Eight Golden Rules For Rewarding Photography

I’m a firm believer that limiting your creativity encourages it to flourish.

Plus, having a pretty minimal and simple outlook in life in general, guidelines support this too.

It’s the opposite to having unlimited choice.

Whilst initially this freedom seems like some kind of nirvana, for me it usually ends up with overwhelm and anxiety, and, with photography, being almost paralysed by the vast array of available options.

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Recently I’ve realised how I’ve developed and embraced a set of “golden rules” that guide my photography, help keep it flowing, and make it rewarding. 

This has been a gradual, mostly unconscious process, sometimes the only way to discover what truly works.

I’ve broken these rules down to five for making photographs and three for editing, processing and sharing them afterwards.

These are very personal to me, but hopefully in reading them you’ll notice some that you do already, or you think you could try to help increase your enjoyment of photography.

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Five guidelines for making photographs

1. Only take one camera. Even though I’ve heavily purged my camera kit in recent months (and in the last eight or nine weeks used just three Ricoh digital compacts almost exclusively), it’s still sometimes a dilemma which camera to take out.

But I’d rather make this decision at home once, than have to make it every time I go to make a shot because I’ve brought three cameras and/or three lenses with me and can’t pick which one might be best.

2. Don’t crop. I don’t really understand why people crop. Since I began photographing with intention about a decade ago, I’ve always striven to make the final composition I want right there in the viewfinder or screen when I’m taking the photo. (Another reason I love cameras with viewfinders as close to 100% as possible, like my 95% K10D, or a screen that shows 100% like the Ricoh compacts.)

Refusing to crop means I have to be more thoughtful and intelligent when I’m making the composition too. And it eliminates a whole other set of potential parameters to adjust in the editing and processing stage.

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3. Don’t zoom when you can move. I’m still undecided about zoom lenses, and when I do use them, I set them at a certain focal length and treat them as a prime.

One reason I love the two Ricoh zooms I’ve been using lately is their step zoom function, where rather than zoom at infinite increments, they stop at set focal lengths, eg 24, 28, 35, 50, 72mm. With my GX100, I just set up one of the custom MY settings to 24mm and another to 28mm, then it’s like having a camera with two prime lenses that I can swap at the twist of the mode dial.

I think the look, feel, distortion (or lack of) and depth of field at certain focal lengths is different, and I like to get to know one or two inside out. If I need to photograph something a bit further away, I walk towards it. If I’m too close, I step back. Again, this helps keep things direct and simple, and challenges me to work harder for the best shot.

4. Don’t mess with nature. I remember a few years ago seeing an admittedly beautiful picture of a flower with, what I thought, morning dew decorating its petals. I commented on the photo and the photographer replied about how he’d created it. By going around with a spray bottle and soaking the previously dry flowers with droplets to enhance the look before he took the picture. I was aghast!

I realised then that one of my core guidelines in hunting for beautiful photographs is to only photograph what you find naturally occurring and never to artificially alter, move or “enhance” it.

5. Set up your camera before you go. The super simple version of this is “only use very basic cameras”, so there’s very little to set up in the first place. But when I do choose to use something more advanced, then I try to set it up before I start shooting, so as to minimise in camera faffing and fiddling whilst out in the field making photographs.

Again the Ricohs are excellent for this with the combination of options plus those custom “MY” dial settings. To be honest, once I set them up the first time I’ve hardly touched anything since, meaning that in use they become virtually a point and shoot. Leaving me free to focus on finding and capturing the beautiful essentials – composition and light.

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Three guidelines for editing/processing photographs

1. Be organised in filing your photos. Fortunately I’ve done this from this start! I have a folder on my MacBook called Pictures, then subfolders for film and digital. In each of these I have a subfolder for each camera. In these I then have a folder for each photo walk, named in the format yyyy-mm-dd-camera name. Eg “2017_12_06 RicohCX1”. In that I then dump the photos from that photowalk from the camera.

Once I’ve processed and edited (more on this below) I then have a folder of the best photos from that session. When I share to Flickr, I create a further subfolder called Flickr, and copy in a 50% version of the original image. I keep the 100% image for if I need to make prints, but in practice most of the time the 50% version would be good enough too.

I tend to share photos a couple at a time, so when I’ve published all that I’m going to from a particular batch (ie folder) I then edit the folder name so it has an asterisk (*) in front. Then it moves to the top in the order with all the others that have been finished with, and I can easily see the unasterisked folders left to sort and share remaining.

2. Be fiercely ruthless in editing. I’m not someone who keeps every single shot I ever make. But I’m also not as ruthless as I’d like to be in editing.

I would say that in recent times, with film, I might consider three or four photos out of a roll of 24 to be a very good hit rate. With digital, from a very good and fairly extensive couple of hours photowalk I might take 100-150 shots. And sharing 10 of these I’d consider an excellent return, maybe only five.

I think the more slack you are in editing, the more it opens the door for mediocre photos to be taken and kept in the future. Plus it dilutes your best work.

If someone has say 10 images in their Flickr/Instagram/whatever stream and every one is fantastic, you’re likely to hang out for their every new post with huge anticipation.

If someone else has 1000 photos and their best 10 of these were equally as impressive as the person with only 10 photos total, who in your mind are you going to consider the better, most exciting and most worthy of your attention photographer? Almost definitely the first person who shares 10 fantastic photos only, and nothing mediocre.

(I’m well aware my Flickr now has over 4000 images and if I went back and edited now, probably 3500 would be culled! This is an ongoing challenge!)

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3. Keep post processing to a minimum. Once I’ve got the photographs on my MacBook in their own folder, I then import the lot into LightRoom. Recently, because I’ve been shooting almost exclusively in black and white, I usually then apply the basic b/w preset I’ve set up to all photos.

Then I swipe through, and any that I don’t think are any good at all I just move past. Those I like I then tweak the exposure and maybe contrast if required, then export as JPEG. Whether the original was RAW or JPEG. I then delete all the originals – including those I didn’t export because I don’t think they make the grade.

So I have left in my folder for that photowalk just the best photos, with processing applied, ready to share to Flickr etc as and when.

In fact just today I’ve simplified this further. I tried using my Ricoh GRD III to shoot JPEG only instead of RAW, used the in-camera b/w setting with the contrast at +2, and the exposure compensation at -0.7 to help avoid blown highlights. Then all I needed to do in LightRoom was a very minor further increase in contrast, then export. Even simpler and quicker, and no need for RAW files which are slower to write, upload and take up four times the space.

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And that’s it really.

Having these core guidelines might seem too rigid and restrictive to some.

But I know what works for me, and without these kind of limitations I’d probably barely take any photographs at all!

What kind of rules or guidelines do you have with your photography, and how have they helped you? Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

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20 thoughts on “Eight Golden Rules For Rewarding Photography”

  1. Interesting, not sure I would agree with all of these but I would say it is good to have guidelines like these to help get the most out of this or any hobby. I definitely fall foul to taking too many cameras with me and the faff around deciding which I should use; I have been thinking about it the last few days and now you have put it in black and white for me 🙂

    1. I confess that sometimes, especially in the past when I’ve had so many new cameras to test, I might take a couple of cameras then shoot one on the way out of the photowalk, then switch to the other for the route back, just so I can make a direct comparison of how the two feel to use and perform under very similar conditions and photographing the same subjects. But this has mostly been just to make an educated decision about which to keep and which to sell.

      What other “rules” do you find you use for your photography?

      1. It’s a good question and why your post was so interesting to me as I don’t consciously have any ‘rules’ that I follow. I do try to keep my photographs organised (though I could improve there). I don’t mess with nature and try to capture what I see except in a studio situation which is different. I almost never use flash but I don’t consider that a rule more a preference for using available light.
        I will think on this subject and see where it takes me.

      2. Yes I’ll be interested to hear where it leads you.

        Regarding the flash, I never use it all, so it kind of is a rule, but one that’s so engrained it never even crosses my mind to consider it!

  2. Lately, with a lot of gear gone I follow the ‘use what you got’ rule. But never more than one camera on a walk…. and one lens. Except when I got something specific in mind.

    I admire you for being able to cull your shots so efficiently. As scanning is such a chore it would be great to be able to dismiss at least half of the negatives directly. That would save a massive amount of time but I am just not capable of doing it. I’m a hoarder at heart. Keep all the silly stuff (well, only photography, luckily). Well, sometimes I discover something good among the ones I didn’t like at first. Perhaps that’s the reason.

    My most important rule when out with a camera is to ask questions:

    Is this shot worth it?
    Is there a better angle to this view (better known as: how many cliché photos of this do exist?)
    How shall it look in print?

    And I try not to crop… unless I got the horizon crooked again…

    1. Frank, thanks for your thoughts, as always.

      Regarding the culling, it’s just the epic volumes I struggle to deal with. If I think maybe 5-10% of my photos from the last eight years I’ve considered good enough to upload to Flickr, and I have currently over 4000 photographs there, it means I’ve actually taken 40,000-80,000 over that period. This doesn’t include a further few thousand at least of family that I rarely upload.

      My brain just cannot comprehend trying to go back through these in order to find a “lost” photograph I might not have thought much of at the time but now appreciate more. I just accept that and hope that my self editing is good enough now to be able to recognise a decent proportion of my “best” photographs. And let go of the rest.

      How do you ever go back through so many photographs??

      I like your questions. The first one I ask all the time (I wrote a post about it a while back called,I think, “The Most Beautiful Photograph You Can Make”) and as often as not I just walk away because even the best possible image I could hope to make in the situation still wouldn’t be worth clicking the shutter for.

      The angle one is great, since coming back to cameras with good screens like the Ricohs, I’ve been more adventurous with angles again. You can get in far more interesting positions than when your face is pressed up against a viewfinder.

      The prints question is very intriguing. How many prints do you have made of your photographs?

      1. I print more now, trying to get into the habit I preach but it’s not always easy. I must have about 150 or 200 prints, not more. So there is where my culling works 😉

        Speaking of culling, I am far from the number of photos you have made. As I reorganized my library for the move to Photos and Luminar I know that I have exactly 6374 photos I shot on film since I left digital more or less around early 2013. So it’s easier to keep track for me.

      2. What do you do with your prints Frank? How do you display and store them? I very recently had half a dozen prints made, but haven’t framed yet. I was really happy with how they came out. So I’m curious how someone who makes far more then stores/displays them.

  3. I follow quite similar, but loosely imposed, guidelines for my photography. I’ve rarely been made happy by having more than one camera or lens with me, so I stick to that one pretty consistently (unless I have a pesky last couple of shots on a roll to finish off before I move on!) I also agree on the minimal post processing. It’s not much fun, I don’t want spend a lot of time on it, but I do admit that some tweakery can make an image really pop. I do crop a little, usually to balance a composition or, like Frank, level out my wonky horizons!

    The only one of your guidelines that popped my eyes open was how willing you are to cull. You’re so brave! I keep everything that is not obviously garbage and use Lightroom flags to curate my best shots. Every now and then I go back over my unflagged shots and I usually find a couple of diamonds in the rough.

    Oh, and the “don’t mess with nature” thing? The other week I tramped down some foreground nettles and grass to clear a view. It made a nicer picture, but I felt like a heel.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and comments Steven!

      I’m in the same place with post processing, I do see that a minor tweak of exposure and/or contrast can make an image a little more dynamic, give it more life. But I probably spend a maximum 30 seconds on any one image! And my horizons are usually very wonky intentionally, ha ha!

      The culling I don’t really think twice about. To me the whole point of photography is to capture a few beautiful images, if possible. None of us are consistent enough to make every shot we take a masterpiece (by our own standards). It’s all part of the process that only 10% maybe make the final grade, and I’m happy with that.

      Like I said to Frank, I kind of move on quickly and nearly always have a backlog of stuff I’m going through and sharing/archiving. I don’t have the time or inclination to revisit older photographs that I initially discarded. Plus I can’t anyway as they’re long deleted ha ha!

      Re the tramping of nettles, you vandal! ; ) Inevitably things get trampled underfoot as I walk through woods and fields, but I can’t recall ever “reshaping” a scene so it might look better. I just try to adjust my angle to get the best possible shot in the circumstances.

  4. I’m going to challenge you on #2, to wit: https://blog.jimgrey.net/2017/01/04/crop-your-photos-boldly-crop-them-proudly/.

    I like the rest of your tips as guidelines. For example, I’m about to visit Chicago again, I will probably take my S95, and I will almost certainly use the zoom lens on it because there will be moments when I simply won’t be able to zoom with my feet thanks to buildings in the way or traffic in the street. But as a general rule, yes, I focus with my feet.

    I find the minor adjustments I do in Photoshop on my photos to be a drag, yet I keep at it because it improves them enough to be worth it.

    1. Jim, thanks for the link to your cropping post, I replied over there. The short version is I’m very embedded in 3:2 now, and can’t really be thinking about half a dozen other aspect ratios that may or may not work. If I don’t like what I see in the VF/screen, I move until I do. Sometimes, actually often, I just can’t get it to work, so I move on.

      Having the versatility of a zoom lens is great if you know you only want to pack light. Again I just like the clarity of shooting with one focal length at a time and knowing what it looks like.

      Yeh I’m similar with PP. I appreciate that a little tweak can bring a photograph alive more. But I keep it as minimal as possible!

  5. “Don’t crop”. Really? What, never?? Not even a little bit???
    I like square format, and frequently use cameras that don’t do square. So I expose for square, and then crop. And I crop anyway if I think the image would benefit from it.

    “Don’t zoom”. Really? What, never?? Not even a little bit???
    Remember, using a step zoom facility is still zooming.

    A tad too prescriptive for me. Maybe getting a bit too wound up with process?

    1. Adrain, thanks for your input!

      I remember some years ago (maybe three?) looking up how to show the different aspect ratio guidelines in LightRoom, because we wanted some prints made of kids’ school photos and wanted to crop the original large print to the correct aspect ratios before ordering various prints. (Does anyone know why 5″x7″ is such a common print size? What camera has a 5×7 aspect ratio??) But I can’t recall using it since then. It’s just a whole aspect I don’t give any thought.

      I can fully understand if you have a predetermined intention to shoot square say, so you’re already looking for scenes and compositions that work for a square format. I do this myself sometimes, I like the square format, I just use cameras that have the 1:1 option. I’m curious Adrian, do you still take the picture centrally, then crop an equal amount each side, or do you visual the square pushed up to one edge of the rectangle your camera shows, then just crop from one side? If that makes sense?

      I do use zoom lenses, I’m just not that keen on them, and use them in a very limited way. If/when I do, I set them at a specific focal length first, then use them like a prime.

      With the step zooms, the time I’ve used this most is with my GX100 with the wide angle lens attached. Without the wide angle the steps are 24, 28, 35, 50, 72mm. With it attached they’re 19, 22, 28, 40, 57mm. So I have MY1 set to the widest of 19mm with the wide lens, and MY2 set to 28mm for a more “normal” field of view. It’s easier turning the mode dial a notch (all other settings are the same in both MY custom modes) than physically taking the lens on and off.

      This is almost exactly what I do in a more manual way with my GRD III. The standard prime lens is 28mm. If I attach the wide it’s 22mm. The GX100 just lets me switch between the two via the zoom, rather than physically removing the lens. But with both, I set the focal length, then take a bunch of photos, then maybe later on the way back try the other. I’m not constantly switching between the two, it disturbs the flow too much, for me, and knowing what the camera will “see” for any given scene.

      These are the guidelines that allow me to clear away all the unnecessary decisions and just focus (literally!) on try to make the best photographs I can, and enjoy the experience as much as possible.

      It’ll be interesting to revisit this post in a year or two or five and see what’s changed…

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