Nothing Worth Doing Is Easy

In my opinion, this is an unintentionally strong shot. It was taken by my mother who doesn't consider herself to be a serious photographer, yet enjoys taking hundreds of family snaps each year.

John, Donna (a serious shooter herself) and George. In my opinion, this is an unintentionally strong shot. It was taken in 2011 by my mother who doesn’t consider herself to be a serious photographer, yet enjoys taking hundreds of family snaps each year. Camera: Olympus – µ-mini DIGITAL (2005 model).

A dedicated hobbyist writing online seemed to repeatedly suggest that photography is basically easy and simple to grasp. It could be I’m slow on the uptake and misunderstood his point. Perhaps in one sense it is straightforward: pick up a modern camera, set it to auto everything and point it in the right direction. You might get lucky.

Last year I saw an image on an outdoors forum that was taken in this way by a non-photographer. The horizon seemed level and a dominant, clear blue sky over the tops of the mountains had turned a solitary, distant climber into a silhouette. It’s a fantastic shot, so good in fact that a magazine chose to publish it. Makes you want to cry, doesn’t it…

These days half the world’s population is recording daily life around them on their phones and very compact cameras. Sometimes the results are really good. But really, the craft of photography is altogether different. Yes, great shots can happen by accident and sheer hopeful persistence, but an insatiable desire for intelligent and inspirational creativity is key to capturing strong images. As someone once said in a tough ‘n’ dusty TV western: “Nothin’ worth doin’ is easy.”

It’s unrealistic to expect to find the arresting essence of photography in easy or simple scenarios. After mastering how a capable camera actually operates, we must typically practise very good technique to be sure of producing our strongest images.

That’ll be about exposure then. And focussing, and camera-shake, and depth-of-field, and shutter speed, and flash, and composition… These can be a tad tricky, especially all at the same time. Not only that, but at some stage you’ll probably have to carry a sturdy tripod with you wherever you go, maybe up to the blustery tops of mountains where you’ll get rained on all day, or eaten alive.

The following day finds us recovering from our aches and pains sitting in front of the computer screen. Yes, it’s time for image-manipulation.

Back in the day the amateur shooter pulled on his old cap and rode a pushbike to the town’s “camera shop”. He handed his precious negative strips over the counter to a nice man wearing a tie. After explaining what he needed he left the shop and his bike was still there. Back in the darkroom the printer would analyse each frame and use creative techniques at his enlarger to produce a balanced print.

But today image processing is our job.

So we need the tools of the trade: a powerful computer, lots of storage, a reliable monitor and equally powerful software. If average amateurs believe all they read they’ll end up buying several very expensive programs that allow them to process images in an infinite number of ways. They’ll have to learn how to use all those tools properly. Eventually, crouching over a keyboard well past midnight, they’ll  sweat over 100% on-screen detail till their eyes glaze over and they miss their kids growing up.

None of this will be simple or easy. And then, to make things even more complicated, there’s the average photo forum to contend with. What an experience that can be for the developing amateur.

In Photo Forum World we face a dozen diverse opinions on every subject imaginable. We’ll get pointed advice that might have more to do with a lack of experience or personal preferences than anything else. Just ask the question: Should I shoot RAW all the time? Or, Do I need an expensive lens? Or, How many megapixels do I actually need? Or, Do I need to calibrate my monitor? Or how about, Do I need protective filters on my lenses?

It’s all there – grey-haired experience, reliable information, personal bias, theoretical opinion, misinformation that merely sounds good, and downright bad advice, all in one handy resource. Beware.

Anyway, let’s ask another question: Can we make photography less problematic for the average amateur just starting out? Well now, that’s different.

Start with learning how your camera works. Use it a lot, in all kinds of circumstances. Practice, practice, practice. After you’ve done that, be sure to practise some more. Don’t get bored. Don’t lose patience. Don’t be disheartened.

While you’re doing that, get a few really good books (and authoritative online resources, if you can) that deal with basic camera and processing techniques. Read them over and over, and over again, till the covers come off. While you’re doing that, get your best images into software packages that don’t cost the earth to see what each picture needs most. Don’t get too carried away. Be subtle. Use basic and fundamental processing skills to get the look you’re after. All good photo-editing programs have the essential tool-set you need to get excellent results. Even those that don’t have the Adobe label.

Don’t get distracted by the abundance of software frills and gimmicky plug-ins. It’s fun to experiment, but it’s best to concentrate on more straightforward processing methods so you don’t put a dent in your confidence. The goal is images that please you. Get into a proven processing routine.

When you’re done, get your processed images printed up to the biggest size possible for your camera’s pixel output (that will be at around 250 ppi – a good lab will have the details you need for each size). When you get your prints back, pin them to a wall and look at them from a sensible viewing distance.

There’s no point in getting so close you’ve got the hairs on the end of your nose in focus too. If they look a little dark (the prints that is), check the contrast and brilliance of your monitor. If they look a bit soft, you may need to think more about sharpening techniques, or maybe try another lab. Results can vary and in some contexts the word “professional” is meaningless.

As part of your photographic hobby, make your own DVDs and covers. Mock-up image created in Corel PHOTO-PAINT. CD cover created in CorelDRAW, (2003).

These days more and more amateurs are creating online galleries and quality DVD slideshows to watch on their TVs. The effect can fall a bit flat when looking at images shot in the portrait format, and rotating TVs is a hazardous solution. But generally this is a reasonable way to share your best work if you’re not keen on actual prints that fully match the aspect ratio of your images – typically the 3:2 35mm format and not 16:9 widescreen. Shadow detail is more obvious on a good TV screen than in a quality print, and the colours can be strong and clear.

So, maybe we can’t say that creative digital photography is ever ‘simple’. Nevertheless, as a keen amateur you can make life less difficult by practising a lot.

Patiently gather practical information from more experienced shooters who aren’t gearheads. Avoid the hair-splitting critical exactness that’s bogged down in dreary formula and scientific rigmarole. That stuff puts us all to sleep. It can turn a pleasurable hobby into an endless and bewildering chore.

Throw yourself into it as life allows. Major on the majors and take pleasure in your results.

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