That Was Bad Advice, Bad Advice...

Bad advice costs nothing and it's worth the price. (Yes, an Alan Sherman reference.)

Yet another this-is-what-you-should-do article popped up on my iPad the other day. How to make better photographs. Yes! I want to do that, tell me more.

Unfortunately, the advice was mostly terrible, stereotyped, and not well documented.

World of Rules

First I'm told that I should use the Rule of Thirds. Subjects should be at an intersection of the thirds lines. I took a ruler to the image that illustrated this concept. Nope. Subject was close to the third line horizontally, but not vertically. So is it a rule, or just a weighted bias? 

It's neither, of course. One reason why the Rule of Thirds tends to continue getting so much press is that no one seems to be able to say that there are two basic compositional approaches: symmetry and non-symmetry. Symmetry is easy: center the subject! Non-symmetry is difficult, because it involves balancing the objects (and lack of objects) in the frame. 

The painters went through an examination of how to achieve balance. The Rule of Thirds is really a bit of a bastardization of something often called the Golden Ratio (or Section, Proportion, or Rule, etc.). DaVinci's Last Supper has multiple sub-sections within it that follow Golden Ratio parameters. At least the Golden Ratio as it was defined when DaVinci was alive. I can find lots of different definitions, many based on different math and sub-sectioning. If one were right, we should all be using it, right?

Personally, I'm not a fan of any fixed notion to composition. There is not a single right way to compose a scene. There's the way you see and feel the scene and want to have viewers work through it, but that is not a paint-by-numbers game.

Color Should be Right

Next up in the bad advice article was a discussion about setting the proper White Balance for whatever the predominant light source is, because Auto White Balance never works correctly.

Perhaps telling us why automatic control of white balance can be a problem would have been a better use of ink (or pixels). Realistically, very few scenes have a fixed white balance throughout them. In an outdoor scene, sunlit areas will have one light coloration, shaded areas a different one. Unfortunately, cameras only give us one white balance option, so you can set it right for one area—e.g. the sunlit one—and it will be wrong for the others—e.g. the shaded areas—or you can try to find a pleasing "balance point" between the two. 

In post processing, we can process different areas differently. Indeed, I will often make such adjustments, adding or subtracting warmth or coolness to the lit and shaded areas. Still, you're making the same sorts of decisions here as you do with composition: what is it you're trying to show me? 

For example, a slash of sunlit area across a shaded area—think being in a dense forest—represents a choice you have to make that influences how the viewer sees your image. If you set your white balance for sunlight, the slash has no "charm" to it, and the shaded forest areas all go very cool. If you set your white balance for the shaded forest floor, the sunlit slash goes very warm. So what is it you felt while you were there, and what do you want the viewer to see? That's what you set for white balance, not the right white balance for the light.


Our article in question next tried to talk about focus. In particular, depth of field. The advice? Bracket! Shoot at your largest aperture and shoot again at a far smaller aperture. Then choose when you get home. 

If you truly don't know what you're taking a photograph of, then doing a bunch of bracketing—focus isn't the only thing you should bracket—at least gives you some options for when you sit down later and try to finally figure out what the shot is of. I would also guess that if you're going to follow this advice, you're probably doing a lot of cropping of images later, too. The proper camera for you is thus probably an array of cameras pointing different directions and set in different ways so that you come home with a huge data set you can play with after the fact.

Someone asked me recently what really distinguishes a "photograph" these days in the world of Photoshop. The Kardashians, for example, appear to like to add fingers and toes to their images after the fact. Apparently that's easier than having someone make some fake digits for them to wear ;~).

To me, a photograph happens when you take it. That doesn't mean that you don't post process it, it means that you know what it is you're taking a photograph of, and if you're going to do any manipulation (of color, focus, composition, etc.), you probably already have a very good idea of what that will be. That's because you went to a place, saw something, and wanted to capture what you saw and felt. If you didn't really see or feel anything, then you're not taking a photograph. What you're doing is "finding photographs" in random data that you collected as you wandered about shooting randomly. Those are not the same thing, and if you don't understand that, you need to ponder that for a bit.

Bracketing because you're not sure about composition or focal point is a telltale sign to me that you're probably not sure what you're photographing. You have no idea what you want to show a viewer. Bracketing something like exposure is a little different, in that the tools we have in the camera don't give us precise enough information to capture optimal data, and we may be trying to make sure we have the data that we need.

Wide Angle is What You See

Nope. We scan a wide area, but we see a fixed and fairly narrow area well. When we scan an area—by moving our eyes or turning our head—we also get depth cues from our stereo vision. That's not present in a wide angle lens standing back from a subject. It's why I constantly tell people to include a near, middle, and far in their wide angle shots, because we need depth cues to take in large vistas well once they're reduced to a flat two-dimensional surface (screen or print). 

There was much more advice in the article that was either naive, misleading, or wrong. I'm not going to link to it nor am I going to try to go through everything point by point. That's because my point is something more general that you need to understand and take to heart.

There is no right way to take a photograph. Photography is both a craft (the technical side) and an art (the compositional and decision making side). Thinking that someone else has all the answers—and that includes me, by the way—will eventually lead you down the wrong path. 

The operative question you should always be asking yourself is this: what do I want others to see? If you can answer that question, then you will know how to frame, how to set the camera, what lens to use, where to focus, and so on. That's because all those decisions you need to make need to be supportive of your answer, and only you know that answer, not someone sitting a desk somewhere writing over-generalized "solutions" to your problems.

So. What are you photographing, and why? What does the viewer need to see? How will you get them to see it? Those are the things you should be asking for more help with, not which button to press or dial to turn.

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