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How to Make Great Photographs

~ or ~

"Everything You Really Needed to Learn About
Photography That They Didn't Teach You at Brooks"

© 200-20128 Ken Rockwell.com. All rights reserved.

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July 2012   Better Pictures   Nikon   Canon    Fuji    LEICA   All Reviews

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"Photography is the power of observation, not the application of technology." Ken Rockwell.

How have I made all my best shots? By noticing something cool and taking a picture. The important part is noticing something cool. Taking the picture is easy.

Your camera has NOTHING to do with making great photos. You have to master technique of course, but that's just a burden to get out of the way to free yourself to tackle the really hard part. The hard part is saying something with your images.

Photography is art. It's abstract. Therefore it's difficult for many people to grasp. It's easy and lazy to think a camera makes the photos. It's easy to blame bad photos on a camera. When you get better you'll realize you would have been better off to pay more attention to your images and less to your camera.

All cameras, especially digital ones, offer about the same image quality in real use. The real difference is how easy or possible it is to make the needed adjustments to get decent photos in each different kind of real-world condition. Test charts shot under controlled conditions completely ignore the real world and thus only compare performance for one limited aspect of performance under only one combination of conditions, which is why those tests have nothing to do with how your photos look. That's why I ignore lab test reports and just try for myself. Lab work is useful for sorting out minutiae otherwise invisible between similar cameras in real photography and that's it.

Photography is like golf. They are both fun, popular and require some equipment. Very few people can get others to pay them to do either one for the same reason. Each takes a lifetime of constant practice, getting better and better little by little. Most golfers play for decades and never hit a hole-in-one. Photography is more complex than golf. Why does anyone expect ever to make a perfect photograph?



You can't be on a schedule. You have to go out, look around and wait for the light and inspiration.

Many great shots are made only after years of observing a subject, learning when it looks best, and returning to photograph it at its most spectacular. This is how real photographers make anything look extraordinary.

If you're traveling with non-photographers you're going to have to get your schedules straight, since you'll be out shooting while normal people are eating dinner or still sleeping in the morning.

I find it difficult if anyone is expecting me to return on any sort of schedule. You are out in, and at the whim of, nature and your own brilliant crazy ideas and realizations. Sometimes you'll be back in 10 minutes, other times you might be out all night if you get excited about something.

You cripple yourself if you have someone expecting you to be back at a certain time. I've made my best work when I let the group go ahead and I continued to work at something that excited me.

Brilliance doesn't work on a schedule.



"Compositon is the strongest way of seeing." Edward Weston.

You see more if you're looking. The more you look, the more you see worth photographing. If you're not thinking and not looking you'll walk right past some of the most extraordinary opportunities.

For instance, I lived in the real Beverly Hills from 1995 - 1998. I was on Maple Drive, the same street as George Burns. I never saw any stars. I would see them listed as having lived in Beverly Hills when reading an obituary, and remark "how about that!," having never seen them even if they lived a block away. I would rarely notice them when I was in at the studios all day, every day. Why? I didn't care, and I wasn't looking for them. If I was a tourist or a housewife that reads People magazine and found actors interesting I'm sure I would have seen stars a few times every day. When I had guests in they saw actors all over the place.

The actors were all over the place, but I never saw them. Others did. If you care about something, you'll see it. If you don't, you won't. The best photos aren't obvious. Great photo opportunities don't stand out if you're not looking. That's why they're called opportunities: just like any other opportunity, you have to be paying attention to recognize them.

Photo opportunities are everywhere. Pay attention, keep your eyes open, and look for them.



Creation is a solitary act. I can't create photos if I'm being distracted, watched or asked questions. I need to get out on my own and concentrate.

It's OK to go out and photograph as a group. You do have to split up and shoot on your own once you get there. Otherwise everyone in the group winds up with identical mediocre shots. Split up and see what you see, then meet up at the end for some socializing.



Photography is communicating passion and sparking excitement in the mind and body of another person. If you don't care about the subject then the results won't get beyond the basics. Care deeply and incredible things happen. Don't care and you are quickly forgotten.

"If I feel something strongly, I make a photograph. I do not attempt to explain the feeling." Ansel Adams.

Photography is the art of communicating passion. You need to be passionate about whatever it is that you photograph. If you are passionate you'll get great results, if you don't care, you won't.

A photograph is not about technique. A photograph is communicating something, be it an idea, concept, feeling, thought or whatever, to a total stranger. For a photograph to be effective you have to be clear with what you're communicating. Ansel Adams said "There is nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a fuzzy idea." It is paramount that your idea, thought or feeling be crystal clear in the image. Merely pointing an expensive and masterfully adjusted camera at something doesn't make a good photo. Knowing what you're saying and saying it loud and clear is what makes a strong image people will remember. If it says nothing to you it will say even less to others.

"The proof of the pudding is in the eating." Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605. Cervantes is observing that it's the end result, not the process, that matters.

Likewise, hardware has absolutely nothing to do with any of this. Craft is just a way to free your ability to communicate, not the communication itself. Many men blame their inadequacies on their hardware and think that simply buying more will solve the problem, excusing them from having to expend any precious mental effort in anything other than shopping for more hardware. You'd double over laughing if you saw the email I get from this site: 99% is from men who think all they have to do is spend some money and that great images will just pour forth. You need to get involved deeply and take your feelings seriously. You don't need money or any more equipment than you already have. Heck, I use crummy point-and-shoots and get great images, too.

Likewise you need to spend time at it just about every time. You usually cannot do it for just 5 minutes and do a decent job. It's odd how many times I'm someplace popular that I'll see a dozen different tourists get out, make a snap, and disappear while I'm still trying to concentrate, feel and understand the shot I'm going to make. You usually shouldn't rush these things!

It's all in your mind and imagination.

One cannot just keep doing the same thing. One needs constantly to innovate and discover new ways of doing what you've been doing. See and feel things from different angles and in different ways.

Not last nor least, you need to keep doing it with the same subject. The better you know your subject the better your results will be.

Sculptor Henry Moore said it best: "Art is the expression of imagination, not the reproduction of reality."

Photographer Elliot Porter said: "True art is but the expression of our love of nature" and "A true work of art is the creation of love, love for the subject first and for the medium second."

Charles Sheeler said: "Photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward. Photography records inalterably the single image, while painting records a plurality of images willfully directed by the artist."

And even Albert Einstein offers: "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

A good photographer makes great images with a disposable camera because she knows its limits and how to use it. On the other hand, plenty of poor photographs are made every day using very expensive cameras by people lacking passion and vision, regardless of how much technical skill they have and how sharp their lenses are.

People write novels, not typewriters. So why do some people think buying a different camera or learning all about shutter speeds will help them make better images? People make photographs, not cameras. Your choice of camera has NOTHING to do with anything. NOTHING.

"Photography is bringing order out of chaos." Ansel Adams.

Painting is the art of inclusion. Photography is an art of exclusion. Trying to "get it all in" guarantees a poor photo. Anything that does not contribute to a photo distracts from it. Keep your images clean and simple.

Less is more; the less in the frame the stronger the image. Simplicity is a strong virtue.

I'm going to spend a few sections explaining what's not important. If you already understand this then skip down to the important sections starting at "curiosity."



It's critical to be familiar with every nuance of your equipment. You need to know exactly how it responds in every situation. You need to foresee the final results when you look at a natural scene. You need to know exactly how your equipment will interpret reality.

When you know this you can ensure that each photo you make will look as you intend. You'll know exactly how the photos render (look) and be able to make changes in the scene accordingly.

You can't use five cameras and know all of them well. Use one camera and one lens and one film and learn it's every nuance. Don't waste time chasing every new camera: if you do, you'll never learn it well enough to create great images, except by chance.



Don't buy anything yet. You can create magnificent images with ANY camera. Too many people think camera shopping is the first thing to do on a quest for great images. I need to explain that it's really the last. Some of us own fancy cameras because we are rich and these fancy cameras make photography more convenient. They have nothing to do with the final quality of the images.

Whatever you have is all you need, even point-and-shoot or disposable cameras. Thinking you need more makes you skip things today since you're worrying that "if you only had a..."

"Necessity is not a fact, it's an interpretation." Friedrich Nietzsche.

Go take art, painting, drawing, and design classes at your local community college. Learn to see. You may want to start by reading the books I suggest about art and composition. I never took any photo classes. Everyone learns differently; I learn by reading and doing and seeing.

The photographers whose work I admire most often are former painters or at least people who majored in art; not people with computer, engineering, science or technical photography degrees.

Ask artists for help when you are starting. Ask them how to see and show them your images and ask for suggestions. They will see things that you haven't yet, and will help open your eyes to making better images.

Avoid the friend, neighbor or co-worker who works in computers, science or engineering and always talks about cameras. These people's passion is usually just for the cameras or computers themselves, not about photography itself or art or expressing their imagination visually. Watch out for people who prefer to talk about tools instead of actually making photos. There are thousands of people who watch sports on TV and can talk endlessly about sports stats for every one athlete who actually plays professional sports. You want to talk to the rare guy who actually does it.

Likewise, forget the Internet. Starting out you need far more depth than the cursory treatments shared over the Internet and shared on my website. I'd love to help you out in person since this is all too deep to grasp over email. Learning is a two-way process, not a series of one-way emails or web reading.

Also be warned: the internet is still overloaded with the technical people who invented it. These are the last people from whom you'd want to learn, since they are usually equipment fetishists, not artists. They happen to be the ones most likely to post websites or waste their time in photo chat rooms and user groups. Beware.

Talk to professional photographers, not amateurs and hobbyists. If you don't know any pros, go look in the Yellow Pages or ask around at a professional photo lab. Some professional photographers actually enjoy their work and will talk your ear off for hours if you ask nicely.

Find people whose photos you admire and ask them. Find people whose art you admire and ask them, too. Avoid camera collectors and people who own a lot of expensive cameras. Don't talk to someone who can talk endlessly about film technology, but who never has made a photograph you admire. Talk to these engineers and you'll get so flustered worrying about your camera that you'll never get out and make good photos.

Try The Nikon School, which is a day-long slide show that costs $100 when I took it in 2001. It covers more in the very first hour than most photo courses teach in a semester. Pay attention!

You know the best classes to take? Forget fancy schools. Just look up your local community college or adult education program. There you'll find teachers who really enjoy what they do and will share the world with you if you just ask. Even better, these classes are never more than $100, if not free, depending on your location.

Don't waste too much time studying "photography." Most "photo" classes simply waste your creative time fumbling with obsolete concepts of f/stops and film speeds. Rarely do they teach you how to go create the images you really want.

It's important to be fluent with the technical concepts, but those are only a starting point.

People spend too much time worrying about gear and technique. They completely forget that mastery of technique & equipment is merely the first step in a much longer journey toward the creation of great images.

I teach photography very differently from the old farts. In the first 150 years, which were from about 1835 through about 1985 with the introduction of the first real Matrix exposure meters (as opposed to ordinary light meters), one needed to bridle oneself with many clumsy technical inconveniences before one could produce any photograph at all. Since it's only been about ten years now that many cameras know how to set themselves properly over a wide range of conditions, many old timers still haven't learned that for most people one may completely ignore camera settings. That's right, I usually shoot on autofocus and program auto exposure any time I can!

It's sad when people ask me to suggest a camera that fits the pathetic requirements for beginning photo classes, which usually require a totally obsolete manual camera. Good gosh, run away from those classes and learn to love your point and shoot. Automation is good: the camera is not thinking for you, it's just setting the rudiments of focus and exposure which rarely require creative thought. The auto cameras free your creative juices to concentrate on what is important, which is heat, passion, fire, composition, expression and lighting.

I suggest going out and trying to express your feelings carefully and see what you get. Once you get familiar with things you may want to seek out technical advice from someone who really knows. It's more important to go find things about which you are passionate and attempt to convey that fire through images first.



"I am not a scientist. I consider myself an artist who employs certain techniques to free my vision." Ansel Adams in his Autobiography, page 254

Worrying about manual exposure settings and technique distracts you from your passion, just as if your lover were to stop to answer the phone in the middle of a steamy one-on-one.

Many people still mistakenly think that mastering simple issues like shutter speeds and depth of field is all there is to know about photography. Those have as little to do with photography as typewriter repair has to do with composing a novel. They are necessary evils, and by no means the central point.

For larger format cameras like 120 and 4x5 you probably will have to learn technique because those cameras are not made in enough quantity for their manufacturers to justify the efforts in automating them, but for 35mm and digital almost all cameras can do this themselves better than most of the people who would insist you set the camera manually. Don't fret the technique unless you have to. Most of what you see in my galleries was shot in program automatic mode. Tell that to your photo teacher.

Watch out, I know people who actually enjoy having to fool with the settings on their view cameras. This is OK, but don't let that mislead you to worrying too much about it. Start with an automatic camera so you learn the important points of how to express your feelings first. You can learn f/stops later.

Old farts like to make themselves feel important by making you think that you need them to teach you the secrets of fiddling with your camera. They will try to get you to believe that all this crap is required to make photographs. They will insist you waste your time with manual exposure settings, and if you are stupid enough to believe this you'll also spend all your time worrying about which lens is sharper instead of having your own solo show at The Whitney.

There are 150 years of photo technology programmed into your 35mm camera. Use it.

My suggestion is to start off with your 35mm SLR set to matrix metering, program auto exposure and autofocus! Your images will actually be better than dispassionate people who waste their time with manual methods because most cameras have better programming inside them than most photographers do! Your modern SLR camera probably uses the Zone System to figure exposure, which very few photographers understand.

Like what you see on this site? Most of my photos are made in these automatic modes unless conditions dictate something else. I used to use all the manual settings and my photos were boring because I missed the magic moments.

I'll explain what you really need to know about the technical side at the very bottom of this page.

You need to worry about seeing, feeling, composition and lighting, NOT about f/stops as you start out.

Yes, technical ability, in fact, virtuosity, is absolutely required for successful photography, however, this ability is nothing more than a mandatory prerequisite with which one might then be able make great photos. Luckily much of this fluency today is incorporated into automated cameras, making mastery much easier. Technical mastery alone does not make good photos, it's just one of the necessary parts.



Honest. If you believe me, just skip to the next section. If you don't then read the rest of this mandatory page here.

If you insist on going out today and buying a camera, see my page here for inexpensive 35mm cameras and here for digital cameras.



Photograph subjects for which you have a true curiosity. You have to find them interesting if you want the people who see your work to find them interesting, too.



Don't follow gurus, teachers, me or anyone else.

You'll never be better than anyone else at being them. No one will be better at what Ansel did than Ansel, and likewise, no one will ever be better at doing what you do than you.

Be yourself. Show your passions. Don't try to duplicate someone else's.

You have to go out, be yourself, and your own style will develop. Never, ever think that because you like something done by someone else that you have to do the same.

Find something about which you are passionate and explore that. If you get off on figurines or wastebaskets or old people or beautiful naked girls or hubcaps or patterns left by tires in the snow or sewage processing plants or cute little animals, go photograph them.

There is no right or wrong thing to photograph. Just show us what excites you.

If nothing excites you, your photos will suck. Find what you like, and the heck with everyone else.






There is no right and no wrong. The rule of thirds is not a rule and rules are for idiots. Just go make good photos. A good photo is one you or someone else likes. There are no formulas or grades or scores.





Creativity is nice, but all because something is creative does not make it art. When a baby reaches into his diaper and paints the wall with what he finds there, it is a very creative act, but it is not art.



Now that you've read this far let me give you some tips.



Lighting is absolutely the most important technical issue there is. Learn composition as well and you'll have just about everything you need to worry about solved.

First and foremost you need to develop a sensitivity to the way light feels while you are outdoors, and learn through experience how that will look on film. As you develop this sensitivity you will be able to understand when the light looks right to capture the look you want, and when to put away the camera and grab lunch. With this ability you also will learn to be able to modify light with simple reflectors and scrims to help create your look.

The smaller your subject, the easier it is to modify light. Portrait, bug and flower photographers do this all the time; landscape photographers usually have to wait for the right light.

A simple sheet of 8-1/2 x 11" paper can reflect enough sunlight to fill in shadows on a face.

To get the right light on a mountain you may need to wait for the right season, the right weather and the right time of day. This is how Ansel Adams was able to create such masterful works: he lived in Yosemite and only showed his works from when the lighting was fantastic. If you show up on vacation and snap away in whatever light is there you'll not likely get anything extraordinary.

Everyone has different tastes. This is art.

You either need to create your own lighting in a studio (or with ten tons of gear and generators as we do on movie sets), or you need to have the patience to wait for nature to supply the correct lighting.



As explained above, when photographing landscapes one needs patience to get the right light. Since you can't light up the whole outdoors, you just have to wait for the right light.

This is really important!

You may have to wait for hours or days or months or years to get the right light. You cannot have people waiting for you. If you rush you'll miss the good light.



With practice you'll learn what looks good in photographs.

No photograph is an exact reproduction. All photographs distort reality. As you become familiar with how your materials interpret reality you will learn to recognize under what conditions you get the results you want. Knowing that, you will start to photograph more under the right conditions, and also seek out those conditions.

You will learn what things need to look like to your eye to get the results you want in a photograph.

One hint is that the contrast needs to look very low to your eye to look OK in a photograph. Photographs pick up contrast.



You need to photograph often enough to see your results while you can still remember what the scene felt like when you were there. Polaroids are handy for this: you can see the results while you still are there!

Ideally you should develop your film and see the results the very next day while your memory is still fresh. If you wait around for months you'll never be able to correlate your results with what you were feeling when you made the image.

You need to know what results you are going to get when you are feeling something.



Only show your very strongest images.

Throw away most of what you shoot. I do. Most of my photos are awful!

Go through the few photos you save out of a roll, and then throw away all but the one strongest image.

Next time, go through the few you've saved from a few rolls, and throw more away.

This isn't painting. In photography it is a requirement to throw away most of what you do.

You'll see that if you only save or show your strongest images that your body of work will seem to improve. Guess what: as you show only the better images, your body of work as seen by others has improved!

Do you think I shoot a roll of film and get a roll loaded with the images you see in my galleries? Of course not. Most of what I shoot is crap. I'm just good enough to throw most of it away and only show the good stuff.

Ansel Adams said that if you can produce one strong image in a year that you are doing very well. Don't expect to turn out miracles every roll, or even every month. Ansel didn't, I don't, and I don't think anyone does.


6.) FILM

I wrote a whole page here. Your choice of film is very important to your look.

Avoid print film, which is what 95% of amateur photographers shoot and gives inconsistent results. I shoot slides, which is what you see on this site.

Go read the film page for much more on this.


7.) EXPOSURE COMPENSATION: your Lighten/Darken control

Forget this if you are shooting print film since no matter how hard you try to get the correct exposure it's usually messed up at the photo lab when your negatives are made into the prints you see. This is why I strongly suggest digital or slide film on my film page.

If you shoot slides or digital or do your own printing then pay attention.

Shoot enough to learn under what conditions your images look too light or too dark. If you find some things always come out too light or too dark (or if the shot you just made on your digital just came out too light or dark) then here are the amounts to compensate.

Don't be bashful. No camera is perfect and one almost always needs to adjust the compensation for some shots. It took me a long time to learn this; I thought my camera was always smarter than I was. It usually is, but not always. It is these times when you need to adjust the exposure compensation.

There are no rules here, just guides. Do whatever looks right to you.

Ideally you should learn the Zone System, since when you do you'll get perfect exposures every time with no guessing or bracketing. Knowing the zone system will make this exposure compensation much clearer.

Here is what each setting does. This is not a replacement for the Zone System:

0: If your photos look fine, then no compensation is required.

+1 Stop: This is a good start for things that usually turn out too dark, like white things on a overcast day. +1 stop will lighten a medium gray to a medium light gray. This is a common setting I'd often use on older cameras without modern matrix or evaluative meters. Use this setting if the subject is mostly light granite or California stucco, for instance. A subject that is completely yellow and fills your screen might need +2/3.

+2 Stops: This is a severe correction for something that would come out way too dark. If something came out a medium gray and you added +2 stops you will get white. On old cameras or with manual light meters you would use this much compensation to make sand or snow look white.

-1 Stop: I don't usually use this. This will take a medium gray and make it a dark gray.

-2 Stops: never used except with a broken camera. This will take a medium gray and lower everything to a very dark, almost black, gray. You'd only use this with a spot meter to set shadows here as part of the Zone System, not as a setting on a camera's exposure compensation dial.





Most amateur photographers and all snapshooters use flash exactly at the wrong times, ensuring amateur-looking images. Proper use of flash is far more important than what kind of camera you have. Any point-and-shoot used properly will give far better results than any Leica, Canon or Nikon used the way most amateurs do.

Most people incorrectly leave the flash OFF in daylight which leads to harsh, ugly sunlight on their friends' faces. Turning the flash ON in bright sunlight will help lighten the shadows to make them look much more natural. On a P/S camera just push the flash button a few times until the little flash icon appears, on a Nikon just turn on the flash. Also in backlit photos you'll be able to see your friends instead of just getting silhouettes.



Most people incorrectly use flash indoors or in low light at night. Using the flash with the usual default sync mode indoors leads to the nasty black backgrounds and washed out people indoors. What's worse, those nasty black backgrounds confuse printing machines into making the prints too light, and then these poor photographers blame the camera for over exposing their flash shots!

If you are doing studio strobe work or macro photography lit only by the flash of course it's OK to use fast sync. This just isn't what most ordinary people photograph.

With disposable cameras this is your only choice. With most point-and-shoots and all Nikons you should either turn the flash OFF and shoot by available light if your subject is reasonably still, or for photographing people or moving objects use the flash in the SLOW REAR or SLOW sync mode.

These SLOW sync modes are also in many P/S cameras. In a P/S camera one typically pushes the flash button until a little moon and city icon ("Night Mode" in Japanese) appears.

The SLOW sync modes allow the camera to make a long enough exposure of the background (ambient) light for it to look natural. Otherwise it always looks way too dark at the usual 1/60 sync speed people use. Really stupid photographers use the 1/250 sync speed for indoor photos and make the effect even worse. Best to try the slowest speed you can, like 1/30, if you're setting the shutter manually.

Both SLOW and SLOW REAR give the same exposure and f/stops. SLOW pops the flash at the beginning of the exposure, and SLOW REAR pops it at the end.

This matters if you have an exposure long enough to blur anything. If you do, the effect of the flash popping at the start of the exposure makes the subject appear to streak backwards from the ghost image frozen by the flash. You see the ghost and the streak moves forwards from it, showing the ghost at the back of the streak. Bad. SLOW REAR reverses this effect and gives the illusion of the subject moving forward from the ghost. This is because you see a streak, and then the flash pops at the end (front) of the streak. It might make more sense to rename SLOW REAR to "front" sync, but that's another story.

Since SLOW REAR mode fires the flash at the end of the long exposure it serves another purpose: people think the photo is taken when the flash fires, so having the flash fire at the end (rear) of the exposure keeps them still and smiling the whole time the shutter is open waiting for your camera to go off. This trick goes away for digital and newer SLR cameras since most of them fire very visible preflashes before the exposure. (The camera companies lie about them being invisible.) Thus you'll get a double flash effect.

Of course if you are trying to freeze moving things you won't with SLOW sync. You'll get the blurry streaks behind people that you see all the time in National Geographic Magazine. These streaks convey a sense of motion and I like them.



Flash on the camera is the nastiest looking light you can get. For use as fill this is usually fine, however you'll get more natural results by using a cheap diffuser if your subject is close enough. Even many professionals don't realize this, and you'll often see famous photographers suggest turning the flash fill level down a stop or two. They have to do this because the harsh on-camera fill flash may look unnatural. If you diffuse the flash (as simple as bouncing it off a big white card) then you can let the camera use the normal amount of fill flash and it will both look natural due to the diffusion, and be more effective because it can be at the correct level and not turned down a stop or two.

I prefer the $20 Lumiquest reflector gizmo that folds flat in my case and attaches with Velcro. Note that the area of the reflector is much bigger than the lens of the flash itself, giving a much softer quality to the light.



Here's how to get great, natural looking fill indoors with most SLR cameras:

a.) Set the camera to SLOW sync

b.) Point camera-mounted flash up at the ceiling

c.) Pull out a built-in little white card or rubber-band one behind the flash so a little bit of light will bounce forward off the card. This light from the card will give a nice catchlight to their eyes while most of the light goes up to the ceiling to fill the room with soft, natural fill light. (Hint: if the room light is too dark to give a reasonably short exposure time in SLOW sync you can try the regular sync mode, in which case the entire shot is lit only by the flash bouncing off the ceiling and the little off the little white card. In this case forget bothering with color compensation filters mentioned in e.) below.)

d.) Set flash to TTL exposure mode. This will vary with camera brand. You want the mode that will blend the levels of ambient and flash light automatically.

e.) Filter or gel the flash to match the color of the existing room light, and filter your camera to match it. This way both the ambient room light and flash fill match. With a digital camera of course you set the camera's white balance to match room lighting and then get a colored gel to put over the flash for tungsten or fluorescent. You can get these gel filters in sheets for a few dollars at theatrical stage and lighting stores found in every decent sized city.



1/500 shutter speed freezes anything. This does not look as it does to our eyes. This is usually what you see in surfing magazines where every wonderful drop of spray is frozen.

1/30 makes moving water look about natural, if that's the effect you seek.

1/8 gives a nice blur.

1 second starts to get really smooth like this.

Several seconds or minutes starts to make all the whitewater flow into what looks like a fog. Here's an example.

In these examples the usual waves continuously came in and crashed on the rocks.



A yellow filter (K2, #8, Y48 etc.) is REQUIRED outdoors for B/W film, otherwise blue skies will be completely washed out. See also the filter page. A yellow filter is required to give natural results outdoors, since film has much more sensitivity to blue than our eyes do. The yellow filter makes film's response to color match our eyes, and thus prevents the darker blue sky from looking as bright as the clouds as it would without the filter.

Go read the tips about b/w film, exposure and processing and printing about halfway down my film page here. If you don't want to take the time for great results as explained on the film page, here are some basic suggestions:

1.) Set your camera for one stop more exposure than the film is rated. Most film ratings lead to a stop of underexposure and dull shadows. In other words, either set the camera manually to an ISO speed one-half of what the box says, or set the exposure compensation to +1.

2.) If you are finishing in digital, instead just shoot color film normally (no filters) and convert to B/W in Photoshop because A.) ICE (the dust and scratch removal feature of better scanners) works with color film but not b/w and B.) you can choose the mixing of the color channels in Photoshop to select filter effects after the fact without having to use a filter for the original photograph! In the old days you had to shoot b/w film through a filter, today color film effectively shoots the color layers with various filters and you may pick and choose (and even mix) later in your computer instead. In the old days I would sometimes shoot several images with different filters; today I just shoot it once on color film if my output is to be B/W digital.


11.) Gesture

The expression on your subject is everything. Want to see great examples of photos where the gesture makes the photo? Go look on the walls of any Buca di Beppo chain restaurant.


12.) Simplify and get closer

The simpler, the better. Anything that isn't directly contributing to a stronger image is weakening it.

When I happen upon a scene, each shot I make usually gets closer and closer, with fewer distractions and more of what's the most important element.

As photographers improve, their work usually has less and less in it, and what is in it, is far stronger. It's a little like the progress of painter Piet Mondrian's work throughout his life. His early paintings were ordinary paintings. They became simpler and more abstract as the years wore on. Eventually his work became became nothing but a few lines and colored squares, for which he now is remembered.


13.) Close one eye

Trees, flowers and bushes look great, but that's because we see in three dimensions.

As you look at a tree you're about to photograph, close one eye. The magic goes away, but that's the only way our cameras see!

To make a good photo of anything three-dimensional, like a tree, be sure to walk around with only one eye open as you look for a good angle. Often you'll discover that there isn't any way to capture what we see with both eyes open.

Doing this will save you the embarrassment of making photos that aren't going to turn out.


14.) Know when to say no

Much of photography is the ability to look at something scenic everyone else is shooting and say "Boring!"

Peak lighting and weather are just that: optimum peaks. Most of the time, things aren't very photogenic by comparison.

Anyone can take pictures today. Some things are simply boring. You can spend a lot of effort trying to make them look otherwise, or you can relax and go find better things to photograph.

As they say in ranching, "don't beat a dead horse."


15.) Shut up when things get good

Stop the BS session and shoot when the light gets good.

All too often I see guys want to chit-chat about Canon versus Nikon or whatever, just as peak conditions are arriving.

Shut up and go shoot.


16.) Don't bunch up; spread out!

The worst photographers are the blind ones who can't see for themselves.

You find these guys all bunched up in one spot, as if the first guy found the only good spot.

The best photos come from the spots no one else has found. If you get stuck in the pile-up, you'll all get the worst shots.

The good photographers are always out by themselves finding the best shots from the best angles.


17.) Forget photo backpacks

Why do so many amateurs carry heavy photo backpacks loaded with all their junk?

Not only is it a pain to carry everything, but they can't get to any of it unless they find a stable place to set it down and deal with it.

Use a photo vest, loaded with pockets, or better, only carry as much as will fit in your pants or jacket pocket. If you must use a bag, use a waist pack into which you can get while it's still around your waist.


18.) Amateurs care what you think. Artists only shoot to impress themselves.

Self explanatory: shoot what you love and forget what anyone else thinks.


19.) Don't worry, be happy

Don't worry if you miss a shot or aren't prepared. You can always come back again some other time, and if its a scenic location, probably will.

By not worrying, you'll be more relaxed and make far better pictures.


20.) Carry Less

Trying to be prepared for everything makes you prepared for nothing.

Carry less and you'll be more relaxed and have better time, again leading to more fun and better pictures. See Carry Less.


21.) Avoid Caffeine

Caffeine is an addictive narcotic, just like morphine and cocaine. The only difference is that caffeine isn't that dangerous, so it's still legal in most places since it's been grandfathered-in for so many decades.

The bad news is that coffee and soda companies love to keep you addicted to needing a jolt in the morning just to get up, and all day to stay alert.

This would be fine if you never needed sleep, but since you do, your morning jolt is still preventing you from getting to sleep fast and sleeping well.

I've never drank coffee, but I love colas.

When I finally got off the cola at lunch, I was amazed at how well I slept, and even more importantly, how much more alert I was all day since I had slept well the night before.

Taking caffeine screws up your body's natural rhythms. It hurts your sleep and makes you dependant on it. Sign off the drugs, and you'll look forward to getting to sleep when you want and getting up before dawn all excited and relaxed for making great photos.

You may have some headaches when you first try to give it up, but in a few days, you'll be much better off.


22.) Don't worry about offending strangers

Any photo that says something is bound to offend someone somewhere. Especially with the Internet's universal audience, it's almost a given that every photo that isn't completely boring will offend someone.

The only way to avoid offending anyone is to be sure your photos are bland and say nothing. That's why motel, office and corporate art is so boring: it has to be that way if the secretary who picks it out wants to be sure that it can't possibly offend anyone.

If someone finds your images disturbing or offensive, maybe they are, or maybe they're just good. There are a lot of weirdoes out there who take offense at anything. If you don't know them personally, ignore them unless you want your photos to bore everyone else.


Don't Think; Just Shoot

Canon 5D Mark II Color Balanc

Color Balance. enlarge. (5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.4 USM)

I walked by and shot. I don't even know why: I feel and I respond.

Later I realized I was seeing the balance between the tan and teal, toilet and bag. If you're not seeing it; walk back five feet and see if you see the positive/negative space, the yin and yang.

This isn't a photo of a toilet; this work is all about color and balance.

Our subconscious minds perceive this far faster than our conscious minds can explain it. Don't think; just shoot.


Vary Your Shooting Volume with Conditions

I usually shoot as much all the time, whether things are boring or fantastic. I get into a rhythm, and shoot at about the same speed regardless of what's going on.

It s far better to put away the camera when things are boring, and to shoot like there's no tomorrow when light and conditions get exciting.

This way, in for the same amount of photos, a larger percentage of them will be exciting.


Travel Light

You need to be lightly loaded so you'll be happy moving to the best location instead of getting lazy and staying put.

Shoot only one camera; don't try to shoot everything on two formats for each shot.

See Carry Less.


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Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, Ryan and Katie.


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