Thursday, February 28, 2008


Photography is full of choices, from where to go to photograph, to what equipment to buy or take with you to how you compose the image to what you do with the images afterwards.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were a less painful way to make decisions about your photography.

Some decisions are obvious and I'm not talking about those. No, I'm referring to the tricky ones that seem to have down sides to both positions, no clear winner and everything is a compromise.

First, define your goal - you might obviously say it's better pictures, but is that really right, or is it really more pictures or more convenient picutres or bigger pictures. Knowing your goal is absolutely essential to making decisions of any type and certainly in photography.

Next, some down sides are worse than others. I'm guessing that you'd be reluctant to accept any decrease in image quality - though if you look at all the dSLR owners rushing out to get G9's, you might wonder. Is the G9 being purchased as a toy, to photograph where the dSLR would not have been taken, or is it merely a convenience even though the dSLR could have been carried.

I found that I was so much more successful with a dSLR than with a view camera that convenience really didn't enter into it - it was about the number of quality images.

Sometimes there seem to be somewhat similar downsides which ever solution you choose - If I include X in the composition I get more of the good stuff, but have to accept the bad - seems like either way I'm compromising the composition. I've written in the past that all things being equal it's better to simplify and reduce than add and complicate but can we actually use logic to help us decide.

Well, adding x is really good because it adds this really cool thing to the image - it might be a lovely s bend or an extra rock of intriguing shape or that part of the pool with the tree reflecting. It might be something fascinating in the background of a portrait or a really nice line in a collar. BUT!, is it there for itself or to support what's already in the image. If you have three of something and it would be nice to have a forth but it comes with a price, then how badly do you really need four in a row? If it completes the compositional pattern then it may be worth it at just about any cost and you just have to figure out how you can minimize the collateral damage in the post processing.

Let's say the decision is about which tripod to buy. You have narrowed your choice to two decent tripods. One has four section legs which are reputed to be less stable, but the tripod reaches a greater height, the other only three section legs. The 4 will fit in your suitcase, the three won't. The four is a little heavier. How do you decide?

O.K. - what was your goal? I presume it was to get the steadiest possible pictures - why the hell else would you use a tripod? Yes, but you'd also like to use it for the most number of possible pictures - so just how often do you need that extra height. I find myself using the extra height in about one picture in a hundred, more often doing landscapes than industrial because of sloping ground and getting above branches and so on. Just how important are those images? If you already have the longer tripod you can simply look back and see how many really good images were taken successfully only because you had the longer tripod. Without one, you really don't know but at least can ask yourself just how often did I get frustrated and not get the image because of lack of height? Do you really need your tripod in your suit case or could you like me use a duffle bag with socks and shoes and stuff padding the tripod - it takes my big tripod just fine thank you. Remember the original goal though, steady camera. You could just take it as a given that three section tripods are less steady, but hey, George Barr, Michael Reichmann and a number of other known photographers use four section legs, maybe the steadiness issue isn't as obvious as I had been led to believe. No sweat, you have a question - on tripod brand A, is 4 section significantly less stable than 3 - you need to go find out - off to your friendly dealer, camera and long lens in hand, and you set them up and wiggle them about, but even better you take them outside and shoot several slow speed shots - can you actually see a difference? A difference that you can't see is no difference at all.

So, we have our defined goal, we recognise that some down sides are worse than others, and so too some advantages are more important - is the advantage something you really need? Will it in fact help you make more and better pictures? A camera that shoots 6.5 frames a second when your interest is landscapes is no advantage at all. A camera that has loser noise at ei. 800 isn't much help unless you are doing sports, concerts or low light. IS on normal length lenses/cameras that sit on tripods is at best pointless and possibly image degrading.

A camera that can fit in your pocket isn't much of an advantage if you permanently stick on a lens shade that prevents it from doing so.

Sometimes you do something in the image processing - lighten the shadows a little - and you end up not sure which print is better. Well, odds are if you can't tell, no one else will either, in which case toss a coin, or even better leave the prints out and come back to them over the next few days - usually the problem will resolve itself nicely, and if it doesn't then the difference was too small to measire, and like I said before, if a differnce can't be seen, it doesn't count.

Sometimes you have a couple of choices and neither seems overwhelminly better, fine, go with instinct, or feel. In the case of a choice of two cameras, if the difference isn't obvious, then go with the camera that feels best in your hand and with your eye. There's nothing wrong with favouring the photographer (you) if it doesn't cost in other ways.

What if you have a list of possible choices - say for example the large selection of semi gloss papers now available for inkjet printing - from Crane Museo Silver Rag on to the latest Epson Exhibition.

I find that sometimes I can simply use logic, other times I actually need a scoring system. First, are there any deal breaking features of any of the papers. I remember one Innova paper was downright gray - didn't matter what else it was good at, that was a fatal flaw. One paper had bashed corners, but that might be bad luck, or poor packaging that could change, perhaps a temoprary fatal flaw - can you be a temporary fatality?

A paper might have a nice cream base, but if it looks downright yellow under the lights you use when displaying prints then that's fatal too.

A paper might have a deeper black but more gloss differential on your printer. So can you actually see the difference in the depth of the black? Compared to matte prints they all look pretty good, maybe picking the paper with the scientifically measured deepest black really isn't all that important. If only you can see the difference and then only in controlled conditions and with side by side comparisons of unmounted prints in a brighter light than you'd normally display your images, then who cares?

I generally find that scoring systems are both unneeded and never seem to reflect my instinct, just logic, and I tend to go with my gut in the end anyway. It's near impossible to assign weights to compltely different characteristics - camera a has 2 more megapixels, camera b has in body image stabilisation - what kind of point system is really going to help you decide here? You either need the IS or you don't, you either need the extra size prints that you can make from those extra 2 MP or you don't - and how much bigger was the print it could make anyway - 10% bigger - gee that's not much, is it. I was hoping to go from 11X14 to 16X20 and it turns out the extra two MP are nothing like enough to do that for me - turns out I'd need to double the number of pixels to do that - well, so much for that feature.

Anyway, that's how I go about deciding. Perhaps thinking about my twisted logic can help you with your decision making.

Oh, and when it comes to deciding about which composition is better, shooting both ways and choosing after trumps any decision making method in the field.


Anonymous said...

You are on a roll with these last several posts!
You make several good points about the decision making process. All to often we are driven to having the latest/greatest whatever - even though there may be no descernable benefit. In the process, the goal of creating photographs is lost or at tleast misplaced for a while.
Lately, I have been using a focusing cloth inherited from my Dad. He made this back in the '50's to use with his 5x7 field camera. It's a simple black cloth probably hemmed by my mother. As I duck underneath it to view the composition in the viewfinder of my 40D, I'm concious of those around me wondering what the heck I'm doing using that with a modern DSLR. Simple - it works. I have a much better view of my composition, often "seeing" distracting elements overlooked when I first framed the image. It often makes the difference between good and great results. It might appear silly or un-necessary to many, but it results in better images for me.
I'll be the silly one...smiling all the way home, knowing I have an images that "works" and an experience that recalls my childhood days of Dad under the cloth, making pictures.

mkinsman said...

For me, spending time between opportunities to make photographs is part of the "noise" that feeds the flame of desire.
Since this is a passion and not a career, I balance my down time between improving my skills through learning and exploring my options to improve the gear I use to make photographs. Do i really need more lenses to accomplish what I desire, or not? Do I have all the filters I need to create the image I see of moving water, or wind blown trees? Can I go for longer periods of time in the field properly carrying my gear in the camera bag I have and does it fit all I need to bring with me?
It's true that it 's better to carry a camera than none at all - so will a G9 work or is it just as effective to carry a small shoulder bag with one lens and a spare battery for the DSLR?
With limited free time in todays demanding corporate world, choices are something I face daily in making enough time for my passion. An Ipod allows me to use the 2 hours a day I spend commuting listening to various podcasts related to photography. In turn I now get more "quality time" with family and still satisfy my desire to learn.