Don’t Look For Your Style – It’s Already A Part of You (Podcast 720)

Don’t Look For Your Style – It’s Already A Part of You (Podcast 720)

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Before we jump into this week’s topic, I need to let you know that the 5DayDeal team are putting on another sale and presale giveaway that starts by the time many of you will listen to this podcast or read the post. 

The Giveaway starts on October 10 at noon, Pacific Time, and the 2020 Photography Bundle launches on October 15, again at noon Pacific Time. As the name implies, the sale lasts for just 5 days, so if you read this before the end of October 20, do check this out. If you visit this page before these dates, please do go and check out the 5DayDeal website, and level-up your photography, or at the very least, broaden your knowledge and capabilities with the awesome tools and educational materials that you’ll receive as part of your bundle.

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Days Hours Minutes Seconds

Let’s jump into today’s topic though. A few weeks ago I did a talk for the Oakville Camera Club, and included a number of slides on a topic that I’ve been gradually thinking about over the years, regarding looking for a style. As we start to learn more about photography, there comes a point where many photographer’s start to ask about finding their style. You’ll hear questions like “How do I find my style as a photographer” where the real question, which I also hear, is “How do I develop my style?”

The questions regarding searching for or finding a style are not necessarily flawed, if you are consciously thinking about looking within ourselves for the style, but the idea of looking outside of yourself to find your style is, in my opinion, fundamentally flawed, simply because, for our style to be truly ours, it can be nowhere else but already within us. Any style that you find or create based on external influence can never be yours.

Of course, we see imagery all the time, and we are visually influenced every time we view or imagine something that modifies our perception or appreciation of the world around us. Whenever we make a decision as to how we will compose a photograph, what exposure to use, when to use a wide aperture for shallow depth of field, or smaller aperture to get more of our photograph in focus, or even simply whether the image should be in portrait or landscape orientation. Every decision we make as we work comes from all of the influences that we’ve had until the point that we release the shutter.

That right there though, is exactly why our style is ours and ours alone, and why I truly believe that looking for a style as such is not something that we need to actively pursue. We form opinions about the world around us based on our life experiences, and these things help to form the core of our characters. This doesn’t only include positive experiences, as even some seemingly negative experiences, can make us better people. Of course, there are times when childhood maltreatment and other traumatic experiences scar an individual and can create some negative characteristics that we don’t really need to get into here, but assuming you aren’t an ax-wielding homicidal maniac, generally, our experiences in life tend to make us stronger in character.

This character forms a foundation for any style that we will ultimately start to see in our art, be it photography, or any other form of art. I’d hazard a guess that most people don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about how to become a better person. Good, in itself, is totally subjective, of course, but assuming that we are relatively happy with who we are, we probably arrived at that point without having to consciously work on our character.

I believe that we gradually form a style subconsciously as we perform the act of creating our art. If you look at any one image, with nothing to compare it to, you will unlikely see anything that leads you to the artist, unless it’s someone that has become known for a specific style, but they didn’t arrive at the point where their style can be recognized with one image.

As the viewer, it takes a relatively large body of work for us to recognize the similarities that we start to recognize as a style, but from the artists perspective, it will rarely be the result of sitting down with a pencil and paper and drawing out a plan on how they are going to develop that style. It’s generally a completely organic process, and comes from doing the art time and time again, but I believe that the purest styles are directly linked to the underlying character of the person creating the art, and it’s profoundly moulded into a style over many years.

Shoot From the Heart

Of course, there are young artists that crop up from time to time with what we might consider to be amazing styles, and without doubt, artistic pursuits come more easily to some than others, but there are very few real overnight successes. Even someone that seemingly becomes amazing overnight, generally has years of becoming who they are to bolster what they have become, and there is no saying that what we see at any given time will be the same as the art that they will continue to create for years to come.

If, though, they are true to themselves in the decisions that they make as they create their art, there will generally be an underlying style that is visible and common through their work over decades, if not, ultimately, over their entire lives. This is why I often find myself saying that we have to shoot from the heart, and why I believe that we should not look externally for our style. Nothing that you can find outside of yourself can possibly be you. Your style can only come from within, based on your own sense of aesthetic, with a foundation of your character, which is, as I say, a culmination of all our life experiences until the point that we release the shutter.

Overcoming Technical Hurdles

The other major part of the puzzle, is developing our technical ability and understanding of our cameras and the effect that the settings have on the image, to the point that it becomes almost second nature. The technical aspects of photography are important, but by the time we are making our art, will hopefully be completely second nature, and simply support the creative process, and not get in the way of it. If you find yourself missing shots in the field because you can’t figure out how to adjust the settings of your camera to create a certain look, then you need to study the manual and get a better understanding of the fundamentals of photography.

Of course, we can bang our cameras into full automatic mode and still make photographs, but there will come a time when you want a certain look, and you’ll need to understand how to achieve that look, and hopefully be so fluid with that knowledge and technique that you simply go to work when the time comes to make the image.

You may recall me talking about The Mental Checklist, that I started to work through many years ago, shortly after I started this Podcast, and found that I was able to prevent myself from making mistakes in the field by asking the questions that I knew I’d ask later as I prepared for a new post about the shoot. By simply being more deliberate in the field, I started to overcome issues that were preventing me from becoming a better photographer, and doing that year in year out has gradually made me more and more confident in my ability to simply knuckle down and do the work, and get the results I am looking for.

In fact, I just did a quick search for my Mental Checklist post to get the episode number, and the results page was full of posts that I feel I should also reference, such as my post on the Seven Stages of Contentment in a Photographer, and The Balance Between Healthy Learning and Analysis Paralysis.

The Mental Checklist Search Results
The Mental Checklist Search Results

The Pentation Cycle

I also just did a search online to see what people have written about the stages of the creative process, as I seem to recall seeing this in the past, and many of them talk about something similar to Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Evaluation and Implementation. In my mind, this is over conceptualizing the creative process for much of the photography that I’m thinking about as I write this post. For sure, if you have been given an assignment to create a certain type of images, maybe as a commercial assignment, these stages may come into play, but in my opinion, for a photographer working mainly for yourself, this would be something closer to Inspiration, Preparation, Contemplation, Implementation, and Confirmation.

Photography Creative Cycle


The Pentation Cycle

By the way, I’m calling this the Pentation Cycle, but you won’t find that in a dictionary. I just made it up. All five words end in “tion”. Five “tions” so pentation.

I’m thinking that the process starts with either some kind of inspiration as to what you want to shoot, be it a studio shot completely dreamed up, or a location photo, where you have seen or heard of a location that you felt you’d like to photograph. The Preparation phase would be actually pulling together the gear and/or items required for the image. You might need a special kind of lens, or maybe need to book a model, or even book a flight etc. 

You’ll then need to Contemplate how you are going to make your images. This may be when you are in the field, and have just seen a specific location or subject for the first time, and you need to think through your mental checklist for possibilities that will give you or at least start to lead you towards the images you feel work. The Implementation is the actual recording of the images, and is often going to be part of a mini cycle that will include more contemplation, and also confirmation as you check your images, so we have a little sub-loop going on here as we work the scene or subject.

The Confirmation stage takes a number of forms. As I say, there is confirmation as part of a mini-loop in the field, but then assuming you’ve done all you can in the field, you need to confirm that your images meet your expectations when viewed on the computer. The more you do this, the less likely that you’ll run into problems at that stage, but it’s important to check. Then there is the confirmation with at least one trusted critique that you are on the right track. This stage is more or less important depending on your goals and also depending on what drives you.

For me, the main thing that I want from my images is for them to bring a smile to my face when I look at them later. If possible, I want them to give me goosebumps, and enable me to smell the air that I breathed as I was shooting the photograph. As a very close second most important aspect, deep down I want my wife to like the work. If she doesn’t, and I do, I will still like it. We are not the same person, and she doesn’t have to like everything that I do, but since I was a child, I respond well to praise, and I think that most of us do, so this is probably more of a driving force for me than I’d like to admit, even to myself.

After that, the cycle starts again. The inspiration for another location or subject will pop into my head, and I’ll start to think about what I need to do to make it happen, and get myself to the place where I can start to contemplate what I feel will work, then make it happen. The mini contemplation and implementation loop continues as I shoot each each, and when working with digital, there’s no shame in chimping to ensure that we’re hitting the mark, but as I say, the main confirmation in this loop comes later, as we check our results and confer with our trusted critique.

Everything That Comes from the Heart is Original

I’d also like to revisit a concept that I introduced in episode 571 entitled Be a Creator Not a Collector of Photographs. Some may think this is cynical or pessimistic, and some will think that I’m just being a realist, but pretty much everything on the planet has already been photographed, and from pretty much every angle imaginable. Getting down low or climbing onto a ridge is rarely if not never going to give you the “something different” that many people strive for.

My main goal, and I’m completely serious about this, is for my work to be original to me, and to achieve that, I have to go into a shoot with as little visual input about a location as possible. In our now so very visual world, it’s hard to visit somewhere that we’ve never seen, and some of the inspiration for a new location to shoot that I mentioned earlier will mostly come from some kind of visual that gets into my eyes and makes me want to go, but once I have that desire, I stop looking at images. I might use the Photographer’s Ephemeris to scout the best place to stand based on an illustrated map, and I may even use Google Maps satellite view to get an idea of what I’m going to see too, but I try very hard to avoid looking at other peoples’ photographs of the location before I go.

If you look at other peoples’ photographs, you turn up at the locations, and immediately start looking for their images, or arguably worse still, you see their images and then rule that out as a shot, as beautiful as it may be, because you want “something different!” and that right there is where it all falls apart. The only reason that what you would ultimate shoot feels different to you is because you didn’t look at all of the other images of that same location, so if you take that back a step, and avoid looking at any images before you visit, everything you shoot is completely original!

In the greater scheme of things, with the cynical view that everything has already been done, we can flip that around and state that nothing is original, but that is where I draw the line. If nothing we can do now can ever possibly be original, there is no point in even getting out of bed in the morning, but I’m not having any of that. I will close my eyes and avoid external influences, shoot from my heart, and know that everything I come home with was me, shot with my own style that comes from within, and it will be totally original to me, and that is all I need.

Believe it or not, when I walked out to the edge of the lava field at Landmannalaugar in Iceland for the first time, led by my friend and partner for the four tours I did there, Tim Vollmer, I had never seen that valley that still to this day, I feel is a little bit closer to heaven than most places I’ve visited. I shot that valley with no preconceptions, and you know what, I just searched for the place to check that I spelled the name right, and most of the images that showed up in Google look just like mine, but I don’t care one bit. I love the work that I have and it is 100% original to me, because I’d never seen a photo of the place before I shot it.



Over the years I’d meet with different conditions, and try to get different angles to the shots that I already had, but it was all based on what I personally already had, and I find that incredibly satisfying as a photographer and an artist, or creative.

Mimicking Is Not a Sin

Before we finish I’d like to clarify a few other points that will probably come up as you think about this stuff. First of all, yes, it’s fine to mimic or gain inspiration from other photographers or any other art form for that matter. I’m not saying that you have to close yourself off to other art. Especially when we are just getting started, mimicking the work of photographers that you admire can be a great way to hone your skills. 

I also believe that we draw compositional possibilities from a mental database of images as we work, and they don’t necessarily all have to be our own. I have found though that over the years, I have started to draw more from my own previous work, as I try to improve on what I already have. Thousands of possibilities flash through our mind as we work a composition, and when you don’t have much work on your own to draw from, it’s natural to think of other peoples’ imagery. 

I also find that I’m not just drawing from work that I did, but also work that I wish I’d done. I sometimes get back from a shoot and kick myself for not doing something that maybe escaped me in the field for one reason or another. I try to remember these lost shots that haunt me, and then try to realize them as future opportunities arise.

Nothing is Set in Stone

Also, I’d like to note that just as we mature as human beings, it’s fine for our photography to change over time. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it would not be natural for it to remain the same, year in, year out. Even when we revisit the processing of images on occasion, we may find that what we liked in the past is no longer the case. I recall processing my Landmannalaugar shot above considerably more vibrantly when I first shot it. I was using Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro for much of my color work at the time, and the results were sometimes a little bit too colorful for my liking now.

I still like to give my images a little bit of punch, but not quite as much as before. The same goes for my black and white work. I would often take parts of the sky down to almost black as I do like that dramatic look, but these days I’m less likely to take it quite so dark. This is also one of the benefits of working with Capture One Pro, or any software that allows you to keep your images in the raw format, but for me especially the case with Capture One, because I can get the look that I want from my raw files without using tools like Color Efex Pro any more, and because the changes are against my raw files, if I decide to change anything, I simply go back to my image and tweak the sliders. 

When you bake your changes in to a Photoshop file or a TIFF, you have to go and pull out your raw file and start all over again, and that is a huge waste of time that I really prefer to avoid.  Anyway, the point is, it’s fine to change over time, but again, this comes down to our work coming from within. We change as we mature as people, so it’s only natural that our work gradually changes with us. 

Be True to Yourself and Your Work Will Follow

I’d like to reiterate the importance of shooting from your heart and why I think it’s fine to do so, even if some of your work may not be original in the great scheme of things. Ultimately, when we work from our heart, and try to keep our work as uncontaminated as possible, we cannot help but infuse some of our own character, that comes from our own life experiences into that work. Not everyone is going to like it, but you know what? That’s just like your character too. Nobody can be liked by everybody else. We are always going to run into people that we just rub up the wrong way, as hard as we might try to make them like us. We have no control over how people perceive us. It helps to smile and treat people with respect. Being obnoxious is obviously going to help you to not be liked, but even when we are on our best behavior, we cannot ensure that everyone we meet likes us. And the same goes for our photography, so we have to be OK with that.

We live, every minute of our lives, until we die. That’s how it works, and we have no choice, but we do have a choice when it comes to how we spend each of those minutes, and the more of them that we spend indulging in creative thought or a creative pursuit, the better we will gradual get at it.

60,000 Hours

I just did a search for the theory of it taking 60,000 hours to master a craft, which I seem to recall hearing somewhere over the years. Having spent most of my adult life in Japan, I was happy to find an article which reminded me that in Western culture, it’s 10,000 hours to master something, and the 60,000 that popped into my head was the number used here in Japan, where craftsmanship is often a lifelong pursuit. I’ve said enough for one post, but I’ll leave you with two quotes from the article and encourage you to have a read for yourself too. The first is “There are no shortcuts to greatness.” and the second, is the closing sentence, “That human element will always come first, no matter what.”

Show Notes


Music by Martin Bailey


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How to Always Be Ready to Shoot (Podcast 637)

How to Always Be Ready to Shoot (Podcast 637)

Almost five years ago now I received an email asking how I would answer the question “as a wildlife photographer how do you ensure that your camera is always ready for action?” Today, five years on, I’m going to provide my thoughts on this.

The email came from Bob Brind-Surch, and he said:

I recently gave a talk to a camera club and at the end, someone asked “What do you do to ensure that, as a wildlife photographer, your camera is always ready for action?” At the time I gave a rather garbled reply but I have thought a lot about it since and recently wrote an article for my latest newsletter and to include on my website here.

Bob went on to say that he would welcome my thoughts on this, so here goes.

First of all, I’d like to start off by saying that Bob’s post on this is great, although as you’d expect, there are some areas where our opinions differ. This isn’t about who is right or wrong though. I imagine that you’ll find something useful in both posts, which is why I’m linking to Bob’s as well, and I do encourage you to read it.

I’ve referenced Bob’s post to see what areas he has included, and tried to provide my own advice on all of the areas that I also feel are important, and added a number of additional sections that I thought of as I wrote, so I hope you find this useful.

Us as Much as the Camera

I’d actually like to start off by saying that with all due respect the question itself needs a bit of a tweak, at least as far as my own response goes. Asking how to ensure that the “camera” is ready for action to my mind belittles the part that the photographer plays in the making a photograph. I know that this is not the intention of the person who asked the question, but I would have much preferred the question to be: “What do you do to ensure that you are always ready to shoot?”

Bob starts his article off with a mention of the importance of practicing our craft and gaining the experience required to help us make the right decision as any given situation unfolds. The challenge with wildlife photography, of course, is that we have no control over our subject, and so when an opportunity arises, it’s really important to think and work quickly, because the subject may only be there for a few seconds.

Oh My Goshawk!

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that on occasion, there won’t even be time to think. During my Complete Namibia Tour & Workshop in 2017, we were driving along a dirt road in the Etosha National Park, when we saw a Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk dart down to catch a skink, and literally while the safari vehicle crunched to a halt in the dirt, I raised my camera and released the shutter, without even thinking about it.

I was on complete autopilot, to the point that when I got to the lodge that evening, it took me a few minutes to figure out why the below image was staring back at me from my computer screen. I honestly could not at first even recall shooting the image. This was partly because of the excitement as the Goshawk took his catch and stood on a small mound to eat it, and that became the main memory, but as I dug deeper, I did recall myself almost by reflex raising the camera and releasing the shutter as the vehicle screeched to a halt. I literally had one frame, and this was it.

Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk Catching Skink
Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk Catching Skink

Another probable reason for my selective memory is almost undoubtedly because I ruled out the possibility of having actually successfully captured the photograph. The vehicle was still moving after all. But, sure enough, there it was, on my computer screen, so I gave myself a pat on the back for working so well on autopilot. It’s not the best photo I’ve shot, but I’m relatively proud of my achievement. Although there was an element of pure luck, I was able to nail that photograph for a number of reasons that we’ll explore here. 

Make Your Camera Ready

First and foremost, is to have your camera out of the bag, ready to shoot. If you are traveling in a vehicle where you can have your camera bag sitting on the seat next to you, assuming that it’s not jumping around so much that you have to zip it up while you travel, it would be fine to have the camera in the bag, but unzipped. Personally, I prefer to have my camera on my lap as we drive around, with the lens cap off and the hood fitted.

The camera is turned on, although it will go to sleep to save battery power. If you are in a dusty environment, carry a cloth large enough to drape over the camera to keep the majority of the dust off, but try not to mollycoddle your gear too much. If your camera and lens are not OK with getting a bit of dust on them, you may need to rethink your choice of gear. Of course, even the best L lenses from Canon can get a bit crunchy in dusty places, and may require more maintenance, but this is the price we pay for getting our shots.

Select an Appropriate Lens

It’s really important to try and anticipate the appropriate lens to have on your camera at any one time, and that you can quickly access your other lenses in case you do need to change them. I shot the Goshawk image above with my Canon EF 100-400mm Mark II lens, set to a focal length of 248mm. I sometimes also fit an Extender or Teleconverter to the lens for a little extra reach. When shooting domestically, here in Japan, I also use my 200-400mm lens with the 1.4x Extender built-in, and that’s great because I can engage the extender with the flick of a switch, but I’m finding that this is too big a lens to cart around the planet, so I rarely take it overseas, especially as the 100-400mm is so good and much more portable.

Also, if at all possible, having a second body nearby with the next lens that you are likely to need already attached can really help you capitalize on any opportunities that might come your way. In dusty environments this can also save you from having to change lenses so much in the field, but don’t be afraid to do so when necessary. Just be sure to sheild your camera from the dust etc. as much as possible and change the lenses out quickly.

Guesstimate Your Settings Ahead of Time

In his article Bob recommends using Aperture Priority, and although I sometimes do, I’m not comfortable in automated shooting modes, personally preferring to work in Manual in most situations. I recommend that you go with the mode that you are most comfortable with, and if you aren’t yet at the stage where you feel comfortable with either mode, then just keep shooting. There will come a time when you find the mode that best suits your shooting in any given situation.

To ensure that I’m not fumbling with my exposure as the action unfolds though, I do set and check my exposure relatively often even as we just drive around. Although I did tweak the Highlights and Shadows sliders in Capture One Pro for my Goshawk shot, the exposure was spot on despite it being a reflex shot, simply because I had occasionally raised the camera to my eye, and tweaked my exposure based on where the caret sat on the camera’s exposure meter. I might also do a test shot and check the histogram from time to time.

The reason I don’t like to use an automated mode, is because as long as I keep on top of setting my exposure like this, I know that I will get a good exposure regardless of the relationship between the subject and the background. However, there are times, such as when shooting in the streets of Morocco, when the lighting can change dramatically between the shadows and sunlit parts of the winding streets, that using Aperture Priority or one of the other automated modes does make more sense. It’s really a question of selecting the best mode for the situation, although as I mentioned, I don’t work well in an automated mode, so I find that I struggle with exposure more when I leave Manual mode.

Select an Appropriate Focus Mode

For Landscape work, I pretty much always use One Shot or Single Shot focusing, which is where the camera will lock on to a specific subject and stay there as long as you are holding down the AF button or shutter button. For wildlife work though, or any other type of photography where the subject is moving, I generally work in AI Servo mode or Continuous Focus.

AI Servo mode works great to track a moving subject, although it can take a bit of trial and error to arrive at some good settings initially. I’ll share the settings that I have arrived at over the years, but by all means use this as a guide to find what works best for you.

There are a number of schools of thought on whether you should use clusters of focus point, single focus points, or the entire range of available focus points. For me, with the settings that I’ll share now, I find that turning on all 61 focus points works best for me, and this gives me the flexibility to recompose with the subject anywhere within the focus area, and that gives me more compositional freedom. I generally find that trying to move a focus point or cluster of focus points around the frame manually is to restrictive, and in my experience unnecessary, because my method works fine with all focus points enabled.

To set my Canon EOS 5Ds R to use all 61 focus points, I hit the AF Point Selection button in the top right corner on the back of the camera, and then press the multifunction or M.Fn button that you’ll find above and to the left of the shutter button to cycle through the AF modes, until I see the letters AF in the viewfinder, as opposed to SEL. If you turn on the LCD you’ll see what I have in the below image.

Canon EOS 5DSR AF Point Selection
Canon EOS 5DSR AF Point Selection

If you find this mode greyed out, like the three cluster modes to the left of the selected mode in this photo, go to the Select AF area selection mode option in your AF menu, and turn on the checkbox to enable this mode. I find that a relatively large number of people have this deactivated having read something telling them to do this online, or during a workshop, so it’s worth checking that you have this enabled.

I generally leave my selected focus point in the middle of the frame, although it can be moved, but then once I have focus locked on, with the following settings I find that the camera does a really good job of staying with the subject as they move, or I recompose my image.

To really make all 61 AF points work the way I want them to, I have selected and tweaked the three settings that you see in the following image to the point that I rarely have to change them. Although this is based on Case 2 under the AF settings screen, you can see that to gain quick and easy access to these settings, I add them to My Menu.

Canon EOS 5DSR Focus Settings in My Menu
Canon EOS 5DSR Focus Settings in My Menu

I adjust the Tracking Sensitivity to minus two, so that it tries to stay locked on to the subject. I have Acceleration/Deceleration Tracking set to one, and AF Point Auto Switching set to zero. These settings work great for me, so give them a try for moving subjects. This goes for animals on the ground, as well as birds in flight.

Back AF Button Focus

I also set my camera up so that my shutter button does not activate the autofocus. It only focuses when I press the AF button on the back of the camera with my thumb. This enables me to quickly change between three focus modes. If I press the AF button then release it, I am effectively using One Shot mode, without actually selecting One Shot mode. If I press and hold the AF button, I’m in AI Servo or continuous focusing mode. If I don’t press the button at all, I’m in manual focus mode. Three modes in one, without changing a single camera setting.

Being able to switch between modes like this is really helpful when photographing wildlife because I can choose to focus as the subject is moving around, but if they are stationary, I can get focus, but then take my thumb off the back AF button as I wait for them to do something interesting. It also enables me to stop focusing if I want to recompose to the point where their head or whatever part of their body that I’m focusing on is outside of the focus area. If the camera tries to focus when I half press the shutter button, it makes it more difficult to do this. It’s possible, but you have to keep the shutter button half pressed as you recompose, and when you are waiting for a specific expression or action that can mean half pressing for a very long time.

The Scowl
The Scowl

When I photographed the lion in this image earlier this year in Namibia, I was able to gain focus on the lion’s eyes before he yawned, and then simply take my finger off the AF button as he kicked his head back, and then lowered it down again after the yawn for this photograph. The whole time his eyes were sharp, thanks to my focusing methods.

Canon EOS 5DSR Custom Controls
Canon EOS 5DSR Custom Controls

By the way, to set my Canon EOS 5Ds R to not focus with the shutter button, I go to the Custom Controls menu that you can see in the above image and it’s the first option in the list. Just select Shutter button half-press Metering Start. Please note though that you will almost certainly forget to focus a few times before you get used to using the back AF button, so I don’t recommend you do this while attending a photography tour or workshop. Do it at home and practice using this method a lot before an important or expensive trip. 

Note too that occasionally I will lose focus while actively tracking a subject, but you quickly get into the habit of just lifting your thumb off the AF button and pressing it again, to regain focus.

Stop Down Your Aperture Some

Although it’s common for wildlife photographer’s to shoot with their lenses aperture wide open, I personally don’t think this is a good idea. The depth of field when wide open is too shallow to even get most of the Lion’s face sharp in the image we looked at earlier. Even at f/8 when focusing on his eyes his nose and teeth are slightly soft as we approach the edge of the depth of field. 

For sure, if the eyes in your subject are sharp, it’s generally going to work out fine, but I like to see a little bit more detail in my subject, and so I tend to shoot at between f/8 and f/11 most of the time for wildlife. This is especially important if there are two subjects in your frame. You’d think that even stopping down to f/10 or so would be enough, but as you can see from the blown up area showing the heads of these two red-crowned crane’s singing, even at f/14, the back of the two cranes is getting decidly soft as it leaves the depth of field.

Calling Cranes with Blown Up Crane Heads
Calling Cranes with Blown Up Crane Heads

If we use my iOS app Photographer’s Friend to calculate the depth of field, we get a clearer idea of what’s going on here. I can see from my EXIF data that I I was focusing at around 30 meters for this photo, and at that distance at f/14 and a focal length of 560 mm, based on the traditional calculation method of evaluating an 8 x 10 inch print at arm’s length, my depth of field should be 2.4 meters or almost 8 feet.

Pixel Peeper Mode DoF Comparison
Pixel Peeper Mode DoF Comparison

However, if we turn on Pixel Peeper mode and set the megapixels to 50, which is the resolution of my 5Ds R camera, we find that the actual depth of field that I get is 85 cm or 2.8 feet. These birds stand over five feet tall, so it’s likely that the two birds are least 3 feet apart, taking into account the compacting of the subjects because of the long focal length, and so the second bird is in fact just outside of our acceptable area of sharpness. 

Timely Chimping

Regardless of the mode that you shoot in, I highly recommend that you become accustomed to chimping, which is the act of looking at your images on the back of the camera, but the timing of your chimping can be critical. If you know that your exposure will be in the ballpark, grab your first few frames, and ensure that any action that you must capture is in the bag, but then as soon as you can, check your LCD to see that your exposure is good. I use a technique called Expose to the Right or ETTR so I’m always looking to see that the data on my histogram is close to if not just touching the right shoulder, as I mentioned in episode 635.

Really though, getting good at quickly checking your exposure, then looking back at your subject to ensure that you can capture anything else that they might do is key to getting good wildlife shots. It’s a very fine balance, and I’d be lying if I said that I’d never missed a shot because I was looking at the back of my camera, but the times that I have missed shots have taught me how important it is to chimp really quickly, and as seldom as necessary to get good exposure.

Use the Lock Button

Another thing I do is to turn on the Lock button on my camera, especially when I’m using a strap that allows the camera to dangle around and bump into my leg, as this can change the aperture or shutter speed without me noticing, and then I miss the shot until I realize what’s happening. Under the Multi-function lock menu, I turn on the checkbox for the Main Dial, the Quick Control DIal and the Multi-controller, and then turn on the Lock switch below the Quick Control Dial on the back of the camera.

If you should forget that you have this turned on while you are shooting, when you try to change any of these dials, an L for Lock will appear on the camera’s display and in the viewfinder.

Turn On Image Stabilization

Also, ensure that you turn on Image Stabilization on your lens, and check the mode. For static subjects, use Mode 1 but to stabilize shots where you are panning around, use Mode 2. Mode 2 will only try to stabilize the vertical movements in a horizontal pan and horizontal movement in a vertical pan, so this helps to stabilize images of birds in flight for example. There is also a Mode 3 on modern Canon lenses, but I don’t really like it, and so I haven’t used it very much.

Use Good Quality Large Memory Cards

There is also nothing worse than having to find and change a memory card as the action unfolds. I’ve heard people talking about using small cards because they don’t want to keep all of their eggs in one basket, but seriously, if you buy good brand memory cards, you will rarely have problems with them. In eighteen years of digital photography I have had two issues that have resulted in me losing a few images. The first was literally way back in around 2001, and a few images disappeared from a Lexar CF card that I was using.

I talked with Canon about this, and they recommended that I always delete all images from the card in the camera before I formatted it, again, in the camera. They also warned against deleting images from the card on the camera and then continuing to shoot with that card, as this can lead to corrupt cards. Since I started to bear these things in mind, I’ve had no problems for approximately 16 years.

Then, last year, I did actually have a Sandisk CF card fail on me in the field. I was photographing a Northern Red Fox in Hokkaido during my Japan Winter Wildlife Tour and Workshop. Because I check my images on the LCD pretty regularly, as I was shooting I saw a question mark come up on the screen after the image preview flashed up very briefly. I looked and it saw immediately that the last five to ten images were not on the card.

Foxy Faceoff
Foxy Faceoff

I quickly changed cards to continue shooting, and later found that the card had developed a fault. All of the images to that point were fine, but I lost those five to ten images, and they weren’t anything that I really missed. Sandisk replaced the card and it has continued to work fine to this day. I use one 256 GB CF card, which was the one that developed the fault last year, and my second card for my second body is a 128 GB CF card. I always carry two backup 64 GB cards, all Sandisk. 

With this size card, I can shoot fast-paced wildlife for one or two days, even with 50-megapixel cameras, and never have to worry about changing cards in the field, and having that benefit to me far outweighs the risk of having something happen to my card. If you do use small memory cards though, at the very least, ensure that you have your spares in a place that you can get to easily, so that you don’t fumble for them in the heat of the moment. Also, keep an eye on how many images you have the space for on your cards as you shoot, and change them early if necessary, when you are coming up to an important shoot.

A Place for Everything

In fact, that reminds me of something that I do, which is to decide where everything goes in my bag and my photography vest pockets, and I always keep accessories in the same place. I forget what it was right now, but during a workshop earlier this year one of my guests asked to borrow something, and I opened a specific outside pocket on my camera bag, reached in, and pulled out what they wanted without even looking inside the bag. They were impressed with how I was able to do this, but it really is important that you get to this point.

Use a Photographer’s Vest

That actually leads on to another point, about using a Photographer’s vest. They aren’t the most fashionable item of clothing, but a good vest with lots of pockets to keep the various things that we use as we photograph is a great way to speed up and optimize your shooting workflow. I find that the more obstacles that slow us down that we can remove, the more efficiently we work, and that leads to us getting more shots.

If you have to fumble around just to put your hands on your air blower to clean the dust off your lens, you really need to think about how you carry your photography gear. If I have to put things like my air blower and lens cloth into my camera bag or suitcase as I travel to a location, I move them to my vest pockets as soon as I arrive and they stay there until I’m about to jump back on an airplane to go home.

Custom Shooting Modes

Finally, I wanted to mention that I also make use of Custom Shooting Modes, which are the C1, C2 and C3 modes on my Canon cameras. You can store all of your settings including autofocus modes, and you can set these to revert back to the settings you store, or to keep any changes you make, so this is a great way to quickly access different settings for different shooting situations. I went into detail on how to use these settings in Episode 588, so do check that our if you are interested.

You Can’t Win Them All

Of course, even when bearing all of this in mind, and with years of experience behind us, we can’t win them all. There will be times when something is just too fleeting, and all we’re left with is a ghost of a memory to haunt us. In my experience though, it’s those ghosts that drive us to be better next time, and the more we do this, the easier it gets. Creating more and more opportunities for ourselves will always help to increase our chances of nailing our shots, and hopefully a lot more often than they get away from us.

In closing, I’d like to thank Bob for his email and interest in my thoughts on this subject. Also, if you have anything that you’d like to add to the conversation, please leave a comment below. It’s always nice to hear from you.

Show Notes

You can read Bob’s original article here:

Check out our iOS app Photographer’s Friend here:

There are links to other posts that I mentioned in the text above.

Music by Martin Bailey


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Developing Your Style and Self-Acceptance (Podcast 635)

Developing Your Style and Self-Acceptance (Podcast 635)

In this week’s post, I’m going to relay my thoughts on spending lots of time on lengthy post-processing techniques to “improve” our images, or more accurately, what I do to avoid spending this time, including some self-acceptance advice, based on communication with a listener.

This episode was spurred by a recent email exchange with listener Evan Stewart from Saint Louis, Missouri, so I want to start by thanking Evan for the mail, your questions, and providing some food for thought.

In the exchange, Evan asked how much I use Photoshop and mentioned that he is at the point in his photography where he can’t help being curious about trying more advanced techniques such as focus stacking, exposure blending, and luminosity masking, and was asking if I used some of these techniques in my own photography. My reply may well be useful to others, so I decided to share and expand on that reply here on the blog.

Personal Preference

To set the stage and relay a kind of disclaimer about what I’ll follow on to, I will start by saying what I said to Evan in a follow-up to my main reply, which is that some people feel as though they must spend hours on a photo to make it good, and I feel for them. Aimed at anyone that spends a lot of time on images, I do understand that some people simply enjoy working on images.

I personally do not, which is why I shoot and process the way I do, as I’ll explain shortly, but I can spend hours on my computer doing other things. It’s all personal preference, so please understand that what I’m going to talk about today is not condemning anyone for spending time on images if that’s what you like doing.

If however, you find yourself spending a lot of time working on images to recuse them, and the time spend is putting pressure on you, it may well be time wasted, so I hope that what I’ll relay today will help you to save some of that time, so that you can spend it doing something else more enjoyable.

How Often Do I Use Photoshop?

In reply to Evan’s question about how much I use Photoshop to process my images, I said that I do use Photoshop to work on my photos very rarely. Probably less than 0.1% of my images are edited outside of Capture One Pro, but when they are, I use Photoshop. I used to edit some of my images in the Nik Software suite, named Silver Efex Pro and Color Efex Pro, but I haven’t used these applications at all since switching to Capture One Pro just over two years ago now. Some of the effects that I was getting can be done in Photoshop, but I did like the results I was getting with Nik until Capture One Pro gave me an alternative that I liked.

Time Spent on Image Processing

Partly because of how I shoot, I actually spend less than 30 seconds on the vast majority of my images. Occasionally I shoot something that requires more work, say for example if there are power lines running through a scene, and I decide to shoot it anyway, this kind of photo would require more work, but even then I generally don’t spend more than five minutes or so.

I understand that how little I do may result in my images not being quite as impactful as some of the work of the other photographer’s but this is my style, and I personally enjoy my results. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m under no delusions that I’m some kind of amazing photographer, but I do make work that I am happy with, and for the vast majority of photographer’s out there, I think this is a good place to be in our work.

Content, Not Complacent

Having said that, I also think it’s important to make a distinction between being content with our work and being complacent. Being content leave room for improvement, and I’m always on the look-out for a better photograph, and ways to improve my work, but I want to make those changes in the field, during the creation of the images, not after the event on my computer. 

Complacency, on the other hand, leaves no room for improvement, and this is a place that I never want to be. Even though I shoot some locations every year, there is always an opportunity to improve, and being self-critical is vitally important to that process, and for me, this self-criticality starts in the field, while I still have a chance to change my raw materials, literally my raw images.

Raw, Not RAW

That statement reminds me of a time when Jeffrey Friedl, who you may know for his amazing Lightroom Plugins, pulled me up for spelling raw in capitals, like an acronym. Jeffrey is probably one of the most knowledgeable people I know and realized I’d been getting this wrong when he told me that raw images literally are just raw, as in not cooked, rather than R.A.W. actually meaning something.

It doesn’t help that most camera manufacturers and many people in the industry use RAW, but I can say with my hand on my heart that since Jeffrey explained this to me, I have not only always used the lower case raw, but I think I’ve had a deeper appreciation for what raw images really are, and this also leads nicely to one of the main reasons that I work hard not to make copies of my images in a format that takes me away from my raw files.

Non-Destructive Editing

The moment you export and edit your images in a program like Photoshop, or the Nik plugins, you will eventually end up saving your image in a format other than your original raw image format, and once you do that, you lose the ability to easily update your photographs to the latest and greatest versions of the processing engines that come with your chosen image editing and management software. I use Capture One Pro, but this is the same with Lightroom and many other applications that are what we call “non-destructive”. 

When I first started using Capture One Pro just over two years ago, it was at version 9, and since then, there have been two major releases taking us to version 11, and both of these releases have brought improved image processing with an updated processing engine. When I first processed the image that we’ll look at in a moment, I had some cloning to do that was not possible in Lightroom, so my only option at the time was to take my image into Photoshop to do my editing. This was one of the rare times when I round-tripped out of Lightroom and ended up with a PSD file with my changes baked in.

I resented the time I’d spent in Photoshop though within just a few weeks. I’d taken my original photo into Silver Efex Pro and converted it to black and white, but as I lived with the image I realized that I’d made the trunks of the trees in the foreground a little too dark. I had to go back into Silver Efex Pro and reprocess it, and that meant that I had to also go back into Photoshop and clone out the cable car lines a second time. This felt like such a waste of time to me.

Then, a few months later, in the summer of 2016 I switched to Capture One Pro, and during my initial tests of the product, I used the same image to see if I could both create black and white images that were as good if not better than Silver Efex Pro, and I checked to see if I could do cloning in Capture One Pro, so that I could avoid baking my changes into a destructive file format rather than keeping them in their original raw format.

It turned out that Capture One Pro passed both of these tests, so I now had a copy of my original raw file with all of the cloning done in Capture One and so when versions 10 and then 11 came out, I just clicked a button to update the processing engine, and the image grew incrementally better with more subtle detail and better handling of the shadows. I was able to improve my photo twice, with no more effort than a couple of mouse clicks, simply because I had been able to keep my image in its original raw format, so this is a major time-saver and benefit.

My “No See, No Edit” Policy

Let’s take a look at the image I’m referring to as we start to discuss more of the methods that I use to help improve my photography and save me time in post-processing. Since I started shooting digital back in 2000 I made a conscious decision to kill two birds with one stone. I’m not a purist in the sense that I will not clone anything out of my images, but I don’t like to make the decision to do so lightly. I want to modify the content of my images based a deliberate, conscious decision.

Couple with a desire to create images that require as little as possible work on the computer, I decided to train myself to be more observant in the field, by sticking to my personal policy not removing anything that I was not aware of when I exposed the photograph. If I didn’t see it in the field, I do not allow myself to change it later in postprocessing.

What this means is that if I see the cable car lines running through a scene, I am OK with removing them later, but if I do not see the cable car lines or anything else distracting in the image until I get it onto my computer, I do not allow myself to remove the distraction. I’m left with two options, live with the annoying element, or throw the image out, and 99% of the time I go with the latter option.

To illustrate this, here’s a photograph from Mount Asahi in Hokkaido, with the lines of the cable car running through the scene. I knew about these when I composed the photograph but liked this scene so much that I decided to spend the time to remove them later. There is actually also a large pillar to support the cables, but I positioned my camera so that I hid that behind the third foreground tree from the left. Another decision that I made to help save me time on the computer.

To see the cable cars on the left side of the photo, grab the vertical line in the middle and drag it over to the left side of the image. You’ll see the cables behind the trees across most of the left side of the photograph. Another minor benefit of keeping my images in raw is that I could show you the processed black and white image today, and just turn off the cloning adjustments for the before/after images.

I have found though that my policy of not allowing myself to remove anything that I didn’t see when I initially made the photo has really helped me to be more deliberate in my compositions. There were times when I had to throw out images that I otherwise really liked, so I soon learned that I had to do better. It’s surprising how much a little self-kicking can do. I really recommend it to all photographers.

No Exposure Blending

Evan had asked if I had come to peace with not using any exposure blending techniques, but for me, it’s not so much a case of coming to peace with not using techniques like exposure blending, I really just don’t believe it’s necessary. Part of this in my case is because I don’t often shoot in very bright weather that might cause really high contrast images, but apart from a few times well over ten years ago, when our cameras weren’t as capable as they are now, I really just haven’t photographed any scenes that in my mind needed more than one frame to capture the necessary dynamic range.

Part of this is also my own sense of the aesthetic. You might remember me talking about this photo (below) earlier this year about how I often let the windows go white in my Namibia work from Kolmanskop. This is not because I’m too lazy to take multiple shots and blend them together, but because I really just prefer to see the images that way. It leaves more to the imagination and to me, feels a little more surreal than a photo where we can see both the inside of the room and the exterior perfectly exposed.

Kolmanskop Accountant's Bathroom
Kolmanskop Accountant’s Bathroom

Similarly, I don’t mind in this photograph that the walls are leaning outwards from the angle that I shot this. That is not to say that I never do any keystone adjustments mind. I do, but only when the effects that I a remove are a distraction for me. I think people sometimes feel that they have to remove any and all form of distortion, and again, that’s each individuals decision to make, but personally, I don’t feel that every photograph has to be absolutely perfect in this respect.

Don’t Deliberate, Be Deliberate!

In complete contradiction to that sense of not caring for the above image though, I should note that I do quite often take the time to ensure that my camera is at just the right height to prevent my vertical lines from leaning in at least part of the time. This falls under my heading of being deliberate. I find it ironic that the same word pronounced differently has both ends of the spectrum covered for me in this respect.

I won’t “deliberate” over some issues, such as leaning walls, or spending hours on images in post, but I absolutely will be “deliberate” and take the time necessary to craft my compositions, so that everything is just as I want it, as I did for this photo (below) where I moved the frame on the floor to a more pleasing location and spent extra time ensuring that my camera was at the right height to get all of the vertical lines perfect straight.

Kolmanskop School Corridor
Kolmanskop School Corridor

I guess it’s also ironic that I completely don’t care that we can’t see everything outside the windows to the right in this shot as well. I think my point is, once again, that we have to develop a sense of what we are happy with, and in many respects, this takes time and confidence in our work.


As I think about this for today’s post, I realize that Evan’s email to me that prompted this post had a more appropriate subject than I had initially thought. I started this post with a different title, but as I write, I’ve adopted the subject of Evan’s mail, which was “Developing your Style and Self-Acceptance”.

In some areas of my photography, I’m a stickler for getting it right and ensuring that everything is perfect, but in other areas, I simply decide to not give a hoot, and that really does come from reaching a point where you can not care what other people think. Having the confidence to say that it is simply not important to be able to see what’s outside, and deciding that the walls are leaning outwards doesn’t matter, comes from having a strong sense of self-acceptance.

The Roll of Your Trusted Critique

If you listen to everything that everyone will tell you it can be quite paralyzing, as you really will never be able to please everyone. This is where the significance of your trusted critique comes into play, and equally important, is developing the ability to ignore the words of the untrusted critique.

I’ve mentioned a number of times in the past that my wife is who I consider my main “Trusted Critique”, although there are a few others around the world whose advice I will head. Whenever I have a decision to make about my photography or any other creative pursuit for that matter, I don’t consider my work to be complete until I’ve run it past my wife. Her advice means everything to me, but I should note that I don’t take on board everything she says.

There are times when I like something that she doesn’t, and at the end of the day, it’s my art, and I have the final word, but for example, if I’m working on a set of images, say a portfolio, or a selection of work to send a client, nine times out of ten, if she says that something has to go, it goes. A lot of the time, I use her opinion to check my own suspicions, and over the years, I’ve learned to preempt her advice, and simply remove images that I know she will dislike.

Cooling Off Period

I also recall a story from my good friend Graham Morgan, an award-winning photographer from Australia, who was on his way home from Antarctica and showed his wife a photo that he was about to delete but she told him to keep it. The following year he won the Australia Nature Photographer of the Year with that photo! This is a powerful reminder of the need to seek advice from a trusted critique.

It’s also an important reminder that making the final decision on photos that we’ve shot straight after shooting them isn’t always a good idea. Giving yourself at least a few days, ideally a week or more after a shoot to make a more subjective decision about your work is very important.

When I return from a trip, I generally want to start talking about it within just a few days, so I force myself to complete at least a preliminary cull as soon as possible after getting home, but then I always continue to refine the selection for another week or two until I make my final selection. Invariably I find that as the memory of the shoot fades slightly, I am able to be more ruthless in my selection, and the more we can remove from a selection, the more condensed and rich the final set will be.

Controlling Exposure for Optimal Dynamic Range

As I mentioned earlier, in part of my reply to Evan, I had also stated that if you are careful with your exposure, you can generally get a better quality image from a single frame than from blending. Now, I realize that there are techniques that can help to blend images together without really being able to tell it was done, but the majority of the time they require more work than I personally am prepared to put into each individual images, so once again, this is personal preference.

My advice to people has always been that if using exposure blending or any other HDR techniques feeds your creativity, then go for it. If however, you are doing it to overcome limitations on your camera, then first learn how to expose your photos to get maximum dynamic range in a single image, then decide whether or not you need HDR. Once you get used to looking at the histogram, there isn’t even any guess-work. You can see right on the back of your camera if the image fits in a single frame, simply by referencing your histogram.

Exposing To The Right (ETTR)

Now, I’ve talked about ETTR or Exposing To The Right a number of times in the past, so I’m not going to go into great detail on this, but I want to summarise why I still do it, and a few other considerations that you might keep in mind if you are still formulating your own strategy.

First of all, I want to mention that thanks to the wisdom received from Graeme Nattress, who’s forgotten more about image processing than I’ll ever know, I’m no longer talking about the cause of noise in images based on the old Luminous Landscape article that used to be my primary reference. Graeme helped me to understand that the old explanation is not valid, but also that the benefits of Exposing to the Right are very real all the same.

I have though been Exposing to the Right instinctively for many years though, and experience has proved to me that my images are better quality for it, so I’m still using this technique for almost all of my work.

Basically, what I do exposure all of my images so that the lightest part of the histogram data falls just short if not slightly touching the right shoulder of the histogram. On the rare occasion when I find myself photographing a scene with the sun in the frame, I will allow it to become over-exposed slightly, to give myself some leeway in the shadows, but even then, one frame generally gives me enough dynamic range.

As an example, here’s a photo (below) of a lighthouse with the late afternoon sun shining through the windows of the lantern room, shot on this year’s Hokkaido Landscape Photography Tour. When looking through the viewfinder, as you might imagine, everything except the sun looked almost completely black. I could see from the histogram though, that if I set my exposure so that the sun is just starting to over-expose, the shadows were not spiking up the left shoulder.

Again, this is a comparison image, so you can slide the vertical bar from left to right to reveal more of the final processed image on the left, to see how much detail I brought out in the bottom third of the photograph. All I did was ran a gradient mask over the bottom third and opened up the shadows slider to around half way. I also pulled out the shadows across the entire image with a very slight tone curve adjustment and placed a second gradient mask across the top of the sky to darken it down a little. This isn’t the greatest image I’ve shot by a long shot, but I think it helps to illustrate my point.

Reading the Histogram

Basically, expose so that the information on the right of the histogram is just about, or in this case, just touching the right shoulder, and check to see if you have a spike on the left side. If you do see a spike on the left side, it means that the shadows are going completely black, which, similar to highlights going completely white means that it might be difficult or even impossible, to recover any detail in these areas. As long as the shadows on the left side are not spiking though, there is detail in the shadows that can be used.

Noshappu Lighthouse Photo Histogram
Noshappu Lighthouse Photo Histogram

Do also be aware that the camera’s histogram is generally based on the JPEG preview, so it tells a somewhat harsher story than your image processing software probably will. Both Lightroom and Capture One Pro give you around a stop of light back, compared to how the images look on the camera. 

I also use a piece of software called RawDigger to check my images, especially ones like this, to see what the image really looks like, and I can also create a very details histogram, such as this one (right) that I got from the original raw file of the photo we just looked at.

In the RawDigger histogram, we can see a small spike on the right side of the histogram, which represents the bright sky around the sun that I overexposed slightly. On the left you can see that the shadow data tapers off nicely, showing that there is a little bit of information lost, but enough to be able to bring out detail in the shadows.

I don’t have a photo of the histogram on the camera, but here two are two histograms from Capture One Pro with the original raw file on the left and the processed raw file on the right. You can see how the shadows were steep and close to the left shoulder, but not spiking. Also, note the small spike in the highlights for the sun, but see how I was able to bring that under control in Capture One Pro. Going over a little bit is rarely a problem, but we do need to avoid going over by a large amount.


So, as you can see, using the histogram as a tool can really help to make educated decisions about your exposure. Based just on the image, or even just what you see through the viewfinder, you might think that a scene like the Lighthouse sunset would need multiple exposures merged together, or even HDR processing, but in my opinion it really isn’t necessary, unless, as I mentioned, you actually enjoy the process and that process feeds your creativity. 

For me, there is nothing more off-putting than getting home from a shoot and having to spend hours working on images, and as fast as the process may have become, as far as I’m aware, there are still no applications that will allow you to keep a processed and tone-mapped HDR image in raw format, so you cannot benefit from future processing engine updates.

Don’t Fight Your ISO

That example was for a high contrast scene, but as I said, I Expose to the Right for all of my work, and I have received feedback from people that know, that the quality of my images is higher than most, and we attribute this to the way I shoot, taking control of my exposure. 

Basically, the darker your images get, the more noise you’ll see in the shadows. I have talked about ISO Invariance in Episode 520, and I agree that if your base ISO could be ISO 100 you can increase the exposure in post for a number of stops, and really not see a lot of degradation in image quality. This means that especially when you are running and gunning and the light is changing so fast that manual exposure may cause you to miss shots, you can go to an automated mode and then brighten up the images in post if necessary.

This is only the case though if the scene is bright enough that ISO 100 would get you to within two or three stops of your required exposure. Once your scene is so dark that you ISO 100 does not get you to within two or three stops of your necessary exposure, the only option is to increase the ISO, and when you start to increase your ISO, you can’t benefit from ISO invariance. Your only option for darker scenes is to increase your ISO and if you are afraid to increase it high enough to essentially expose to the right, getting the histogram data as close to the right shoulder as possible, then your shadows are going to get noisy.

Use Highlight Warnings

Another thing that I want to add here, is that it’s also important to turn on and use the Highlight Warnings or “blinkies” in your camera so that you are made aware when small areas of the scene or subject start to become over-exposed.

Himba Smile
Himba Smile

For example, when photographing the dark-skinned Himba people inside their huts in Namibia, their eyes, teeth, and shells around their neck start to overexpose as you increase the ISO, but it’s virtually impossible to see this on the histogram. You have to check for these areas blinking in the preview image, or if you are using a mirrorless camera, some of them have these warnings in the electronic viewfinder too.

Some people make the mistake of trying to get the peak or hump of the histogram over to the right side, but when shooting images like this one of the young Himba Girl (left), that will result in her eyes, teeth, and regalia all becoming overexposed, and although just a little is fine and controllable, we don’t want to overexpose these areas too much.

To be clear though, the goal is to increase the exposure to the point where the brightest parts of the scene or subject are as close to the right as possible, but not overexposed, and sometimes, this requires us to increase the ISO so much that some people start to back off.

This image was shot at ISO 5000, and that scares some people, but because I was still essentially exposing to the right, until the bright areas started to overexpose, the shadows still have almost no grain to speak of, and this is with a 50 megapixel camera, which was supposed to be really bad in low light. The reality is that even with such high-resolution cameras, if you push the ISO to the point that you need it to be at to give you an ETTR image, then the shadow areas will still be clean enough to give you a useable image.

You might also recall that this is one of the ten images that I printed at 44 x 62 inches for display in an exhibition at Canon’s Headquarters here in Tokyo, and the feedback I’ve received is that people were very surprised that this image was shot at such a high ISO, and they were looking at a five foot tall print, so I think that’s proof enough that my technique has helped me to create images of a pretty high quality, often in somewhat challenging environments.

The "Namibia" Wall
The “Namibia” Wall

Manual Exposure

This may be obvious already, and I certainly mention this a lot, but just to be thorough, I should also mention that I shoot almost exclusively in Manual Exposure mode. I just find this easier, as it enables me to get my camera set up for a specific scene, exposing to the right, and then just shoot, without having to worry about exposure compensation, which I find completely annoying. 

I know that some people like to just let the camera decide, and if your scene is bright enough that ISO Invariance will help you to brighten up your images as necessary without losing any image quality, you really won’t be negatively affected by shooting in an automated mode. For me though, I’ve been shooting Manual for so long, that it’s just more intuitive, and second nature.

The Manuals Were Wrong

Another thing that I wanted to talk about, with regards to using ETTR techniques to get better quality images, is that sometimes people quote the camera manuals, that often say that a good histogram has one large hump, and that should be in the middle of the histogram. Forget this if it’s something you tend to bear in mind, for two reasons. Firstly, having the data in the middle of the histogram may result in unnecessary noise in your images, especially in the shadow or dark areas. 

The other reason is that the histogram represents a mapping of all the tones in the image. It is not uncommon for a histogram to have multiple spikes. This image, for example, has a spike on the right side, that represents all the white in the crane’s and the snow, and a spike of the left, for the dark background. And there is nothing in the middle, which is where the camera manuals will have you believe the data should be.

Cranes Taking Flight (with Histogram)
Cranes Taking Flight (with Histogram)

Of course, as a guideline, for an average scene, it’s not a complete failure as an example, but it’s important to understand what the histogram represents so that it can be used as a tool to work towards shooting images of higher quality, rather than allowing something you’ve been told to lead you to make mistakes.

OK, so the last thing I want to relay is that it is also not necessary to try and have your image data fill the histogram. Some scenes do not contain a wide enough range of tones to create a full histogram from the left to right side. As an extreme example, and to make one last point, here (below) is another snow scene from Hokkaido.

See if you can guess where the histogram spike will be for this image, then drag that vertical bar over to the left to reveal the embedded histogram and see how close you were. 


Let’s start to wrap this up now, with a few last words on why I put this post together. I kept Evan’s part about developing a style in the title, even though we didn’t go into detail on this, because I think that the way I shoot plays a large part in the look of my work. I don’t I have a distinctive style that comes from a type of processing, because as I’ve said, most of the time it isn’t the processing that defines my work. That in itself is, to me, one of the most important things that I wanted to relay today. 

I’ve been told that people can tell my work, because of the quality of the images, and I like to think that this is because of the care I take in setting my exposure, and how careful I am to compose my images in such a way that they contain as few distracting elements as possible. A lot of my work is somewhat if not straight on minimalist, but rarely cluttered, and I think these things all inform my style.

I’ll stop writing for now though, and get this out there. I’ve already been writing for a day and a half, but there is still so much more to say related to this topic. I’ll try to follow up next week with a discussion of some of the things that I consider as I decide on my compositions, as we didn’t really get into that today. If there is anything else that you’d like me to cover, just drop me a line or write a comment below. I always enjoy hearing from you.

Show Notes

My post on ISO Invariance is here:

Music by Martin Bailey


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Understanding Exposure Value (Podcast 630)

Understanding Exposure Value (Podcast 630)

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This week we’re going to take a look at Exposure Value or EV, and I’ll explain what it is, why it’s useful, and why I’ve spent almost every waking minute for the last 17 days building a new Exposure Shift Calculator for our Photographer’s Friend app, which we’ll use for some of my explanations.

When we talk about exposure, we generally use aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings to relay the absolute values of our exposure, but then if you want to change one of the values while maintaining the same exposure, you have to change one or both of the other settings in the opposite direction. For example, if you are using an aperture of f/8, with a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second, at ISO 200, and I recommend that you change your aperture to f/11, which is one stop smaller than f/8, and therefore lets in half the light, you would need to adjust the other settings to counter that change.

You might change your shutter speed from 1/250 of a second to 1/125, which is twice as long, and therefore lets in twice as much light, so you maintain the same exposure. If though, for example, 1/125 of a second might be too slow and you don’t want to risk your subject moving during the exposure, making them blurry, you might decide to increase your ISO from 200 to 400, which makes it twice as sensitive, and brings your exposure back in line.

This can get a little bit confusing, especially if for example, you don’t want to change your aperture from f/8, because it provides just the right amount of depth of field for the photograph you are making, you then have to think about how you could make the same change with the other settings. If you are happy with your shutter speed, you could of course just change your ISO from 200 to 100, making it one stop less sensitive, and you’d have the same exposure as you would if you’d changed your aperture from f/8 to f/11.

Stops Explained

Although people sometimes refer to the changes made to exposure as steps, it’s more common to use the term “stop”. Before we go on, although this is pretty basic photography theory, let’s just recap that by aperture stops from say f/1.0 counting in full stops would go from f/1.0 through f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16 and higher. Depending on how you have your camera set up you might have half stops between these, but generally, most cameras and light meters use third stops, so for example, between f/5.6 and f/8 you will have f/6.3 and f/7.1, though this varies slightly sometimes with different manufacturers. It’s also worth noting that the smaller the number, the larger the aperture, so a lens set to f/5.6 lets in twice as much light as when it’s set to f/8, and f/11 lets in half as much light as f/8.

Stops in shutter speed terms are calculated by doubling or halving the time. For example, if your shutter speed is 1/250 of a second, making it one stop slower would be 1/125 of a second, and that is also one stop lighter because the light hits the sensor for twice as long. Making 1/250 of a second one stop faster takes it to 1/500 of a second, which is also one stop darker because the shutter is open half the time. This continues even when we’re doing long exposures of more than a second. One stop longer than 5 seconds is of course 10 seconds, and 20 seconds is one stop longer again.

ISO stops can be a bit confusing again, but similar to shutter speeds, you just keep doubling or halving the value for each stop. ISO 200 is one stop more sensitive or brighter than ISO 100. ISO 400 is one stop brighter than 200, and two stops brighter than 100. If we keep going, we’ll work through ISOs 800, 1600, 3200 and 6400 etc. The thing to be careful with of course is that very high ISOs can start to introduce noise or grain to your images, but I’ll regularly shoot at ISO 5000 or 6400 if necessary to get the shot. It comes down to testing your camera to see how much noise is introduced in various conditions and how comfortable you are with it.

Exposure Value Stops

So, following that recap, let’s talk about Exposure Values, which are also referred to as stops, but they can be more useful because when you refer to exposure in EV or Exposure Values, it’s not tied to any one setting. According to Wikipedia, the Exposure Value system was invented in the 1950s and uses a relatively simple formula to calculate a value that can be used to represent any combination of our camera settings.

The EV scale can also be mapped to various lighting conditions, for example, if you’ve heard of the “Sunny Sixteen” rule, which is a basic guideline to set your camera aperture to f/16 and use your ISO as the shutter speed, so at ISO 100, you’d set your shutter speed to either 1/100 or 1/125 of a second. This will get you a relatively good exposure on a sunny day, hence the name, sunny sixteen.

Well, on the EV scale, the sunny sixteen rule equates to 15 EV. On a slightly overcast day, you might open up your aperture from f/16 to f/11, one-stop wider, and this would mean you were shooting at 14 EV. For an overcast day, you might go to f/8, another stop wider, and that is EV 13. Conversely, you might increase your ISO from 100 to 200 for a slightly overcast day or from 200 to 400 for an overcast day, and of course, you could change your shutter speed, but if you have an Exposure Value to work to, it’s pretty easy to recalculate your settings.

EV zero

If we keep going back, the zero base for our scale can be represented as an aperture of f/1.0 for one second at ISO 100. This is EV o (zero). We can go darker, using negative numbers. For example, on the EV scale we have the Aurora Borealis at between -3 and -6 EV, and the Milky Way and Galactic Core at between -11 and -9 EV. I actually found these old values to be a little bit too dark if I compare them to my own images, such as for example, the settings I used for this photograph of the Galactic Core that I shot on my Namibia Tour this year.

Milky Way Galactic Core
Milky Way Galactic Core

I shot this at f/1.4 which is one EV more than f/1.0, putting me at EV 1. I was using a shutter speed of 5 seconds, so to continue with our mental arithmetic to see how this changes our Exposure Value number, first I double the exposure from one second to two, which takes the EV back to zero, then double the exposure again to four seconds, which takes us to -1 EV. Another second to 5 is one-third of a full stop, so that takes our EV to -1 ⅓.

I also changed my ISO from 100 to 3200, so let’s see how this affects the Exposure Value. First, changing from ISO 100 to 200 makes my sensor twice as sensitive, so my Exposure Value goes up by one stop to -0 ⅓. Doubling the ISO again to 400 is another stop, so we’re back into positive numbers with 0 ⅔. 400 to 800 ISO gives us 1 ⅔ EV and 800 to 1600 is 2 ⅔ EV, then finally 1600 t0 3200 is 3 ⅔ EV.

EV Increases as ISO Increases

You might have noticed there that calculating ISO changes can be a bit confusing. For me at least, it seems as though the scale is going the wrong way, but because the EV represents our cameras ability to capture an exposure based on how sensitive the film is, the Exposure Value goes up as we make the sensor more sensitive. Before I started to really look into how to calculate Exposure Value, I would certainly have guessed the opposite way, so this has taken some getting used to.

I guess it’s easier to think of EV as the target, as in the Exposure Value of the subject, not the base, which is the settings on the camera. For example, I’ve just used a Light Meter to take an incident reading of the light on this very slightly hazy summer’s day in Tokyo, and my reading was EV 14 ⅓. We can actually adjust the sunny sixteen rule to understand that I’d get a good exposure at the moment by reducing my exposure by two-thirds of a stop from 1/125 of a second to 1/80 of a second at f/16. We’ll come back to some more examples that will make this clearer, but for now, let’s talk a little more about why using the absolute values of aperture and shutter speed etc. isn’t ideal.

Exposure Shifts

When we’re shooting on my Japan Winter Wildlife tours, we are generally using Manual Exposure, to ensure that our subjects stay well exposed whether they are over a white snowy background or a darker background like trees or the sky. This works great when the light is constant, but if there are patchy clouds, we have to change our settings quite regularly, so I shout out that I’m changing my settings to the group.

Ruffled Feathers
Ruffled Feathers

If I simply shout out that I’m increasing my exposure by one stop, which is the same as saying I’m increasing my exposure by one EV, someone will invariably ask for actual settings in aperture, shutter speed, and ISO form. Then, if for example, I say f/11 for 1/1000 of a second at ISO 800, I often get asked, what would that be if I’m at ISO 400, or what if I’m at f/8, and it’s understandable because this can be a bit confusing.

Exposure Shift Calculator

To help with this kind of exposure shift, I received an idea from listener Steve Jarrel last year, for me to add a third calculator to our Photographer’s Friend app for iOS. The implementation I’ve come up with is slightly different, but the idea is basically the same, so I’ve just this morning finished some very complicated development to create a third calculator called the Exposure Shift Calculator. This has taken so much extra work, and is such a big change that I’m actually going to make this a paid upgrade to a new version of our app, but I’m currently looking into a way to provide a pseudo upgrade price for current version 2 owners, and more details of that will follow over the next week or so.

Today though, I wanted to introduce you to the new calculator to help shed a little more light on this discussion about Exposure Values. Because Exposure Values are at the core of all exposure calculations, it is at the core of my new Exposure Shift Calculator. Here’s a screenshot from an iPad Air, showing the calculator set at zero EV, which as I mentioned is the value you get with an aperture of f/1.0 for one second with ISO 100 (below).

Exposure Shift Calculator EV0
Exposure Shift Calculator EV0

When you first start using the calculator, you can of course dial in any combination of camera settings, but we’ll work from EV zero, for now, to show you how this works. If you want to store your original settings for later reference, just tap the large Store Current Settings button in the middle of the screen, and your settings will be displayed there until you tap the settings again, which clears them and brings back the Store Current Settings button.

I might, for example, use the calculator to find some settings to give me a good exposure at 14 ⅓ EV on this sunny day in Tokyo, and as we can see if I select an aperture of f/5.6, and leave my ISO at 100, I would need to set my shutter speed to 1/640 of a second. In this next screenshot (below) I’ve stored my EV zero settings for reference, and dialed in my new settings so that you can see how the store function works.

There are two ways to experiment with your settings after this though, starting with locking a single dial. If you tap the Aperture, Shutter or ISO dial labels, that label turns into my teal blue color and the padlock shows that it is locked, and now when you turn one of the unlocked dials, the other unlocked dial will automatically update to a value that maintains the same exposure. I’ve locked the original settings in the middle of the screen for reference, and then locked the ISO dial, which would be useful say if you were shooting with film and literally could not change the ISO until the end of the roll, or for example if your ISO was already very high and you don’t want it to go any higher.

Exposure Shift Calculator at EV 14 2/3 ISO100
Exposure Shift Calculator at EV 14 2/3 ISO100

I decided that I wanted to change my aperture to f/14, my go-to aperture for most of my landscape work, and you can see that the calculator automatically calculated that I would need to change my shutter speed to 1/100 of a second to maintain my Exposure Value of 14 ⅓. I can of course then tap the aperture dial to lock that at f/14, and if I change the shutter speed dial, it will give me a new ISO to use, to maintain the same exposure. Note though, that when you lock an individual dial that enables the ISO value to be recalculated, the EV will change, because increasing the sensitivity of the ISO increases your EV, so the other unlocked dial has to move in the opposite direction to maintain the exposure.

The Challenge

That concept led me to what turned out to be the most difficult feature to code, the Exposure Value Lock. If you tap on the Exposure Value number or the padlock to its right, any individually locked dials will be unlocked, but now when you spin any dial, the other two dials will automatically update to maintain the same Exposure Value. This was particularly difficult because not only did I have to calculate two other dials simultaneously, the ISO dial has to turn in reverse to maintain the Exposure Value. 

Exposure Shift Calculator Aperture Locked
Exposure Shift Calculator Aperture Locked

For example, if I lock the aperture dial at f/14 and change the shutter speed from 1/100 of second to a 1/200 of a second, the ISO would change from 100 to 200, to counter the shutter speed change to maintain the same exposure, but because increasing the shutter speed increases the EV by one stop and making the ISO more sensitive also increases the Exposure Value, my EV changes from 14 ⅓ to 16 ⅓.

Exposure Value Lock

So, to lock the EV, I actually have to rotate the ISO dial in the opposite direction to ensure that the Exposure Value is maintained, rather than the Exposure. I know that sounds weird, but that’s what this took to achieve and actually provide a useful EV Lock feature. If for example I have a meter reading of 16 ⅓  wanted to  EV, and I wanted to open up my aperture to f/2.8 for some nice shallow depth of field, by locking the EV and selecting f/2.8 on the aperture dial, the calculator gives me a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second at ISO of 1000.

Calculated Exposure Value Locked Shift
Calculated Exposure Value Locked Shift

That’s useful to see your options while maintaining the EV, but in this case, if you know that you want an aperture of f/2.8 and because you know that you have plenty of light, rather than locking the EV and going fully automatic, it would be better to simply lock the ISO and move your aperture dial to f/2.8 and then you’ll get your new shutter speed of 1/5000 of a second, for a great outdoor exposure on a theoretically very bright sunny day.

ISO Locked Exposure Shift to f/2.8
ISO Locked Exposure Shift to f/2.8

Send To Buttons

If, for example, you don’t want the water in the fountain behind your model to be completely frozen by a shutter speed of 1/5000 of a second, you might decide to apply some neutral density filters, and to save you the trouble of remembering your shutter speed, I’ve also added a To ND Calc button at the top of the screen, above your calculated shutter speed, which, as you might imagine, will send your new shutter speed directly to the ND calculator and open it for you. This is also useful if you have calculated a shutter speed of five seconds or more and need a timer. Just jump over to the ND Calculator and hit the timer button.

Likewise, the To DoF Calc button will send your aperture to the Depth of Field calculator so that you can see how much depth of field you have at the currently selected or calculated aperture.

So, I hope this has helped a little if the concept of Exposure Values wasn’t something that you are familiar with. As with the other two calculators, as well as actually helping you to work in the field, they are great for learning the theory behind exposure and depth of field, as well as teaching it. Even if you have all this down, there’s nothing like being able to turn dials and show the effects of your changes to help people understand this stuff. Then hopefully when you are advised to increase your exposure by one or two stops, you’ll be better equipped to calculate the difference in your head, or reach for your iPhone and open the Photographer’s Friend.

Photographer’s Friend 3 Coming Soon!

As I said, my current plan is to make this a paid upgrade, so if you like what you see, but don’t already own version two, then please wait for a few days until I release version three. If you are reading or listening after more than a few days into September 2018 though, version three should already be available. And for those of you that have version two, I will try to provide a reasonable upgrade path, details of which will be provided in an update to version two of the app. If you don’t need the Exposure Shift calculator, you are more than welcome to continue to use version two, and I have a few improvements for version two that will be released very soon as well, so you won’t be left out to dry.

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Show Notes

You can get Photographer’s Friend in the Apple App Store here:

I’ll update this post with a link to version three soon! If I forget, see the ad below. 🙂

Music by Martin Bailey


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The Balance Between Healthy Learning and Analysis Paralysis (Podcast 587)

The Balance Between Healthy Learning and Analysis Paralysis (Podcast 587)

As creative artists and sometimes small business owners, it’s vitally important to continue to learn and grow on many levels, but I urge you to not get so caught up in technical details that you become paralyzed in the field through overthinking every decision.

I love learning new skills and continuing to hone my craft. You might have noticed that I have a relatively good understanding of photography. My friend David duChemin often drops me a line when he has something technical that he’d like describing because he knows that this is one of my stronger areas. My Craft & Vision e-books were born of a need to fill a specific technical hole in their line-up, and my Making the Print book was a direct request from David.

It helps that I have a strong technical background. I was the worst student when I was a kid back in England, but I learned the value of studying after moving to Japan in the early nineties, and I went to college here in Japan from 1995 to learn various computer skills. After getting good grades and passing a few exams I finally realized that I’m not totally stupid, and I went on to study for a number of exams that took me into some great jobs in IT and I continued to build a foundation of both business and technical skills that would help me to wear the many hats that are required to run my company. 

I’d love to hire a few more people to help me cover some of the business processes that I have to cover, but to be totally honest, as a 1.5 person company, just me and my wife who helps out part-time, we still aren’t really in a position to expand just yet. Because of this, I change hats literally by the minute sometimes, as I market tours, deal with customer questions, print and post out my fine art prints, manage our accounts and maintain our server and web site etc. to name just a few of the things I get up to on a daily basis.

Hat #33 – Apple App Developer

There are areas when it would make so much more sense to just hire someone, but realistically it just isn’t possible, so I find myself continually being presented opportunities to learn new skills. For example, for the last week, I’ve spent almost every waking hour working through an intensive online course learning how to develop apps for iOS. I have an app that someone kindly created for me many years ago, but it’s now shamefully outdated, and if I don’t update it soon, it will not run on iOS 11 that isn’t very far away now.

I asked around for a few quotes to get the app updated by a third party, but none of them were realistic from a financial perspective. So, I decided to block out some time and learn how to do this myself. At this point, although it’s going to be hard, I already have a good idea how I’m going to tackle not so much updating my current app, but recreating it from scratch, so that I can not only keep it in the App Store, but also add native support for running on the iPad as well as iPhones.

Learn What You Love

I’m getting side-tracked a little here, but I’m telling you this to illustrate a point, which is that the first rule of learning something new should be to pick your battles and invest time in learning what you love to do, which in most cases with our relationship in mind, is going to be photography related. I love making things, which is one of the reasons I fell in love with photography during my teens, and why it has remained a passion for more than thirty years.

Especially as photography has evolved over the last twenty years with the event of digital I found it fascinating to be able to merge my love for computers with my love of photography. I can say in all honesty that if we had continued with film I would probably not be talking with you today, and I definitely wouldn’t have built a photography related business. It’s not that I don’t like film, I just found the connection between photography and the computer so natural and enjoyable.

It was this connection that made photography so much more fun that I was able to give it my absolute all. How cool is it that we can now trip the shutter and see the image a moment later if we want to look? Being able to change the ISO between every image is another thing that I found totally awesome. Some will argue that we can benefit from the restrictions that film brings us, and I agree, as a learning process, but we can learn in similar ways by setting ourselves assignments, like going out with just one old memory card that only fits 36 images on, or taping a zoom lens to a set focal length to learn about framing. 

Question Every Decision

Personally, though, I don’t do this kind of exercise either. You might recall my episode on The Mental Checklist, in which I described how I learned so much about photography simply by being deliberate in my processes and questioning every step of my shooting workflow until it became a mental checklist that I worked through as I shot a scene or subject. After working in this deliberate fashion for many years, a lot of the things I used to have to mentally remind myself to do became second nature, but the questioning process remains.

I tend to question all of my decisions, just to keep myself in check, and although I know that I’m not getting every single opportunity available to me, I am making work that I’m mostly happy with, and feel that I come away from most situations relatively happy that I’ve capitalized on my opportunities.

Gems on the Shore

Gems on the Shore

The point here is more about being deliberate. If taping a lens at 50mm will help to force yourself to think about composition, get to it. If simply asking yourself if the current perspective which comes from your focal length and distance to the subject is the optimal perspective for what you are trying to say in your photograph, that may well be enough. I feel that staying conscious of this kind of decision is more important than forcing oneself with physical restrictions, but we are all different and need to find our own best way to evolve and grow.

Trust Your Instincts

One thing that I am very conscious of when deciding how to grow though, as I mentioned earlier, is that I always create goals that lead towards results that I will enjoy. To be honest, the last week has been hard, and I probably have another week of going through my course before I will be able to really start to work on my app, but I have always enjoyed creating things, be it physical objects like a fine art print or canvas gallery wrap, or redesigning my web site. 

I find great satisfaction at sitting back and looking through my final selection of images from a trip, or an update photography portfolio. I know that I’m going to be over the moon when I’m able to update my own iOS app, and it never hurts to have an extra skill. Even if I’m able to grow my company to the point where I hire a dedicated app developer, having the knowledge and ability to talk to them on a deep level makes working with people so much easier.

It has to feel right though for me to take a plunge like this and dedicate such a large chunk of time to learning something as complicated as a new computer programing language. I trust my instincts a lot when making these decisions. I have to be excited about the prospect of adding this new skill.

Deciding Your Photography Genres

In my photography, this is similar to how I decide the sort of photography that I will invest my time in. Living in Tokyo, a city of thirteen million, I have endless opportunities around me to do street photography, but it doesn’t excite me. I love looking at street photography, but I don’t enjoy doing it enough to prioritize my own time to go out and shoot street.

I get infinitely more pleasure out of photographing nature and landscapes, and my travel photography is also very special to me. I think it’s partly because it’s so removed from my everyday environment, but when I look at work in the genres that I have chosen it feels more natural and more me. This is probably a strong indication that I’ve found the genres in which I excel and in turn, I prioritize my time to concentrate more on these genres that I want to continue to grow in.

Studying to Stay Engaged

When I first started to learn photography, before we had access to the Internet as we do now, I read books on the basics.  I learned about apertures, shutter speeds, and the exposure triangle etc. I learned compositional theory and everything I needed to know to get out with the camera and start to experiment.

Most of the studying I did was great to help me build a strong foundation, but the main reason that I would study back then, was to keep myself engaged in a hobby that I had become so passionate about, that I wanted to be doing something photography related for as much time as possible. I’m recalling when I first got to Japan now, back in 1991, when I would get home from work and study Japanese for a few hours, but then with some free time to kill, I’d pick up a book on photography.

I’m sure you’ve felt the same. You become so fixated on something that you love, that you start to look up as much information on that subject as possible, just to quench your thirst for whatever it is that you’ve fallen in love with. This is a wonderful driving force that we can use to absorb lots of information that really help to drive us forwards.

Studying is Not The Goal

Herein though lies one possible problem that I’d like to talk about a little more. As I come into contact with photographers in the field and in teaching environments, I’m running into more and more people are obviously totally overwhelmed with information and the desire to consume every bit of photography knowledge available to them.

This drive and momentum can be a huge enabler when it comes to learning more about our craft, but it’s leading to two very serious problems, which are the main reasons I decided to share my thoughts on this with you today. 

Firstly, I’m seeing people that are spending so much time online studying every aspect of photography, that they are cutting down on the time that they could actually be out with the camera. The act of studying photography for some people becomes the goal. If you find yourself more excited by the act of studying photography than actually doing it, you might want to consider your motivations. 

I know that I’m seen as a bit of an authority, thanks to the detail that I put into my posts and podcasts, which is also helped by my engineering and technical background. But, you might be surprised to hear that I’ve not studied much of what I talk about in order to learn what I know about photography.

I’ve learned pretty much everything I know through getting out and doing it, then most of the time guessing what I need to do to overcome issues. For very complicated topics, I will research specific areas online, but generally do just enough to set myself back on the right track, and figure the rest out for myself.

Doing and Achieving

I think perhaps one of the problems might be that we are surrounded by information, and with the Internet, we have access to people that know their stuff. Maybe for someone that feel there is still a long way to go on their learning path, there is a certain amount of pressure to try and suck up as much information as possible.

I guess what I’m saying is that it comes down to confidence. It’s natural to study harder if you don’t feel confident in your ability to go out and make beautiful images. But, that assumes that the problem is a lack of knowledge of photography, but I’d propose that this can also come simply from not providing yourself with enough opportunities to make beautiful photographs. 

Maybe it’s because you aren’t visiting locations that really strike a chord with your own creative desires, or possibly you are not able to translate what you know you want to create in your mind’s eye to your actions as you photograph your chosen subject, and that leaves you feeling inadequate, and that drives you to study and study. 

Only by actually creating work that at least gets close to what we’d like to create gives us a feeling that we have achieved a certain amount of mastery. We don’t feel as though we’ve mastered something by reading a book or doing an online course. We only feel that confidence after putting what we learned into practice, and have images that we feel happy with, or at least start to edge closer to that state.

Continuous Learning

Of course, even once you feel that you have a good technical grasp of photography, and you are happy with your composition and creative decisions, there is always room for improvement. Even people that have mastered every aspect they require to do their work continue to learn. I’d propose that this learning is not about the effects of aperture and focus distance on depth-of-field, or trying to wrap their head around the circle of confusion, but more about the struggle with how they can continue to create even more beautiful photographs.

One thing that I want to make totally clear is that I’m not saying that there is no need to study photography. It’s absolutely necessary to build a solid foundation, and then continue to bolster your knowledge with continuous top-ups. What I am saying,  is that we have to achieve a balance between the time we spend learning about photography and the time we spend doing photography and putting what we learned to practice, building success experiences or identifying the areas that we need to spend more time thinking about.

Analysis Paralysis

In addition to the first problem of studying become the goal rather than getting out with the camera, the other problem that I’m seeing as more and more information becomes available to us, is that some people develop a serious case of analysis paralysis. 

People sometimes get so wrapped up in thinking through formulas and trying to implement techniques that they’ve learned, that they stop asking themselves the important questions that would otherwise lead them to figure out the problem for themselves. What’s often worse, is that they are no longer able to simply enjoy the moment and what I consider to be a meditative experience when making photographs.

Martin in Landmannalaugar

Martin in Landmannalaugar

On my workshops I’ve been called over for advice, and before long find myself having to just ask the participant to stop thinking about all of the stuff that they’ve learned and take a step back, and just think about the problem at hand. The knowledge that you’ve learned academically only starts to become your own when you apply it to achieve a specific goal or overcome a specific problem that you personally are encountering.

This academic knowledge is useful and necessary, but people get so wrapped up in other peoples’ reasons for applying it that it stifles them, effectively causing a type of analysis paralysis in the field. This stops you from being open the scene and removes you from the moment, which is a shame because we can only capture what we fully appreciate. We need to be there to have any kind of chance of really capturing the essence of the moment in our photographs.

Knowing Your Gear

Let’s consider a few other points that will hopefully help to maximize our opportunities in the field. One thing that will remove you from the moment is fumbling with your gear. Learn your gear, and buy into a camera system that doesn’t fight you. I’ve seen people on my tours that spend time trying to figure out how to do some very basic things, like turn on Auto-ISO or enable continuous focusing.

Of course, I help with this when I’m there, but you aren’t always going to be on a workshop with someone that can help. You need to know how to change at least the commonly used settings, and quite often this requires you to just set time aside and sit down and read the manual. As well as I know my Canon cameras, whenever I buy a new camera, I sit down for an evening with the manual and make sure I understand all of the new features and what’s changed over the previous generation of that camera.

And at the very least, make sure you put the PDF of your camera’s manual on your phone or iPad or even drop the paper manual into your camera bag before going on a trip so that you can figure out how to do something while you are out and about. Ideally, you don’t want to be looking stuff up in the heat of the moment, but having your manual with you can prevent some very vexing situations, especially on multi-day trips.

Ultimately, as we’ve already discussed, the only way to really understand your camera is to use it a lot. If you only shoot for two weeks a year when you travel, you’ll lose all of the muscle memory and it all feels very rusty. We have to keep the gears oiled by shooting regularly, even if it’s just by slinging your camera over your shoulder when you go out for a walk. It’s not always about creating killer shots. For me, just the act of raising the camera to my eye, composing the photo and releasing the shutter is a relaxing, therapeutic action, and this helps us to keep our shooting muscle memory in shape.

Identifying and Solving Problems

As we gain a grasp of the basics, it’s vitally important to get out into the field and start to find real problems that need solving. We only really understand how to apply what we’ve learned by overcoming problems that we face in real life. 

You might for example photograph a mountain stream or a waterfall and find that you don’t feel the results are as aesthetically pleasing as you’d hoped, and you need to identify what it is that you want to change, and what you have to do to make that change. Identifying and then solving problems, again and again, is what makes use better photographers.

The more problems we solve, the better we get at solving problems. One way to bring your waterfall shot closer to what you were hoping to create might be to use a neutral density filter to allow the water to move during your exposure, creating that beautiful silky effect that I’m sure you’re familiar with.

Choushi Ohtaki Waterfall

Choushi Ohtaki Waterfall

The next question is going to be which ND filter to use to get the results you want. Quite often between a half and, one second is a great shutter speed for shooting waterfalls, and depending on the amount of ambient light, might require a three-stop ND8 filter. You might also learn through experience that photographing waterfalls in direct sunlight doesn’t really work. It’s best to shoot them on heavily overcast days or when the sun isn’t shining directly on them.

Of course, if you don’t even own any neutral density filters yet, this would be your prompt to buy some. Personally, I don’t like or use gradual neutral density filters, and the large square filter systems are too bulky, difficult to use in inclement weather, and I just feel that they are unnecessary. I’m now buying my circular solid neutral density filters from Breakthrough Photography. Their X4 ND filter series is amazing!

Develop a Visual Database

One of the best ways to understand that we can do better is to look at the work of others. Buy books of photographs from masters in your chosen genres. There are way too many to name them all, but I have books from people such as Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna, Nick Brandt, Michael Freeman, Paul Kicklen, Tony Sweet and the amazing Sebastiao Salgado. We don’t have to mimic these photographers or compare ourselves to them, but I think building a mental database of visual possibilities is vital to help us to question our own work and see where we might be able to do better.

The more visual possibilities you memorize, the more likely you are to identify and hopefully avoid a potential problem with an image as we create it. Even after we get home and start to go through our images though, it’s really important to ask why some images didn’t turn out as well as we’d hoped, and commit the answers to these questions to memory to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Always Room for Improvement

We all have to go through this, and the cool thing is that it never really stops. It doesn’t matter how accomplished we become, there is always room for improvement. Although I am often happy with some of the photographs I come home with, I go through very natural phases when I think my work sucks. Thankfully once my emotional rollercoaster ride is over, I’m generally happy with my final selection, although I always know that as I grow, I will be able to do better.

I think this is important to drive us forwards. We have to continue to look for areas in which we can improve, and if my process of questioning myself in the field doesn’t help me to improve as I shoot, I store the insights that I gain from my image editing process in my mental database and try to implement these ideas as I continue to shoot. It would be great to be able to simply think through the next twenty years and just be amazing right now, but I believe this has to be an iterative process. We have to grow in stages, to ensure that we have a firm foundation on which to grow.


To wrap this up, I’d just like to ensure that you understand a few of the points I’m trying to make here. The most important thing is that I am not saying that we shouldn’t study. If you are using your spare time to suck up information, and simply find that enjoyable, that’s great! Indeed, if you have a strong desire to do an online course to learn something new, and the weekend is the only time you have, by all means, do it, even if it means skipping your weekend shoot. It will hopefully help you to overcomes problems that you are facing. 

What I strongly urge you to do though, is consider your motives. If you are trying to build your confidence as a photographer, please don’t give studying the theory preference over getting out with your camera and making photographs. Ultimately that is the only way you’ll get better at making photographs and solidifying the theory that you’ve learned.

I really urge you to also just check that the act of studying itself has not become the goal. There is no point in studying every aspect of photography if you prioritize this so high that you never pick up your camera and go outside to use it, or if it stifles you in the field. We can become infinitely better photographers by being deliberate in our actions and decisions as we make our photographs.

I’d even propose that we can be so much more by poring over books of photographs from artists that we respect and nurture our visual database of possibilities while honing our problem-solving skills to overcome issues that prevent us from creating the sort of work that we long to create. 

Lean On Me

One last thought is that if you have any specific areas of photography that you simply cannot grasp or would just like to know more about, feel free to mention this in the comments below or drop me a line via our contact form. Of course, I don’t know everything, but I have a good handle on lots of stuff, and I can always queue up a topic to talk about as time allows, so don’t be shy. Also, just take a moment to hit the search button at the top of the screen, and see if I haven’t already covered what you are interested in.

Show Notes

The Mental Checklist episode:

Get Breakthrough Photography Filters here:

Music by Martin Bailey


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