Photographic Sins

The things you're doing that you shouldn't be.

We all do it. We all get in our own way when out shooting. Sometimes that means we don't get the shot at all, sometimes it just means we don't get the best shot. Either way, I'm not into the self-flagellation thing, and neither should you be. Herewith are the things that really get in your way and you should stop doing:

  1. Dropping your camera. Bonus sin points for dropping it in water or off cliffs. In nearly fifteen years of shooting digitally and teaching workshops this is the sin that just stops everything in its tracks. Gear busted = no shots at all. It's not as rare a problem as you think. I've seen it happen about twice a year on average, and I've done it myself twice in my long career, including "accidentally" throwing a lens off the top of a waterfall (and one of the only two lenses I was carrying, leaving me with one focal length to shoot with the rest of the day). Curiously, more often than not the "drop" is not direct. You don't pick up a piece of gear and then just drop it. Drops tend to be because of two reasons: unattended gear and juggling gear. I once watched four cameras left unattended side-by-side on tripods get knocked over by a gust of wind. Ouch, that was an expensive blow of wind. But the more common problem is trying to juggle when you shouldn't be. Changing lenses is one of the juggling aspects that usually triggers the drop. So why are you changing lenses over a concrete surface? If you've got your pack out and on the ground, squat down and do the lens change just above the nice padded pack you spent so much money for. Other things to check: strap integrity, clamp integrity, and footing integrity.
  2. Leaving your gear unattended. Besides the drop (see wind, above), theft, kids, innocent bystanders who didn't notice it there, are all common; the number of ghouls that can punish you for this sin is nearly infinite. You can even punish yourself. I once watched someone walk away from the pack they had taken off, forgetting the rest of their gear on the ground where they had left it. Given that we were on a remote trail, I wonder how long it would have taken them to figure out that they had left their pack somewhere, let alone where that somewhere was. Best case is they'd spend a lot of hiking time backtracking. Worst case is they'd never find the gear again. When you're out shooting, the number one habit you should practice is to do a complete area check. The minute you put your camera down from shooting, look on the ground for gear you left behind. Better that you don't use the ground as temporary storage, obviously, but every now and then this habit saves you from other problems: I found an eyepiece that had come off my camera without noticing, for instance. Those US$10 pieces of rubber can get to be an expensive habit if you're not paying attention.
  3. Forcing it. Cameras are precision instruments. There is no camera or accessory I know of where use of force is ever necessary. Ever. Often times this sin is about trying to save time: you're in a hurry. There's a difference between being able to work fast and being in a hurry. I'll use an example from a workshop. We came out of one area to find that we were very close to sunset but without a good opportunity close at hand. I pointed out where we should be, grabbed my gear and took off at a run. By the time I arrived where I wanted to be my tripod was extended, the right lens was on my camera, I had made camera settings, and I had a filter out that I needed to use. Thus, my stop-to-shot time was pretty much a second or two. I looked around and noticed what my students were doing: taking off their bags, getting out their camera (see next), figuring out which lens to use, setting up their tripod, fiddling with settings, and more. I was done before they had even gotten ready to shoot. I was working fast, but I wasn't in a hurry (other than with my feet to get where I wanted to be). How did I do all that while running? First, I had already chosen my gear at the vehicle: I didn't carry everything I owned with me. Second, I practice this (at least I used to; as I get older I don't move as fast as I used to and can't always do the things I used to). Seriously, can you extend your tripod while walking, let alone running? Do you know your camera settings well enough to set them while moving? These are practicable items. But if you don't practice, you can't do them. The temptation, however, is that the faster you try to do things, the more you attempt forcing things. You didn't quite practice enough and you're in a hurry to get that lens mounted on the camera, so you just jam it in and turn. Only you didn't quite get the lens aligned with the body so it's resisting, as it should. If force is necessary, something is wrong. Practice things that you need to do fast, don't try to do them fast without practice or else you'll end up using force.
  4. Treating your gear as priceless. You carefully take your camera out of the protective bag you carry it in, take a picture, make sure no spec of dirt, water vapor, or dust has landed on it and not been cleaned off, then put it back in your bag, and then maybe even put that bag in another protective bag. Photographs are moments in time. You missed nearly an infinite number of moments in time while you were coddling your gear. Cameras should be accessible. Heck, you've probably got a rubber protective coat over your camera and lens and a UV filter on the front of the lens, plus you've put another protective cover over the rear LCD. Yet you still coddle your camera. And you're adding visual artifacts to the light getting to the sensor and you can't evaluate what little color fidelity the rear LCD gives you properly. I know that everyone reading my articles cringes every time I mention this, but the true pros treat their gear as almost disposable. We're not afraid to risk it for a shot. The shot is more important than the gear for a very simple reason: we can replace the gear, we can't usually replace the shot. Even in a studio with controlled lighting. If you miss the sly smile, you aren't going to get it back by saying to the model "hey, do a sly smile." Shot first, gear second.
  5. Mistreating your gear. Hey, wait a second, can Thom have it both ways? Sure I can. I've watched pro photojournalists throw their camera gear into the trunk of a vehicle (not into a bag, mind you, but literally thrown into the trunk, as is), then drive off to the next assignment. How they expect that gear to work at the next assignment, I don't know, especially the way some of those guys and gals drive. There is "up time" for camera gear (when it needs to be at the ready and you shouldn't be treating it as priceless) and there is "down time" for camera gear (when it isn't likely to be used at all and should be safely put away or protected). The one time you do coddle gear is during down time. I like to put gear away clean and into protective cases. That way I know it'll be ready and working when I take it out at the next shooting opportunity. Which brings up a minor point: the gear should be back out before the shooting opportunity arises. You need to use a little anticipation here. Likewise, it shouldn't go back into the case, pack, or whatever you're using to protect it until you know the photographic opportunities are gone.
  6. Too much agonizing over little things. Is there a tiny scratch on the front of the lens? A bit of dust on the front element? Is your camera a little bit noisier in low light than your shooting buddy's? Did you forget to set Optimal Quality for the JPEG Compression? Little things don't kill pictures. We already have it so much better than we did at the start of my career that I can usually neglect a lot of little things and still take pictures technically better than I took 20 or 30 years ago. Yet some of those older pictures endure. Why? Because the little things that were wrong with them were far outweighed by the things that were right, which is to say composition, timing, poses, unique event/perspective, etc. If you agonize over the little things too much, you never get to the proper amount of agonizing over the big things. Get the big things right first and foremost. If you then still have time, agonize over the little things.
  7. Forgetting you have feet. Perspective is one of the least used variables in photography. The truly great photographers use perspective all the time. The truly mediocre photographers use zooms all the time and never move their position. Even if you have a zoom lens, your feet should be active. Wide angle close is different than wide angle far away. Same is true of Normal and Telephoto. Here's a tip: every shot ask yourself if you're close or far. Then ask yourself if that's the right choice, photographically. If you can't answer the close/far question (or come up with the answer neither close nor far), stop and figure it out. If you can't answer the right choice question, stop and figure it out. If you don't know what that last question is all about, spend time at home studying what's been written about perspective and understanding it.
  8. Using your feet when you shouldn't. A corollary to the previous point is this: most photographers take pictures standing on their feet. Not squatting, not bent over, not anything other than standing up straight. The vast majority of photographs are taken with eye-level perspective. Indeed, the number one tripod question I get is "I'm 6'+, what tripod reaches up to eye level for me?" I'll bet that far more than half of my photos weren't taken standing up. I lie on the ground, I squat, I sit, and I climb things. Now, I got a lot of that from studying with the late Galen Rowell, but the more I studied what makes a picture interesting, the more I realized that not all interesting pictures exist at 5'8" and that Galen was right. Indeed, the more pictures that are taken at eye level, the less compelling and interesting those pictures become (the Sontag theory). If all you ever do is pull up to the scenic overlook at take a picture standing up, then you're getting the same exact picture (other than moment) that everyone else is. Thus, the sin here is contributing to boredom. Bonus tip: photographing kids or animals? Stop standing up and using your eye level; get to their eye level.


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