Photography – How Hard Should It Be?

A couple of recent photowalks with different lenses on the same camera posed varying degrees of challenge.

In short, one was a seamless, fluid and instinctive experience, while the other was awkward and stuttering.

Which meant the amount I enjoyed the two walks varied considerably too.

This got me thinking about how difficult the photography experience needs to be for our optimum enjoyment.

If it’s too simple – for example pointing and shooting with a phone camera – then I don’t tend to feel engaged and immersed enough. Especially once I’ve set the camera up so I can shoot without thinking.

It’s like I’m not making enough decisions with each photograph to be able to call them a result of my own creative choices, or to really call them my own at all.

This is fine – and indeed desirable – when it’s a family snapshot and you just want the image and the moment captured with as little faffing about as possible.

But for more personal and artistic photography, this end of the spectrum can feel too detached for me.

At the opposite end, there are set ups where you need to change multiple settings with every shot.

Manual focus, manual aperture, manual exposure compensation, and then having to review the image, adjust and try again, until you get what you want, perhaps two or three times, or perhaps two or three dozen times.

Now I’m certainly not against manual adjustment, and love using a number M42 lenses on my Pentax CCD DSLRs.

Take a lens though that’s difficult to focus (perhaps due to a relatively small maximum aperture, and/or a stiff or short throw in the focus ring), on a camera that’s flaky with exposure accuracy (my Pentax K-30 still frustrates in this area, despite being pretty wonderful in others), and it becomes too manual, too much adjustment to achieve a decent photograph.

Crucially, the amount of involvement on my part interrupts the fluidity of the process, and breaks the almost meditative flow that photography can bring.

In these instances I’d rather just grab an AF lens and shoot Program mode, and know the camera is going to get most things right.

In between these two ends of the spectrum is the happy medium.

My CCD DLSRs like the Samsung GX-1S (Pentax K mount) have just enough adjustment that I feel in control.

Not overwhelmed by too many options but not blindly trusting the camera to make every last decision except where to point it.

Somewhere comfortable and satisfying in between.

I’m in control, but there’s still that instinctive fluidity that allows me to get lost in the experience.

How about you? How hard does photography have to be for you to enjoy it to the fullest?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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16 thoughts on “Photography – How Hard Should It Be?”

  1. A good question Dan! When shooting digital I also tend to shoot, review and then adjust, or at least I used to. Now I try to treat it as though shooting film, and take a little more time to think about what I am doing. That does translate into better more satisfying results when using film, which is my preferred medium these days for most of my intentional photography. I like it best when there is no time pressure, but that is not always the case, such as my son’s wedding last month, where I shot a roll of Portra 400 with the Contax 139 (the official photographers shot more than 1,500 images) although at least half of my shots are keepers! So many genres and styles of photography, I am sure you will get many different answers!

    1. Thanks Steve. I do also try to shoot pretty carefully with digital, though this does depend on the gear. Sometimes one shot is enough, but sometimes a couple or three are needed if the light is tricky and the camera needs some help exposing correctly.

      With film, obviously I had a limited number of shots per roll, but sometimes if it was a camera and lens I really enjoyed (like the Contax 139Q!), I would shoot more because I like using it so much. Even if the shots weren’t great once I got the back.

      So yes, with both digital and film I notice(d) quite a bit of variation on how many shots I’d take on a typical photowalk.

  2. I guess photography gets too hard (or too easy) when it stops being fun. Recently I started a one-year-one-camera-one-lens-one preset project. I originally planned doing this with my phone cam, but it just didn’t make sense to lock up my favourite camera (α6000) for a year.

    Using a MF lens (Minolta MD 50mm) adds to the “filmlike” experience, but the α6000 focus peaking works like a breeze – so it doesn’t become painstakingly difficult. 50mm = 75mm eqv., which is perfect for abstract and minimal shots, but also great for portraits and still usuable for documentary style photography.

    So I think I found a “sweet spot” that’s challenging, but still fun enough to keep me going for a year.

    1. Yes, good way of putting it Robert, when the fun stops. Same as the what I’d call the flow, if a camera/lens set up is too clumsy and I can’t maintain a fluidity, I start to lose the enjoyment. The fun stops.

      I’ve had a few Minolta 50 and 55s and a 58mm, all have been lovely lenses…

  3. For some people there is a masochism factor; they unconsciously make it more difficult than it needs to be because of an underlying belief that if it isn’t hard to do the result isn’t good – no matter the actual critical evaluation. This is found in all forms of art, and photography is a form of art.

    1. Good point Marc, absolutely agree. I think this comes hand in hand with a kind of snobbery about other people’s photographs too. If someone shares a picture somewhere and it’s not detailed how much manual effort went into the making of it (or the complexity/credibility of the gear involved), it can be seen by others as not “real” art as it wasn’t challenging or difficult enough. Like the photographer didn’t earn the right to call it art as the struggle wasn’t great enough.

  4. When I have the time I enjoy going through the sequence of identifying a subject, selecting a vantage point, fine tuning my location to deal with lighting, foreground and background, measuring the light, selecting an aperture or a shutter speed depending on whether depth of focus or subject movement is the main issue, setting the corresponding shutter speed or aperture, focusing, framing, and taking the picture. If I do this half a dozen times on an outing I will be very happy.

    When I know I won’t have time, as when I am photographing my granddaughter’s soccer matches, I select a vantage point, measure the light once, set the combination of aperture and shutter speed I know will work best under the existing conditions, focus on the near goalpost, and do nothing more for the rest of the half but frame the shot, press the shutter, wind the film, and repeat. I take two camera bodies each loaded with 36 exposures to each match. I almost aways have to switch the 135/3.5 LTM Canon lens to the second body by the time the match ends.

    1. Yes I’m torn a bit in what I wrote because I also love slow photography, with all that build up and preparation. I think when this tips over into being too hard or too frustrating is if there’s too much unpredictability with the equipment. I like the slowness to be my choice, not because it’s taking so long to get the equipment to cooperate!

      I remember trying a kind of street photography once along the lines of “f/8 and be there”. Using a Pentax ME Super and 50mm lens, I set the aperture to f/8, and set the focus distance using the depth of field scale on the lens to ensure everything from about 2m to 10m was in focus. I relied on Av mode to set the shutter speed but knew it would be about 1/250s in the conditions anyway. Then just took the point and shoot approach almost, not touching the settings between shots.

      It was amazing to see how many images came out well, when prior to this I would always go through a very slow build up, setting aperture and focus carefully shot by shot, thinking that was the only way.

      Of course the latitude of film allows for considerable flexibility in exposure too, especially if you lean towards overexposing as I mostly did, and most colour negative films have a +3/-1 latitude. Much easier and more forgiving than digital I found, in that area.

  5. Hmm. It depends. Macro photography is infuriatingly challenging to someone with limited patience. But I enjoy the results. Nature photography and landscape photography means I get up before the sun. Give me coffee and a breakfast sandwich and I’m having fun. When I do still life photography of bottles, seeing the end result naked me smile.

    Sometimes I enjoy the challenge and sometimes I use my iPhone.

    1. I know what you mean with the macro stuff. Your Lens Baby posts I was looking at the other day had some beautiful shots, but I know from what you wrote some took dozens of attempts. I guess we each find that tipping point about when the reward of the final image is worth the three or six or 36 attempts it took to get that one beautiful shot.

      And yes, one’s mood changes when photographing, and sometimes a slow approach is utter joy, sometimes just too much hassle and one reaches for the digital P&S or phone cam.

      1. I do appreciate there is an art (and perhaps more a science) to any kind of studio photography, with the lighting and everything else, but it’s so not my interest. I’m all about finding what’s already there waiting in nature, in natural light.

  6. I think these are the things I like…
    -Manual focusing – makes me feel like I took the picture, not the camera. This is the one thing that I really should be doing 100% of the time but for the sake of expedience (or for the fact that the AF/MF button on both my K200D and K-S1 are stuck in AF mode), I end up using AF lenses in AF mode.
    -The ability to change the settings if I want to, but also starting off in a more automated way, at least in relation to shutter speed. I find no satisfaction in selecting the shutter speed, but I want to have control over the ISO and especially the aperture.
    -My post-processing nowadays is literally a 2-step process in RawTherapee: After it opens up with the default Pentax curve (not counted as a step because RawThreapee does this automatically), select a film preset (Kodachrome 64) and then set the Fill Light bar to about 12 for a more natural look. I would love it if a camera gave me these results by itself, but unfortunately, none do, so I have to do post-processing, but I wish I didn’t have to.
    -For B&W I am actually happy with the results from most of my cameras except of course the K10D. But I haven’t been shooting B&W as it does not come naturally to me.
    This is as simple as I can get my photography to be, while still being able to have my say on the final output…

    1. I know what you mean about manual focus, but I think because when I use AF I just have it set up as single point AF and even then quite often lock focus then recompose, I don’t find it much different to manual focus. It’s just the camera moving the lens to where I want it, rather than my finger. I hate those multi-AF modes that have nine or 99 focus points lit up in the VF but then never actually lock focus on the part of the frame you want them to. Even with my phone camera I manually select/lock focus half the time by tapping my finger on the part of the screen I want to focus on.

      I think shutter speed depends on what you’re shooting. I hardly ever shoot moving objects (I mean with intentional photography and “proper” cameras) so as long as the shutter speed is above about 1/8s to avoid camera shake I don’t care what it is, I don’t need a certain speed to freeze motion etc. Aperture of course dictates depth of field, which is a huge part of my photography, so I nearly always favour Av, or a P mode where I can then nudge the aperture up or down a little to get the DOF I want.

      Can’t you set RawTherapee to do all of those adjustments for every image you import? Like a collective set of adjustments as one setting/preset? I know I did a similar thing when I used to use LightRoom, so I wasn’t doing the same (or very similar) adjustments to photos one by one. And I have similar presets set up with Snapseed where I just choose the preset that, for example converts to b/w and increases contrast, rather than manually doing it image by image for 20 or more.

      1. Ah yes, absolutely, that is a preset in RawTherapee that does what I described.
        Or I can take an entire folder with pictures I took during an outing or an event, and then process them all at once. In this case, I have to make those two changes manually and then just hit “export”.
        So yeah, not a huge deal, but I still have to copy the pictures to my computer, open RawThreapee and make the changes. So my point was, I wish I didn’t have to do that and that I could upload the pictures the way I want them, directly from the SD card 🙂 With my K-50 I can basically do that because my “Ektachrome” setting based on the Muted profile works well straight out of the camera. But with the newer cameras it doesn’t work quite as well. And with the older cameras I don’t have that profile, so with them I really have to use RAW.
        But that’s such a small detail I really shouldn’t complain at all! Just the fact that we have all this technology at our fingertips – and in the case of RawTherapee it’s totally free, I don’t know how they do it – is just amazing.

      2. That’s just the extra step I don’t want to take, for my needs shooting JPEGs with the old CCD cameras is fine, I love the outcome more than I could get with any camera shooting RAW then fiddling about afterwards! Plus more importantly, when I press the shutter button it’s the beginning and end of the post processing!

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