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I’ve just returned from the Great Smoky Mountains where I had the privilege of leading a 5-day workshop. It was a great learning experience for all, and we enjoyed great camaraderie and a shared passion for nature and the art of photography.

I’ve been noticing some trends over the past year or two that were very evident to me last week and thought would be worth sharing and exploring further.

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The Mirrorless Age

The first is the transition from conventional DSLRs to mirrorless cameras. On this particular workshop, half of the students were using mirrorless exclusively, and another student decided to make the switch as soon as the workshop was over. Size and weight savings for equal image quality were mentioned as being the primary reasons for making the switch. Based on my experience teaching printing workshops, most photographers who print their work are using either a 13” or 17” printer, so resolution is not an issue with a 16 or 18 MP sensor. And I’ve comfortably made 20” x 30” prints from my Olympus E-M1.

One student carried five prime lenses plus a body in a shoulder bag that weighed less than my Canon 70-200mm L lens. It’s hard to argue against that when your primary reason for photographing is having fun – even at the extremely serious or semi-pro level. And as a user of various mirrorless cameras myself, I can attest to the amazing image quality they can produce given proper camera technique and good lenses.

I was asked several times when and how I decide to use one format over another, and it really depends on my goals for whatever project I’m working on, NOT how much image quality I want or need. Do I need to generate large prints from the images? Am I hiking 4 or 5 miles to a location? Do I have access to batteries and/or electricity for chargers? Any combination of these answers will determine which is the best format for me to use, not how I want to be perceived. Yes I am a full time professional, but that doesn’t imply anything in terms of the tools I use, nor should it in my opinion.

My goal as a working fine art photographer is to make the best images possible that fulfill my vision. The format and gear I use helps me achieve that, not the other way around. In fact, I’m considering purchasing a large format film camera specifically for the ability to make very large prints in addition to the creative approach a camera like that demands. But I won’t be selling any of my digital cameras soon. That’s a decision driven by my creative goals, not commercial or public perceptions. But I also like to have fun.

Bottom line – use what works best for you, what delivers the most enjoyment from your creative pursuits with a camera, and forget all the rest. Forget the naysayers, the critics, the magazines, and the marketing pundits who suggest you need a particular “something” to be a “serious” photographer, or worst “compete” against others.

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Making vs. Editing

The second trend I’ve been noticing is the obsession with over-analyzing every image made on the cameras LCD, and letting that guide the creative process. Every good writer will tell you that writing and editing are two completely different activities and require separate “hats” so to speak. When writing, the idea is to get the words onto the paper or screen, letting the creative process guide each sentence to the next. We often hear of writers, composers, poets, and painters just letting the ideas flow out uninterrupted, and before they know it, they have more material than they expected. That happens because it starts you down a path that leads to more insights and ideas.

When the writing stops, then and only then, does the editing hat go on, and you remove what doesn’t work, or rewrite from the original ideas. The creating is separated from the editing, providing the important space and freedom to experiment without the constant judging and criticism.

The same process should be used in photography, and, in fact, was the norm before digital cameras allowed us to see every image shot instantly on the beautiful, bright LCDs. As I remind my students often, the LCD should be used to check composition and get a sense of the creative direction you’re heading in. Don’t use it to make critical judgements about color, contrast, or even exposure. That’s what your eyes and the histogram is for. And don’t let it interrupt your vision. The more you keep your eyes on your surroundings, the more aware you become of changing light, mood, and your emotions. That can’t happen if you’re constantly engaged with the LCD trying to decide if the picture works. It interrupts the flow of seeing.

I suggest watching and waiting until you feel inspired by anything, then make an image or two and see where that leads. Make small adjustments, refine the composition, and try again. Keep your eyes on the subject, which increases your awareness to its form, its “gesture”, as Jay Maisel likes to say.

“What you’re shooting at doesn’t matter, the real question is: ‘Does it give you joy?’” – Jay Maisel

The camera has nothing to offer beyond a digital recording of the scene in front of the lens. You are the most important factor – the ingredient that makes the real difference and creates the magic that others potentially see in your pictures. That comes from letting the creative process happen uninterrupted, without criticism or judgement. When you’re in the field, let nature make as big an impact as possible. That’s hard to do when your attention is focused on your LCD.

Once you’re back home, away from the external stimulus of nature, then you can put on the editing hat and critique away. That’s how you learn both parts of successful photography – the creating and the editing. See what worked, and what didn’t, make notes, then go out and try again. If you have an approach that differs, and it works well for you, then great. If not, I suggest you give this a try – you may be pleasantly surprised.

Thanks once again to all the students who attended and help me keep doing what I love.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I learned a long time ago that the LCD on the back of the camera really didn’t show very well what I actually shot. You’re right that using it for composition and the histogram is best. Having said that, a few weeks ago it really saved my photo shoot. I was shooting dark bookcases (and books) with an extremely light window on the side. Even shooting with spot metering made it way too dark. If I hadn’t checked the LCD, I wouldn’t have realized they were so bad.

    After metering up close and a few more experiments, I shot the rest on manual and it turned out great.


  2. Photoshopped photos are not photographic images. That’s the trend I see. Garish colors and other gimmicks have over run the temple. I’m a analog dinosaur. Let me do the digital equivalent of dodging and burning. Make it simple.
    One or two lenses with a big Nikon or mirrorless Fuji or Oly will work for me.
    I’m going against the grain…

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