Have You Ever Wondered Why Is Photography Hard?
Thank you for listening to The Photo Flunky Show. We're happy you're here.
So here's the question in this show. Is photography hard, or are we just making our own lives more complicated than necessary?
Lee and I think photography is pretty simple, but we get why someone can get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, options, configurations and styles. Fortunately, we have some suggestions in the show to help highlight some of the confusing items and deal with the overwhelming options.
Photography is full of technical possibilities and creative options. We have gear and gadgets, software that needs more software to plugin and do more stuff. We even have common phrases for it like “lens lust” or “GAS” (gear acquisition syndrome).
All of these products smack us over the head as solutions to our problems, with promises of making our photos better than ever.
There's some truth to those claims, but photography isn't about the gear or even the software. It's about having a vision and using your tools to make the result.
So, is photography hard? Only if you want to make it so.
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Hey, welcome to the Photo Flunky Show, Episode number fifty-four.
Our topic for today: we just kind of want to ask you, is photography hard? Or do we just think it is?
William: Welcome to the show. My name is William Beem.
Lee: Hi, my name is Lee Beem.
William: We are going to talk about a number of things and this one just kind of came up to the top of the list. But before we get to the topic of whether photography is hard or it’s just all in our heads, let me just tell you that show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode54 and of course, you can find a transcript of the show there for free, lovingly created by Lee Beem.
Lee: Lots of love.
William: Lots of love and there are links to subscribe to our podcast, the Photo Flunky Show, at photoflunky.com, of all places! And of course Lee puts those links to subscribe into the show notes.
You can also find links to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
Lee: Yes and if any of my links aren’t working – because occasionally I’ve found one that for some reason hasn’t come up right – drop us a line and let us know so we can fix it.
William: Please do. I dropped her a line because I found some that didn’t work one time.
Lee: Yeah. I usually check through them and occasionally I’ve just clicked on one for some reason that hasn’t landed anywhere. So I really appreciate it. It’s not criticism. It really helps me a lot.
William: Oh, don’t worry about it. I really appreciate the fact that you take the time to put the transcript together. I know we’ve got folks that have commented on it, so it’s helpful for people out there.
Lee: It’s worth it for somebody who likes it.
William: Our topic is why does photography seem hard? I’ve got a lot of people that I’ve talked to before. Some go out and they just seem to magically take photos with ease and everything looks beautiful and wonderful and other people say, “Why can’t I get this shot? Why can’t I do what someone else does? What do I need to get that shot?”
Lee: Me, me! I know! I know!
William: Alright, Lee’s raising her hand. Yes, little girl to my right.
Lee: Yay! Photography is not hard. There are certain types of photography where there may be aspects of it that are more technical and complicated, but photography is not difficult.
Those people who are going out and seemingly taking perfect photos the first time are the ones who are doing what they feel, not what they are thinking about. As soon as you start complicating things, as you solve one problem, you’re going to create a few more and you’re going to probably need to keep buying gear to fix it. Gear will help you and certain things are required for certain things, but it’s not going to solve your problems.
William: No, it doesn’t. And I know that because I bought a lot of gear and some gear solves some problems. So for example, I’ve got different types of lighting gear. I’ve got my flash that I can put on camera or put on a stand; I’ve got studio lighting that I can use with a number of different light modifiers. So those are the elements of gear that are designed for different problems, whether I’m going to be on the go, in the studio, how large I want my light source. I’ve got a number of lenses and I didn’t necessarily buy them so much because I had a problem to solve with every one of them. I really just bought them because I wanted to and I had the money. That was before I got married!
Lee: Why not! Have fun with it. I mean it’s not wrong to buy things and to play around with them. I do not think that they are going to make you a better photographer. They might help with a specific type of photography; it might be essential to a certain type of photography, but they are not going to make photography easier and they are not going to help you understand anything.
William: I bought lenses that would solve problems for me. So for example, when I got my camera, it came with a kit lens which is like 18-55 mm lens or something. Something along that line anyway. It’s been so long ago since I got that first camera I don’t remember anymore.
Lee: Useless on a safari!
William: I was still shooting with crop sensors back then. This was before Nikon had any full frame sensors and they had a wonderful travel lens, which was an 18-200 mm VR lens.
Lee: I remember that one.
William: I shot everything with that, at least until the front element of the lens fell out and cracked on the floor in San Francisco.
Lee: I remember that.
William: I hated that. But honestly, that was a good thing for me. Not at the time, because I needed it to shoot while I was in San Francisco, but it was a good thing for me because I relied upon that lens for everything and once I got past that and I started going up to full frame and getting different lenses, I could get different depth of field or shallower depth of field. I started thinking differently about my photography, rather than all in one kit. I started having lenses that were for specific purposes, so I’ll put a link into my page about lenses that I reviewed, but basically my 14-24 mm, my 24-70 mm, which is probably my most heavily used lens when I’m doing travel, and my 70-200 mm which is my most heavily used zoom lens for when I’m doing portrait photography. And then I went off and got some prime lenses. I got the 24 mm, the 35 mm and the 85 mm.
Everybody lusted after that 85 mm F1.4 lens.
Lee: Yes, it’s a lovely lens.
William: it’s a lovely lens, but do you know what I realized? I’m often backing it off to F2.0 or F2.8 and I can get almost exactly the same kind of wonderful bokeh racked out at 200 mm on my 70-200 mm, so I don’t really call out that lens that much. So that’s an example of lusting after something that you see someone else use to make a beautiful photo and realizing you may not need it.
Lee: I think that’s another thing. As soon as we convince ourselves that photography is complicated, to justify buying something that really looks good because somebody else has it.
You know, a big lens when you’re a new photographer ... sometimes a big lens looks impressive on a camera. I’m just giving a silly example. I think sometimes we have a need to justify acquiring more gear.
William: We’re going to talk about that a little bit later on, with the idea that I need more stuff!
William: And stuff is fun. Stuff is good and I love just the smell of stuff when I open up the boss.
Lee: Oh, I like new stuff.
William: New stuff smells delicious! But then you end up using it and suddenly it’s no longer new anymore and instead it’s sitting in a sock gathering dust on top of it.
Lee: Yeah, it’s funny how that happens.
William: Kind of like the lenses I’ve got right to the right of me!
Lee: I’ll try not to bump them.
William: OK, so some of the reasons why I believe that some people think that photography is too hard is they get this idea that it’s too complicated. You start off with the technical aspects of it; getting a handle on your exposure triangle.
William: Once you kind of get the concept of like cantilevers that you can move in different directions but still get the same result –at least as far as the correct exposure, but different artistic ways of doing it.
Lee: I was going to say, it has different effects in achieving that exposure.
William: Right. You can get a correct exposure with a long shutter speed or a shallow depth of field or a number of combinations there. You’ve really only got three variables there to play with, at least until you add flash and then you’ve got two more variables to play with, being the flash power and the distance between the flash and your subject. So you get more cantilevers to play with that way.
You’re thinking about all that stuff when you’re new and then you’ve got to think about also being artistic. I’ve got to compose a photo. And that kind of thing throws people off. How do I be creative and how do I be technical at the same time?
Lee: See, here’s the core of the problem. We are actually trained and we seem to train other people to over-think things. We forget the things that we’ve learned over years and are second nature to us sound overwhelming when you rattle off a list of ten or fifteen of those things to someone who is brand new to photography.
And it becomes complicated and I think the bottom line is you don’t have to know everything there is to know about photography to have fun and to take some great photos.
You really need a camera, you maybe need to invest in a different lens or a piece of gear or more pieces of gear if you are interested in a specific type of photography.
If you are into macro shots then you’re going to want a macro lens. If you’re into wildlife you’re going to want a telephoto lens. But beyond that, if you understand how to get a correct exposure, the composition stuff, you can teach people, but cannot teach a person to be creative. You can give suggestions, but creativity comes from within.
William: Well, I think that’s the problem. The people I find that are saying photography is hard are the ones that are concentrating so much on the technical aspects of the exposure that they are forgetting about the creative aspects of how do I compose this and make this look good?
In other words, let’s say that you really want to isolate your subject. What’s your best way of doing that?
Some people are going to do that with depth of field. I do it with light sometimes.
Lee: I was going to say, light works as well.
William: If I use a flash or studio light and put that on my subject and let the rest of the background go dark, that really makes my subject pop out.
Lee: Contrasting color works.
William: Contrasting color works wonderfully. A lot of these decisions are really creative and the technical aspects of them are things that you need when you practice and know and then use them when you are making your creative decision, rather than just getting so caught up in the technical minutiae, I think.
Lee: A creative mind is going to see the world in a creative interpretation.
William: Well that’s where we get very different types of people. Some are very technical and they can understand and apply those technical aspects. They say, “I can do this and I can do that.”
But then you look at their photos and say, well that’s not an interesting subject.
Lee: But then those same people would probably take absolutely fantastic product photos.
William: I think you’ve got to have a split side of you. You’ve got to have that artistic feel, because you can take a really perfectly correct photo that does not move you emotionally.
If you are going to take a product photo, let’s say that it’s a bottle of wine, whiskey or some kind of product that people look at and they want.
You can put it on a table, take photos of it and there you’ve got a document of the thing.
William: And maybe if it’s something like a cold bottle of beer or something like that, you want to see a little sweat running down.
Lee: Yes, that condensation.
William: And you want to see a little bit of shine inside of the bottle. I was looking ... a guy on Facebook posted this recently. In order to make sure that he had that little glow inside the bottle, he got some metallic paper and he cut out in the shape of the bottle and put it behind it so you couldn’t see it; but then when he lit it, it reflected back so the inside of the beer bottle was lighter and the outside was darker and it had that little bit of light to it.
So I think your artistic side has to come out as well.
Lee: Yeah, I agree. I think someone else who has an absolute heyday with making the most of persuading people that it’s very complicated are your manufacturers. People who are, you know, your retailers, selling all the gear and things as well. If they can convince you that you cannot be a great photographer until you have – and they are not saying it out like that – they are just saying if you want to take better than ordinary photos (which kind of implies to the person listening, “I guess my photos are ordinary”).
William: Well, there’s a lot of that, not only with equipment, but also with post processing. We’ve got some wonderful plugins and tools and they really do help you make better photographs.
Lee: I love Lightroom!
William: I love Lightroom. I love MacPhun and On1 and Topaz and a number of other things. They just kind of finish your photo by enhancing what you’ve already got. So if you’ve got to rely upon that to make a photo interesting, I don’t think you have an interesting photo to start with.
Lee: Possibly not. I mean like you say, you can enhance the focal point if you feel it didn’t quite capture what you saw.
William: So when we say that “I need more stuff” are we talking about gear for the camera, lighting gear, post processing tools or all of the above?
Lee: I think it could be anything and that really depends on the situation. I think people find their own ways to tangle themselves in a web of .... complication.
William: I was going to say she’s counting!
Lee: No, my mind just went blank.
William: That’s OK. That happens to all of us.
Lee: Complication, yeah. We sometimes make things so hard and if you sit back and take a look at something, you know what they say.
I took art. I was into my art in high school and in college and when we were doing our paintings, you’re working on large canvases, they always taught you right from young when I started. When you’re midway through your work or you want to check something, turn around and walk away and walk back into the room and look at it.
Sometimes you need to just take a step back when things feel overwhelming and say, OK, what am I really trying to do? I think the big question is: What’s stopping me?
William: Yeah. I think that’s true. It’s like if you’re not satisfied with your results; do you know what result you want to get?
One of the things I think people do to themselves is they look at people who have been into photography for a very long time and have achieved some wonderful results and they say, “Why can’t my photos be like that?”
Well one, it’s kind of like playing guitar or playing piano. You’ve got to practice and keep doing it and you refine yourself. The people that they are admiring have been doing this for a long time.
But something else you’ve got to keep in mind is the people that you admire are only showing their best work.
Lee: I was going to say, you develop some smarts. You don’t start posting your nonsense.
William: I have kind of broken that mould, at least on my blog. Because I will show some of my bad shots as examples of here is what I did wrong, here is the next shot I took and how I can correct it.
Lee: It’s helpful.
William: I’m trying to put it out there as a lesson and also as a way to kind of say, not everybody takes a perfect shot every time you go up to the camera. There are some that will have a naturally better understanding of composition and exposure and have better odds of success, but every photographer I’ve been around – and that includes the people who were training me at workshops; some of the nice big names that I’ve met – they take bad shots too.
They take shots that I think are fine and then I’ve seen them nit-picking and saying, “I’ve got a reflection or a hotspot over in this corner. I need to go back and do that.”
And they will look at those very minute problems and take the shot again. In other words, they are not just walking up, bang! I’ve got it and I’m walking out of here and dropping the mic at the same time.
William: They are stopping to craft the scene. So in other words, they are taking their time to get that shot. It’s not like you walk up, here’s something, I got it and it’s done. Unless you’re a sports photographer. And even the sports photographers, there’s a reason why they shoot fourteen frames per second. They know one of those shots is going to be the one that’s on the cover of the magazine or newspaper, but not all of them.
Lee: It’s true. That’s very true.
William: Part of my advice is photography may seem hard if you don’t understand that other people are also having a lot of bad shots. Don’t beat yourself up. If you look at your results and maybe you get five or six photos that you really like out of them, that’s good.
William: Because you can go out and shoot and shoot and shoot. The results aren’t always going to be there. Even if I’m doing portraits, there are always tiny little things. Maybe the expression isn’t right.
Lee: Or a shadow or a glare or something.
William: Yes, so you start off taking portraits of someone wearing glasses and then you get the lighting where it looks just right, because you had a test subject in there. Then your subject sits down with glasses and suddenly you see you’ve got these harsh shadows on their cheek because you didn’t account for the glasses!
William: Since I wear glasses, I know that happens because when I was trying to do self portraits it didn’t quite work out that way.
The first thing you do is just take it easy on yourself. Photography isn’t that hard, but then again, not every shot you take is going to be perfect.
Lee: It’s not and also remember that sometimes somebody can be giving you very useful advice, and it can make something feel complicated. For example, if you take somebody who’s got a very logical and technical approach and understands all the technical aspects of photography and they are speaking to you and you’ve got a very creative mind....
For example people can sit and explain to me about composition and ask me to explain composition to somebody and I really couldn’t do it. I couldn’t give you any advice because I don’t think about composition. I feel it. It just ... I get a feel for it and it falls into place. I’m putting something together and my mind and my eye sees it and it goes, “There!” But I’m not able to break it down and that’s because our minds work differently.
William: Now do you spend time looking at other people’s photographs or photographs in magazines or on websites to get an idea of what you like, or do you just have a gut feeling of what you like?
Lee: I have a gut feeling of what I like. I do look at other people’s photos, but not as “Inspiration” as people call it. I look at people’s photos because I enjoy looking at photos. That’s it. I’m sure that there are some things that somewhere in my subconscious and my memory have stayed and had an influence on what I do. Or maybe I like the way that something looks or I like a particular angle and I’ll go and try something, but I don’t look at people’s photos for ideas.
William: See, I look at other people’s photos as research, but not inspiration. To me, I think I’ve said this before. Inspiration is something that kind of smacks you upside the head when you’re not looking for it. If someone shows me something they like; you know – this is here to inspire you – that’s very presumptuous to say this is going to inspire you.
William: Because you don’t know if it’s going to inspire me. You don’t know what else I’ve seen and you don’t know what I like or what I want to do, but every once in a while I’ll be flipping through either online or in a magazine or a book and I’ll see a photo and think, that gives me an idea.
To me, that’s inspiration. When I see something I haven’t seen before. And maybe it’s something I’ve seen before, maybe it’s something I haven’t; but so long as I get an idea. Sometimes I’ll see a photo and say, oh look at the gels they are using on the lighting. I am completely ignoring what the subject is and what the location is, but I like the fact that they are using some gels on the lighting that use different colors. I may be inspired to go off and do my own shoot with a completely different look to it, but using some gels, just because I saw something out there.
Lee: Yes. You’re getting an idea, but you are also learning about a new technique and in the beginning, we weren’t trying to suggest by any means that gear is bad or that you shouldn’t be buying it. It’s necessary, as is post processing software and none of these things are a bad thing. But I think people can make you feel like you need them.
William: Well, it comes back to – I hate the fact that I’m saying this again, but I’m saying this again – it comes back to your photo as a story. And I know you don’t go after storytelling, but I do. It’s like when I look at a photo, I want to see something that kind of makes me think a little bit. And that’s usually, even if it’s just a portrait, just something very simple with contrasting colors. I love, lately, very simple kind of portraits. I don’t want too much clutter in the background. I don’t want too much going on. I want to be able to see the person and look inside of his or her soul through their eyes. And boy, doesn’t that sound kind of flighty!
Lee: Ooh, poetic!
William: Oh yeah. I’m really getting into my artistic flair now. But that’s kind of what I’m enjoying right now. I’m really getting into interesting portraits that are simple. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to go off sometimes. There is a bar downtown from here that has got a wonderful pool table with lighting and kind of a dark atmosphere inside.
I’d love to get a couple of models and take them in there one time with a smoke machine.
Lee: That would be fun.
William: And some gelled lights. And that’s going to be a complicated, busy scene, but I still – even though I’m interested in very simple portraits – I still like the idea for scenes like that.
It really depends on deciding what you want to do and then figuring out what you need to make it happen.
Lee: Yes, I think the bottom line is don’t let other people complicate things for you, that are not. You probably know more than you think you know. If you let yourself get overwhelmed by so much input coming from all different sides... There’s conflicting advice as well. It’s not even like the advice is all the same. People tell you that you must do this and the next person will say you should never do that and goodness! I think the best advice I ever read was once you find out what the rules are, break them.
William: That’s true and let’s take my idea in that bar with the pool hall. And you’re going to take a portrait in there. There’s a nice environment and you start thinking about what you need to take this shot.
You could take that with a kit lens, but do you want to see every nook and cranny in the bar, or do you maybe want to have a shallow depth of field and then have lights in the background of the bar kind of come up as bokeh behind your subject?
Either way, I think, works. It’s a matter of understanding what you want to present and then executing on that. And if you don’t know how to have that shallow depth of field, well, that’s very simple. You know, you put it down to your lowest aperture, you take the picture and if you’re happy with the bokeh that you get, you’re good. If you’re not happy, then you say, you know what? I need a different piece of gear. I need a different lens that’s going to give me a better defocused background. And it doesn’t mean you have to buy it. Maybe you rent it, maybe you borrow it. That’s how you decide what kind of gear or what kind of stuff you want.
Is it helping you take the photo that you want? Whereas I came out with this completely the opposite direction. I got into this and I didn’t really know what photos I wanted to take so I bought all sorts of gear. And then figured out how to use it!
Now that I know what I want to do and I’m much more comfortable making it happen. There is some of the gear that I’ve got that I really use on very rare occasions. And we could sell it and get Christmas presents instead.
Lee: Oooh, well let me rake through your lenses and see if there’s anything I might have fun with because I tend to enjoy the less celebrated things. I’m a bit of a strange girl.
William: That’s not true. She takes my 24-70 mm all the time!
Lee: Oh, yes I do! That’s true.
William: You’re not going after the cheap lenses.
Lee: No, but something about my photography is I refuse to let anyone over complicate it for me. That’s my pleasure. It’s my winding down; I enjoy doing it. I do like to have a challenge once in a while, but for me the beauty of photography is keeping it simple.
William: And I think that’s why photography in and of itself, really isn’t hard. I think a lot of us are being hard on ourselves by trying to put more stuff into it than what really needs to be there to take a shot.
Lee: Yes, for me is capturing my memories the way I saw them and sharing things the way I see them.
William: And for me it’s kind of like with travel photography, finding a scene and the right time and having the right stuff there to take that photo. Sometimes that’s meant using brackets with HDR, so I had to use a good tripod for that and sometimes it depends upon the lens, as far as how wide do I want to go? How soft do I want to go with the background or how sharp do I want it to be?
William: All those things come into it, but only after I’ve decided what shot I want to take. At least that’s the way I see it as far as simplifying things. Photography really isn’t that hard. I don’t even think off camera flash is that hard.
Lee: It’s not. To me it looks complicated, but that’s also because I haven’t convinced myself that I need it.
William: For what you’re doing, I don’t think you really do. I think for a couple of circumstances you could use it and make things a bit more interesting, but you’re mostly going to other places and shooting on the spot. So if you start suddenly setting up lighting without having discussed it with the owner, then ...
Lee: They might get a little bit excited!
William: You might get a few looks. But you know what? If you walk into a store and you say, “I see some possibilities here.” And you talk to the owner and say, “Look, I’d like to do this shoot and I’ll give you a copy of it.” Then that kind of informs ... Do you want to use other lighting? Do you want to use gels? What do you want to do?
So all those fun things come into play, but my simple advice is photography is not hard if you don’t make it hard.
Thank you very much for listening to us on the Photo Flunky Show while we kind of rambled along. And I know we did a little bit because we have both been sick as a dog since last week.
Lee: I know. We are feeling a bit better now though.
William: I’m feeling better. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get an episode out this week, but I really didn’t want to let anybody down and I enjoyed it with this. So, that’s why we’ve done an episode.
And just in case you didn’t hear it, show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode54 There’s a transcript there for free and of course there are going to be links to subscribe on iTunes, Google Play and other sources at photoflunky.com.
We really appreciate you and we’ll see you again here next week.