Joerg Colberg’s “Photography After Photography” Considered (Or, A Response to A Provocation)

This Photo Has Already Been Taken (?)

Joerg Colberg has two thought-provoking essays making the rounds on the web right now. The first – we’ll get to the second shortly – came out earlier this month; in “Photography After Photography (A Provocation),” Colberg argues that the medium is now “dominated by nostalgia and conservatism. Even the idea that we now need editors or curators to create meaning out of the flood of photographs ultimately is conservative, looking backwards when we could, no we should be looking forward.”

We’ve been here before. First of all, this isn’t the first time that photography has been democratized. Indeed, what we’re witnessing now is just a logical extension of a process that began with the first Kodak cameras a century ago. What has changed is not just the gear that enables the work, but also the means by which that work – potentially all of it, and pretty much all at once – is viewed and shared. In other words, there’s more of the past hanging over us than at any time before in our history, and since by definition there’s so much more past than future, it’s become that much harder for newer and more innovative work to be seen. On one hand, anyone with a broadband connection could theoretically view your work. On the other, good luck getting them to find it among the other couple billion or so photographers (and tens of billions of photographs) out there.

Furthermore, every art form has cycles of stagnation and rebirth. As Colberg notes, photography was supposed to be the death of painting ‘til painting discovered abstraction. Rock dies as regularly as the drummer in Spinal Tap, but some new thing – a pinch of punk, a dash of grunge – brings it back to life. The likes of Henry Moore and Duane Hanson similarly took sculpture to new and unexpected places.

I think that one reason that digital photography hasn’t delivered on its promise quite yet is because it’s a potentially new medium, but dressed in old clothes. But then, it doesn’t help much when we’re predicating not only our understanding of what something is, but also what it’s capable of, on old models. The amount of possibility someone can find in, and wring from, new things comes from the ability to find and exploit the differences between the new medium and the old one, rather than using them the same way they would’ve used the original. Spray paint on canvas seems almost as silly as laboriously composing a still life in oil paint on a subway car, just the same as playing a Moog like a piano (I’m looking at you, Rick Wakeman) overlooks a huge palette of textural possibilities, not to mention the difference between an Edison wax cylinder and Brian Wilson getting Pet Sounds out of his head and onto multi-track tape.

A further issue arises when it comes to subject matter. If we stop to consider abstraction, it’s clear that painters have it relatively easy, whether we’re talking about Mondrian’s playfully severe geometry, the fierce urgency of Pollack’s later work, or artists like Mills or De Kooning’s melding of abstraction with more straightforward figurative painting. A painter can invent out of whole cloth, nothing but paint and imagination. One of the intrinsic (and highly obvious) limitations of photography is that you’ve got to have something in front of the camera for it to make much sense at all. The supply of “stuff” to place there, and angles from which to photograph it, while bewildering, is finite.

Another reason that photography seems stuck is because it’s a hell of a lot easier to “fake” it in photography. Whether it’s the camera or the software used after, it’s all too easy to use a preset that replaces the usual process of trial and error. In contrast, you can’t set a guitar, paints, clay or a rack of lamb to automatic and have a reasonably acceptable result at the end of it. The short-term mastery (and let me emphasize, I’m not talking about the longer-term effort that we put into learning and perfecting the craft if we want to get it right) is much easier than it is in other media. Taking painting as an example again: if you’re not very good, you either learn what you need to learn in order to move to a point where you get better, or you realize you’re a hopeless case and you stop. With photography, it’s easier for the average person to get into a rut of careless technique because it’s easy enough to get to “good enough.” Bypassing the trial and error means that you pass up a process that leads not only to understanding, but also – vitally – to accidents. Honestly now, how often do you hear photographers, photography teachers, or books on photography – in short, the places where your average photographer gets their information – to have more, and better, accidents?

Until relatively recently (i.e., the last 200 years or so), we took for granted the idea that the work of art was a “finished” product, a finite event. In tandem with that has usually gone the assumption that the work of art was in some sense inviolable, the text or object being somehow beyond alteration. As Benjamin reminded us in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, if you’re looking at an “original” print on a museum wall or if you’re looking at a facsimile in a textbook, it’s the same piece.  The work of art has traditionally been done once and then been finished–even mechanical reproduction giving rise only to more copies of the same finished product– but this no longer needs to be the case. Rather than just our approach to a given work evolving, the work itself could also be evolving right along with us. Photography is episodic by nature, and just as we don’t expect to open the New York Times, or turn on CNN, and find the same news we did the day before, it might help to approach photography in a way that allows us sufficient ambiguity that something new reveals itself each time we view the photo.

So what happens when photography stops being finished? What happens when each thing is free to be not only what it is, but what it might be, a stepping stone to something else? This way, you have something that’s always changing, growing, evolving; something that is intuitive and responsive rather than limiting or dictating responses and consequences.

Which brings us, in typically circuitous fashion, to Colberg’s second essay, “The Digital Revolution Has Not Happened (Yet?),” wherein he states:

In the past, progress often meant something new, something that not only could not be done before, but that was also pushing the boundaries. In a nutshell, photographers often took the new tools to expand the medium.

Colberg states in his first essay that he’s not quite sure exactly how to get photography from where it is now to where it’s going, and as I think about it, I’m not entirely sure myself. I think, however, that in the problems as he states them we might at least find the seeds of a solution.

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not just the change in the capture medium that we need to take into account. The medium in which it’s viewed should also have made some differences, but hasn’t quite. Yes, some slightly more adventuresome souls print on canvas or metal, to say nothing of various art papers. When someone figures out how to combine still imaging with the technology that’s emerging in 3D printing, there arises the potential for something that hybridizes both photography and sculpture.

Similarly, taking advantage of how most people currently view photos (on an LCD or LED screen) suggests that there are possibilities for display that allow for genuine interactivity (allowing others to actively manipulate, or somehow participate in, what would otherwise have been a “final” result). What if, instead of simply tweaking and processing a picture a bit, the photograph and its delivery system itself were reacting to you simultaneous to your reactions to it?

For that matter, what if photographers were to attempt something akin to remixing? Rather than being viewed as a finished artifact, songs – not only the song that acts as the foundation for something, what we’d consider the original, but often other people’s work as well – become the raw material for something that sometimes is barely recognizable as the original. Might it not be possible to find some way of doing the same to the printed/pixelated photo? There’s precedent for this throughout artistic history (and plenty in photography, whether it’s montage, the darkroom, or Lightroom). Like a Moog, however, it might be helpful for someone to come along that takes these things out of the accepted/expected realm and into uncharted territory. In other words, we could move the photo from pride of place as an art object to something that’s altogether more elemental, namely raw material to be reassembled and recontextualized.

Those things might, admittedly, be some time off. For right now, photographers are working in well-trodden forms (street, landscape, portraiture, etc.) that may be reaching – or may already have reached – the limits of their possibilities. On the other hand, because someone hasn’t yet pushed the envelope to its limits doesn’t mean there’s no more pushing to be done. I’m not sure that we’ve exhausted the possibilities yet, and because of that I think it’s entirely possible that there are people out there doing very innovative work right now. Maybe someone, or even several someones, has been doing precisely the kind of work of which Colberg speaks, but, like Vivian Maier, doesn’t get discovered ‘til time, fashion, and innovation have all long since moved onto new things.

But if we reframe photography (pun only partly intended) – what it’s for, how it works, and what it’s capable of doing – we might move closer to something that’s always changing, growing, and evolving, that is capable of being intuitive and responsive rather than limiting or dictating possibilities. In the meantime, the rest of us will fumble along as best we can, looking for and trying new ways of seeing and new ways of creating until, by sheer stubbornness and persistence, someone somewhere arrives at something truly new.

Review: Dear Photograph, by Taylor Jones

Dear Photograph by Taylor Jones

For all the talk (including quite a bit in The First 10,000) about mindful, even artistic, images, that’s not all there is to photography. Most photographers are snapshot shooters, and even the most diehard photo fanatic — the ones who obsess over every last setting and compositional detail, nearly every time — have times when they let their hair down, figuratively speaking, and shoot spontaneously. Just because.

There’s something vaguely voyeuristic about Taylor Jones’s Dear Photograph, which began life as a blog and now finds itself between covers. The idea works in part because it’s so simple; find an old snapshot, find the place where it was shot, and “reframe” the shot within a new photo.

The resulting photo is accompanied by a short blurb from the photographer, explaining the story behind the original photo, and the feelings that go with it now. In concept, it comes off a bit “meta,” as though someone’s sending postcards to postcards. In practice, there’s a poignance that you might not necessarily expect to come from looking over someone else’s shoulder.

As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, books derived from websites are a decidedly mixed lot, but this one works in a way that the book based on, say, Awkward Family Photos doesn’t. That’s not to say that I can’t kill an entire afternoon on Awkard Family Photos (I can, and very nearly have). It’s just that once you’ve seen the photo, the joke’s over. You won’t get quite the same effect the second time around.  In the case of Dear Photograph, however, the photograph isn’t just a one-note joke or concept, and isn’t simply self-referential. We’re not just invited into someone else’s memories as if into their living rooms, in other words; we’re reminded first of the power of a photograph to preserve moments in time, then of the persistance of memory, then invited in some sense to think back on similar moments in our own lives.

This isn’t one of those photo books filled with gorgeously-exposed, perfectly composed shots calculated to give you goosebumps because of their sheer, improbable perfection. The goosebumps here come for another reason altogether. These photos are all too probable; they’re ordinary, and lived-in. And that’s fine, ’cause life’s full of “just because” moments, those times when someone does something silly, memorable, even poignant, and it’s up to the person on the other side of the camera to just put all the technicality to one side for a bit and get the darn photo. The power in a photo like that comes precisely from its spontaneity and imperfection. They’re moments captured one at a time from lives not as we wish them to be, but as we actually lived them, with all the complication and emotion and imperfection intact. There’s a palpable warmth to Dear Photograph, not despite those rough edges, but because of them.

You can purchase Dear Photograph through this Amazon affilite link to help support The First 10,000. You can — well, really, you should — also visit Dear Photograph on the web here:


Today marks a year since The First 10,000 first went live. That’s 200-odd posts, several thousand visitors, and God only knows how many hours spent behind the camera and the keyboard. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say some “thank yous” to those of you who’ve gotten the site to this point.

Usually everybody leaves wives for last, which baffles me. Mine puts up with quite a bit, not least of which is the tapping away on the keyboard into the wee small hours of the morning; nor should I neglect to mention my incessant enthusiasm for finding some new (and invariably buggy) place to get just… one… more… shot. Thanks, sweetie!

Thanks to anybody who’s taken the time to show me something that’s improved my craft – written or photographic. Sometimes it’s family (hi, Mom!),  friends, or other photographers (thanks especially to Steve Coleman and Sabrina Henry for the words of encouragement), but just as often it’s been complete strangers who were willing to share something of what they knew (James Cooper, if you ever read this, thanks for the impromptu tutorial in Hoboken; I owe you a beer).

Thanks are also due the photographers who’ve allowed their images to be used here. Big ups to Christian Cantrell, Colleen Fletcher, Brian McCarty, Chris McVeigh, Ken Storch, and Miguel Yatco. Tremendous thanks also to Michael Wilson, who subjected himself to the first interview to be featured in these “pages.” Stop by their sites and show ‘em some love!

Special thanks to Phil Yurchuk, for friendship and invaluable advice (technical and otherwise), to say nothing of bailing my ass out every time the blog or server hiccups.

Finally, to everyone who reads the blog and/or follows The First 10,000 on Facebook and Twitter, thanks again (and again). Without y’all, I’d just be some guy snapping and scribbling into the void, which wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Thanks to everyone who’s stopped by, contributed to the discussion, and/or given me something to think about. Doing this has helped my understanding of my craft, and hopefully has helped you in some small way as well.

Here’s to the next year!

Optical vs. Digital Zoom: What it Is, Why it Matters

I was recently in a big box electronics store and was wandering through the camera department when I overheard the following rather dismaying exchange:

CUSTOMER: This one’s got optical zoom, and this one has digital. What’s the difference?
EMPLOYEE: There is no difference. They’re the same thing.

I’m going to give this employee the benefit of the doubt and say that he wasn’t doing what I’ve seen, and been on the receiving end of, so often at chain stores: salespeople who’ll tell the customer anything, as long as it results in a purchase at the end of the conversation. No, we’re going to assume that this guy honestly didn’t know there’s a big difference between optical and digital zoom, or what that difference is. After this, you’ll know the difference, and won’t get snookered.

First off, let’s see what optical zoom is. The “optics” in question come from the lens on your camera, whether it’s the fixed lens on a compact, or the interchangeable lenses on an SLR. The movement of the optical elements (a fancy-ish term for the bits of ground glass that make up the lens) is what allows the lens to focus, and to zoom. Doing either of those things just involves finagling the right combination of movements of those different pieces. Some lenses can have a dozen or more elements, usually arranged in groups; how they’re arranged will affect not only your zoom and focus, but also sharpness and focal distance.

Now that we’ve covered optical zoom, how does digital zoom work? Well, you’ve still got lens elements to handle focus, but they’re being used only for that. The zoom function has nothing to do with the lens. Instead, you essentially have a prime lens on your camera, and the camera’s image processor is taking that image (let’s say it’s effectively 50mm) and cropping it in camera, making it look closer, as if it was shot by a longer lens. This is the same thing that a photo editor like Photoshop or GIMP is doing when you crop an image. The quality of the crop will depend on how much you’re cropping, and on the quality of the resizing algorithm the camera is using, which generally won’t be up to par with even a decent dedicated editing program

The difference between the two should be pretty clear at this point, but in case it’s not: The advantage of digital zoom is sometimes a design consideration (it’s difficult, though not impossible, to squeeze optical zoom into a camera phone), and just as often a cost consideration (precision ground glass, coupled with precision engineering, isn’t cheap). The advantage of optical zoom is that despite the added expense, you don’t have to trade optical quality for the added “reach.” If you’ve already got your camera, and it offers only digital zoom,* my advice would be not to use it. Take the picture at the camera’s native resolution and default focal length, transfer it to a computer, and crop it then. You’re still starting with the same initial photo that the camera would be before it “zoomed,” but you’ll be using better software to crop, and should get a better result because of it.

*Or if, like many compacts, it offers optical up to a certain point, and then switches to digital past that

Rule 41: Walk More


This is probably neither the first advice you’d expect to hear after several days worth of 90-plus degree weather — nor, under those circumstances, is it likely to be the first advice you want to hear. But it’s already said, and I can’t take it back now, so we’d might as well both make the best of it. When the weather’s bad — rain, snow, intense heat, freezing cold, plague of locusts — it can be very tempting to say the heck with shooting on any given day. On those rare occasions that we do brave the elements, it’s usually by hopping a train, bus, or car so that we can at least get to our shooting destination in some semblance of comfort. That’s all well and good (and it’s also better to shoot than not to shoot). However, I’d suggest dressing yourself and your camera for the weather, and setting out on foot more often.

There are a few reasons for this, not least of which is that it’s challenging to shoot from a moving vehicle. There are ways around this, same as with nearly every other photographic dilemma, and I’ll be covering those in a future post. Suffice to say for now that when you’re traveling in a vehicle, it’s often as not a matter of dumb luck trying to get a decent shot.

Leaving that aside, there’s also the issue of finding, and really seeing, your subject matter when it’s hurtling past your window at 65 miles per hour. Sometimes, in fact, it’s as though someone “up there” has deliberately decided to screw with us, putting all sorts of tantalizing things in front of us (all the more so if the photographer’s the one doing the driving). You will see strange, wondrous, and seemingly impossible things just as soon as there’s nowhere to safely pull over and get the shot.

Then there’s simple fitness. Photography’s not the Ironman Triathalon, but unless you shoot exclusively with a camera phone or a compact, the gear tends not to be very light. If you’re not in shape, carrying that stuff around all day can leave you a bit winded. Getting in better shape means having (but not necessarily taking) the option to have more gear with you, and also means having more endurance on a long day’s shooting.

More than anything else, however, the reason I suggest walking more is to reinforce something I come back to time and again in The First 10,000: the simple act of slowing down. Look, life is fast-paced enough the rest of the time. At some point in our day, or at least our week (and I don’t suggest longer intervals than that), we really do need to take the time to consciously slow the ebb and flow of life to something more manageable, more human. It’s hard to tell your eyes, or your mind, to slow down when the rest of you is traveling at or above the speed limit. Sometimes taking all the steps necessary for a good photo really does mean… well, taking steps. Photographing one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.

At the risk of sounding vaguely new agey, a good walk lets you harmonize your eyes, mind, and body, getting them all on the same page, and the same pace. I’ve mentioned before that we need to photograph with more than just our eyesight. Slowing down certainly helps the act of seeing, but it also expands our perception. You photograph differently when you can feel what’s under your feet, whether it’s an uneven gravel path or the gentle settling of your shoes into the soil; you photograph differently when you’re reading the light just as much by the warmth on your skin as by your meter; you photograph directly when your soul is as much in the moment as your body, when it’s moving with you at a pace not dictated by a clock, but measured out by the rhythm of your own heartbeat when it’s quickened by the sights in front of you.

MTV and Photography

MTV Logo (from

I get to thinking about MTV every so often, and then I try to stop because it makes me sad. I’m old enough to remember when the channel first went on the air in the early 1980’s, and the absolute mess they made of the television dial in those early days. Production values were rough around the edges even for the time, the programming was an eclectic mess (you were as likely to see the Charlie Daniels Band or King Crimson as Modern English), and everything about the channel gave the impression of something being made up as everyone went along.

Over time, things changed. While I miss those freewheeling early days, I realize looking back that the creeping change from a DIY ethic to the slick, corporate, non-music playing behemoth that the channel has become was probably inevitable, mirroring the death of free form radio at around the same time. But there’s another lesson to be drawn from the whole debacle that MTV has become, and it’s one that artists of nearly any stripe can learn from.

To quote a song that was big in ’83 or thereabouts, “Money changes everything.” It doesn’t have to, of course, but it tends to do just that. If you stop to think about the early look (and, for that matter, the early playlist) of MTV, you start to realize that it was cobbled together from whatever was available and affordable at the time. A mix, in other words, of improvisation and desperation. As the money started to roll in — reflected both in the channel’s slicker production values, and also by the attention (not to mention cash) paid by bands and record industry types — much of that improvisational spirit started to wane. Innovation, such as there was, fell by the wayside, to be replaced by programming that had the look and sound of that one person at every party who talks and laughs just a little too loud to let you know they’re edgy, or having so much fun.

What’s that mean to the rest of us?

When we start out in our craft, most of us (there are, of course, always exceptions) are broke, relatively speaking. We can’t afford all the best stuff. We don’t have the same tools, or knowledge, or sense of history, that the heavy hitters in our little niche have. Some people piss and moan and flame out, but others look at what they’ve got and decide that one way or another, they’re making this thing work. They improvise. They break rules they don’t even know they’re breaking, then invent new ones on the way to learning the old ones.

I don’t subscribe to the O’Jays school of thought on money… it’s not the root of all evil. At the end of the day, it’s a means to an end; in other words, like anything else in your kit, it’s a tool, and whether it’s a good or bad thing depends on how you use it, or misuse it. Some of this gets back to the idea that if we just had a bit more (x many more lenses, x many more dollars), it’d all be better. We’d be better. We’d have more tools, more time at our disposal, and we could finally get around to that project we’ve always wanted to do, whether it’s street photography in Melbourne or photographing polar bears on the ice floes.

The thing is, just the same as the gear doesn’t make us better photographers, the money doesn’t either. Your net worth and your artistic or human worth are not one and the same. I’m not suggesting that we should all subscribe to the myth of the “Starving Artist,” since artists who consciously decide to suffer for their art for the sake of some kind of misguided “purity” generally want us to suffer right along with them. But we ought not to mistake the means for the end, or think that there’s a single magic bullet that’s going to get us where we want to be.

You have resources now. Use them. Use the gear you’ve got, granted, but also don’t forget to use the time you’ve got in the best way you can. Don’t wait for a set of conditions to be met in order to do what you want. Wing it. Can’t get the polar bears in their natural habitat? Head for the zoo (just don’t pass those photos off as something they’re not). Can’t make it to Melbourne or Mumbai? Unless you’re living in a ghost town, there’s things going on and people living their lives just steps from your door. Improvise! And later on (or right now, if that’s where you are as you read this) when you have the resources to burn on anything you’d like, and can shoot whenever and however you’d like, remember where you came from. Revisit it from time to time.

Don’t let what you’re doing now — the creativity you’re bringing to bear on your craft, whether it’s born of desire or necessity or some combination of both — be overtaken by the desire to shoot, or to be, something else. Shoot as though you have nothing but this camera, this shot, this now to get it right (or interestingly wrong). Shoot as though nothing but the photo matters. And, perhaps most important, shoot each time as though the only payoff you’re going to get is the love of the process.

The Ultimate Photographer’s Guide to Buying Anything and Everything

If I Had a Million Dollars…

This is, if we may be so immodest, the only buyer’s guide you will ever need for anything photographic, ever. Well, alright. We’re kidding. Maybe. In all seriousness, though, whatever you’re buying, the dozen questions below will help you to make a better decision.

1. What do I want to buy? If it’s something that fills a need, continue down the rest of the list. If, on the other hand, you’ve got a grand or three burning a hole in your pocket and just want a new gadget, wait on it.

2. Are there aftermarket versions of this item (hereinafter referred to as “thing”), and are they any good? Branded stuff is generally going to be of higher quality, but there are aftermarket versions that can be every bit as good. If it’s something you need (or just want) badly enough, you may decide that you’re willing to make some tradeoffs to save a few bucks. Bear in mind, however, that a savings isn’t much of a savings if you change your mind and need to upgrade later. Buying right the first time means a short-term hit to the wallet, but can also mean a savings (somewhat paradoxically) down the road. For just one example of what I’m talking about, check out this post by Thom Hogan. There’s also my own take on buying OEM versus aftermarket.

3. Is there a substitute for “thing”? From time to time, I get it in my head that I’d like a fisheye lens, and then I remind myself that I can get the same effect in Photoshop; the fact that I’ve never actually bothered to convert any of my images to look like they came from a fisheye probably reinforces the wisdom of passing up the lens in the first place. If, on the other hand, you find yourself spending countless hours of postproduction time doing that very thing, it might be worth your while to just get the right tool for the job. This is also true of other low-budget fixes (i.e. closeup filters in place of macro lenses).

4. Are there other things I need to buy to go with “thing”? Photography is a lot like shaving. Just the same as Gillette will sell you a razor for around ten bucks and then charge you $75 bucks a pop for blades (I know, I’m exaggerating… but not that much), many photography-related purchases rely on other “stuff” to put them to best use. If the filter size on that new lens isn’t the same as your others, you may need a new polarizing filter; if you’re buying a new tripod, you may want an extra quick release plate; if you’re buying an SLR, you’ll need memory, batteries, and other doodads. Buying a printer? You’ll need something to calibrate your monitor (and a new monitor if the one you’ve got can’t be calibrated). Make sure you take those costs into account.

5. Does “thing” have recurring costs associated with it? You’ve decided to spring for a new printer for your photos since you’re sick of taking them to the drugstore to be printed. Congratulations! You can now pony up for paper and toner cartridges for the life of the printer. Decided that digital is passe and you’ll shoot film now? Well, that film adds up, to say nothing of developing costs (and/or the cost of chemicals and paper if you’re going to roll develop your own).

6. What is the cost of “thing”, and is that money better spent elsewhere? Let’s be honest. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. Would I like a Leica M9 with one of those lovely Summicron lenses? You bet your ass I would. I’m also mindful of the fact that I could have about five more of everything in my current kit for that much money. The same logic applies to other, lower-priced gear as well. Comparing apples to apples, I know that there are tradeoffs between my 70-300mm and a fast 70-200mm, but I also know that if I’d bought the 70-200, it would’ve been the last of pretty much anything I’d bought for a very long time. Be practical, and understand that it doesn’t have to be the best (or most expensive) thing out there to be the best tool for right now.

7. What is the learning curve for “thing”, and is that time better spent elsewhere? Some equipment is pretty straightforward. A battery’s either charged or isn’t, and a memory card or camera bag’s either got space on/in it or hasn’t. But most of what you buy is going to require you to learn something about it if you want to get the most out of it. Lenses, software, camera bodies, hell, even tripods have a learning curve associated with them. The time spent mastering them can enrich your photography, but it can also frustrate the crap out of you if you decide you didn’t need the thing after all.

8. How often/for how long will I use “thing”? You’ve convinced yourself that you’ve missed one bird shot too many, and you now want a 500mm lens. After 625 trips to car shows and not a single one to an aviary, the last winged creature you saw was the hood ornament on a Thunderbird. How’s that lens looking now? Sometimes missing a certain kind of shot makes us want a certain kind of gear to remedy the problem, but if we don’t find ourselves in the kinds of situations that lead to those kinds of shots in the first place, it’s useful to reconsider.

9. Can I rent or borrow “thing”, and is that a good idea? Renting or borrowing (or, in the case of software, downloading a trial version) can be a great way to kick the tires before you buy, or to avoid buying altogether if you can’t foresee the next time you’ll need the thingy in question. Be careful, though; rentals don’t come cheap, and if you’re renting something often enough, the accumulated rental cost can rapidly add up to what it would’ve cost if you’d just purchased the darn thing, as Zack Arias points out in this post.

10. Might “thing” pay for itself (and if so, how soon)? Even if you’re not a professional photographer, there’s still a chance that the situations in which you use your camera might defray its cost (and if you’re a pro… well, duh). If the “thing” has the ability to earn its keep (here I’m thinking of product photography, real estate photography, and other circumstances in which someone who doesn’t consider themselves a photographer still needs to take pictures of something), that’s worth bearing in mind.

11. Do a lot of people use “thing”, and where can I find out what they have to say? Let’s say that you’ve considered all of the above, and darnit, you’ve just gotta have it. Narrow it down to two to three options; even if you’re dead set on one brand, make, and model, you don’t want buyer’s remorse later because you didn’t do your homework. Now, check out reviews from several sites, but don’t stop there. Get to your local camera shop and try out the different options. Sometimes the reviews (good or bad) are right, sometimes not. Your results may vary one way or the other, and you don’t want to find out the hard way.

12. Will “thing” make me a better photographer? The answer is a qualified “Of course not.” Good gear won’t save a bad photographer’s ass, and a good photographer will find ways to make even bad gear work for them; it’s your vision that drives the photo. With that said, having the right gear  can sometimes make it much easier to translate your vision to a photo.* Just don’t mistake the gear for the vision, OK?

*Next time someone tells you gear absolutely doesn’t matter — and some people will, despite any evidence to the contrary — tell them to get a detailed shot of the surface of the moon with a disposable film camera.

What’s Your Photography For?

Sometimes, in photography as in life, the questions are just as important as the answers. So, with that in mind, think this one over for a second: What is your photography for?

I don’t necessarily mean that in the sense of “What kind of photographer are you?“, though I think that’s also a useful question to ask. We can think of this in terms of utility, obviously. That is to say, we can ask to what use our photos will be put (would we like to see them on our own walls, or in a museum, or on the glossy pages of a magazine?). There’s a tradition of this in craft, from the earliest human history to the Bauhaus* and beyond. And that, too, is valid.

But there’s another, equally important, sense in which we need to ask the “What’s it for?” question. That is: What is my work for? What does it affirm? It’s a point of pride among some photographers to let you know that there are certain lines they won’t cross. They’ll only shoot film, or only with prime lenses, or only portraiture, but only in the style of a certain photographer or school thereof. They’re very quick, in other words, to tell you what their photography negates, ignores, or works against. Each photographer becomes his or her own Groucho Marx.**

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with not wanting to shoot certain ways, or to sidestep certain trends. Our “look,” such as it is, comes from a complex set of variables that come into play each time we frame the shot, and the things we choose not to do each time are hardly the least of those considerations. We cannot, and should not, stop there, however.

It’s all well and good to oppose something, but that fades after a while or becomes a pose of sorts. On the other hand, if your work is an extension or expression of your values, both photographer and viewer can sense, I think, that the photo is grounded in something. Our purpose in our craft, as with our lives, changes with time and experience, so I don’t think there’s a single purpose, or a one-size-fits-all definitive answer. Instead, it’s something we need to revisit from time to time.

Photograph with a sense of purpose. It doesn’t even have to be the same purpose each and every time, but there should be something there. Doing that, and thinking it over every now and again, is more difficult than nihilism (at least in the short term), but questioning your motivation, even if it’s as simple as being a better photographer today than you were yesterday, gives you a touchstone when your inspiration flags or life throws you a curveball, and can also help your work to express depth and sincerity.

That’s my two cents’ worth (adjusted for inflation). What do you think?

*Walter Gropius et al., not Peter Murphy et al.

** “No matter what it is or who commenced it/I’m against it.” (Horse Feathers)

Take Sharper Photos!

Want to avoid photos like this? You’ve come to the right place.

I’m a sucker for sharpness. Not so much sharp objects (oh, the stories I could tell…), but sharp images. Not all types of photography call for razor-sharp images — we don’t need to see grandpa’s nose hairs in high-def — but often as not, if you’re shooting anything from architecture to zebras, you want a tack-sharp image. Our eyes, after all, resolve quite a bit of detail. We don’t even realize how much detail ’til we look at a photo of something we’d seen earlier with the naked eye and realize it’s a bit soft. What follows are a baker’s dozen tips for getting sharper images.

1. Focus properly. If you haven’t done this, it doesn’t matter how many of the subsequent steps you get right. Whether you’re using auto or manual focus, figure out what your camera’s going to be using for a focal point. Some cameras will default to a center point for both focus and metering, while others will either allow you to select a focal point, or will choose one for you depending on the focus mode you’re using (AF-S, AF-C, MF, etc.). If you’re not sure which your camera’s using, or how it uses them, consult your manual.

2. Compose properly. Related to the point above, depending on what and/or how much needs to be in focus, you may need to tweak your composition to keep the right bits in focus. If you’re shooting wide open on an f/1.8 or f/2.8 lens and your subject’s not facing you full-front, you may find that one eye’s in focus and the other’s not, for instance. This might mean re-framing the shot.

3. Support your lens properly. Your best bet is to use a dedicated support, like a tripod (your best bet) or a monopod (not as good as a tripod, but not chopped liver, either). When that kind of support isn’t allowed (in a museum, for instance), isn’t practical (you’re on a long hike and even a few extra ounces would be too much), or just isn’t available (you left your tripod at home, you scallywag), then proper handholding technique is a must. There’s a great tutorial at If you’re sans support, use anything else that’s close at hand; brace yourself or your camera against a building, branch, table, rock, friend, or whatever else you’ve got handy.

4. Use a fast shutter speed. As a rule of thumb, I try not to go below 1/125 if I’m “holding”. However, on a full-frame camera, your shutter speed should be, at a minimum, the same as the focal length you’re using, while on a crop-sensor camera, it should be the same as the effective focal length. In the former instance, that means if your lens is at 200mm, you should be shooting at 1/200; in the latter instance, 200mm on a crop sensor is 300mm, so shoot at 1/300.*

5. Use good gear. I know, I know. Gear doesn’t matterexcept when it does. Not all cameras and lenses are created equal. Some lenses just aren’t sharp. Buy the best you can afford, comparing lenses, and checking for sample variations.** Similarly, if you’re going to use filters, don’t cheap out. Yes, good filters (UV, polarizer, ND, or even effects filters) can go for upward of a hundred bucks or more… but if you buy a cheap filter that vignettes at the wide end, flares badly, or softens your images (and filters can do all those things, and then some), you’ve hobbled your lens.

6. Know your gear. Lenses generally perform best between f/8-f/16. Some will allow for up to a stop in either direction, but they won’t be at their sharpest from corner to corner (you’ll lose sharpness in the corners first). You already know, hopefully, that shooting wide open tends to severely limit your depth of field, but there’s a tradeoff if you stop all the way down, too: while you’ll theoretically get more depth of field, you’ll also lose sharpness, and gain lens diffraction.***

7. Use a light touch, especially when shooting handheld. Don’t “jerk” the shutter button or mash it down, since that introduces a bit of blur into the picture.

8. Use Low ISO. Higher ISO’s introduce noise and loss of detail. Use of noise reduction, either in-camera or in post, can remedy the noise problem, but in nearly every instance, also leads to further loss of detail and sharpness. Use the lowest ISO you can get away with while keeping your other settings (shutter and aperture) within reasonable limits for the way you’re shooting, and also bear in mind that what counts for “high” ISO and noise will depend both on your camera and on your personal preferences.

9. Relax. Ragged breathing, shaking, and nervousness can all blur your images. If you need to, take the time to clear your head, catch your breath, and relax.

10. Shooting at a slow shutter speed? Use your camera’s burst feature. I prefer to get the shot as close to correct as I can on the first try. With that said, I’ve found that if I’m shooting under less-than-ideal conditions (in the wind, or at a slightly lower shutter speed), it helps to fire off a short burst. One of those three should be a useable shot.

11. Does your camera or lens have image stabilization? Use it. Shooting unsupported in low light with a slow lens? Consider using flash if it’ll salvage your aperture and shutter speed.

12. If you’re using a camera that doesn’t allow much manual control, like a camera phone or a compact, don’t despair. Familiarize yourself with its modes and options; most will have image stabilization or ISO boost features, and several companies manufacture supports small enough to fit in a pocket or purse that can be used on the ground or on tabletops. Using a support in conjunction with your camera’s timer feature (and nearly every camera has one) can be a huge help.

13. Failing all the above, sharpen in post. Just bear in mind that sharpening (known in some programs as an unsharp mask) is meant to take what’s soft and enhance it, not to rescue a photo that wasn’t in focus to start with. It also helps to bear in mind that over-sharpening can add noise and other artifacts that will detract from the photo rather than making it look better.

Finally, remember that not every photo needs to be tack-sharp throughout. That doesn’t mean that you should pass off all of your sloppiest work as “art,” but if your instincts tell you that the subject is compelling and the composition is dynamic, a bit of imperfection can actually be just the thing to humanize the photo, as with the example at left.

*Compacts make an utter mess of this, since you can’t always tell what the crop factor is. If your camera doesn’t have any way of telling you, use your best guess. There’s an article here that’s good if you’re trying to make sense of the whole full frame versus cropped thing.

**Sample variation: In theory, two of the same lens from the same manufacturer should perform the same way. In practice, they don’t always. You want to check autofocus speed (if the lens autofocuses), focus accuracy, and sharpness at several focal lengths and apertures. This goes much faster with a prime (there’s only one focal length to test) than with a zoom, but it’s a good idea to check. Sometimes there’ll be significant differences between lenses; sometimes they all perform equally well (or badly). At least you’ll have found out before you get it home.

***Lens diffraction: In brief, here’s what happens: past a certain point (usually around f/22 and above), your aperture blades diffract (scatter) light because you’re trying to squeeze it through a smaller opening. This can be used to interesting effect (you can get a “starburst” look from bright light sources), but you’ll be sacrificing sharpness to get it.

Rule 40: There Is No Shot Clock

Leonard Furniture Company

Even if you’re only casually acquainted with sports (which in my case is being entirely too charitable), you’re probably familiar with the shot clock. Once the ball’s in play, someone on the court/field/pitch has only a set amount of time in which to do something with it. In basketball, for instance, this is probably a good thing, since it helps to keep things moving. In photography? Not so much.

The problem is, I find myself shooting from time to time as though the clock is ticking. You’d swear there was a referee standing over my shoulder with a stopwatch, and that I’d be somehow penalized if I didn’t get a certain number of shots within an allotted time. I don’t always shoot like this, but I’d be lying if I said I never did… and I’m sure that you do, or have, as well.

Mind you, I’m not trying to discount the times that the tick of the clock can be heard very loudly over what you’re doing. Maybe you’re trying to wring the most out of the golden hours; maybe the model’s only available for fifteen minutes, or the client needs the shots in thirty; there might be storm clouds on the horizon and the car’s a twenty-minute walk away; maybe you know that toddler or pregnant mom you’re shooting is going to have to make a beeline to the bathroom any minute now. In each case, then yes, you’re going to have to work quickly.

In either case, however — whether you’re under time constraints, or you could get yourself good and lost and it wouldn’t matter to anyone but you — it can be both frustrating to you as a photographer, and also end up hobbling your end results, if you’re shooting as though your hair’s on fire.  Be mindful. And if you’re in a rush, be twice as mindful, since you won’t have time to re-stage or re-shoot because you’ve done something silly and utterly avoidable.

Here’s the bottom line: whether you’re shooting for someone else, or for nobody but yourself, the “client” (your art director, your editor, yourself) isn’t going to care about the sheer volume of stuff you dump on the desk or the drive at day’s end. If you’re shooting for someone else they’re just going to want to see your best work. But guess what? If you’re shooting for yourself, you don’t want to see your worst work either. That’s just frustrating, especially when you’ve done better, know you can do better, but haven’t done it through nobody’s fault but your own. Slow down and take your time. You don’t have to punch the clock, and you won’t be penalized if you take your time in taking the shot. If you can find your “zone,” you’ll find that you had more time than you thought anyway.