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Some Thoughts on Photography

Written by

Mark Wolinski
Hôtel des Invalides. Paris, France. © Mark D Wolinski

Some people are scared of enhancing their photos. They needn’t be.

Several years ago, I was approached by a co-worker asking for some help because he had decided to try and start selling his Photography. He had created a simple site and asked if I’d give it a look and what my thoughts were on it. I agreed to look at it.

When I visited the website, there was a nice grid of his photography shot mostly in Italy, as I recall. But the entire site had a tone of grey across all of the photos, as if this was a Claritin commercial. You know the one, where they pull back the haze to be “Claritin clear” and everything is nicely colored.

When I met with the fellow again, he was focused on getting me to rebuild his website, I was focused on the photography so I asked him, “Do you color correct your photos after you shoot them?”

“Oh no,” he said, “I’m a purist and take the photos as they come off the camera.” I tried encouraging him to do some editing of the photos, but he would have none of that. I quickly realized this was as fruitless as trying to explain Darwin’s Evolution theories to Ted Cruz.

“Yeah, I can’t help you.” I said. I have no idea if he’s sold a photo since then.

While digital cameras have gotten really good at taking photos, there’s artistry that’s required at every step of the process from taking the photo, processing the photo, all the way to displaying the photo.

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Viaduc de Millau, France. © Mark D Wolinski

Photography, BD (Before Digital)

Modern photography begins in the early 1800s. In the mid-1800s, James Clerk Maxwell developed the first way to take the first permanent color photographs by taking three different images through three different filters. Can you guess them? Red, Green, Blue.

You can be forgiven if you think that before digital was essentially dropping you photos off at the Kodak booth in the K-Mart parking lot and getting back a pack of photos that looked exactly like what you shot. I know there are photographers who still have the smell of fixer forever encoded in memory are shaking their heads.

When I was in college, I took a black and white photography course. In this course, we shot photos, developed the negatives and printed the images. My co-worker felt the art was in the first part. I failed to impress upon him that it was required in all the parts.

If you have never personally developed and printed film, try and find a local community college that still offers the course (yes, yes, I know, try to find a 35mm camera and film these days!).

Just the process of getting the film out of the container and onto the spiral for development (which, by the way, is done in absolute darkness) will give you lessons in patience beyond anything you’ve so far experienced. Imagine the moment you discover that the one great shot you took just got ruined because the film jumped the spiral and stuck to another photo during the processing part.

Ilford has several articles about processing film, here’s a beginners guide.

After you have the negative, you now get to decide how to print the image. When you expose your photograph you’re making many artistic choices, how long do I expose this, the longer you do the darker it becomes. Do I burn or block specific areas. Do I do multiple exposures on it?

Finally, there’s the sense of timing in the fixer and water tanks. This is the part you usually see in the movies with the actor in a darkroom. He’s standing there in a red-lit room (this is the only part of the process you can have a specific light on) with three tanks of liquid and the photographic print submerged in one. He glides it out of the tank and holds it up, the cop (usually female) gasps! “My God! Bob killed her!” Probably won’t ever happen to you like that, at least it never did in my college classes.

All of those steps require a fifth sense of timing. Much like a painter determines how much of each color to mix together to make the perfect shade, a photographer uses time: How long to expose the initial photo, how long to keep in the developer, how long to expose the print, how long to keep in the fixer.

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Washington Monument from the WWII Memorial, Washington DC. © Mark D Wolinski

Photography AD (After Digital)

Digital cameras have been a revolution in photography. They have made it easy to quickly shoot of hundreds, even thousands, of photographs. Which is not necessarily a good thing. I still remember, during the age of flip phones, watching people walk by a monument, flip out their phone, hold it above their head a snap a shot. It’s a memento, not a shot they’d ever try to sell.

Lately, when I’ve done casual travel with my wife (before the Coronavirus), I’ve only taken my iPhone and not my Canon 6D and lenses. Modern smart phones take really good photos, if all you’re going to do is post them on a social network or just keep them as part of your personal travelogue. But I’ll be honest, on every trip I’ve taken without my camera, there is at least a couple of times when I wish I had my camera. And on trips that I’ve had my camera, there have been many times I wonder why I brought it along.

If you strive for a higher level of photography, you’ll be inundated with all kinds of advice on how to shot a photo: Use aperture priority mode, no, use shutter priority, just shoot in Program, real photographers only shoot in Manual mode.

Generally speaking, I shoot in Program mode unless I’m looking to take a specific kind of shot (ie HDR, short depth of field, etc). I will say, though, that I’d lean towards shooting in Aperture mode over all the others because that’s the one thing you can’t change in processing (well, you can fake it, but…).

The second point of consideration is what kind of file do you want to camera to save after it processes the image, JPEG or RAW?

The correct answer is RAW, if your camera supports it. Okay, yes, JPEG can be used, I talk about this issue below. But really, RAW is the way to go.

When you take a photo, the camera will process the image based on the logic from the manufacturer and save the file, this is particularly important to understand if you’re shooting JPEG images.

The way the camera processes an image may be perfectly fine. But averages are bland. You know this. I know this. This is why Instagram filters are such a big hit, nobody likes the plain image that comes from the camera. This is where you need to be an artist and use software to enhance the photo to create one that’s uniquely yours.

For Example: La Tour Eiffel

On a trip in Paris, I took this shot:

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Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. © Mark D Wolinski

I think it’s a good shot, but it’s not great.

Generally, the first thing I always do to my shots is add in a little bit of contrast. It’s just a style that I prefer. And you can see by punching up the saturation and vibrancy, you can really bring out the sky and give the tower its more natural rust color.

Here’s the result:

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Eiffel Tower. Paris, France. © Mark D Wolinski

Not your flavor of macaron? It’s okay not to like the resulting photo. That’s why millions of people can take photos of the exact same thing and produce something unique to them. Remember, artistry is in the processing as well.

This is about taking an average photo and through processing making it pop more. You want to create images that grabs people from the corner of their eyes and makes them look at it and see your subject in a new, distinct way.

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Grape vines. © Mark D Wolinski

Some Humble Suggestions

Shoot RAW

If you’re camera (and computer) supports it, shot in RAW format. This gives you the best flexibility to make adjustments to the photo, even being able to adjust the exposure multiple steps. The negative, however, is the file size. Whereas a JPEG image will be 4–6MB, a RAW image can be upwards and above 25MB.

On my Canon 6D, I shoot with a 64GB card and that allows me to shot roughly 1700 shots in Raw.

Backup

My last sentence probably made real professional photographers shudder at the thought of using a 64GB card. The larger the card, the more photos that can be lost if the card goes bad. I’ve been lucky to not have a card go bad on me or lose one. But also, when I’m traveling, I usually return to my room mid-day for a little bit of R&R.

During that time, I’m off loading my photos into my computer. Because I like to post an image or two on my site each day during travels, I’ll quickly pick one out and do some enhancements during this time. I also have an external hard drive to which I can back-up my photo library if needed.

Purge

I admit, I don’t really due this because I’ve got somewhere in the range of 10TB of hard drives that have my photos and backups. But, if you’re not going to get massive amounts of storage, purge your library.

Chances are there are shots that just don’t work like the ones that are beyond out of focus or the ones you accidently shot of the sidewalk as you walked. Some professionals will even suggest purging in camera as you shoot because if it doesn’t look good on that small screen, it most definitely will not look good on the computer screen. However, don’t ever judge image quality by the camera screen. Out of focus photos, will look good on the camera because as an image is shrunk to a smaller screen, it starts looking more in focus. You don’t want to delete a good photo for what you think is a better photo, only to find out it’s a worse photo.

Copy the Professionals

See someone out there that looks like they really know what they’re doing? Take notes. What angle of they shooting? What lens does it look like they’re using? After they move on, can you replicate the shot they were trying to get?

If they look approachable, ask them some questions. I have no problem if someone asks me what subject or equipment I’m shooting. I’ve shot a Canon Rebel for years and when the 6D, which is a full frame camera was announced, I ordered it and got it when it was released. So, of course, I’ve had several people ask me about it when I was out shooting. Most competent photographers are willing to share their knowledge and experience with others. Some aren’t. But most are.

I once saw fantastic HDR shots at Epcot. Well, I said, lets see what I could do. I’m too modest to say that my shots are anywhere near the level of perfection his may have been at, but for my friends, they’re “Wow” shots. HDR photos, by the way, take the same photo done at different exposures and combine them to create an image that nicely combines dark and light areas.

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Japan Pavilion. Epcot, Walt Disney World. © Mark D Wolinski
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France Pavilion. Epcot, Walt Disney World. © Mark D Wolinski

Get More Robust Software

If you have a Mac, you have Photos and it’s a great application for managing and doing some tweaks to your photos. But if you’re going to start shooting RAW, you’ll want to upgrade to something more like Adobe Lightroom. These are designed to work with raw images and have many more nuanced adjustments you can make to your images. I don’t think you need a level of application like Photoshop early on, unless you’re planning on taking different photos and compositing them together. I use Photoshop but I rarely use it for photo enhancements.

Challenge Thyself

If you do regular days where you go somewhere and shot photos, try challenging yourself. There was a stretch of time when I only shot with a 50mm lens. Or maybe you only shoot at a wide open (or closed) aperture. Or only shoot buildings, or trees, or whatever. When you limit yourself, you end up freeing your creativity to explore.

Tilt, Zoom, Pan The Camera

I have this bad habit of not being able to take a straight and level shot. I have no idea why. In fact, I’m convinced that the sensor of my camera is mounted slightly ajar. You can fix it in software, but only if you have enough room around your subject to allow some cropping of the photo.

But also remember that tilting the camera brings another element into the photo. Take a look at the Eiffel Tower above, my camera is panned up and tilted a few degrees for that shot. Sure, I could have shot it straight and I have many, many shots that way. This is another artistic choice you can make.

Don’t be afraid to use your zoom, particularly if you have zoom lenses (on camera phones the amount of zoom reduces the quality of the photo). Take a look at this photo, was I on the White House Grounds? No, just had a good zoom lens that I was able to take through the fencing. Unfortunately, these days you can’t even get close to the fencing to take these kinds of shots.

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White House. Washington DC. © Mark D Wolinski

Also, don’t be afraid to shoot from the side. Everyone else was trying to get a shot straight on. Me, I’m way off to the side for this shot.

Be Open to Critique

Seek out and accept honest critiques of your work.

When someone asks your opinion, more then likely what they are looking for is, “Wow, that’s great. Spectacular! Stunningly good.”

I want people to challenge themselves and take everything to the next level. Maybe my advice works, maybe it doesn’t. Don’t get defensive or you’ll turn off people. Take in every bit of critique you receive. Try to understand their reasoning for it. Some of it makes perfect sense. Some not so much for the vision you had. I can listen to honest critique of my work and consider it and justify why it wouldn’t work for what I was trying to achieve. But, that advice may be perfect for the next thing I do.

If what you’re really looking for is ego boost, ask your mom for her opinion of your work. If you’re looking for ways to improve your work, then ask someone who’ll give you honest feedback and suggestions on ways to improve what you’ve done.

Your photos aren’t perfect. Mine, most certainly, aren’t perfect. Every bit of advice and critique you receive can help make your work better, but can also make it worse. Your job is to take the good, leave the bad and continue to improve.

Stop. Look. Walk Around. Inhale. Then, Shoot, Shoot, Shoot.

After getting back from my recent trip, I’ve looked at photos and asked myself, “Why did I take that shot?” Amateur photographers never really see the subject they’re shooting. They’re too busy taking photographs to really experience a subject.

I’ll bet everyone has taken a photograph of something and when they’re looking at the photo back home notice a large predominant detail and said to themselves, “I don’t remember seeing that.” I certainly have because I didn’t look at the subject before shooting it.

Next time you go out to take photos, find a subject you want to shoot. Then stop! Put the camera down and look at the subject. Inhale the vision in front of you. Notice the intricate details of it, sometimes a detail photo is better then a expansive wide shot.

The Eiffel Tower, for example. Notice the intricate design work. The bolts. The names imprinted around the first level of it.

Walk around the subject to see it from different angles. My favorite shot of the Venus de Milo at the Louvre is not the standard front shot. I love the shot from behind with everyone crowded around.

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Venus de Milo. Musée du Louvre. Paris, France. © Mark D Wolinski

Find the shot the subject is begging you to take. Many times, you’ll know you’ve found it because once you take the shot, several other people will hurry over to see what you were just shooting.

One Final Bit of Advice

If you’re traveling, make experiencing the location the priority and the photography second. If you haven’t experienced a place, you’ll never find the right photography to tell the story of your trip.

Have fun. Keep shooting.

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