Are you insane?: A control freak’s prescription for photographic success*

Gary Hart Photography: Fall Into Winter, Valley View, Yosemite

Fall Into Winter, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS 1DS Mark III
60 mm
1/15 seconds
ISO 200

* This message isn’t for everybody. If your photographic pleasure derives from simply breathing fresh air and admiring the view, or if your camera is just an accessory that helps you share and relive those outdoor experiences later, you’re already a successful photographer. But if you aren’t achieving the results you long for, either in the quality of your images or the attention they attract, please read on.

Are you insane?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this reminds me of the thousands of good landscape photographers with hundreds of truly beautiful images they can’t sell. These photographers have a good eye for composition, own all the best equipment, know when to be at the great locations, and are virtual gurus with state-of-the-art processing software. Yet they haven’t achieved (their definition of) success.

Conducting photo workshops gives me pretty good insight into the mindset of the most serious amateur photographers (the photographers serious enough to spend lots of money and vacation time for several days of sunrise-to-sunset photography). I’m frequently struck by the number of amateur photographers with serious aspirations who are so mesmerized by today’s technology that they’ve turned over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera. Their solution to photographic failure is to buy more equipment, visit more locations, and master more software. The tool they overlook is the one on top of their shoulders.

Knowledge vs. understanding

Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, simply upgrading your photography knowledge won’t do it either—knowledge is nothing more than ingested and regurgitated information. Understanding, on the other hand, (among other things) gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge—solve problems.

Many photographers invest far too much energy acquiring knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, it’s not enough to know that a longer shutter speed or bigger aperture means more light if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage light, motion, and depth with your camera.

Take control

Automatic modes in most cameras handle static, midday light beautifully, yet struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic photographers seek. I see many serious amateur photographers with so much faith in technology that they possess a critical deficiency of two fundamental photographic principles:

  • How a light meter determines the exposure information it gives you. This seems so basic, but auto-exposure and histograms have fooled many into thinking they understand metering and exposure.
  • How to use the reciprocal relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to manage photography’s three variables: light, depth, and motion. This is the universal tool that enables photographers to handle the limiting factors of every scene.

Books and internet resources are a great place to start acquiring these principles, but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and apply them. When these principles become second nature, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll be able to accomplish with your photography.

For example

The image at the top of the post is from a visit to Yosemite’s Valley View last November. I chose it because it demonstrate how I applied the essential photographic principles above to accomplish my goal.

I arrived at Valley View that afternoon to find it blanketed with fresh snow—had I opted for the obvious composition, I’d have captured a gorgeous version of something that’s already been captured thousands of times. But I wanted something different, so I headed upriver a hundred feet or so to this dogwood I remembered from previous visits. (In fact, it’s the same dogwood featured in one of my favorite images.) I found that the sudden snow had caught the dogwood’s colorful leaves off-guard, leaving many still dangling from the snowy branches like frozen Christmas ornaments.

I wanted to emphasize the collision of seasons, and once I had my composition, I started working on how to deal with the factors limiting my objective for the scene:

  • With the foreground leaves so close, and Bridalveil Fall in the background, sufficient depth of field was my prime concern
  • The light was limited in the dense overcast
  • A slight breeze swayed the branches

The light in this scene was low but easy, with a very narrow dynamic range that fit easily within my camera’s range of capture. Because I was on a tripod, camera-shake wasn’t a concern; in the low light I only needed to worry about finding a shutter speed that would stop the breeze. Wanting lots of depth of field, but concerned about diffraction (from a too-small aperture), I decided f16 would give me complete sharpness in the leaves (essential), with just a little softness in the background and minimal diffraction. But f16 at my preferred ISO 100 resulted in a 1/8 second exposure that I feared wouldn’t be enough to freeze the swaying branches. So I bumped my ISO to 200, confident that I could make 1/15 work if I timed my exposure for a lull in the breeze (I was not at all concerned about the minimal noise introduced by the higher ISO). I clicked several frames just to be sure the breeze hadn’t introduced motion blur too small to detect on my LCD.

Insanity is in the mind of the beholder

If landscape photography gives you what you want, then by all means, continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a photographic goal, I suggest that the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, reevaluate your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years. You’ll know you’re there when you have complete control of the light, motion, and depth for every scene you encounter, know how to get the result you want or that it’s simply not possible.

Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.

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When Seasons Collide

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

4 Comments on “Are you insane?: A control freak’s prescription for photographic success*

  1. A most eloquent statement that bears repeating. I consider myself reminded. Thx.

  2. Beautifully written, passionate piece.

    There is no reason why amateur photographers should not be every bit as good as professionals. The difference to me is practice and having opportunities to practice. I take 100’s of pictures at weddings, and photograph my local landscape every day for my blog . I’m not the best photographer in the world but this level of submersion in photography is what has given me the understanding that you speak of.

    I couldn’t agree more about the need for a practical application of knowledge and it’s achievable by all with some application of thought.


  3. Hi Gary!
    Once again beautiful photos! What you said is so true! I appreciate your statements – they make one think about what is really important in capturing photos. You must have taken this the day after you were with the group, when you stayed over on your own. I don’t remember this angle of Yosemite Falls. Thanks Gary! See you next month!

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