It’s been 24 months since I launched 35hunter. This is the second of two posts reflecting on what I’ve learned during that time – about blogging, about photography, and about myself.
The first part focused mostly on the blogging side, and this post is predominantly about my photography.
So here are 12 photography lessons I’ve discovered in the last two years, and what works best for me –
1. Keep it simple (photography).
With photography, 35hunter has mostly been a 24 month diary of my exploding then imploding then exploding then imploding again camera collection.
What I’ve learned most is I hate having loads of cameras cluttering up my life (and bedroom).
It hugely impedes my photography and means most of the time I’m worrying about how much stuff I’ve got and how I’m ever going to choose which camera and lens to take out next. Instead of just picking one from a very small and varied collection and getting out and using it.
I finally seem to be pretty settled, and in recent months two Ricoh compacts have been everything I need. I may not quite yet be ready to be a one camera monogamist, but I’m closer than I’ve been in years, with the amassed knowledge that using all those different cameras has given me.
2. Seek to understand why you photograph.
We photograph for a huge range of reasons, from ones as simple as “I like capturing memories and moments with my family” to “I love playing with vintage mechanical cameras” to “it’s the only thing I’ve ever found that makes my soul sing” and everything else above, below and in between.
None are more valid than any other, but I do think it’s very useful for each of us to try to understand why we photograph.
Listing, say, your top five reasons, will help you hone down further, evict the unnecessary, and make photography an ever more vital and rewarding experience.
For example, when I asked these questions maybe nine months ago when I was shooting mostly film, I realised that probably four of my top five reasons are nothing to do with film, and are just as enjoyable with digital cameras.
Which I believe in the time since has saved me a considerable amount of money, and developed my skills more effectively.
3. Photograph what you love to photograph.
Once you’ve garnered some kind of audience online – for your photography blog, or by sharing photos via another site or app – you start to notice which pictures get the most attention.
Then, if you want more of the same kind of attention, you can try to produce more of the same kind of photographs.
The problem is you end up compromising your own photographic urges and desires. Rather than shooting what you want to shoot, you find yourself asking “how can I take (and process) this photograph so I’ll get at least 10/1000/100000 likes on Instagram?”
I’ve found from experience on Flickr that my top 12 most viewed photographs (and 31 of the top 40) over the last eight years have been pictures of cameras and/or lenses, rather than pictures taken with them. This top 12 account for a substantial 6% of the total views all 4300+ photos in my Flickr have gathered.
This is something of a blow to the pride and ego of my inner photographer, who would of course rather be getting thousands of views of the photographs I feel are my best work.
It’s not all bad, as I like taking pictures of kit now and again, and sometimes people find you via a camera photograph or review then stay for your other stuff too. I just think we need to be very careful we don’t get sucked into the constant chase of people pleasing with the images we make.
4. Assess and purge often.
I know the allure of beautiful cameras all too well. And not just all manual vintage gems with real gears and levers – I can just as easily feel gear lust for a ten year old digital compact (hello Ricoh GR Digital / Lumix LX3 and half a dozen more).
But ultimately I realised that having too much stuff did not make me happy. (Lessons I already learned eight or ten years ago in most of the rest of my life, so why would photography be any different?)
I don’t like being physically surrounded by a bunch of cameras I can’t possibly use more than once a month each at very best. And worse still is the dilemma of trying to choose which camera/lens/film combination to use for any one photowalk. Choice paralysis anyone?
Even three cameras plus three lenses plus three films gives 27 options! Just imagine how much I was freaking out with this lot…
I know some people love collecting just for the love of collecting, and that’s great for them. But to tighten up William Morris’s famous quote, I do not like to have anything in my home that is not beautiful AND useful. Then to use them often.
So for the last few months I’ve essentially used two types of camera – a Pentax DSLR and a Ricoh digital compact. And that seems just fine.
In the new year I still plan to assess and purge again – 15+ lenses is still excessive. Which leads me to…
5. You don’t need a lens for every focal length.
I expect the more experienced photographer reading this will be nodding their head in wise agreement, or just saying “Duh! You only just figured that out?”.
But yes it took me a long time to realise that you can make amazing images with one camera and one lens, whether it’s 24, 28, 35, 50, 105 or 135mm.
If you give the focal length (and yourself) a chance, and work on practising and developing your own style, you don’t find yourself thinking “this 70mm just won’t cut it, I wish I had my 85mm” or “if only I had a 20mm instead of 21 it’d save me stepping back that extra six inches”.
Not too long ago I had primes in 24, 28, 35, 50, 55, 58, 105, 120, 135 and 150mm. Starting to realise how similar the adjacent ones were, I began thinning down (assess and purge!). In doing so I realised that some were virtually redundant.
I still have too many, but know I could easily settle with three lenses – a wide, normal and tele, say 24mm, 50mm and 105mm.
This would radically reduce the dilemmas of choice every time I go out, whilst also allowing me to get to know each lens far better, and more quickly. Thus improving my photography and enjoyment of it too. Which follows on to…
6. Aim to master your equipment (less is more).
Having a relatively modest 15 lenses and one camera, and venturing on average on one decent photowalk a week, means even if I took a different lens every time, it would be nearly four months before I got back around to using the first lens again.
Say I typically take 100 photographs on a two hour photowalk. How long might you estimate it takes to even begin to master one lens? 1000 shots? 10,000 shots? 50,000 shots? This would simply never happen if you only used that lens three times a year.
But taking the same lens six weeks running, you’d have 600 shots of experience. After six months you might have over 2500 shots. A year of one lens and you’re in the region of 5000. By that stage you’d probably be comfortable knowing what the lens can do, and how to get the best from it, in the range of your usual favoured situations.
Do you want to be a master or a dabbler? The choice is of course yours, but these days I’m done with dabbling.
7. You don’t need a dozen 50mm lenses.
I think because when I first bought an SLR, the lens it came with was a normal 50mm, that is what I got familiar with very quickly, and so it became my normal too.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’re a photographer yourself and enjoy using vintage cameras and/or lenses, so you know very well the vast range available to us. For peanuts.
And more than any other focal length, 50mm (and 55mm) lenses were made by everyone and their apprentice over decades.
What I found after owning what must at a conservative estimate be over 50 examples of 50/55mm lenses (and might well in truth be into triple figures), is that 90% of them are as good as each other, for my level of photography. ie I’m not a professional photographer, not a pixel peeper or 100% crop junkie, and not a compulsive collector of infinite variations of 50mm lenses from any or all makers.
If I was advising my younger self about getting a 50/55mm lens (or indeed anyone else in this position of not knowing which to begin with) I’d say just get a clean, fully working Super (or Super-Multi-Coated) Takumar 55/1.8 or 55/2.
Whatever camera(s) you use, it’s highly likely there’s an M42 adapter available. If you’re shooting 35mm film you might want to just buy a Spotmatic F to go with that Takumar and sell everything else anyway.
Shooting with just one 50/55mm lens of course comes back to the lesson above about mastering your equipment. You get to know that one lens inside out and expand the limits of what you thought it (and you) are capable of.
8. Take inspiration but don’t copy.
On Flickr, when you favourite a photo, it adds it to your Favourites album, which you can browse through at your leisure.
For years I’ve had an unwritten goal that I will be happy with my level of photography when my own stream looks as good (to me) as my Flickr Favourites album.
This doesn’t mean I want to make a photograph that’s the same as every one on my Favourites. It’s a looser comparison than that, about the overall quality.
That said, there are times I come across a new (to me) photographer, love their style and wonder how I can take parts of it to add to my own ever evolving photographic voice.
It doesn’t have to be someone current, it can be any photographer living or dead. Sometime the best way to learn is to see what others have done that we like most, then try to achieve something similar.
Like a young band practicing in a garage every weekend who initially sound like all their own favourite bands, but in time the learning they gain through this – plus the unique stew that all the ingredients together simmer down to – enables them to find their own original sound. Or your own original look, in the case of photographs.
9. Give your camera a fighting chance (or, more cameras does not equal more happiness).
Something I must have been guilty of around 25 times or more since discovering film a few years back, is falling for a new camera (via pictures of it, picture I’ve seen made with it, and various enthusiastic reviews), buying myself an example (usually on eBay), then before I’ve used it enough (sometimes before it’s even arrived in the post!), moved on to something else.
Whatever camera you try – compact or SLR, film or digital – I don’t think you can make a fair judgement without taking at the very least a few hundred photographs with it, or with digital more likely 5000+.
It’s true that some cameras I’ve liked so little on first picking them up, I couldn’t even bring myself to use once. Maybe I’ve missed some “growers” here that are like an acquired taste you appreciate more in time.
To use a chocolate analogy (again) – a decade ago I’d probably take a Snickers or Cadburys Whole Nut bar of chocolate over anything dark without thought but these days I rarely touch any chocolate with milk in it. Green & Black’s 85% has been my clear favourite for the last year or so.
But most of the time I think if there’s something fundamentally flawed or highly annoying (in my opinion) about a camera, I don’t see any point in prolonging the agony of trying to make it work for me.
I’m very aware I’ve gone in circles with the equipment I’ve used, buying, trying, then selling certain cameras, then a bunch of others that are much the same but not as good, then returning to what I tried right at the start.
The whole Pentax SLR M series from the ME onwards springs to mind. My third SLR I believe was an ME Super, then I went through probably 50 by other makes like Canon, Olympus, Konica, Minolta and more, to conclude that actually Pentax had it pretty spot on with the ME and all its subtly different successors right through the the Program A and Super A.
So the next time you pick up a new camera, please give it a decent chance to impress you, and don’t dismiss it after a few dozen shots (unless it’s one of those instantly flawed/annoying ones!)
We are so spoilt for choice today, and if I was a generation older – certainly two generations older – I would have only been able to afford one SLR and one or two lenses and would have had to make do. I have no doubt that whatever I was making do with, I would have at least got to know inside out and back to front, and be more in tune with the camera that 95% of those I’ve actually owned in the last few years.
10. I can live without zoom lenses.
A few years back I had some preconceptions about zoom lenses that were completely devoid of any personal experience.
I thought the image quality was rubbish, they were heavy, awkward and overly complicated to use, and probably the biggest of all, they were a lazy option when you can just move closer or farther from your subject with a prime lens.
I finally got around to trying a few in the last couple of years, and my thoughts have changed.
Get the right zoom and the image quality can be quite excellent. The Minolta 35-70mm that was designed during their collaborations with Leica (and rebranded to use in Leica’s own lens line up), their later AF 35-70/4 “Baby Beercan”, and the SMC Pentax-A 35-105/3.5 are all exceptional lenses and at any focal length offer a more than respectable alternative to their prime equivalents.
Because inevitably you have more elements inside, and an extra variable to control (the focal length) there’s no getting away from the fact that they are generally heavy, awkward and complicated to use, in direct comparison to a prime. That Pentax 35-105 is akin to a small(ish!) rocket launcher. But again something like that Baby Beercan Minolta is surprisingly light and compact given the range it covers.
Ultimately, whilst I appreciate that a zoom lens can cover three or four or more primes (and everything in between), they still just don’t really work for me.
When I do use zooms, it’s as a “stack of primes”. Indeed the step zoom function of my Ricoh GX100 (which moves the camera’s zoom to the next step of a set of fixed focal lengths – 24, 28, 35, 50, 72mm) which seemed fantastic at first, has become close to redundant as I tend to use it at 24mm almost exclusively now.
And whilst of course different focal lengths offer different perspectives and different depths of field, again once you get used to one or two and know their unique characteristics, you’ll be making photographs you never thought you could anyway.
As part of my further assessing and purging in the coming months, I’ll be surprised if I keep more than one SLR zoom (maybe the Pentax 35/105), maybe not even that.
11. Processing can be minimal.
When I shot predominantly film, I confess one of the major appeals was my ignorance of post processing. At that point this involved uploading the images from the CD I got from the lab on to my computer, sorting through to find my favourite ones, and uploading them to Flickr. That was it. 95% of the joy of photography was in the shooting.
Prior to this any digital post processing had been similarly non-existent. With digital compacts and even my first DSLR, I just shot JPEGs and uploaded them to my computer, then deleted what I didn’t like and shared the best of the rest.
Once I got into reading more, I discovered the whole RAW vs JPEG debate and the “magic” of presets in applications like LightRoom that promised to make your digital images look a lot like they were shot with half a century old film cameras.
I’m finding I’m coming full circle again, coming back to keeping things as simple as possible.
With the Ricohs I’ve been using most lately (especially the GRD III), I now usually shoot JPEG (again), and have a very minimal processing workflow in LightRoom that adds a little contrast, might tweak the exposure, then exports. I’m pretty happy with this, and feel that zero processing is within reach.
I’m also starting to explore Hipstagram again. I’ve had it on my iPhone a couple of years and love the look you can get with a few combinations of “film”, “lens” and “flash” within the app.
A couple of months into owning an iPad – and exploring whether I can be laptop free (the main reason currently preventing this is uploading/storing/processing photos) – I’ve installed Hipstmatic on that too.
Initial impressions are really very exciting. It feels so much more visual and haptic and organic than using LightRoom on my MacBook, the interface is excellent, and beautifully minimal. More on this in a future post, but again the processing required is very little.
I know some people love the post processing side of photography more than anything, and each to their own. But for me, when I asked those hard questions about why I photograph (see lesson two above), none of my top 100 would be “to spend hours every week hunched over a computer fiddling about in LightRoom”.
12. AF is for compacts, MF is for SLRs.
Like all of the lessons here, this is a subjective and personal preference. When using compact cameras, for example the Olympus Mju 1 with film, and the Ricoh GR Digital III, then Auto Focus (AF) makes complete sense, due to the size of the cameras.
The GRD III does have manual focus which can be useful for intentionally forcing parts of the image out of focus, but 99% of the time I use Spot AF.
With an SLR or DSLR, one of the major reasons for using these cameras is for vintage lenses, with manual focus rings, and the whole tactile and mechanical pleasure of the experience. So it seems counter intuitive to me to then use an AF lens and make them one step closer to a point and shoot.
The only AF lens I do have (Pentax DA 35/2.4) has a very usable manual focus ring too, so aside from some initial AF experimentation that reminded me I don’t like it, I’ve focused manually with it ever since.
Another factor – which went against what I expected – is that shooting AF with (D)SLRs, my eyes seem to tire far more quickly than with MF lenses.
Maybe one’s eyes need to work harder to keep up with the speed that the AF lenses adjust and focus, whereas with manual focus the changes are much slower, so less intensive on the eyes. Anyway, it’s another reason for me that AF is best for compacts, MF for (D)SLRs.
13. Make time for photography every day.
(Yes I know this was meant to be another 12 lessons, but this bonus one is too important to leave out!)
With anything we love, it’s easy to fall into the trap that because it’s enjoyable and rewarding, we can feel we don’t deserve to have too much of it.
“Photograph every day? How positively self indulgent of me!”
But making time to at least touch base with photography in some way every day I feel is important, and sets up a healthy habit.
Having a young family and full time work (and with the more often than not grey English skies), I certainly don’t go out and take 100 pictures a day. But I do make time for something connected with photography each day.
It might be a lunchtime walk at work where I take two or three shots of things that capture my interest on the way. It might be composing a blog post (in my head, or actually via the written word). It might be sorting through a recent batch of photos.
It might be uploading a couple of images to Flickr. It might be commenting and replying on a few blog posts (mine and other people’s). It might be looking though other photographs, online or in a book. It might be sorting through cameras and lenses in my latest purge.
There are many aspects to photography, and I don’t think it’s too much to ask to dedicate a little time each day to such an important part of our lives. This has been serving me well since long before the two year lifespan of 35hunter.
So we’ve reached the end of the second part of this two part post of 24 (+1) lessons I’ve learned in 24 months of 35hunter.
What have you learned about photography and what works for you in the last couple of years?
Please let us know in the comments below (and remember to tick “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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