5 Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

5 Uncomfortable Truths About Photography

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There is a lot of hype about photography, it’s a booming hobby practiced by huge numbers of people around the world. With the prevalence of high quality images from our phones, and widely available, inexpensive dedicated cameras, it’s no wonder the art is so popular. But it isn’t all roses, and there are some uncomfortable things it’s best just to understand from the beginning.

Here are five truths about photography:

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1. More gear won’t make you a better photographer

Don’t get me wrong, I love camera gear. New bodies, lenses, and accessories are fun and exciting, but they won’t magically make you better at photography. To be a better photographer you need to learn how to find images. The gear can help you capture them, but the finding part is up to you.

Whenever I’m thinking of buying a new piece of gear, I ask myself, “Is my current gear holding me back?” Sometimes the answer is yes. It could be that the lens I’ve been using for night photography is too slow to get the detail I need, or the limitations of my current body are preventing me from blowing up the final shot to the size and detail required by a client. In such cases, I almost always have a specific image that I want to make, but can’t, due to my equipment.

More often though, the answer to whether my gear is holding me back is no. The actual reason I want a new piece of gear is that it is shiny. I may lust over new camera stuff, but if that gear won’t improve my photography in a very tangible way, I don’t buy it.

Some images require certain equipment. Without a big telephoto, this shot of the full moon over the Andes would have been impossible.

Some images require certain equipment. Without a big telephoto, this shot of the full moon over the Andes would have been impossible.

Remember that good photography comes from your heart and your mind, not your wallet.

2. There is no “knack”

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Some people take to photography quickly, others more slowly, but everyone has to learn. Photography is an art, not a gift.

A few times, I’ve been told by people looking at one of my images, “You have such a gift.” I know they are being kind, that they are offering a compliment, but I can’t help feeling insulted. I want to say, “It’s not a gift! I worked my ass off to make that image! That shot is the result of years of effort, of early mornings, and hours of travel, of study and practice, tens of thousands of failed and deleted shots, and thousands of dollars in equipment. Nothing about that image was given to me, I earned it.”

Of course, I don’t say that. Instead, I smile as though they’ve just said the nicest thing, and say thanks.

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Photography can be learned. With practice you can see the way lines and light interact to create a pleasing image. Or how those elements can become jumbled, resulting in a photo that just doesn’t work. With time and effort, you get better at recognizing the difference. It’s a process I work on every day.

So no, photography is not a knack – it’s work.

3. You’ve got to be patient

I spent 20 minutes hand holding a big lens to make this image, as I waited for an albatross to turn in profile over the waves.

I spent 20 minutes hand holding a big lens to make this image, as I waited for an albatross to turn in profile over the waves.

Yeah, lots and lots of patience.

I’ve guided hundreds of photographers into wild locations to make images. Sometimes we’ve arrived at a site, and the light has been perfect, or the wildlife is waiting in the perfect place, as though they’d been staged there. But that is rarely the case. More often, we have to wait, and wait… and wait.

The pages of magazines are filled with spectacular images, timed to perfection. But those didn’t just happen. The images were made because the photographer knew how to be patient.

Few things are so hit and miss as photographing the aurora borealis. (There are lot of misses.)

Few things are so hit and miss as photographing the aurora borealis (there are lot of misses).

The best images all require time and effort.

This is a hard reality for many of my clients (students) to swallow. They just want the photo to be there, though it rarely is. To be honest, I’m not very good at patience. I like to move and explore, but it’s the times where I force myself to wait and sit silently, that I often walk away with something good.

4. There is nothing wrong with being an amateur

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Being an amateur does not mean you are any less talented than a professional photographer. In fact, in many cases, I’d say it is just the opposite. You see, professionals spend much (most even) of their time doing the dirty work: invoicing, marketing, tip-tapping away at the computer, and much less time actually making and working with images. The images we professionals shoot are often those made for clients, not those we make for ourselves. Inherently, photos made for others are not as good as those we are passionate about. Amateurs can shoot whatever they please, and that means they are making photos that matter to them.

Skill and artistic sensibilities are not the sole territory of professionals. Some of the finest photographers I know do not make their living from it.

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And equipment! Here is the biggest irony: pros often can’t afford the latest and best gear. With the exception of the very top people in the industry, we pros aren’t millionaires, or anywhere close. Out of our meagre incomes have to come our mortgage, food, computers, software fees, travel, and yes, camera equipment. When I made the transition to full-time freelancer, that new reality hit me like a falling piano. Science fiction writer John Scalzi once wrote that you shouldn’t consider leaving your day job until you are making TWICE your normal income with your writing (or in this case photography). It’s good advice.

So yeah, there is nothing, NOTHING wrong with being an amateur.

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5. Postprocessing is a tool, not a crutch

I’m not the first to say it, but I’m going to repeat it, there is no un-suck filter. If your image stinks when it goes into Photoshop or Lightroom, it’s going to stink when it comes out, no matter how much you crop it, add contrast, or saturate.

This image took a lot of work in post-processing, but it was a solid image going in. Nothing in Lightroom will make a bad image good.

This image took a lot of work in post-processing, but it was a solid image going in. Nothing in Lightroom will make a bad image good.

For the love of god, don’t over-process your images. What matters in an image is the way it speaks to the viewer, that the photo means something. Make your image meaningful, and you won’t ever have to rely on post-processing to be successful.

Sunset over the Noatak River, Gates of the Arctic National Park, AK USA.

Conclusion

In the end, what really matters about photography is not the final image, but the process of making it. So forget about the shiny new gear, practice the art, be patient, don’t get caught up in labels, and make your best image in the camera. Everything else is details.

Do you have anything else you’d add to this list? Please share in the comments below.

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David Shaw is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in more than 50 publications around the globe. Find out more about his photography,  tours and workshops, and read his science and nature blog.

  • Judy Hauglund

    You are an inspiration, telling it how it is. I like to have someone along for safety reasons, it’s hard for them to wait. I miss some, I decided I would go it alone if need be. Not a pro, love the art of God’s bounty.

  • RH6194

    David, this is an article that simply can NOT be republished and read by the photography community at large often enough! Every single point is spot on with truth and is only learned with experience. Social media is the worst environment in the world for creating these “gear lusting” photographers. I saw on guy – not a pro – who was trying to show how great of a photographer he was and posted a nice photo of all the new stuff he had just bought! Not one, but TWO, Nikon D4S bodies, and six different lenses from wide angle to long telephoto – all with a fixed f/2.8 aperture. All the comments he received were in AWE of this guy’s “great gear”. (I’m sure his camera dealer was the MOST in awe.) In an act of almost indescribable irony, he took the picture of all of this gear with an iPhone 4s! That was over six months ago and to this day, I have never ONCE seen this individual post a SINGLE image that he has made since purchasing all of this stuff. I’ve often wondered if he has ever used it or if it is just sitting on a shelf in his closet somewhere. Well, now that the D5 has been released, I’m quite sure this “photographer” will NEED to upgrade! This is obviously an extreme case of the gear lust your wrote about, however I see photographers every day doing this sort of thing trying to keep up with the latest and greatest! I like your point that “if it will not improve my photography in a TANGIBLE (emphasis added) way, I don’t buy it!” That is going to be the filter I run EVERY photography purchase through from now on! Thanks so much David – GREAT piece!

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks Judy! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • David W. Shaw

    Exactly. Lots and lots of shots, or mental shots at least. I’ll have another article up sometime in May discussing just this, so keep your eyes open for it.

  • David W. Shaw

    Thanks! I appreciate your kind words, and I’m glad to hear that the message resonated with you. I agree, the gear lust can get out of control. If new equipment leads to inspiration or cool new images, then great, but if its gear for gear’s sake, then that money was better spent elsewhere. I’ve seen good photographers make images with their phones that put images made from top end camears to shame. It’s not the camera, it’s the person behind it. Thanks for the comment!

  • RH6194

    It is interesting that you just mentioned mobile phone images. Briefly off topic, I am partially disabled with neck and shoulder injuries and chronic pain following a serious car accident in 1997. More than anything else that I could no longer do, my biggest loss was the number of days I was no longer able to stand the weight of my DSLR and lens around my neck or my bag on my shoulder. However in the past few years, mobile camera technology has improved in a big way. It still is nowhere near overtaking a DSLR or mirrorless camera technically, but the images and post production software available for editing them are quite good. If you have a late model phone such as an iPhone 5s – 6SE, Olloclip makes some nice, small add-on lenses that can further enhance your creative ability. For a pure hobbyist who is passionate about photography but may have some physical limitations, mobile photography is coming into it’s own and can be a lot of fun! I still love shooting my D7200 but on days when I don’t feel up to it, my iPhone is a lot better than nothing!!!

  • RH6194

    Nick, it really depends on what you are doing in post as to whether it is “cheating” or not. For example, if you are shooting in RAW, your camera is not doing any processing to the image at all. Things such as white balance, temperature, color correction and so on are things that many cameras will to to the image themselves if you choose JPG as the cameras “bakes in” the best guesses it can make for each of these settings. However if you shoot RAW, you can set them to your personal preference depending on how you will display an image. For instance, an image hung on a wall under incandescent interior light will appear slightly differently than the same image posted to a website. RAW allows you to compensate for these different environments if you choose to. I do not consider this cheating as most color print labs do the same type of thing in their printing process – except they make the decisions for you.

    However things like removing items from your composition because you either didn’t see them or just figured you could take the shot and “Photoshop” it later are a different matter. There are huge debates among the post production online community about how much is TOO MUCH when it comes to photo manipulation.

    At the end of the day I think it really comes down to you and what you feel is the right thing to do with your image. Unless you are entering a competition where there are stated rules as to what you may or may not do, the amateur photographer is really only shooting for themselves. Therefor you are the only one you really have to answer to! However, I can not overemphasize this – NEVER misrepresent the work you have done by saying things like “it was all in camera” if you spent two hours in Photoshop with it later. That does lack integrity and that is what I have a big problem with. Just be honest about what your work depicts and let others appreciate it or not for what it is!

  • Scott L. Schable

    Thank you for the insight, David. Recently my shooting became deficient when I was forced to back up about to blocks to take a photo of two buildings. I had buy a wide angle lens and soon a longer reaching telephoto lens for wildlife (150-600mm), because my 75-300mm would not reach the subjects. Along with the larger lens, I had to buy a new tripod and a Gimbal, due to my 20+ year old tripod is not convertible for the Gimbal. One thing that I added, which is very beneficial, is a wired remote shutter release. I have seen the difference in the quality of my photos, with the remote. Patience is a virtue, that sometimes does not work, but it can be harnessed at the right time of day or timing, in general.

  • Andrew Brotherston

    A great article, thanks for sharing. I often find that patience is not my virtue. I am too quick to take a picture and frequently only focus on the subject then when I get home I realise that the background looks horrible. Still every time I come home with a bunch of crappy images I try to learn something new from them so that the next time I go out they will be slightly better. I’m still learning every day and your article helps.

  • NJP

    Agreed…the even funnier part is that the “get it right in camera” crowd often overlaps the “JPEG only” crowd. What they don’t realize is that thier JPEG is being post processed, by the camera. More accurately, it is being post processed according to an algorithm written by the programmers of the camera firmware. It’s the equivalent of saying a frozen dinner is better because you didn’t have to add any spice to it.

  • Mike

    very true! Especially no.5 – made me lol how you descibred it as a crutch!!

  • Branko Vlajin

    Thanks for this article. I needed to hear this. I’ve been very impatient while taking my shots. But I’m working on it.

    My advice…take lots of pictures, discard those that suck. Repeat.

  • During my school life, I was forced to move from school to school often, with my lifestyle being that of a military brat. So for a long time, the chance to have a work entered into Scholastic Arts had escaped me. But on my last year of school, at Northwest School of the Arts (Charlotte, NC), I took it upon myself to ride up to New York and wait for several hours (after checking the weather prior) until I could get this shot of the Americas Tower in downtown Manhattan. I wanted the clouds to be defined enough to compliment the building.

    Ended up winning silver. It was a simple enough photo, but I was happy that I had taken the time to wait for the right lighting and clouds. And while it is decent straight from the camera, a bit of a contrast/clarity tweak and some exposure adjustments and I had a photo I was content with.

    I find patience to be the biggest challenge with photography. I was told I had a talent for it, but even I had to learn how to shoot manual – doesn’t matter how creative you are, if you don’t know how the numbers on the camera work. And being the type of kid that likes to jump around often, patience was a big obstacle to overcome.

    But it was worth it.

  • zman2596

    Nice picture and congrats on the win. The composition is great and the colors are wonderful and really make this picture stand out.

  • zman2596

    i agree. im still a newbie but when I’ve gone to look at 500px and maybe start uploading there, i can’t help but notice that the pics are so overprocessed. They’re just so fake or maybe ‘artsy’ if you want to call it that. So for now, I’ve been try flickr.

  • AdderallDiaires

    I am probably the worst repeat offender of wanting new gear. It’s very hard but much more redemptive to challenge my creativity and much easier but more of a diminishing value to challenge my budget. Thanks for the insight.

  • AdderallDiaires

    I just tell them it was designed by NASA.

  • Michael Bogert

    Thanks Matt!

  • Deebo12

    Fantastic article and all true!! I HAD to reshare this on my weekly blog (proper credits given, of course!). One thing I would’ve reinforced in #1 is the fact that so many photographers upgrade gear without having actually LEARNED everything there is to know about what they have. It’s SO important to know your gear so when you need to upgrade your gear, you know WHY you’re upgrading and what to look for in the new piece of gear you’re going to buy.

  • chrysmarty

    This article confirms so much for me. One thing not mentioned, at least applies to me, is the incredible amount of time spent alone. No one is willing to sit for hours with me waiting for the sun or driving from lake to lake for days trying to find a particular duck. I started out as a hobby-ist and finally moved to getting paid. Not getting rich here and one photo can result in hours and hours of work. New gear is usually result of one of two situations, replacement or the need arose. It’s beat up and well used. I have gotten rashes and sunburns but wouldn’t trade it for anything else. That one photo where it all comes together is the greatest rush as far as I am concerned.

  • David W. Shaw

    Time alone is a great one to include in this. But, depending on the person, it can be a positive or negative. Personally, I relish that time by myself, but I certainly know it isn’t for everyone. Thanks for the comment and adding your thoughts!

  • freeopinions

    Amen. I always ask this type to show me the latent image, whether it be exposed silver on film or as a series of electrical impulses on a sensor. Because what you have “in the camera” is useless until it becomes visible to the human eye, and ten different people will get ten different interpretations of that, no matter how well exposed or studiously thought out it was. The only thing that counts is the finished product, and no two will ever be alike.

  • freeopinions

    I started typing something similar above and gave up. I fought this fight for many years and finally realized that I would never change the mind of someone so convinced they were right.

    I do like your frozen dinner analogy though…

  • freeopinions

    ” And while that can be true, most often it is not. How many times have I taken a picture only to find that it doesn’t look the same on my screen as it did through my viewfinder? “

    This is another point I have tried to make with the “get it right in the camera’ folks. You have to be able to see an image to tell if it’s right or wrong, and since you can’t look at the little electrical impulses on your sensor, you have to convert them to a visible picture, and view it on a monitor of some sort. A histogram will give you an idea of how it was exposed, but tells you nothing about color, nor will it tell you if the shadows and highlights that were properly exposed are the right ones.

    How many average hobbyists calibrate their monitors to get the maximum degree of compatibility possible? How many profile their printers to get color matching? For that matter, how many of the myriad monitors and printers available on the market are going to look exactly the same even after calibration?

    This whole thing is still a process, just as with film, and your image is only as strong as the weakest link in the process.

  • Desmond Downs

    Regarding 2.) Some people do start off with a ‘knack’ or good eye for photography. Others may have to study for years to learn how to get the same images. And 5.) Unfortunately there are many people who don’t even know how to get basic exposure properly and with the “recovery” ability of today’s sensors [5 stops under-exposure with a D750] they are able to photoshop their way to praise.

  • Alexander Alexandrov

    Hi group,

    I’m an amateur photographer and I’ve recently made a site http://www.dalekophoto.com … the purpose of the site is to show photographs that are real, non-painted and natural, because I got tired of watching pictures instead of photos everywhere. I’d like you just to give a like on my Facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/dalekophoto, why not and share a link to the site. Thank you very much!

  • M.h. O’Dell

    Amen! Excellent and thanks.

  • debish

    agree as well. i recently had a frustrating client who wanted me to photoshop her beautiful hs senior, i only enhance what the subject already has. they were unhappy and did not purchase any images which is frustrating bc i cannot make something that does not exist. i fear that what she really wanted was unrealistic over processed look, that would not look like her at all.

  • Yana Mavlyutova

    When it is broken, some of the mechanisms are broken,can’t be fixed (or too expensive to fix) and it is crucial for the photo process.

  • Kayla Holloway

    “Amateurs can shoot whatever they please, and that means they are making photos that matter to them.”

    Really touched my heart and made my eyes happy to read, this quote is one of the most describable ways to say photography is art.

  • K.Kristian.S

    That said.. My Gotham Steel Pan is letting me create cheese cups I can actually serve in.

  • Christopher Ray (C-Ray)

    Thank you for writing this article. I’ve been wanting to potentially do amateur fitness photography in my area for a while and needed to read an article like this to give me some encouragement. Thanks again. 🙂

  • kate

    I enjoyed this article… and agree whole-heartedly. And it’s just so true that more gear won’t make you a better photographer. I’ve been to weddings where I’ve seen the hired photographer wheel in 4 or 5 giant suitcases of equipment … which seems to lead the guests the assume the pictures will be amazing. But when I eventually go and see the final product in the couple’s gallery of photos, it’s often very … meh. Perhaps all that gear is causing them to forget to actually tune into the day, the couple, and the fleeting little moments since they’re so distracted by all the gear.

  • Greg

    #2 is so true. Even “accidents” (i.e. exception photos that seem to have just “happened”) aren’t accidents at all. Sometimes when I’m making photos to just to have pictures to look back at – and don’t have the time to do as good a job as I’d like – I end up with some that actually stand out. But they happened because of skill I’ve developed over time that I applied semi-subconsciously. Nothing accidental about that.

  • Greg

    When you can’t manipulate the camera enough to do what you want. The first camera I got photos published from was a Coolpix (I’m not joking) … by manipulating the options available to me. I upgraded to a “low end” DSLR when my camera simply couldn’t do what I expected it to do. And I’m still using the latter. Will I ever upgrade again? Probably, but it’s not in the picture yet.

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    I agree with everything written here, beside the fact that today’s software can really become a crutch.

  • So true! Equipment is only one part of photography. there is so much more to it!
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  • Iris Perez

    I’m guilty of over processing only because I’m going for the artistic side. I’m obsessed with Norman Rockwell

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