Ten Pillars of Photography
More people throughout the planet have access to photography than ever in its history. From their ranks, hundreds of thousands of keen photographers aspire to ever-higher levels of skill and some to make a career in the art. Of course, you don’t have to be highly skilled to enjoy photography and find it highly rewarding. But the more you understand, the greater will be the returns – whether you pursue photography for pastime or profit.
If you are new to photography, the idea of the Ten Pillars of Photography may not mean much because you haven’t yet gained the practical experience to appreciate its advice. If you are experienced, it will be worth keeping one or two of these Pillars in mind as you develop. They could help guide you to pushing your skills to ever-higher levels. And as your knowledge grows, you will doubtless be able to add your own pillars (or tear down one of mine), modify these or put them in different order of priority.
Write with light; don’t fight it
If there is a single Golden Thread that links all the great photographers of the past and present, it is that they work hand-in-hand with light; for them, light is a partner, not a slave. (If you want any examples, you can start with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, work through Ernst Haas, Irving Penn and reach Harry Gruyaert and Alex Webb.) They may use light in different ways and expose to capture its effect in their own way. But for them, light is an equal partner.
To great photographers light creates their images; they do not treat light as merely the recording agent.
You will enjoy photography more when you welcome all kinds of light, and adapt your photography to the prevailing light. You don’t need to fret if there is too much light nor try to blast your way out of having too little. With today’s highly sensitive sensors, it’s more true than ever that if you can see it, you can photograph it. From which it follows that all light is lovely light.
Capture sets the standard
The fate of an image is set and sealed the moment you capture it. Processing may make it look prettier, but it’s not possible to replicate for what is not there or replace what is lost. Furthermore, if the camera moves during exposure, or if focus, framing or exposure are not spot-on, you save up trouble: a number adjustments will have to be made before the image is presentable. Put another way, any errors you made at capture store up sweat and grunt. The more serious the errors, the greater will be your struggle to dress the image to look as if it had been captured perfectly.
It follows that taking as much care as possible to capture your images perfectly will save you hours and hours of work at the computer. Get it right from the start, and perfect it in the computer. Then you and your friends can enjoy your wine or beer (and the images), rather than having to apologise for them or spending time on corrections. Strive for the ideal of images which need no post-processing whatsoever, and you’ll take great pride and delight in your skill.
Big is not always beautiful
In the early days of digital photography, many problems could be avoided by working with the largest possible files. And there was the fairly naked ambition one to surpass the resolution of film. From this grew the myth that the largest possible files – crammed with the most pixels – are the best-quality files. With improved understanding and more sophisticated image processing, images from 18 megapixel cameras far exceed the quality of earlier cameras with twice the resolution. And as file size increases, the gain in quality slows to a logarithmic crawl.
Taking care to capture the best possible quality image using the equipment you have will give better results more economically than working with a higher-resolution camera used carelessly. Avoid big files if you don’t need them because they slow you down, fill up your memory cards quickly and after all that still don’t give you a visible benefit.
Chimping is for chumps
Chimping means ‘checking image preview’, and is a term inspired by hearing photographers exclaim “Oo! Oo! Ah! Aah!” when they check their previews. Hmmm; that tells you something.
Image preview has been welcomed as one of the best advantages of the digital revolution. Many photographers say they benefit from being able to check their previews and make corrections if needed, but they may spend as much time reviewing their images as they do looking through the viewfinder. The result is that they miss many shots, break the rhythm of their shooting, and interrupt the concentration they could be applying to the subject.
Try to reserve your reviewing to rest-breaks and when you’re sure nothing is going on. You don’t have to go as far as some photographers who tape up their screens to break the habit, but turn off the preview (it’s an option available on any decent camera) and you will find you do more photography and get more involved in your subject – and won’t be caught going ape over your camera. Listen, if I can go five months of heavy shooting without seeing any pictures (see Ang’s World – 1), you can go five minutes without reviewing.
Once deleted, forever gone
Many photographers delete their unwanted photos with relish. They are pleased to remove all traces of their embarrassing errors and what they consider ‘bad’ photographs. This guarantees the loss of shots which are unconventional and quirky. And others will delete images which don’t appear to be good in order to make room on the memory card for new images.
Excuse me asking – forgive any impertinence – but do you know enough to know what’s bad? By admission, many photographers don’t know what is good – or they’d be able to create the images they dream of. If you’re not sure what a good image, how do you know what’s a bad image?
There is always the danger your poor judgement throws away a prize-winning shot. I remember a prize winner in a major awards was of a white rabbit that was mostly blur, and yes, it was almost all white. It was a shot that 90 out of 100 amateurs would have deleted.
Besides, digital storage is one of the least costly things on the planet: the hard-disk space to store on large – 4000-pixel wide – image costs less than a single French fry from a fast-food outlet.
Fragile: handle with care
Images are at their peak best when you pluck them – at the time of capture, containing the juiciest, high-quality data they will ever have. After each and every step of processing the quality drops: it may look better, but the data is degraded. This is not a fault of processing nor of software nor of your technique but the result of laws of nature. It follows that everything should be done to preserve the original image from harm.
Every image is a sum of its history. Therefore it makes sense to work on a duplicate or copy of the original image, or with a proxy created by management software such as Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. Then save the new version under a new name so that you can always return to the image just the way it was the moment it came into the universe. This is not to say whether you should record in RAW or top-quality JPEG – that’s another debate. But it’s definitely not to say you should record in RAW.
Quality is as good as weakest link
From the previous pillar, it follows that the imaging chain, which extends from capture through to output, every stage impacts on the quality of the image – its resolution of detail, the accuracy of its colour and exposure, and its level of tonal distortion. The weakest link at time of capture is usually the operator because that’s how errors in exposure, focus, framing etc. enter the equation. When the operator performs perfectly, the lens’s quality is then the next limiting factor. However, all of this may be dwarfed by the impact of the final use of the image – which may be no larger than the largest permitted by a photo-sharing site, or printed on paper. Both these outputs greatly reduce the need for high-resolution, colour-rich files.
Adjust your photography to their outcomes: compact cameras give truly excellent results for images intended for web-sites; SLRs are greatly over-, one might go so far as to say grossly over-specified for all Internet-based use. So there is no need to hold back if you do not have the best and latest cameras. Permit me to repeat that: there is no need to hold back if you do not have the best and latest cameras. Remember that almost all the great photographs of the past were taken on cameras technically a toe rag to today’s equipment.
Monitor your colours
Your computer’s monitor is the centre of your digital photography universe; everyone reviews, organises, and processes their images using one (and probably day-dream in front of one too). The key to consistent and reliable review and processing of images is in the quality and set-up of your monitor. Too many photographers spend big money on their cameras, then work with their images on monitors which are sub-standard and not colour managed.
For best-quality results in assessing your images and when processing them, calibrate and profile your monitor. At least you’ll be getting the best you can out of the monitor. That is the only way to be sure that the colours you see on screen are as close to the colours captured by your camera as your monitor can display. And, instead of spending money on a new camera, consider spending money on a higher-quality screen. Good monitors make a huge improvement to your photography by showing colours accurately, which in turn ensures your adjustments are accurate. Admittedly, monitors are not good for flashing about when you take photo-walks.
Depths are rewarding
Above all hobbies, other than perhaps writing poetry, photography can be engaged anywhere and at anytime. You can photograph your daily activity from dinner-time to bath-time, at your work-place, garden or mountain top. It is exhilarating to discover there are no limits to photography, either in terms of subject-matter or treatment. Everything depends on how much you are willing to express yourself and share the results with others.
While you can photograph any and everything, you will find a tendency for photos to be made a certain times, with certain subjects. Follow the lead: if you like to make pictures of your friends, take it further and deeper. The deeper you take a favourite subject, the more rewarding will photography become. Working in sets or around projects builds your practice and strengthens your ability. If you have ever had to polish the recital of a poem, sing a song or play a piece, or make a speech you know the fundamental to success was to practise, and practise again, then rehearse and do it again.
Photography is no different from any art: the more you practise, the more you tease and poke at your subject, the more you give, the more it will return to you. That’s a promise.
Honour, respect and love your subjects
Above all, look after the things that you most love to photograph, for without them you have nothing to enjoy pointing your camera at. Treat your subjects with respect, help ensure their survival. That means working with sensitivity, with an eye to the future conservation of what you love. And express your love for them in your photography, for in that comes the greatest of all rewards. In all the travel and wildlife photography you do, remember that photographers who came before you have left the people, animals, and location in a state that allows you to enjoy your photography.
So ensure that everything you do enhances the reputation of photographers, then others coming after you can also enjoy photography.