Some pearls of my photographic widsom: Part 1

One of the things that makes me chuckle these days is the inordinate amount of websites based solely around lists. They also all use plenty of hyperbole and melodrama….

  • The 50 Best Black and White Photos You’ll Ever See, Ever
  • 100 Snow Shots To Make You Weep
  • The Only 20 Tips on Improving Your Photography You’ll Ever Need to Read
  • 80 Jaw-dropping, Mind-expanding Website Templates You’d be Insane Not To See
  • etc etc etc

There’s probably even a list out there of the ‘1000 of the Most Hyperbole-Ridden Lists on the Internet’.

The truth is, folks, there is no magic-wand to getting good at something. But there is good advice out there on how to get started. Read around many sources, see what common-ground there is in what they say.

Building anything means getting the first part right. With photography that means learning composition, exposure and the camera properly first so you can put the rest of the learning on top of it. Shooting on a semi-automatic mode and using Exposure-Compensation is great when you are proficient or need to do something very quickly. But at the start it’s lazy. It’s the difference between learning to drive with a stick-shift or an automatic. Learn on a car with manual gears and you get more of a feeling for driving, for how the car is behaving, what you can get out of it. It’s more responsive. You are in control. If you just want to get from A-B as quickly and simply as possible.. get an auto. Be my guest.

I love photography and it’s been a part of my life since the age of three, when I first stood rooted to the floor in my parent’s living-room and marvelled at the big, luminous picture being projected onto a screen by my dad. A camera arrived in my hands at age five. It became ‘my camera’ at the age of seven. Three years of art college, studying film and photography, happened between the ages of 19 and 23. I was published at 22. Got my first medium format camera at the age of 20….. I feel another list forming. :-)

I learned on film, often very big film: 8x10inch plates, even up to 20×24 inch plates at one point. Exposure, light, composition… all learned at a time when it was costing me money every time I wanted to push the button. Sometimes I’d spend a whole day setting something up or wandering around until I pushed the button, once.

It was a good way to learn. I spent time on everything.

Now though I don’t really miss film so much, funnily enough. But it was the best way to learn, IMHO. And anyone learning photography now, in this digital era, should go shoot some film and then go and develop and print it. It’ll make you a better photographer, trust me.

As well as shooting for a living, as a freelancer here in Tokyo, I also teach photography. Each weekend there are photowalks, workshops and each week I am doing one-to-one lessons with people who either live here or who are passing through and have heard about me from the web. It’s a lot of fun and I learn something from everyone I teach; that’s one of the best parts.

I don’t just teach people how to use their camera. I teach them how to see better. There is no magic-wand for that. No list of ’20 Ways to Learn to See Better’. There are general, broad-brush ways to help people see but after that they vary from person to person because everyone has a different response to the world around them. My job as a teacher is to try and see through my student’s eyes first, then approach getting them to see better in a way that will appeal to them on their level. It’s one of the joys of doing what I do.

In the course of all the teaching I have done, there are certain things that I repeat over and over. My photographic ‘mantras’, shall we say. These are what I am going to share now. Well, the ones I can remember anyway. The great thing about a good list is that it is never finished. So, there will be no ’20 Top Tips’ list here. This is a start and I want people to add their own in the comments section. I’ll be posting links to this article on G+ and various other sites. There will be comments there and I will endeavour to feed some of those back into this article so you can all see them whether you do social networking or not.

After the first couple of points [which are the most important, I think] these pearls of wisdom are not in any particular order. They’ll just be in the order in which I thought of each of them. And what you see below is not the sum-total of my wisdom. That’s for a book, not one post on a blog…. so leave a comment if you have something to add, as I have not tried to include everything in this post and I will write Parts 2, 3, 4and 5 of this, so stay tuned.

  1. Composition is the bedrock of your photography: learn to compose properly first and the rest –  learning the ‘machine’, learning about exposure, about light, about the ‘moment’ – will have the best foundations upon which to sit. One of the best ways I have found to teach people composition, after helping them understand the basic compositional guidelines, is to have them look at the world around them through a simple, cardboard frame the proportion of their camera’s frame. You can find out about it here. Make one for yourself. It’ll be the best piece of cardboard you’ve ever owned.
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  2. Become visually literate: I like sharing my pictures with people and I understand that a lot of people either don’t have time to comment at length. I also understand that people express themselves in various ways and that by encouraging a response of any kind, my photo has ‘worked’ even if someone says ‘Wow, that’s beautiful’. However, for those of us who like taking pictures and who feel ourselves to be ‘photographers’, wouldn’t it be great if you could go beyond ‘Great capture!’ and really begin to explain WHY you like a photo, not just how much you like it? Photography is a language [in Greek it means ‘writing with light’]. Languages are read. Languages are written. Languages are spoken. They have a vocabulary, sentences, phrases, stories. Learn first to read a photo and that knowledge will help you ‘write’ your own. My visual literacy classes aim to do just this; we sit, we talk, we study a photograph in a prescribed way, subjecting it to a series of questions. We interrogate the image. Find out more about Visual Literacy here. There are some materials to download which will help you get started on how to read photos, build your vocabulary etc. It’ll help you with taking your own shots, believe me.
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  3. Learn About Light: ‘photo’ means ‘light’. Therefore this whole thing called photography is all about light and you have to learn how to see light and to work with it to get each of your photos. Exposure is what I would regard as the ‘sum’ of specific components: aperture [the physical hole through which light passes], ISO [the light-sensitivity of your film or sensor] and speed [the amount of time which the shutter allows the light into your camera for]. They ALL effect the amount of light being received by your film/sensor but they effect it in different ways and each has a different side-effect for your photo  [more or less grain, motion blur, less depth-of-field etc]. But beyond the mechanics of exposure, you need to learn to see the light. One great excercise I do with people involves guessing exposure and you can read about it here. Do this for ten minutes a day and you’ll have the basics of exposure down in a week. Within a month you’ll be impressing your friends by being able to guess the settings to take a picture without needing the light-meter in the camera. Really? Yes. I’ve seen it happen. Within half an hour one evening I had three students guessing exposure. Here’s another good excercise for using the auto or semi-auto modes on your camera to get yourself to Manual. Then, start looking around you for good light:
    • that building in the street that reflects the sun onto the road really nicely, which can light people up like a spotlight on a theatre stage.
    • the way the sun always hits that tree on the hill by your house at 3pm in the winter, how soft it is.
    • the fact that it’s better to shoot portraits outdoors on a cloudy day and not in bright sunshine
    • make a list of areas in your town and times of the day when the light is good or bad
    • get an app for your phone that has sunset times and directions on it
    • find out what the ‘spot meter’ does in your camera and use it to measure the light from the brightest and the darkest thing in your scene: the difference between them is your ‘dynamic range’
    • find out how much dynamic range your camera can cope with
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  4. Shoot with a purpose and ‘collect’ things from the world around you: I am sure we have all said ‘I’m just going out to shoot some pictures’. No harm in that. But I bet you’d have come back with something better if you’d decided to ‘go out and shoot pictures of red things’. There’s a mission, an objective and therefore a goal. This is important. Lots of people on the web and in various places have lists of projects and they organise projects for people to do. This is good. I have a bunch of them I do with people, too. Check out my ‘Learn Photo’ category and you’ll find some of the photographic projects we do. Make a project, find a project, join-in on a project that’s going on via a website or your local camera-club. Have some ongoing projects too, because those are often the ones that can help keep your eyes sharp. It doesnt necessarily have to be a project to take a photo of yourself for 365-days a year. That’s a fairly sizeable undertaking and I know many who have stopped long before the end of the year. I’m talking about things to ‘collect’. Here are some of my ongoing ‘collections’. I live in a city so that’s why they are generally ‘urban’ things:
    • blue things
    • red things
    • traffic cones
    • umbrellas
    • abandoned bicycles
    • road markings
    • people in my neighbourhood
    • washing hanging on people’s balconies
    • cars covered by plastic sheets
  5. Take Your Camera Everywhere: not so simple if your camera is a DSLR and you only want to carry your handbag to work. But, remember, your cellphone is a camera too. Just take the big one out as often as you can. To really ‘nail’ photography, it’s got to become who you are and not just what you do. That means living with the camera. The two staff in my local convenience store, I found out recently, were having a bet on seeing me without my camera. One night I went in there and it was in my bag and not – as it usually was [even if I just went there to buy a loaf of bread] – around my shoulder. One of them eagerly asked me where it was. In the bag, I said. Show me, he said. Nice. I politely informed them they would be better off betting on themselves becoming Prime Minister than on my not having a camera on me at all times. :-)
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  6. Give Your Camera To A Kid: it takes a leap of faith to hand over your camera to a child, but kids aren’t daft. They can program the VCR or DVD recorder before their parents, generally. If you don’t have kids, borrow one for ten minutes for this excercise. No kidnapping though, please. My point is that to be a good photographer it sometimes takes putting your imagination and view of the world back into ‘kiddy mode’ for a while. No better way to do this than to give the camera to a real child for ten minutes, just to see what THEY see with it. Give them another camera if you don’t want to trust them with your expensive DSLR. When I do workshops with children, and when I give my own kids the camera, I get amazed at what they see. It’s great food for my brain and for my outlook on the world.
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  7. Viewpoint is Everything: this is after point 6. for a reason and that reason being that, often, there are much better pictures to be had from the height of a child’s head than from an adult’s eye-level. Bend down, climb up on something, look up, look down…..examine all the viewpoints as it is a unique camera position which, invariably, will make your photo stand out from the millions out there. Check out this recent post I made, with shots from a local festival, to see how I used a monopod and a cable-release to get the camera 6ft above my head and get a unique perspective on the event.
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  8. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone: if you love shooting flowers, go out and shoot people for a day. And vice versa. The brain and the eyes need excercise and whilst it is great to get very good at taking pictures of one subject, it is a very useful workout for your head to step away from your regular subjects.
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  9. Get a 50mm Lens With a Large Aperture: the kit-lenses that come with cameras now are not exactly a great help to your learning about depth of field, which is an essential and vital component of photography. Why? Because they generally don’t have a maximum aperture large than f/4 or f/5.6 and at the beginning – when you are trying to get your head around what depth of field is all about – it isn’t much help to have lens which can’t let you take pictures with shallow or less depth of field. ‘Bokeh’ has become a bit of a fad so don’t get too obsessed with it. But depth of field is an essential optical principle and a 50mm f/1.8 is cheap and will teach you more about it than an 18-200mm which only has a maximum aperture of f/5.6 at 50mm. Plus, the Fifty teaches you to ‘zoom with your feet’, i.e. to move around and explore different angles and aspects. Zooms make you lazy at the beginning. They are very handy but when you are learning you need to train your eyes and whilst the Fifty is not an easy lens to use, it will do more for your eye than a zoom will. Here’s a nice little depth of field excercise to try, which will give you a good idea of what depth of field you are getting in a given scene across the full range of apertures on your lens.
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  10. Look at Photography Books, Learn a Little Photography History & Visit Exhibitions As Often As Possible: the first scene that was permanently fixed on paper as a photograph was one shot in 1839. That gives us, from that moment, a history to photography of 172years and counting. That’s a lot of pictures, by a lot of photographers – across every genre from war and social documentary to nature, landscape and forensic [crime-scene] photography… and everything in between. Learning where you and your photos fit in, developing your own voice with a camera; these things will be greatly helped by learning who has gone before you, what they captured and how. I get a massive kick from standing in a classroom and teaching people about the history of photography. It’s like opening people’s eyes for them and showing them into a bigger world than the one they inhabited before the class. For example, did you know that HDR as a technique was first done by a fella called Gustave Le Grey, in France, in the year 1850? No, I bet you think my mate Trey Ratcliff invented it. True, Trey does a lot more with HDR than Monsieur Le Grey managed. But the point is our perception of the world is too often formed by what is going on around us now. Understanding what has gone before gives us a chance to feel differently about what we do now. Check out this site’s Photography History section. There are lots of videos there as well as some features on particular photographers. YouTube is flooded with great material on this topic and one channel, hosted by a chap who goes by the moniker of ‘The Rangefinder General’ has more than most. Exhibitions give you a chance to put those new-found visual literacy skills into practice and it’s a great experience to see work printed and on a wall, instead of just looking at it on the web. Ditto with books. You dont have to buy them. Go to the library or your nearest bookstore and spend an hour in the photography section. Or go to Blurb.com and have a look at some if you don’t have the library or shops close-by.
So, there you go folks, there are my first ten top-tips. There are plenty more to come and as I get the chance I will add more posts on this theme.
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If you live in Tokyo, why not come out for a photowalk or to a workshop. The walks are a superb way to put one last tip into practice: go out with other photographers and shoot alongside them in the same place. The walks I do here are perhaps best at highlighting how everyone sees different things or sees the same things differently. We walk the same route, we see a lot of the same stuff but when we get to the end and look at each other’s shots, we see that one of us saw something that no one else did. Or, that we each saw the same thing but that we each captured it very differently. Sure, we can all see lots of pictures of Shibuya Crossing on the web and see how people shot it, comparing it to our own photos. But the physical act of having walked that route with five other photographers and witnessing the eye each had on the scene… that’s very different.
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Thanks for reading. It’s a long, wordy post but I hope you enjoyed it.
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Alfie
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Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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