How and when to ask for photography advice
‘Please I need your help fast.’ Gosh, that’s a fairly desperate title for an email. Normally I’d delete that sort of missive as being a scam, but as it came through the Photocritic helpdesk the chances were that a student might’ve been a little overwrought.
It turns out that the email wasn’t from a student, although the sender could probably benefit from signing up for the school. And without wishing to belittle the sender, if you can wade through the hyperbole of desperation, it’s probably worth unpicking. I think there’s a great deal woven into the letter that people wanting to seek advice can learn from it.
I’ve redacted the sender’s name, but otherwise this is the email as I received it:
my name is XXX XXX, a Nigerian, a graduate of social studies In XXX XXX XXX, Ondo state, and a photographer.
I started photography three years ago as a result of no job in the country and I went for a short training before starting up my photography firm, as it is now a friend pointed out some observations of his about my pictures of been under exposed and I feel it’s an angle I need look into. please what can I do to quickly save me my repute, bring my picture quality to limelight and to make clients seek after me.
As it is in Nigeria I can only afford to save a while to enable me get a Canon 1200d for my business and a lens of 18-135mm. as it is its been affecting my clients patronage and I’m nt happy about it. my friends get clients week in and out but I rarely that’s why I’m calling out for help out of this situation. I want a situation when I can get jobs without referral when people sees my pictures and be like yeah, this is what I’m talking about…… thanks so much, hope to get your feedback as soon as possible
For an email that’s only eight sentences long it has a lot of questions, and indeed says a few things that need to addressed. Given its density, knowing where to start might be tricky, but let’s give it a bash.
Feedback and portfolio
The biggest issue here is that Alex (I’m calling the sender Alex from now on as it’s a suitably gender-neutral name) hasn’t provided me with a link to examples or her or his work. While I wouldn’t be too keen on opening a random link sent from a random person in a very random email, if you really want someone’s critique on your work and their advice, you need to provide some examples. Perhaps the safest way to do this is through a well-respected site. ‘You can find me Facebook.’ ‘Take a look on Flickr. My user name is AmazingAlex.’ ‘You can check out my work on Instagram where my handle is AmazingAlex.’ We’re working with a visual medium here; some examples are useful.
Which leads me very neatly onto my next point.
Problems with exposure
Alex tells me that a friend has commented that her or his photos are consistently under-exposed. Without some examples, I can neither tell if they are under-exposed nor offer any explanations as to why they might be under-exposed. Still, let’s work through some suggestions.
Read your light meter
Honestly, I have no idea if Alex knows where the light meter on her or his camera is and how to read it. If the course mentioned in the second sentence didn’t cover light meters, it’s a poor show, but one never knows. Alex needs to read the camera’s manual; find the light meter; experiment with adjusting the exposure to achieve a well-exposed image accordingly.
Understand the exposure triangle
Once Alex has located the light meter, she or he needs to use the exposure triangle to adjust how much light is reaching the camera’s sensor accordingly. The exposure triangle is fundamental to photography. If Alex (or anyone else in the universe) wants to take great photos, they need to understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. But the chances are that if Alex’s photos are under-exposed, she or he needs to open up the aperture a little, slow down the shutter speed a bit, or increase the ISO a smidge. I can’t tell which one or by how much, because I’ve no examples, but it’s a start.
Is your camera’s light meter accurate?
My Canon 450D consistently under-exposed images by about a third of a stop. Or, it did to my eye, anyway. Remember, the nuances of exposure are a personal thing. After a few sessions correcting the exposure in post-processing, I learned to ‘over-expose’ by a third of a stop according to my camera’s light meter every time that I released the shutter.
What’s Alex photographing?
There are some types of photos that need to be ‘over-exposed’ according to the camera’s light meter. If a scene is naturally very bright–for example in snow or at the beach–the light meter will suggest an exposure that actually resolves to being too dark, or a murky grey. In simple terms the light meter cannot believe that a scene is that bright, so it suggests an exposure that doesn’t allow sufficient light to reach the sensor. It’s easy to fix if you know it’s likely happen: over-expose the scene.
All the gear and no idea
Alex bemoaning that she or he has only a Canon 1200D and an 18-135mm lens doesn’t really cut it with me. For a start, it’s far too close to a begging email and they go in the bin. But the best camera is the one that you have, so Alex needs to learn to work around these limitations.
The Canon 1200D might be an entry level dSLR, but it’s a perfectly competent one. Looking at the reviews, Canon’s 18-135mm lens is versatile and reliable. Sure, Alex’ll struggle to create macro images with it and achieving good background blur in portraits will not be so easy, but for landscapes and ‘general photography’ it gets a thumbs up.
I still don’t know what type of photography Alex wants to pursue, or how his lens is affecting the photos that she or does take, but the chances are that right now the bottleneck is Alex’s skill and not the gear. Practise, practise, practise. Read some books. Do another course. Read more books. Practise, practise, practise.
Pursuing a career
I can’t wave a wand and magically present someone with a career. Can you imagine I wouldn’t have sold my secret and be spending my life touring the world, taking photos of the sublime food that I eat along the way and revelling in art and history as I do so, before now?
Making any career, not just a career in photography, is hard work. It requires patience and perseverance and bucket loads of sweat. My father, who is now approaching retirement will tell you that you cannot rest on your laurels, either. You need to constantly strive to improve yourself.
I cannot tell Alex if she or he has the guts to go for a photography career, but I do know that’s what’s required. Alex has got to shoot, shoot, shoot. She or he has got to evaluate, improve, and re-evaluate. After which Alex needs to identify her or his niche. And then repeat ad nauseam all the while putting her or his name out there and not being afraid to say ‘You need a photographer for that? I can do it!’ and mean it.
- Is your issue one that can probably be solved by reading the manual or a quick Google search? Stop. Go try those things first.
- Are you asking for the earth in your advice? Stop. Be specific.
- Have you provided examples? Sample photos are essential for a critique. Stop. Find a non-creepy way to offer some.
- Are you blaming your kit for your shortcomings? Stop. Work with what you have and when you are truly being held back by your kit’s inadequacies, it’s time to upgrade.
- Are you looking for an easy way to make a quick buck or a simple solution to forging a career? Stop. The first one doesn’t happen and the second one is entirely the result of hard work, dedication, and determination.
Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.