necessary. Of course, Live View doesn’t make much sense for hand-held or fast-paced shooting, so I generally only do this when I’m able to use a tripod.
Use or Avoid Leading Lines?
If there is something in the scene that can act as a leading line, I like to decide if that should be emphasized or avoided. For example, if something is leading to a point in the scene that I don’t necessarily want to lead the viewer’s eye to then I might consider changing my position or the height of the camera to play that down. If I can use it to good effect, then I will position myself to use those lines effectively, as I believe I’ve done with this photograph (below).
You can see how I positioned the first largest tetrapod in the bottom left corner, and used the rest of them to lead the eye into the scene, right up to the two tiny ones on the far right in front of the wave breaker wall that then leads the eye back into frame towards the sun’s rays and lighthouse. Of course, the sun’s rays are quite bright, and this will attract our attention first in some cases, but once we start to explore the image, these lines can help to keep the viewer of the image engaged.
Don’t Include a Foreground Just Because…
Conversely, one of my pet peeves at the moment is people including distracting objects in the foreground of their images. It’s popular to talk about including a great foreground in your photographs, and that is good advice, if you have or can find a great foreground, but the emphasis here is on the world “great”. A rock isn’t always great, it’s just a rock, or a log, or lump of grass, or whatever it is that you’ve found. And, getting down really low to make that something really big in the foreground might only make the situation worse.
If you have truly found something interesting to use in the foreground, then go for it. Otherwise, I think it’s generally better to work with the part of the scene that attracted your attention in the first place. Zoom in on that and remove everything else that doesn’t add something to your photograph.
A lot of this is about being intentional in your photography. If something is just there, in your scene, it’s really important to ask yourself if it is adding something to your photograph. If it is not actively adding to the scene, the chances are it is probably detracting, or diluting the attention that we might pay to the more important elements in the scene. If this is the case, consider how you could reframe or recompose your photograph to remove it without losing your main intention.
If your intention is to create a very minimalist photograph for example, everything in the frame is making the scene less minimal if it isn’t the main focal point of the image. This is one reason that I love minimalist snow scenes and long exposure photography. We can be totally intentional with the contents of the frame and how we record that.
For example, for this photograph (below) from my Hokkaido Landscape tour, of just a tree on a hill with a line of fence posts, is very minimalistic for a few very intentional reasons. First and foremost, is that I chose to visit when there was a good chance of having total snow cover. Then I zoomed in to 110mm to isolate the tree, the posts and the curve of the top of the hill.
Perhaps most importantly, is that I waited until there was total cloud cover in the sky above the hill. When we arrived at this scene, there was patches of bright sky and some dark clouds, so I waited for a while until the sky was more uniform white before making this photograph. Other than that, there really isn’t much done to this other than converting to black and white in Silver Efex Pro.
And, going back to my foreground gripe, if I had included a rock or a tree stump in the foreground of this minimalist photograph, it would break up that pure white foreground and mess up the image totally. There is a time and place for everything, so we don’t have to look for and overly try to include something in the foreground, just because we’ve been told that we should.
There are no shoulds in photography. Everything that do is based on decisions about our options at any given time. And of course, everyone is going to make something different of any given scene, because we are all different and make our own decisions.
Landscape or Portrait Orientation
Another thing that I ask myself is whether or not the scene would look better in portrait or landscape orientation? Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape orientation, because so many of our viewing devices, such as computer displays and TV screens are created to work better in landscape orientation.
Of course, the iPad and phones can be flipped over easily, and I have my Eizo monitor flipped 90 degrees to view portrait oriented images nice and large, but there are still more options for landscape oriented images.
Still, some scenes simply look better in portrait orientation, and so it’s still best to keep this option in mind. I often switch to portrait orientation when there is a strong vertical in the scene, such as with this photo of a Steller’s Sea Eagle perched on a pinnacle of sea ice at sunrise (right).
One other thing that I often consider with regards to orientation though, is whether or not the image might be worth shooting in both portrait and landscape orientation, for use as a stock image, or for illustration in my own magazine articles.
Sometimes, even though an image would look better in portrait mode, for example, having a landscape version gives you better layout options and vice versa.
Once again though, I want to stress that these are only guidelines and ideas. Strong verticals in the scene don’t automatically mean a portrait orientation will work better. We can create landscape oriented images with strong verticals as well, as I did with this ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) photograph of a copse of birch trees in the snow (below).
Keep Your Lenses and Filters Clean
Another thing that I touch on in my checklist a lot is simply the mechanical checking of my gear. When I change lenses, I take a look at the front of the lens to check that there is no dust or other marks on it, and if there are, I blow the front of the lens off with the blower that is always in my pocket. The same goes for a filter. If it’s dusty, blow it, and if there are fingerprints, wipe it with a microfibre cloth before shooting. If it’s actually raining, or there might be spray from a waterfall etc. then checking the front of the lens or filter between each shot is a must.
Whenever I come to set my exposure for any scene or subject, I ask myself what I want to do with that subject. I generally set my Aperture first, because I want to control the depth of field in my photograph. Often, for landscapes, I use a deep depth of field, and so I’ll shoot with around f/14. I don’t select too small an aperture, as I want to avoid diffraction, which is when the image actually gets less sharp as you stop down the aperture too far.
For wildlife, I often use around f/8, as I don’t necessarily want the background too sharp, but I do want to record some detail, giving the subject a sense of place. I’ll go deeper if the environment is important to the overall story. For flower shots or portraits, I often shoot much wider, with the lens’ aperture wide open at f/2.8 or whatever the widest aperture is.
Once I’ve set the aperture, I then usually set my shutter speed. Considerations are whether or not I want to freeze the movement of the subject and to do that, I have to think about how fast my subject is moving. A large bird in flight requires between 1/500 and 1/1000 of a second to freeze most of its movement. I generally like to leave just a little bit of movement in the tips of the wings, so these settings work for me. A small bird in flight requires much faster shutter speeds, such as 1/2000 of a second or higher. For slow moving animals, I will try to use around 1/500 of a second if possible.
To blur the water in a river or waterfall, I generally like to use 1/2 a second or longer. Water will start to blur from around 1/5 of a second, but I like to capture it silkier than that, so I generally aim for about 0.8 or a second to two or three seconds. To make the surface of the sea go silky or to get cloud movement requires much longer exposures, like 30 seconds to multiple minutes, so I’ll start to use heavy neutral density filters for this.
The last exposure setting that I decide on is my ISO. I generally want my ISO to be as low as possible, so I’ll keep it at 100 unless I need more sensitivity to get a good exposure having set my required aperture and shutter speed. I adjust my final exposure with ISO much more than aperture or shutter speed in fact. Because I shoot in manual mode most of the time, I find myself adjusting my ISO often, while I might leave the other settings where they are for hours at a time.
I don’t use a polarizer or PL filter very often, but if there is some reflection in the water that I want to remove, for example, I will reach for a polarizer, as I did with this image of a stream running through a forest here in Japan (below). The polariser here also made the foliage much more vibrant, as it decreases the reflectivity of the surface of the leaves, allowing their color to show through more.
Of course, the other main use for a polarizer is to make a blue sky bluer, but I don’t photograph blue skies that often, so I don’t find myself asking that question very often. 🙂
Cable Release or Timer
I generally keep a cable release with me all the time, but when I’m photographing landscapes where the actual timing of the start of the exposure isn’t critical, I almost always just use the two-second timer on the camera when using a tripod. This enables me to remove my hand from the camera to avoid camera shake, especially with long exposures.
If the start of the exposure is critical though, for example, I’m trying to get a wave breaking at the critical moment, it’s hard to do this with the timer, so I attach my cable release and start the exposure just as I see the action that I want to capture unfold.
It’s also very important not to get too caught up in one subject or possibility. I often just turn around and look behind me, to see if I’ve missed something on my approach, and this is important as the light changes too. If you see some color starting to develop in the sky, for example, this is a good prompt to take a look around, and see what that light is doing in areas other than your chosen scene.
That’s an explanation of many of the points in the example checklist, but in reality, the list is pretty much endless. The things that I’ve touched on here are just pointers, and you’ll add your own checklist items constantly. The important thing is to not get complacent. Stay Curious. Question every decision you make, and even after you think you’ve nailed a wonderful shot, see if there are other opportunities.
It is important to also have the confidence to quit and pack up at a good point in your shoot as well. I sometimes see people who’ve stayed at a location for a really long time, yet when you look through the photos, they’ve really nailed the scene much earlier in the shoot. They just hang around because they aren’t confident that they’ve got their best shot at that location. It’s fine to continue to work a scene, but also try to learn when you’ve done your work, and can move on to the next location, or pack up and go home.
Before we finish, I’d like to take a step back and talk just a little about my pre-shoot checklist. This is what I do before I actually start shooting. Again, this is just a guideline, as what you need or use will vary, but for example, as I prepare to shoot landscapes, I check the following things.
First, before I leave home, or the hotel if I’m traveling, I do a general quick check of my cameras. Are my batteries all fully charged? Have I formatted my memory cards? Is the camera set to shoot raw? Especially after I have had my sensor cleaned, I always double check that the technician hasn’t switched my camera to JPEG mode and left it there. I have in the past somehow managed to flick my camera into JPEG mode mid-shoot, so I even check while shooting when I think about it.
I also check my auto-focus modes as I start shooting. Generally, for landscape work, I use One Shot focusing, but for wildlife, I’ll use AI Servo or Continual Focus modes. I might change this during the shoot, as I often change my AF point mode too, but I just like to check this as I get started.
I generally don’t put a lens on my camera if I’m walking to my subject. I leave my camera bodies and lenses separate in my camera bag until I need them. This is partly to protect my cameras in case I fall, as you can rip the mount out of the body or rip the back of the lens off if they are jolted while joined together. It’s also so that I can decide which lens I want to use after I’ve seen the first opportunity open to me. If there is a chance that something could present itself to me during the walk though, I might put a standard zoom like a 24-70mm lens on the camera and walk with it out, ready, although I try to avoid this when walking in icy conditions, to avoid breaking the camera if I slip.
I always shoot with a photography vest on or a photography jacket that has pockets to store various things in. I always ensure that I have my blower in my pocket. I’m often surprised that so many people don’t keep a blower in their pockets when shooting. This to me is a fundamental tool, and I’ve carried one in my pocket while shooting since I can remember. The same goes for a microfibre cloth. I use Spudz microfibre cloths because they fit into their own built-in pouch, and so don’t get dusty while sitting in my pocket.
Other things that go into my pockets are spare batteries, a cable release, and my filter case. I also keep some spare batteries for my GPS logger etc. Anything that I might need during a shoot goes into my vest pockets.
When I’m actually ready to start shooting, I generally survey the scene and move a few lenses to my vest pockets as well. If you have to take your camera bag off and open it up every time you want to change lenses, it can make you lazy. You end up shooting with the wrong lens because it’s a pain to switch them out, so if you remove the pain-point, you are more likely to use the right lens for any given situation that you might come across.
Like I say, the list changes depending on what I am shooting, but I always try to anticipate what I might need, and make it as easy to put my hands on as possible while shooting. Keeping the same thing in the same pocket also helps. I generally keep my blower and lens cloth in my bottom, front, right pocket for example. My GPS batteries go in my right chest pocket.
Write About Your Creative Process
Coming back to how creating this podcast helped me to improve my own photography, we can get another hint as to how this might help you too, and that is to write about your creative process. To enable me to talk somewhat intelligently about my own creative process, I write my thoughts down each week before I record.
The act of writing down our thoughts helps us to organize them into a more logical order, and this is one of the main reasons that the podcast helped me with my own work. It made me more methodical and organized, and as I said, just like creating the podcast in my head as I shoot, the order that I introduced into my processes through writing about them, found it’s way back into my processes in the field.
You might write a journal about your work, just for yourself, or if you don’t already, blogging about your photography can be a great way to motivate yourself to write about your own creative process, and may also help you to reach a wider audience with your work, as I’ve done through this podcast and blog, or blogcast as I’m now calling it. To be honest, the benefits of writing out my process have proved so great though, that I’d probably write about it now even without an audience to share this with.
If you already blog about your work or start to do so to help you write about it, share a link in the comments below. I’d love to take a look at what you’re creating.
The Mental Checklist
So, to recap, the important thing to keep in mind about what we’ve discussed today isn’t so much all of the details that I’ve covered, it’s the act of running through your mental checklist, that will help you to improve your photography. You don’t have to start doing a podcast to initiate that unless you want to of course. If it helps, copy and paste the example checklist above into a Word document, adjust it as necessary, and print it out, then look through it a few times as you shoot.
You don’t want to keep getting this out in the field of course. The goal is to become accustomed to questioning your processes and creative decisions. The more you do this, the more automatic it will become, and you’ll find yourself correcting habitual mistakes proactively, and you should also see an improvement in the quality of the images that you make.
Never Stop Asking Questions!
One last thought before we wrap up though is that it’s important to never stop asking questions. Once you are comfortable with your processes and the checklist has become mostly automatic, add more questions. Stay curious, and always try to push your photography to the next level. It doesn’t matter how accomplished we become, there is always a higher ground that we can strive to reach.
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