The road to a better outdoor photographer

Outdoor photography is more about the photographer than the gear
Outdoor photography is more about the photographer than the gear © Bharat Singh Bhadwal. All Rights Reserved.

The road to becoming a better outdoor photographer is fraught with diversions. Many who trudge this road get distracted by the latest and greatest camera gear and marketing hyperbole. This leads to dissatisfaction with the gear that they own and promotes what I call “magical” thinking.

Outdoor photography is more about the photographer than the gear

Magical thinking is based on the premise – “Oh! my photographs would be better if I had x camera or y lens”.

“Because in my photographic-context definition, a camera pussy is someone that is not confident about their photography. They believe that if only they had the right camera, their photography would improve. Better composition along with better technical execution would also ensue. Magical thinking.” — Michael Reichmann – Editor, Luminous Landscape

Table Of Contents

The recent post [on my photo gear]({% post_url 2017-02-05-My-Outdoor-Photography-Gear %}) prompted a lot of speculation on whether this old equipment was the best photo-gear a trekker could own for outdoor photography. Let me put this speculation to rest by answering this question once and for all – No! What may be good for me may not be good for you. The best camera is the one that you own and are willing to carry it with you most of the time.

The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You — Chase Jarvis

For most people this camera is a smartphone. Almost any smartphone made in the last couple of years is capable of taking amazing photographs. Don’t believe us? Check out the mobile photographs here and it may change your perception on what is possible with a smartphone camera.

What I are trying to emphasise is that photo-gear has little impact on your photography so drop that magical thinking. What I recommend instead is to pick one phone, compact or a camera and lens combination that you own or one that you can beg, borrow or scrounge and forget about buying new gear for the next year. Stop surfing to gear review sites and internet forums and instead, spend that time taking photographs.

One camera, One lens, One year, One photo

G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) is one of the worst diseases when it comes to photographers. It causes photographers to make excuses about our gear – rather than going out and making photographs with what we have. One camera, one lens, one year, one photo, makes you work with what you have. It drives you to know more about your camera and to play to its strengths and avoid its weaknesses. If you are buying a camera and lens, I would recommend buying a prime lens over a zoom lens for your OCOLOY project. While a prime lens of a given focal length is less versatile than a zoom, it is often of superior optical quality, wider maximum aperture, lighter weight, smaller size. Do you see the pattern here? We are trying to simplify gear and choices available to an outdoor photographer. You can still zoom in and out by moving your feet. If you already own a zoom lens don’t fret, you can leave it set at a specific focal length to mimic a prime lens.

If you have ever driven a borrowed or a rented car or motorcycle, then you can already appreciate familiarity. A rented car never fits as well as the one you own or are used to driving. The same goes for a camera.

An exercise that I recommend to every landscape photographer is – close your eyes and change your camera settings especially: exposure compensation, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, modes, focus points and exposure programme by touch alone. Doing this exercise every day familiarises you with your camera and will stand you in good stead on treks when conditions change rapidly or there is little or no ambient light to work with.

Taking and editing one photo every day helps you streamline your photo workflow including post-processing. Over time, it helps you realise the kind of subjects you prefer to photograph and the best time to photograph these subjects. But, more than that it makes you see everything with a critical, observational eye. You may even see new facets in the neighbourhood that you have lived your entire life.

If you have trouble sticking to one photo a day schedule, I recommend joining Polaroid Blipfoto. Blipfoto allows you to post one photograph per day. The photograph that you can post has to be taken on that specific day. While this may seem like a limitation, it’s not. The challenge of making the best photograph that you can in a day and the friendly community at Blipfoto inspires you to go out and shoot more often.

Think before you shoot

Halfway through my photography career, I realised that a digital camera was having a detrimental impact on my photography. The fact that it cost next to nothing photographing a card full of subjects was lulling me into taking a shotgun approach to photography. A shotgun approach is when you take a lot of photographs and hope that one of them will turn out to be good.

As soon as photographers arrive on location, many jump out of their car, set up the tripod and start photographing. They probably have a preconceived idea of what to photograph in an area based on previously seen images, whether on the internet or in guidebooks. Ask yourself three simple questions before you start making photos: Do you know what you’re trying to communicate? Do you know how to meter the scene? Which camera controls are you going to use to interpret the scene? These questions make each photographer stop to think about what’s in front of him rather than wildly taking photos that he might throw away later. — Jim Altengarten

Fortunately for me, a veteran photographer and friend pointed this out before it became a habit. It was then, that I went out and invested in a film SLR – A Nikon F3. For the next year, I shot with a film camera and the cheapest monochrome film I could find in Europe. Yet even with the cheapest monochrome film, the cost of buying film, developing it and then scanning it ran to over 12 euros (~ 900 Indian Rupees) per roll of 36 photographs. This considerable expense made me think critically about every image that I took and this critical evaluation has improved my photography.

I do not recommend that our readers rush out and buy a film camera. However, what I do recommend, is carefully reading this well-written article by Jim Altengarten . This article has been my guiding star every time I press the shutter button.

Understanding light

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. — Ansel Adams

Photographic lighting is a topic that will never go out of style, no matter how sophisticated cameras and other technology get. Even with the most high-tech gear, photographers still need to put a lot of thought and vision into lighting their photographs in order to get great results. This key skill has the power to dramatically and quickly improve photographs.

A landscape photographer can only ignore understanding light at his own peril. We reckon this book is the best 2000 rupees you can spend on improving your photography. This is one of the few books we have owned for five years and it is still worth a read. Available at Amazon India

Critical evaluation

One thing I dislike about popular photo-sharing sites like Facebook and Flickr is that you never get criticised. If you want to improve, you need to take a little beating once in a while and a photo critique will dish it out to you. If you’re looking for sound, photographic advice, you have to find someone objective. This means that they don’t know you. It might feel awkward to ask a stranger what they think of your photography, but trust me, it’s the best approach. They will not consider your feelings when evaluating your work and their feelings for you won’t compromise their critique. Whether it’s with a photography group or with an experienced professional, a photo critique will cover the emotional appeal, composition and technical quality of an image.

One Exposure is an online community to get a photo critique. The critique is honest, harsh, informed, and deep. As a community, they strive very hard to give very in-depth reviews and suggestions. They also have the added benefits of extreme honesty, which is sometimes hard to get.