Last week, I gave you my photography version of those ‘One Weird Tip’ articles you see all over the interweb nowadays (‘Become A Better Photographer: Only Shoot At Sunset’). That article was for photographers at every stage of their journey, from beginners to advanced shooters. Today I want to offer another, very specific piece of advice that I believe will help you improve your photography significantly, but this one is geared towards those intermediate and advanced types who use an interchangeable lens camera (a DSLR or mirrorless) and are comfortable shooting in manual mode.
Incidentally, if you are interested in learning the fundamentals of shooting in manual mode, take a look at this article I wrote a while back.
Keep It Simple
Photography is often perceived as a very ‘technical’ pursuit, because of the equipment involved with all the buttons and dials, and the jargon that goes along with it. In my opinion, it can be as complicated or as simple as you want it to be. Yes you need to get some basics nailed down before you can fully articulate your vision and capture scenes in the way that truly expresses what it is that draws you to that scene. But once you have those basics skills you can focus on finding your voice—you really do know enough to create an amazing portfolio.
Ok, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: unless you have an innate talent, at some point you do need to learn about light. After you learn how to shoot in manual mode, learning how to read and manipulate light is your next challenge. And yes, I’ve written an article to help you get started, you can check it out here.
Learning about light and building an impressive, coherent portfolio are pretty daunting challenges, and whenever you’re faced with a daunting challenge, in any arena, the best thing you can do is simplify. Reduce the parameters, reduce the variables, and hone in on the path that leads to the solution.
Limit Your Equipment
One of the ways we can do this as photographers is to strip down our equipment collections. Choose one camera body and one lens and put everything else aside. Commit to working with this limited set-up and you’ll find that these limitations can actually liberate you to create prolifically.
Too many options can be distracting, even overwhelming. That’s why some people, like Einstein, Mark Zuckerberg, the late Steve Jobs and even Barack Obama are known for wearing the same outfit every day. Removing the necessity to assemble an outfit every morning frees you up to start a productive day. Personally I’ve found myself reaching for a black t-shirt and dark blue jeans more and more regularly. I particularly like this combo because I’m less likely to show up in reflections on photo shoots!
Try A Prime Lens
When it comes to equipment, my equivalent of the black t-shirt is the prime lens. A prime lens is a fixed focal length lens which lacks the ability to zoom in and out like the kit lens you got with your first camera. I remember when I first heard about prime lenses thinking ‘What? No zoom? That’s a huge inconvenience!’. Well hopefully I can convince you that the limitation can be your liberation.
My standard piece of advice to anyone who asks me about equipment upgrades is to get a 50mm prime lens. If you’re a Canonista then you can get a fantastic piece of glass for an absolute steal; the EF 50mm f/1.8. Nikon users can get a similar lens, the AF 50mm f/1.8 (pictured). If I could only use one lens for the rest of my life, I would go with the EF 50mm f/1.4.
One of the great things about prime lenses is that they are a lot simpler in design than their zooming cousins, and contain fewer optical elements. This leads to two very specific benefits to photographers. First, prime lenses are light and small, basically as small as a lens can be. Secondly, because the light is passing through fewer optical elements, it suffers less distortion (every optical element has some distorting effect on light – that’s just a fact of life) and the result is a sharper image with better clarity.
The other great thing about prime lenses is that they generally come with a wider maximum aperture (expressed as a smaller f number) than a comparable zoom lens. There are two specific advantages to very wide maximum apertures. The first is that they allow more of the available light to hit the sensor, which means you can shoot at higher shutter speeds in low-light situations. This is why they are often referred to by those in the know as ‘fast glass’. The trade off is that it’s harder to get your focus bang on because the depth of field (the range of distances from the camera within which objects are in focus) becomes more and more shallow as the aperture gets wider.
The Art Factor
This leads us to the second advantage of a wide maximum aperture: shallow depths of field. These give rise some of the most alluring images in photography, where the backgrounds are thrown way out of focus, bringing the subject into sharp relief. It creates a kind of ethereal, dreamy effect that portrait photographers absolutely love. I like to refer to it as the ‘art factor’.
It is worth pointing out (as it took me a while to learn this) that wider apertures also tend to lead to a loss of sharpness, so keep that in mind if it is something that will detract from what you are trying to achieve.
I mentioned earlier the size benefit of prime lenses, and one particular set of lenses that stand out are the so-called ‘pancake lenses’. These are very slim, very discreet lenses that make your camera that much more portable. For example, the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 lens looks almost like a lens cap, and is a firm favourite of street photographers.
Because they lack zooming capabilities, prime lenses force you to physically change your position in order to change your framing. This may seem like an inconvenience, but in fact it represents a wonderful learning opportunity because it forces you to think more carefully about how you frame your images. Part of great composition is about consciously deciding what to include and what to exclude.
I hope I’ve inspired you to consider investing in a prime lens today. If you have any questions or comments I’d love to hear them.
Check out the range of lenses available at BestBuy.ca