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4 Lessons Being a Programmer Taught me about Photography

photography.jpgWhile photography might be where my heart is, I make my money as a computer programmer by day.  At first I thought these were two completely different fields.  One is very mathematical and logical – where your program either works or doesn’t – and you usually know right away which one it is.  The other is more creative and subjective, and it’s hard to know if the photo you took is “right” or “wrong”.

It was because of these differences that I thought my IT background and love of photography combination was a relatively unique one, until I started looking through the professions listed in a number of my flickr contacts, and realized that I’m far from alone.  There are a number of IT-geeks-turned-photographers out there!  So maybe some of you can relate to these things I’ve learned to take from my programming day job and transform into working for me on my photography:

1. Documentation

As far as I’m concerned, undocumented code can never be good code, no matter how well it works.  I feel the same about my photography.  Why is it so important?  So that you know how to duplicate it later if you want to.

I document while I take photos.  The camera does most of the documentation for me with the EXIF data, but there are other things that I write down in the moleskine that I keep in my camera bag – like where I was, what the weather was like, and how I felt about the shoot.  That last one might not seem important, but I find it helpful to know if I was frustrated about certain things or happy about something else – if I know that a certain street downtown was really busy at 4:00 because of the bus schedule, that might make me want to come back at a different time.  If I was happy that

I document while I edit photos.  I think this is even more important. I didn’t used to do this, and I have so many photos that I stare at and I wish I knew how I had edited them.  Now that I’m getting better at documenting as I go, I’m able to duplicate the same effect from one photo to the next. I was also able to start to notice some patterns- which things that I do to almost every photo; which things that look best in portraits; which type of photos look best in black & white, and so on.

2. Trial and Error

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t some really fantastic logic behind my code. I’m just saying that sometimes, I’m not exactly sure what the outcome of a particular method is going to be.  And so, I run it, and I see what happens.  If the result wasn’t right, I tweak something, and I run it again.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve done the exact same thing with my photos.  In 2008, I did a Self Portrait project – taking a photo of myself every day for the year.  I don’t think I got any of those photos right the first time.  I’d set the timer, run into the shot, and then run back to see how I did, and then tweak something – stand a bit more to the right, hold a prop slightly differently, or adjust something on the camera.

The trial and error applies to editing, too – I have a few favorite “tricks” of mine when it comes to editing photos, and on a photo that I really think has potential, I’ll probably try all of them just to see what looks the best.

3. Searching the Internet for a Solution

I can’t tell you how many times Google has saved the day when a problem arises at work.  Why should I sit and bang my head against the wall trying to figure something out when, most likely, someone else has already figured out how to fix it and written about it online?  The same is true for photography.  The internet has shown me how to use Gimp, helped me determine what lens to buy next, and given me tips on how to shoot into the sun – and more!

Unlike programming, though, the internet has also inspired me. By browsing photos on flickr, and the forums here at DPS, I’ve gotten ideas and inspiration that I never would have even thought to look up.

4. Extreme Programming

Not too long after I started the job I have now, there was a big buzz-word in my field (buzz-phrase, I guess?) called Extreme Programming.  It’s just an exciting way of saying you have more than one person working together.  A programmer left in a bubble might write code that works, but it’s not necessarily the best way it can be writen.  Someone looking over your shoulder can offer suggestions you might not have thought of, or show you a trick to help with your productivity.

I think input from other users is a vital part of improving on your photography. I could sit in a bubble and work on improving my own photography, and it might get better, but until I look around and see what other people are doing – what’s possible to do – I could never reach my full potential.  Interaction with other photographers is a significant part of learning – you can only look up stuff on the internet when you know what it is that you don’t know.  Talking with an expert, though, shows you what it is that you don’t even know that you don’t know!  When you talk with other peers, too, it helps you reinforce the knowledge you have.

So, I’m curious, how has your day job helped you to become a better photographer?

About the Author: Jennifer Jacobs is an amateur photographer who runs iffles.com – a site for photography beginners. She’s also addicted to flickr and you can follow her stream here.

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