What’s Your Biggest Problem?

Today it’s time for you to come clean. You’ll need to do some soul searching and honest evaluation. It will be rough. Your ego will be bruised. If that worries you, just stop reading now and just enjoy the failed photo above ;~).

If I were to characterize the “biggest problem” presented by posters at Internet Photography Site #1, it would be “my camera’s lack of dynamic range.” That despite the fact that we have more dynamic range with digital today than we had with slide film and more than most people know what to do with. Another Internet Site seems to constantly harp on “focus precision.” And often for landscape photography where DOF probably is a little more important, believe it or not. Yet other sites get all caught up in lens MTF values and low level attributes of the lenses. Things that may or may not show up in your images, but definitely don’t really show up in your images if you’re not enlarging them significantly (i.e. using them on the Internet). 

So let’s try a simple test, and see where we are.

  1. Do you know what you should look at to see if a lens has significant chromatic aberration?
  2. Do you know what saggital coma looks like? 
  3. Do you know how to figure out usable dynamic range? If so, how much usable dynamic range does your camera actually have? Are you sure?
  4. Do you know how much “dynamic range” your printer can actually reproduce? 
  5. Do you know how to take #3 and change the tonality curves to match #4?

I could keep going, but I’ll save you some time. Let’s look instead at a few other questions:

  1. Do you always take photos of compelling subjects?
  2. Do your photos stand out so much from others that people naturally gravitate to them when displayed together with works by other photographers?
  3. What’s the subject of your latest photo? If you responded with a name or noun, is that how you really want other people to respond to your photos (e.g. “look, a photo of X”)? 
  4. Was the framing of your photo correct when you took it, or did you have to crop it when you got home and looked at what you had actually captured?
  5. Did you “miss” on a key basic element of some sort (focus, exposure, timing)? 

So let’s get the elephant out of the bag most of you keep it in and into the room where we can discuss it: most people are complaining about their cameras because otherwise they’d have to put the blame for their photography on themselves. It’s the camera’s fault their photograph isn’t great. Or maybe the lens’ fault. Not theirs. 

Now don’t get me wrong. If you managed to take an incredible photo of a compelling subject in a way that the world hadn’t seen before and it was with a D600 that was throwing lubricant and dust onto the upper left area of the photograph, you’d be pissed. Equipment can get in the way of your enjoyment. But let me also be clear: you’d still have a great photograph, though you’d be spending a lot of time cloning out the crud the D600 put into the photo. Generally we don’t want our photo gear adding to the tasks we have to do in our workflow, which is one of the reasons why the D600 shutter issue was such a big deal and has really hurt Nikon’s credibility with users. One Nikon technical support person apparently suggested to one of this site's readers that they not use such small apertures or take time-lapse images. Really? Then why are the features there? 

Still, some of the great photos of history were taken with cameras with light leaks, with dirty or poor lenses, were improperly processed, and more. So exactly why is it that thousands of folk on Internet Site #1 get so all excited about a difference of a stop in EV in engineering DR measurements? Probably because they want to blame the equipment for their lack of great photographs, not themselves. 

Which brings me to this article’s title: what’s your biggest photographic problem? Is it really the gear you’re using, or is it something else? Could it be the way you’re using your existing equipment? Could it be that you’re overlooking the biggest problem facing your photography and transferring all the blame to something else to avoid dealing with it? 

Recently I reviewed the Sony A7r. In that review I mentioned that the A7r wasn’t capable of the same level of quality in raw files as the D800E, which uses the same basic sensor. At an absolute level, that is true: given a choice between the two cameras to obtain the best possible results for my work, I’m going to choose the D800E. The data it gives me is cleaner to work with, has fewer issues I need to pay attention to, and has proven to be the best I’ve obtained from cameras below the Medium Format realm. 

As I’ve outlined many times, I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to the digital data I collect. I don’t want there to be issues in that data if I can avoid it. I want optimal data to be captured when I shoot. So, yes, I’m guilty of the same thing as many posters on Internet Photography Site #1. But when I’m shooting, I also try to push my gear to the max: I’m actually trying to make my equipment my biggest problem, because if I’m successful at that, I know that I’ve mastered the things under my control.

For most people, using a Sony A7r instead of a D800E and getting bit-limited data from the sensor is not going to be their biggest problem. Not even close. The elephant in the room is that they’re making bigger mistakes that have to be dealt with than the camera and lens they’ve chosen (though lens choice can sometimes be a big problem, too). 

I’d say that the biggest problem I find that most photographers have is a really fundamental one: what is it they’re taking a photo of? And why? 

Ironically, pros didn’t use to have this problem. If you were working for a client, generally they were directing you towards what you were taking a photograph of and why. Back in the film days just mastering the technique of getting proper exposure and focus and all the rest was generally enough to set you apart. These days of ubiquitous and cheap stock photography and digital cameras with instant feedback on the basics, for a pro to stand out they need something more than the basics: generally a recognizable and unique style. 

Indeed, that is one of the two primary problems pros have these days. Problem 1: standing out amongst all the good imagery that exists, much of it near “free”. Problem 2: marketing yourself so that people know your work. Unfortunately, solving #2 means that you have to be highly visible, which makes more people attempt to copy you, which eventually increases problem #1. Pros have to keep moving, keep reinventing themselves, and above all be great marketers and salespeople. 

Amateurs and enthusiasts have a similar problem. But before I describe that, let me point out something that’s probably going to upset you. It’s the Million Monkey Phenomena in a slightly different form.

If you take enough photos, you’ll take some good ones, maybe even some great ones. It’s simply the law of randomness at work. So it’s time for another quiz.

Take your most recent “successful” photo. The photo about which everyone said “oh, that’s nice." Score yourself from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) on each of the following:

  • How “lucky” was the shot?
  • How “prepared” were you to take the shot just before it was taken?
  • How much much effort and planning went into being at that particular place and time with the right gear?
  • How much effort did you put into mastering the technical aspects of the shot? (Score 1 if the camera was in Auto modes ;~)
  • How much did the camera you were using determine how good the shot was?

For example, if luck was a 10 and technical mastery was a 1, then you might need to reexamine how much was under your control. If luck was a 1 and the others were a 10, congratulations, it looks like the shot might have been due to factors under your control. 

And remember, this was for your best shot. Now find one of your recent rejects and ask the same questions. If all your answers are 1, then I think we know why it was a reject ;~). 

So here’s an assignment for you. I want you to schedule a two-to-four hour photography session, one where you’re just concentrating on making images. It doesn’t matter what type of photography. It can be casual street photography, portrait, macro, landscape, sports, birds in flight, whatever type of photography you like to do that you can schedule a session for. 

I have no instructions for you prior to the shoot. Just go shoot like you usually do. Don’t change anything in what you do or your thinking. Just shoot. Your only goal here is to get the best possible shot(s) you can. 

If you’re going to actually perform this assignment (and I hope you do), you might want to stop reading here and come back to this article after you’ve completed the shooting. Don’t worry, I’m patient…

Okay, still with me? Here’s what I want you do next: for that photo session you just finished, I want you to be brutally honest with yourself and answer a few questions. Don’t hold back. You learn nothing from deceiving yourself. When I write “brutally honest,” I mean it. 

  • What was really your biggest problem during that photo session?
  • Was that problem in or out of your control and why?
  • Was that problem gear-related or subject-related?
  • Would more practice or more knowledge have reduced or eradicated the problem?
  • Is that problem one that recurs over and over in your shooting?
  • What would someone observing you say your biggest problem was? ;~)
  • If you had resolved that problem, how would your photos have been better? 

Now show your best two or three photos from the session to a friend who wasn’t there. Don’t ask them for an opinion of the shots in the usual way. Instead, ask them only this: what are the biggest problems you see in these photos? (I told you your ego might get bruised; this is the place where it could get hammered pretty hard.) How does their opinion line up with your answers to the questions above? 

I wrote earlier that amateurs and enthusiasts have a similar problem to the pros. It’s true. Imagery is so ridiculously ubiquitous these days that taking “just another photograph” just won’t net you a lot of satisfaction. Indeed, I was watching the behavior of a few younger folk yesterday who were running through Facebook posts, and I was a bit surprised at how fast most were dismissing images. That was often happening faster than their dismissal of text (it should be obvious that you usually have to read a few words before you know whether a post is something you want to fully read, whereas an image could be more instantaneous in your recognition). 

This may be one reason why so many amateurs and enthusiasts tend towards trying to completely master technique over substance: at least they can say they’re a master craftsperson. All that time and energy were at least spent at perfecting something, such as exposure or focus and so on. 

The problem, of course, is that sometimes these days we have to go way too far to get attention to our images. Just this morning the subject of “goating a song” came up with my mom, which represents a video version of the same problem. (Unfamiliar with the term? Try this short video for an example. Really, it’s worth the 18 seconds of your time to get to the part I’m referring to; you’ll know when you get there; but let it autoplay the additional videos ;~). 

In short, it’s tougher and tougher to create great images (or songs, or videos) that stand out, no matter whether you’re a rank amateur or a seasoned pro. The natural tendencies, therefore, are: (1) to cheat and find a way to “goat” an image; or (2) just redirect your focus from images you create to the equipment you create it with. I don’t think we should be doing either, though both can be fun games in their own strange way. 


Your goal—not goat—should be to create strong, compelling images. Your biggest problem is likely to be more about the image itself than the techniques or gear you used to create it. 

So I’m going to back up to the brutal ego pounding you took at the hands of your friend. Was the biggest problem they saw in your final images a technical one or a compositional one? If it was compositional (subject, placement, timing, etc.), I can absolutely guarantee you that you don’t need to hit the B&H links on this site and order new gear (though I always appreciate that when you do). 

Interestingly, if your problems were technical, you still may not need to go on a shopping spree. It’s more likely that the technical problem was caused by how you used your current gear, not the quality of the gear itself. 

But no matter what, this question is something you absolutely need to get a handle on: what really is your biggest photographic problem? Knowing the answer to that is the first part of fixing the problem. And since it’s your biggest problem, wouldn’t you like to fix that?

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