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Without Giving it a Second Thought

Ever notice how some people salt the food on their plate before they ever taste it? They're not alone. Photographers do all sorts of things without giving it a second thought.

A hungry person sits down to eat dinner. But instead of reaching for a fork, they go for the saltshaker. It's always struck me as a curious behavior. It's much easier to add salt if it needs it than it is to remove it if you find out after the fact that, this time, at least, it didn't. Even if it does, you would have no practical way of knowing how much. It's easy to assume things might be the same as dinner yesterday and the day before that. But wouldn't it make more sense to assess the situation and go from there?

We all develop habits. Falling back on default behaviors might seem helpful by saving time, but it deprives you of your best opportunity to make a good decision. And photographers are not immune to this sort of thing. In various ways, I catch myself doing it, and I'm betting I'm not alone. Here are a few examples, but if you review your work habits, you're likely to find others.

I like zoom lenses. No, they aren't a substitute for moving closer. Their primary purpose lies in framing. Once you have a composition with the perspective you like, a zoom lets you crop that composition in camera to make it more compelling. But I've noticed something over the years. Many zoom photos are shot with the lens racked out to one end of the focal length range. Zooming in furtherance of cropping should show a relatively even distribution of focal lengths. If yours tend to cluster around the end of the scale, you're probably merely trying to get closer. Sometimes, there may be physical barriers to access, such as a cliff edge or even a sign in a national park warning you to stay on the path. But to the extent you are free to maneuver, you should do so, and then zoom. If you go through your images, you might be surprised. It's easy to fall into this habit without giving it a second thought.

A similar phenomenon can happen with your tripod. At least photographers will set theirs up to eye-level, then go in search of subjects to shoot. That is, they set it up for their convenience, not to support their camera at the optimal shooting height. But if all your images seem to have been shot from eye-level, you will miss out on vantage points closer to the ground. Getting down low can open up vast possibilities of composition most people never see. Flowers, small animals, rocks, and countless other exciting subjects are frequently available if you are willing to view them from their level. These days, it's becoming popular for photographers to shoot with drones. While I have yet to take the plunge myself, you could argue that this holds for capturing images from way over your head. As technology advances, the range of what is possible expands. Even more than ever, it's worth exploring different shooting positions. Don't just settle for the height from which you usually view the world.

When I'm shooting at a popular location, it can be challenging working around all the crowds. It can take me a while to set up, find what I'm looking for, and shoot. As I do my thing, I see other photographers come and go quickly, spending only enough time to get in and get out. Perhaps the most significant unquestioned default attitude is to shoot where others tell you to. That may come in the form of a scenic marker sign or a listing in a guidebook. But the rut you're in might be literal. A lot of people pull over and stop where space is available, helping to wear tiny parking lots into the landscape in places those who came before you stopped to snap their photos.

Back in the days of film, it was not uncommon to shoot with a warming filter permanently mounted to your lens. Everything looks better with a touch of warmth. These days, white balance gives us improved control over color temperature, without the need for an added layer of glass to shoot through. If you shoot raw, you can even adjust white balance after the fact. But even still, some photographers apply preset settings automatically to boost vibrance and warmth, add sharpness, and the like. One of the benefits of raw is that you can tweak such adjustments after the fact. But some photographers rarely do, preferring to accept the results without giving it a second thought. Even if an image looks good, there's nothing that says if it might look even better with a manual edit.

As mentioned, these are but a few examples of how we sometimes take the easy way out and fall back on defaults we've picked up over time. It's helpful to shorthand some things for efficiency or reliability, but it's easy to fall into unnecessary habits that can get in the way. I rarely think about how to remove a lens cap or which switch turns on my camera. And there's no clear boundary between such trivial concerns and more consequential maneuvers like my examples here. But when I have the time available, I find it helpful to examine my workflow and make adjustments when I find ways to improve or opportunities to gain greater control over the process.

Sometimes, it's worth giving things a second thought.

Date posted: September 6, 2020


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Related articles:
Shooting Quickly versus Thinking More
Your Composition Toolbox
The Relationship of Composition Rules to Good Composition
Composition Always Happens, With or Without You

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