Thursday, April 16, 2015

How to Enjoy Photography (and Take Better Photos at the Same Time!)

So, you  bought a DSLR camera with a kit lens. Later you maybe  also got a second lens - a fast prime or a telezoom. Maybe you got an external flash. Then maybe you upgraded to another camera. New cameras, new lenses, new equipment. You also see (rather stressed) that no matter how much money you pour into this hobby, there always seems to be something better. Your photos also don't seem to be getting truly better (at least you feel disappointed and often disillusioned).
So, what's going on here? Well, sadly, if you recognize yourself in the description above, you have fallen victim to the dreaded marketing beast. Nikon (or Canon, or anyone who else) wants you to believe that your photography will never be as good as it could be unless if you get [insert most expensive camera] together with [most expensive lens].

You see, this is not unlike the fashion industry. Do you remember the last time you went to a shopping mall (or were dragged there by your girlfriend)? Do you remember all the clothes, all the giant posters of slim, athletic, beautiful female models or the lean, muscular, trendy-looking male ones? The unconscious, implied message is: "You need to buy this in order to be as good-looking". So, you buy it. Then you put it on, and it might be alright, but you just feel it doesn't look as great as it looked on the poster. You feel bad about yourself, and off you go, trying to buy something else, something that will make you feel great.

Same thing with cameras and lenses. Here is a little secret: A camera is only as great as the person behind it. To adapt something Thom Hogan had once said about the violinist Itzhak Perlman, I'm sure Jimi Hendrix with a cheap guitar and a Chinese-made amp would not sound as great as Jimi Hendrix with his Fender. But what keeps me from sounding like Hendrix is not that I don't have a Fender.

Here is a concrete list of advice for you. Follow the tips below and your photography is bound to get better, you will have more fun in the process, and you won't have to spend a dime!

1) Focus on what you already have
If a D7000 and the 18-140 lens is all you have, then use that. If a D40 and the 18-55 is all you have, then use that. Stop whining about needing a $1400 lens or an FX camera to make better photos, and make some great photos with what you have. Here's an image I made using a D40 and the very cheap 35mm f/1.8 (a combo that, used, nowadays costs about $150-$170):

It's not about the technical perfection of this image (I just love the crispness and detail); it's about affect (I very humbly suggest that you take a look at this book). Seeing this image will always remind me the scent of burning wood, camping by a peaceful lake, having sauna and drinking beer. Creating an image that can convey emotions, thoughts, and memories, is irrelevant to the camera or lens you use.

2) Stop talking about photos and go out and make them
If you have one hour of free time this evening, don't waste it arguing online on whether the D7200 frame rate and buffer is improved compared to the D7100. Grab your camera and go out, for a walk. Connect with your environment (nature, animals, people, your town) and acknowledge how it makes you feel, what it makes you think about. Take photos, make photos.

3) Stop comparing your photography to others'
There is a difference between "I like this photo, I'll try to make something like that myself" and "everyone's photos are so much better than mine, I suck (maybe I need a better camera?)". Art is notoriously subjective. Just because a photo has vivid colors, many likes or upvotes, or it portrays a lion eating a gazelle, it doesn't automatically mean it's great (let alone that your photos suck). Even more importantly, if you see someone's photo that you like, it doesn't mean it's a great photo because it was taken with an expensive camera or lens. 

4) Learn to take casual photos, without expectations
Not all your photos should be masterpieces. Hey, it's a hobby, remember? Ansel Adams once said that if you make about a dozen great images per year, you're doing it right. That means an average of one photo you're happy with per month. Just because you go to the park to photograph ducks, it doesn't mean you have to come back with a masterpiece. Be kind to yourself. Enjoy the experience, stop fretting about producing masterpieces. Those will come, once you learn how to connect with the moments around you instead of fretting about equipment.

Talk all you want about fps, megapixels, buffer sizes, DxO Mark, or whatever else. Unless you're out there connecting with the moment, it's all meaningless. 

5) Last but not least, Accept your limitations, work around them.
All photographers (including true artists) have limitations in technique. At the very least, they might have a bad day, or they might miss something. Furthermore, all equipment has limitations (including the most expensive). You, as a photographer with a camera and a lens or lenses, also have limitations. Accept the fact that you're not perfect, and accept the fact that your equipment has limitations. Try to work with what you have. Improve what can be improved, work around what can't. 

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