Story and photography by Tom Horton
Photography, like life, is a non-stop learning experience. While we should not take ourselves too seriously, it is still good to pause and reflect on your journey now and then. Recalling all the mistakes you made, and why you made them, helps you get ready for those still ahead. Often those mistakes start out as myths – received wisdom that ends up working poorly for you. These are some of mine:
1.) The more photos I publish, the better.
We all know people who talk too much and tend to say foolish or inappropriate things, and we hope like hell that’s not us. Yes, there are times to speak, but it is wise to first listen and think, and doing that you are more likely to say something meaningful or memorable.
It is no different with your photography. You make your reputation on the images you put out there for people to see, so you want to be very, very careful that what you publish is consistent with the photographer you want to be. The great danger with publishing on the Web – web sites, album sites, social media – is that it is far too easy and tempting to publish way too much and in doing so, publish work that is not your best. Even a small amount of mediocre work in your portfolio is enough to tell people that you are not a judge or producer of great photography.
You will produce bad work, for sure – everybody does — but the trick is to recognize it and bury it. Identifying your bad work comes with experience, but how do you get that in your early days? The key is to have mentors, confidants, peers, etc., to whom you can show your work and get critical reactions and advice out of the public eye. You may end up publishing less work than you hoped, but it will be your best quality and will help, rather than hurt, the reputation you want to have. With time, your ability to be ruthlessly critical of your own work will improve, along with increased efficiency in producing your best work. The bottom line — never, ever, let anyone see your bad work.
The beauty and interest of the image should come first. Before you post, ask yourself why you are posting. If the answer is not image-driven but ego-driven – “I want people to know I was here and I witnessed this thing” – your reputation is in danger.
2.) It’s all about the camera.
No, it is all about the software. Or stated another way, for a given photographer of given skills, software has rescued many, many camera deficiencies — but it never happens the other way around.
Yes, there are real differences among the digital raw material that various hardware produces, but the ability of software to affect the post-camera image is orders of magnitude greater. Photographers with good software skills can correct individual colors, increase apparent resolution, eliminate optical errors, cut through haze, smooth skin, create complex effects, and a hundred other things that cameras are powerless to fix. There’s a reason that “Photoshop” has become a verb (though Adobe may not appreciate it), even when the software in question is not Photoshop.
One of my favorite photographic chuckles happens when people ask me “which camera (or lens) will take my photos to the next level,” and it turns out they are editing at the novice level, or maybe not at all. Learn to use an advanced photo editing suite and/or a collection of advanced niche editors, and it will save you thousands of dollars on that new camera or lens for which you are probably not ready. Another interesting thing will happen: Using good software competently will clearly point out where your cameras and lenses and other equipment are not doing the job for you; for example, that you need more dynamic range in your sensor, more distortion correction in your wide-angle lens; better manual focusing features, etc.
You’ll find that you seldom ask that “next level” question, because the answer is already obvious to you.
3.) I can pass on Photoshop as long as I know Lightroom.
You don’t want to be driving a 6-speed Audi A4 and stuck in 3rd gear. Well, being satisfied with Lightroom is like that; Photoshop is where the best performance lies, and ignoring it, you might as well garage the Audi and drive a Vespa. But of course, you then have to settle for being the Vespa rather than the Audi of photographers.
Pixels, you see, are pretty simple things and there are a limited number of ways you can manipulate a single one digitally. The magic comes when you turn thousands of them into a huge database sorted by hundreds of brightness levels and millions of colors, and then start manipulating categories and combining databases. A simple example is an algorithm that detects groups of adjacent dark pixels and light pixels, then make the dark ones darker and the light ones lighter. We call that sharpening, and from a programmer’s view, a gazillion variations are possible, ranging from basic to complex.
Adobe, bless their hearts, has been the leading creative force in this, and they’re no dummies. There are dozens of different ways for programmers to write sharpening algorithms of varying awesomeness, and that is the secret way they make their money. Rather than sell you all their cleverest algorithms at one price, they package the basics as Elements, the middle range as Lightroom, and the razzle-dazzle stuff as Photoshop. The learning curve increases with each one, sometimes rather steeply, and that is a common reason for being stuck at Lightroom – you just don’t want to do the work to acquire more power. Well suit yourself, and be ready to accept that your progress in photography will be stuck in 3rd gear.
This myth is an outgrown of Myth #2. If photography has indeed become a software business, then the photographer had better be very skilled with software. And the concept applies not just to Adobe products, but to any full-bore editing suite, such as ON1, Topaz, etc.
4.) As an artist, I don’t need to know how stuff works.
In all humility, I have to reveal that from the first moment as a youth that I picked up a camera (it was to impress a girl, as I recall), I could shoot decent photos. I also have to reveal that by not knowing much about basic digital photo technology, to my great regret I ruined most of my original digital photos. I sure wish I had them back. Did my ignorance have an impact on my art? Obviously. If I had known even a little bit about the properties of RAW files, compression technology, CCDs and more, I would still have those photos.
Another example: Instituting a color-managed workflow had another big impact on my work. I struggled with this topic, as many do, until I started learning some technical details about how cameras, displays, printers and other devices work. What can you do with a pixel? (Not as much as you would guess.) How does an image processor work with a Bayer filter (a genius invention) to produce color? Why do the laws of physics limit resolution? What is meant by tone mapping? What is noise and why do sensors produce it?
Learning these things and more enabled me to get color under control in my process, among other things – but more important, it showed me that even the most precisely color-managed work is always in the service of the artist’s subjective goals. That’s a good thing for an artist to know.
Whatever your photographic impetus, taking the time to know the guts of the technology always pays off – but only as a tool for your art, not as the art itself.
5.) Technical perfection is the #1 goal.
I know you’ve heard this before, but let me encourage you to take it seriously: The people you are trying to impress with your art don’t care about technical image quality. Not a whit.
Yes, if your image has obvious flaws, non-photographers will know that they don’t like it – but they probably can’t pinpoint why. On they other hand, if they like it, they can surely describe why, and they will state it in emotional terms – “the colors are shocking,” “the drama draws me in,” “it’s beautiful,” “it reminds me of a happy time,” “the melancholy affects me,” etc. This should tell you that your fans are looking at, and judging, the picture as a whole, and they are not seeing the pixels. Your goal as the photographer should match that – to create compelling pictures as a whole, and beyond basic image quality, don’t worry about the pixels.
True, when photographers get together, quite often the talk turns to technical minutiae – camera features that make pixel-level differences; menu preferences; hypothetical or real shooting situations, why this or that sensor is best, and so on. These conversations can be useful, to a point, but we have a slightly derogatory term for when it goes too far: “pixel-peeping.” Don’t be a pixel-peeper. Making compelling photos is mainly a creative enterprise; pixel-peeping overdone seems to lead to creativity underdone, and it does not make you a photographer.
Don’t get me wrong. It is not incorrect to be fastidious about the technical quality of your images. Just be aware that you are doing it mostly for yourself. I am completely amused when people post or exhibit photos to the marketplace with technical details including shutter speed, aperture setting, focal length, lighting, etc. Hey, your customers don’t care. Not a whit.
6.) To make great photos, go where the great photos are.
On one hand, I’m going to gag if I see one more gorgeous photo of Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel View Overlook – or another dawn shot of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands with the red highlights under the arch – or still another repeat of a collapsing shack or rusted car at a ghost town – or one more heart-rending candid shot of a homeless person — and so on.
On the other hand, I’ve got all those photos myself, tucked away somewhere. However, I’m not proud of them. I don’t show them around. They are “me too,” one-dimensional efforts that are obvious, easy, and look just like the one before it. What they are good for is learning. Seeing a great shot and trying to duplicate it has a lot of practical value. Figuring out someone else’s vision works as a prelude to finding a vision of your own, but it’s not the same thing. It is a central difference between good photography and great photography.
Just like that “street photo” phase in which you took your camera everywhere and shot everything, going where the good photos are is a phase in your training – perhaps one you come back to from time to time. However, great photography comes from taking what you’ve learned from others and creatively applying it to different places and different situations until the result is uniquely and genuinely you. Take a big step and realize there is always going to be a better, or luckier, shooter than you lined up at Tunnel View Overlook. To set yourself apart you literally have to go somewhere else and do something different. Be the unique vision that others are trying to duplicate.
In summary, it may seem that some of these myths oppose each other. If technical perfection is not the #1 goal, for instance, why should knowing how stuff works matter? Why should I know Photoshop if my audience doesn’t look at pixels? The answer is the same one you got when you asked why you had to study math at school when it was music that you really liked: Generalization is a prerequisite to specialization. There is a portion of the photographic body of knowledge you can eventually discard as you refine your vision, but you have to know it before you can discard it.
NANPA member Tom Horton is a nature and travel photographer, and founder of Further To Fly Photography in Park City, Utah. He has exhibited work solo in Dubai, Shanghai, Salt Lake City, Park City and Jackson Hole. Awards include NANPA Showcase Top 100 in 2016, and finalist for the Alfred Lambourne Prize. Getty Images has licensed dozens of his images. Tom also specializes in giclée printing for digital artists. https://furthertofly.com