Monday, January 06, 2014

Photographers, Amateur Photographers and Funtime Shooters

Okay, you know this, I actually love photography. It's true, I'm a bit of a photography geek. And because I am perhaps overly passionate about the art, Anya has now forbidden me to talk about photography - and I do occasionally notice that those of you who are too polite to tell me to shut up do sometimes have a tendency to glaze over when I start to rabbit on.

So it appears I am one of those new converts turned zealot. An enthusiast. But I didn't really start this properly until I bought my Sony NEX5n with a couple of expensive lenses when out for a walk in Cardiff in January of 2012.

So, in case you didn't know it, I am now an amateur photographer. 

Before this revelation happened to me though I liked to take good pictures. I had a bunch of different cameras over the years. My previous was a Canon G11 (it's an amateur photographer's kind of camera). Despite this though, I was still really kidding myself. I never took the camera out of program mode. I was not an amateur photographer. I was simply a Person Who Likes to Take Photos... My catchy name for this new breed of person is a "Funtime Shooter". Perhaps I just totally made that up!

But this day in Cardiff changed all that. I now love photography. I shoot RAW and manual. It's a hobby... a new one... and I feel really passionate about it.

The strange thing is though that I keep bumping into people who think they are amateur photographers too. They aren't. They are Funtime Shooters. Obviously I am allowing myself to be opinionated to summarise thus but, let me tell you, the difference is easy to spot. Amateur photographers (APs) know about the art form - they understand exposure. You don't have to be geeky to be an AP (but it helps!) you don't have to be arty (again it helps) but you do need to know about what you are using and doing. 

A Funtime Shooter simply shoots in program mode, or on their phone camera etc and likes to share their results. There's actually nothing wrong with this behaviour - But it's NOT amateur photography. 

One of the reasons I wrote this blog is because I now see millions of Funtime Shooters everywhere - they are just bursting out of Facebook, Instagram... go to a rock concert and what do you see? People filming and photographing the guy on stage almost habitually. It's an epidemic.

And a lot of these people are using pretty decent cameras nowadays - and fanatically using them every day.... a pretty new phenomenon. Before phones were fitted with cameras, and especially before digital photography, a typical family would have one, maybe two cameras, and they would live in a drawer in the house.... coming out only for holidays and Christmas etc.

People like this know next to nothing about photography and also... this is an important bit... they don't care either! - So long as the iPhone can grab the image and Instagram can put a filter on it, then this is really all that matters to these people. I don't judge them. Why would I? These people love photographs, they take photographs, some of the pictures are really great and some of the cameras are very good but these people are just NOT photographers.

Maybe you are considering upping your game. Perhaps you'd like to be an AP. I would certainly encourage this since the hobby is there for the taking. But it isn't for everyone. There's no shame in being a Funtime Shooter - but you just need to know that, if you are, most of the pictures you take could certainly be better and therefore the enjoyment from looking at them afterwards could easily be doubled or trebled with very little effort. If the idea of this leaves you cold..... the mention of the word "effort"..... then just keep doing what you're doing. Be a Funtime Shooter - and be proud.

I am an amateur photographer. I have immersed myself into the art form. I buy magazines about cameras and I read photography blogs. I care about EVERYTHING - and because of this, I thought I would now tell you everything. 

So, though you didn't ask for it, here's the art to photography in Spike's 10 point nutshell summary.

1. spend as much money as you can on the right camera for you.

Expensive cameras take better pictures than cheap ones. But you have to do your research. Some cameras will suit you and your style better than others and you can get this quite painfully wrong. 

For example, I have seen a lot of people invest in a DSLR camera because they wanted to upgrade from point n shoot and, as a result, they leave their camera indoors because they can't be bothered carrying a lumpy box around. So that's a fail right there. I won't write any more about which camera you should buy here though because this part of the subject just goes on forever. And it changes all the time. 

I have been in the market for a new camera for about one and half years, while I wait to find the money. During this time I have changed my mind quite drastically several times over what I actually want.... nay NEED!

In case you're interested I went from Nikon D7000 then D7100 and then D800E then back down to the D7100 and just last week, I am now considering throwing this Nikon fantasy away and getting the new Sony A7...... I wanted the A7R - but, then I went back to the A7. A few days ago, whilst brushing my teeth, I suddenly went back to the D7000... and so on. All this virtual shopping is exciting and maddening. I can no longer be sure what I might do should I ever get the funds required. But my emotional decisions are based on the full range of features and services that each camera offers. It's a HUGE arena. I could probably advise you quite accurately if you wanted to speak to me about it - at least this year (2014) anyway. Once a couple of months pass, and you don't keep abreast of the changes in available hardware, you quickly lose touch. (*Updated note: I just bought the Nikon D7100)

The main two reasons I have become so adept in this area are 1). I'm a fanatic (as previously mentioned) but 2). My financial constraints have caused a very lengthy R&D period. I have estimated I should be spending £1600-£2500 on the camera body for my next acquisition. Then about twice that for a standard accompanying lens collection. It's not a cheap hobby! Obviously you can enjoy amateur photography within tighter financial constraints than this.... but I think you get my point. To summarise, do a ton of proper research and spend a wad of cash!

2. Go to the places where you can take good pictures. 

It's a little obvious this one, but actually it's surprising how many people get this wrong. People are different. Some love portraits, some like architecture, some go for landscapes, and others prefer macro work. You need to go where the photos move you. I love portrait work and I love reportage work, I think people are the most interesting things to shoot. I'm really not THAT interested in photographing sunsets. If you don't go to the places where there is stuff happening that you like to shoot - then you won't have any good pictures. It sounds ridiculous, but some people don't work this out. And you know what else? - Why not actually carry your camera around with you? I try to take mine everywhere. If you're failing in this area then you are not a photographer. You're a Funtime Shooter. Like I said before, just keep doing what you're doing - why are you even reading this? iPhone cameras are really good nowadays. Just do that.

3. Be passionate about your work. 

If you are half hearted, then you are only really a Funtime Shooter even if you've got the right kit. I met a professional, or semi-professional photographer at a night club recently. He was a little geeky. He had a great camera with some cool accessories. He was doing portrait shots inside the club, and I considered the equipment he had brought with him was totally suited for the task. 

He was interested in photography. He was able geek out with me at the bar for a while and it was clear that he knew his techie stuff. He then went round photographing people. But he didn't work with the people to get good results and he wasn't into doing fly on the wall reportage either. He didn't have a passion that extended beyond his previously mentioned qualities. He took one photo of each group of people, then I never saw him shoot anything else for the rest of the night. After the event, the images he took appeared nowhere. As far as I know, even the guy who hired him never got to see the end results. If this had been me, I would have taken 20 or so shots of each and every person in the room, with tons of burst shots for variety, safety and to invite some luck.

For an evening's commission like that with 120 people or so present, I would have easily had 350 -1000 shots - all taken RAW, all individually sifted, graded then uploaded. I would have made sure that everyone could access them too. They would all be filed and backed up. That's how a passionate photographer rolls! This guy had the knowledge, he had the kit, he even charges for his services - but deep down, he's really a Funtime Shooter.... Okay, I'll admit he must surely be a photographer if he normally charges for his services - but you get my drift, I wasn't impressed.

Passion in your work. When you have it - it kind of sticks out. If you love photography then here's an idea.... why not show it?!

4. Learn your camera. 

Learn everything it does. Read the manual... You can agree to leave bits of it alone when you know where it is and roughly what it does. There are always menus and functions you won't need, but at least work out what they are supposed to do. Some cameras have really deep and bonkers menus by the way!  - But put your camera on a tripod and shoot the same picture over and over again changing the settings incrementally and then check back the results monitoring the exposure levels and the depth of field quirks of each lens you own. Take hundreds of photos and, when you review a bad one, take a note of what settings you used and then recreate the shot again with altered parameters to see the differences. Try really hard to stop shooting in auto and program modes. I often shoot fully manual and I have customised all my buttons and menus so that I can make really fast changes as I shoot. Where possible, when in the field, fire off a number of shots at different over and under exposed settings so that you can see what works best when you get home. Get a huge memory card. If you're shooting people, like I do most of the time, don't be scared to take hundreds of shots in an hour. Get really quick at filtering the shots when you get home. Get a fast computer and learn your keyboard shortcuts to speed through this process. Use Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. These apps can be expensive, but essential for workflow. It helps to learn about 10-15% of Adobe Photoshop (or a couple of other good image editing apps) on top of this. I watched... and still watch, loads of YouTube tutorials for all of this - which leads me on to the next point....

5. Learn new stuff - get better!

Read about what people do and check out other people's photos. It's a hobby with an arc. It never stops. Enjoy this.

6. Take things personally - and, at the same time, do the opposite! - 

Allow me to explain this one.... When you take a shot you are proud of, show it to people. Be proud of your work and ask people's opinions. Especially people you trust to be congruent. Anya is very honest with me. I often get warts and all appraisals from my wife! - 

You are emotionally connected to your work. You're an artist. It's impossible to be disconnected from your heart in your work. But here's the next bit. Don't let your pride or your hurts cover up realities and don't take it too seriously. 

Be prepared to be bad. If you are insecure (like far too many photographers I've met) you might be in denial and too protective of your work to be objective. Be prepared to present what you think is a good picture and actually have someone rubbish it. 

Be ready to re-evaluate when people don't like your shot. Don't look at it for a few days, then come back to it later - you will notice that your time away allows you to re-consider. Don't be discouraged - your own standards should be going up. Pictures you took last year, that you really liked.... look at them again now..... are you still as impressed or have you moved on a little? 

Never forget that, especially when shooting people or fast moving moments of some sort or other, that luck plays a major role in a successful photographer’s life. Good photographers and bad photographers both get lucky - don’t make the mistake of thinking your great photo is always and fully down to how good you are. Enjoy your lucky photos - but the better you get, the luckier you are likely to be.

Disconnect your core-self from your work so that you have a place to put your failings - grow up! - Don’t wear your successes to make some sort of point about you as a person. But don’t lose the passion behind your work either. Self confidence is a strange animal - it needs to be connected and simultaneously disconnected to your outer self at all times! For some reason, a lot of photographers get insecure and lie to themselves. Don't be one of these people. Yes be a geek, but don't be a nerd!

7. What technically to look for specifically?

The focus, DoF, noise / general exposure.... Look how light is entering the frame - the reflections, the shadows - were these deliberate or just circumstantial? Did you have the ISO too high or low? Is the focus soft because you moved or because your shutter speed was too slow for the subject... a bit of both? Were you shooting against the sun? Should you have used an off camera fill flash? Look at your framing - were you aware of the surrounding elements to rack them up properly?

What about the emotion behind the shot? - Is there a message or a feeling you were trying to create? Did you succeed? Look at the contrast, white balance and the grading etc - how did you approach editing afterwards? Take a note of the aperture setting you used - memorise it against other factors to guess it better next time. Consider what it would have been like a couple of stops each way. Are you shooting RAW? If not, why not? - Could you make the picture a little better in post? - Why haven't you done it yet? - It's not finished! Why upload and share something that could have been 50% better? - What resolution have you uploaded it at? Who have you shared it with? Perhaps you need to secure it for privacy.... Perhaps it would be better in black and white. Perhaps you could crop it better to put your subject better in the frame. Perhaps you should take the noise filter off again to see if it better focuses the foreground. What monitor are you calibrating the end results on for colour? Does it look okay on an iPhone? Have you backed it up? Have you entered appropriate EXIF METADATA info, face recognition and search field data? 

Have you deleted the out-takes? Why do people connect their cameras to their computers and click “upload all images to Facebook”?!!! 

How much of the shot was skill and how much did you rely on luck? I consider and do all these things for every shot I take pretty much. I consider the art of photography includes all of these elements. For someone to stop short here, I don't really think they have a proper passion that successfully covers the subject to really do it justice. This is often the problem with so called photographers - they have a lean towards the artistic, or the technical, or just one kind of skill subset - but they don't pack the whole punch. If you really believe that you don't need to do post production or you don't need to share or backup your work then hey.... perhaps you're still a passionate photographer, but I'm afraid I would find it hard to understand you. Why design and build a house if you’re not going to live in it? Perhaps you're one of these weird artist types.. in which case, fair enough! - But if you're not weird, I would suggest you do all of the above - why wouldn't you?

8. Be brave and confident when shooting people. 

Do your best to relax them of course, but I am constantly amazed by people who just take one shot of someone or photograph a person from behind because they didn't want to move around or interrupt them to get an arranged shot. Don't let them go until you've taken a whole heap of different shots. Talk to them as you shoot, tell them what you're trying to do. Make sure they like you. Try not to sound wired or flustered - even when you're trying to remember all the settings you are changing - it's hard for me still this one! - Try to help them forget self awareness... When you see that they are getting bored or agitated in the same pose, leave them alone and come back to them later if you can.

Persevere with people. A lot of photographers take numerous shots of sunsets because they don't engage with people. Watch how many times you revisit a picture over the years. Are you a "shoot it, fix it, share it then forget it” person? - Does your sunset, or tree, or cat or whatever really rock your world? Is it where your heart is? - I am really excited about shooting people especially... but I know I'm awkward sometimes, and I know I don't relax people as much as some. To get the results I need from a person, they need to be putty in my hands - I'm still working on this. Beating the social and psychological attitude behind the lens is a major part of this art form. Challenge yourself..... if you like looking at photos of people more than sunsets then deal with your problems and take more pictures of people. Perhaps change to reportage with a longer lens and shoot strangers….. with appropriate diligence of course, or perhaps alter the surroundings of the ubiquitous portrait. Do fun stuff. Break out of contrived habits. Play with someone you know well and ask them to muck around with you as your test model. Discuss the process before you even get the camera out so your subjects are on side with you. Look at shots that other people have taken... ones you love.... why are you not doing that? What's stopping you?

Don't spend too long checking your shots in camera - you're wasting shoot time, and the screen on the back won't often tell you for sure whether you've just got the money shot. Wait till you get home. 

9. Always have the right accessories and props. 

Spare camera batteries, lenses, filters, tripod, flashes, reflectors, lens cloth - whatever you need. Whatever lets you down on a shoot - buy two for next time and leave them fully charged and colour coded by the door! Always put your lens cap in the same place. Get a routine.

10. Find a nerdy friend to share all this with.

It helps to share thoughts, swap stories and geek out with like minded souls. Don’t be ashamed if you’re a little nuts!

Don't bore your wife.... she will leave you - or kill you.... one of those! 

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