I’ve been shooting for about 5 years now and here are 4 things, that, had I learned them earlier, I could have saved so much time and taken many better pictures and gotten better so much faster.
And I’m curious – what things did you learn, that you wish you had learned sooner?
The biggest a-ha came from studying the zone system (this is pretty recent). The analytical framework it provides for previsualization affords a lot of clarity. This clarity, in turn, helps me frame my vision, and in turn, shoot and edit so much more efficiently. The amount of time spent thinking, what should I do with this exposure, how bright should this be, how dark should that be, is kind of mind-boggling. The zone system doesn’t give you a definitive answer, but it does give you a way of thinking so you know what kind of questions you need to answer.
Portrait focal lengths
A second big a-ha moment, about a year and a half ago, was realizing that 90% of the so-called wisdom about shooting people at “portrait focal lengths” is garbage. This came when I started shooting more subjects at 35mm, and then later even 12-24. A related point here is that I’ve learned to really dislike the effects of compression in most portrait cases. And the photos I saw on Instagram that I liked so much before of half or 3/4s portraits shot at 85 with lots of creamy bokeh started to look super boring. There’s definitely a use for it. But I think longer focal lengths and wide apertures make it too easy to fall into a crutch and impede learning. I learned so much more so much faster shooting with my 35 and 12-24. I still think it’s accurate to say that for retail portrait photography, 85 and 70-200 are safe bets. But that’s also my gripe about them: they make the photos look like retail portrait photos.
You don’t have to point the softbox at the subject
A third big a-ha for me was the realization that you can reduce the contrast on your subject and keep the exposure constant by simply pointing the light away from the subject (or simply moving the subject increasingly away from the direct angle of incidence) and increasing the power of the light. This bit of knowledge combined with the framework of the zone system is incredibly powerful. This insight is basically about controlling contrast and applying the zone system to this insight, it changes the thinking from “lighting the subject” to working in the subject into the contrast of the frame. So a practical application of this is how I use flash outdoors. I tend to use direct lighting when the ambient light is harsh and indirect lighting when it’s soft. It’s no longer about matching the exposure of the artificial and the ambient light; it’s about matching the contrast.
Books, museums, art
A fourth big a-ha moment was that, time spent reading books – about art, about design, about photography, the history of photography, techniques, books of photographs, biographers of photographers, etc. and the knowledge that affords – yields so much more knowledge than internet content. This sub likes to take a shit on Ken Rockwell. I kind of think that the whole internet sum of photography knowledge is sort of like Ken Rockwell compared to the wisdom you get from reading good books.
The a-ha moments and improvements in knowledge are also way more valuable than gear. There’s a virtue to youtube, Reddit, and the mantra of “just go shoot.” And of course, this learning would have less context and less soil for the flowers to bloom if I didn’t have thousands of garbage photos under my belt and countless hours spent reading about photography online. But the size of the yield, for the amount of time and money devoted to it, is the largest.
One more thing – there was also a liberating moment when, a few years back, I started being ok with photos being a little out of focus. This came from looking at more books of photographs, visiting photo galleries, and photo exhibits at museums, and being kind of taken aback by how many shots were out of focus. in so many cases, it’s really ok. and the reason so many people talking about photography on the internet will harp on things like focus and noise is that gear and technicals are what they know.
About the Author
Jack Soltysik is a Polish photographer based in Chicago. Previously he was based in NYC and Beijing. He shoots architecture, portraits, commercial, and event work and you can see more of his photos on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.