How I learnt to stop worrying about technicals and start enjoying photography

You’ve just bought your first serious digital camera and you cannot conceal your delight. Or maybe you already have one but feel you are ready for the next phase. You want to take your interest in photography further and become a committed amateur or maybe even a semi-pro.

You spend hours looking at the perfect, gorgeous, clinically sharp images on online forums and galleries. You soak up all the advice you can find. Then, you invest in a faster computer, start backing up your images and purchase post-processing software, a lot of it. You come across numerous articles dealing with the ideal settings for sharpening. Then, you look at the photographers you follow and admire: What great post-processing! “If only I knew the settings for this photo my life would be so much easier,” you think. After experimenting with different looks, you buy a new set of presets. Then you see stunning images from another online guru and you just love them. You need to get your hands on those presets as well.

You go deeper into technical know-how, you start learning Photoshop: curves, layers, sharpening, expose-to-the-right…the cycle of technical learning seems to have no end. You jump on photo forums passionately discussing settings, software choices, lenses…you know you can do better. You are nervous when you crop your image. The thought that you will somehow lose those precious pixels terrifies you. A careful examination at 100% magnification only confirms your deepest fears. Your friend is shooting at a higher ISO?! No way! Even the smallest trace of grain turns your already-restless nights into nightmares. You are becoming obsessed with technical perfection – after all, it is digital photography and you want only the best.

The problem is…you are getting tired.

You spend very little time taking photos as most of your time is consumed with technical aspects. All these hi-tech decisions take a toll on you. You become tired and disengaged. You have thousands of unprocessed images on your hard drive because you cannot decide which simulation, program or plug-in to use. Your photography is limited to sharing your technical titbits with like members of countless online forums – 37 last time you counted. The connection, light, composition – not right now please – there are much more important things to worry about.  

What happened to the joy of photography? Why, despite all your hard work, knowledge and expertise are your images so bland? Why, despite all your commitment and effort, after taking thousands of images – are you getting nowhere?   

Have you ever gone through a similar experience?

I did to some extent in my early digital days. This spiral of technical addiction not only takes a serious toll on your seeing but turns you into a disengaged and crusty caricature of a sub-photographer. After my own experience and after talking to many successful photographers and interacting with my students, I realized how common this problem is. Of course, some people barely experience any symptoms, while others recognize the problem early and start working on it. However, many people struggle for years, with some giving up on photography entirely.

Before I discuss solutions, let me offer a disclaimer. I am not against technical knowledge or expertise. There are many important facets of digital photography which to some extent should be pursued by every photographer, depending on their interests and subject matter. However, if this approach starts swamping artistic and visual considerations, you may need to take action. Please note: graphic artists who create their visual art in software are not the subject of this article. I am referring here to the craft of photography.

What are the solutions?

The first step is to recognize that the problem exists. If you cannot stop buying new gear or lenses without a clear purpose, if you spend more time in front of your computer than in the field, if you feel frustrated with post-processing choices and participate in countless technical-oriented this vs. that discussions – you may need to make some drastic changes.

First, you need to simplify your gear. Identify the lenses or cameras you don’t use and sell them. Leave only two, maximum three lenses and go out shooting with one at a time. Ideally, if you are into street or travel photography reduce your equipment to just one camera and one lens. You won’t believe how this simplifies your seeing.

(For the last few months I have been shooting almost exclusively with the X100F. I quickly realized that I didn’t need anything else).

Second, shift your focus from technical know-how to visual know-how. Observe light, work on your framing skills, find yourself an innovative visual project and pursue it. When looking at other people’s work, ignore the technical qualities but look for emotional punch, the arrangement of elements within the frame, lighting, etc.

Third, try to outsource most functions to your camera so you can focus on seeing and crafting the image. Turn off most information in your viewfinder so your frame stays unobstructed and free of technical clutter. Set up your ISO at Auto 200-6,400 and don’t be afraid of grain. If you have trouble with the manual focus, let the camera do it for you. I am always amazed how some photographic “gurus” grimace at people who use autofocus – I DO IT MOST OF THE TIME!

Fourth, avoid technical forums and discussions and instead focus on the visual qualities of each photograph.

Fifth, create two, simple, do-it-all presets – one for colour and one for black and white photography and apply them to all your photographs. I personally apply customised Classic Chrome and ACROS film simulations to 95% of my photographs. With one press of the button my images are processed and ready. Instead of dwelling on technical aspects I spend my time examining the visual aspects of each photograph. I often create a few images from one file by cropping the image in so many ways (I’ll write more about this great exercise soon).

Sixthspend more time with painters, sculptors and visual artists and talk to them about inspiration, lighting, artistic choices, etc. Extend your circle of photographic friends, lean toward those who talk about visual aspects of photography.

Seventh – print your work, create books, work on meaningful projects.

Most importantly, reclaim your joy of photography!

Feel free to share your own solutions – what works and what doesn’t!

 

It’s time to share some of my latest work.

This image is from my project “Encounters” – I have always been fascinated by random encounters on the streets of our cities and towns. I am sure you’ve glanced at a stranger passing by or someone sitting in a coffee shop and your sight locked for a split second, you don’t really know why. Are those fleeting encounters random or is the universe pulling us together for reasons we don’t know?

 

Here is more of our latest work shot mostly with the X-T2 and the XF 80mm F2.8 lens or the X-E3 paired with the XF 35mm F1.4

 

Next time…

 

 

NEW!

 

London / March 9 – 11, 2018

Berlin / March 16 – 18, 2018

Toronto / June 8 – 10, 2018

New York / June 15 – 17, 2018

Vancouver / August 10 – 12, 2018

Paris / September 21 – 23, 2018

San Francisco – November 2018

Sydney – late 2018

Make sure to reserve your spot early!

 

 

2018 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved

20 thoughts on “How I learnt to stop worrying about technicals and start enjoying photography

  1. Loved the article and definitely subscribe to its premise. It certainly gives me pause to reflect on my own approach to photography.

    I did think it a little ironic though how you stated that “For the last few months I have been shooting almost exclusively with the X100F. I quickly realized that I didn’t need anything else.” and then continued to post samples from your “latest work” from two other cameras/lenses. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment and your kind note.

      Regarding shooting with other cameras: that’s why I stated “almost.” Please note that I own only one camera at the moment – the X100F. Occasionally Fujifilm is sending me some gear for a review, therefore recently you have seen some imagery shot with other gear.

      Looking forward to your future feedback,

      Olaf

  2. I love this article. I myself came to Photography from a ceramic art background and not really strong on the technical side of photography. I do have a “painterly eye” for my current work and i am not sure how that fits in with current photography. So it is good to hear there are some people that are not so caught up in the technical end of things.

    Like you work very much as well.

    1. Michael,

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. Looking forward to your future notes.

      Warm Regards,

      Olaf

  3. I too think you have helped many of us to step back and think about why we first got interested in photography. I have also been shooting for many years both as an amateur and professional and find it refreshing to be reminded now and then to forget about all the latest and greatest high tech gear and software and just Simplify the process and have fun. Let the process be Visual + a bit of Technical rater than Technical + a bit of Visual. I very much like the way you make me look in the shadows for the detail to see how it supports the highlights and midtones.

  4. I see where you’re coming from ― obsessing over gear and technical considerations can be a trap. However, photography has always been a marriage of science and art.

    I’ve been shooting primarily digital for 14-years. Before that, I spent a quarter of a century in the darkroom and shot commercially in every format up to 11×14. I didn’t get there by ignoring gear and technique; study and finding good mentors was essential to my development.

    Digital photography is different in that it is not that hard to press the shutter (today’s cameras are nearly AI photographers in themselves), process a picture with a plethora of post-processing options, and upload to the Internet (where it will be represented, or misrepresented, by whatever random screen it appears on).

    What is very similar today is the printing process, where magic really begins in my opinion. It is also where much technical expertise is required to make/interpret a thing of beauty. Where I once pored through old treatises on toners and developers and consulted huge, arcane darkroom manuals, produced test-strips at various exposures and with various toners, I now must calibrate screens, master post-processing (but not let those hijack my vision) and colour management, test papers and profiles, etc.

    If you did more than take your film to the drug store, where it was batch processed without reference to your exposure decisions (assuming you made exposure decisions) exposing and processing the negative was another highly technical skill related to chemistry.

    In brief, image making is ultimately about seeing, as you say. Your advise about referring to other visual arts is spot on. But just as a painter must know his brushes paints or other media, as well as application techniques, so must the photographer study his tools and materials.

    Ansel Adams compared the negative to a musical score that required a competent musician to interpret (as a print). Extending that metaphor, we might say that without technical knowledge banging on a piano does not produce music, however much creative fire might burn in our hearts and minds.

    1. Hello Raymond,

      You raised several very important points. I especially enjoy your part about printing “where the magic really begins.” Indeed, I often feel the process of seeing is not complete until I hold the crafted image in my hand.

      I am well aware that printing is a highly technical endeavour and requires a certain set of skills and knowledge. For this reason, I outsource printing since I am not technically proficient enough to produce stunning prints (and I prefer spending my time in the field). Even though printing was not the subject of this article, I am glad you talked about this important subject.

      Looking forward to your future notes.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  5. Dear Olaf,

    this article nails it! A couple of days before, I had a talk with a friend of mine. She told me, that she looks at her pictures with zooming in at 100%. If her pictures aren’t sharp, she thinks they’re bad.
    I told her, it doesn’t matter if your pictures are sharp or not. What counts is the captured moment. No one cares about gear in the end if the picture is great. Gear become quickly outdated, the captured moment however, stays forever.

    I also simplified my gear and also my post processing in the last year. Now 80% of my images are jpg with minor adjustments. And I also shoot with one camera. Everything else does not matter.

    Thanks for your article, I will send this story to my friend 🙂

    Yours,
    Kevin

    1. Kevin,

      It is always great to hear from you. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I really appreciate your support.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  6. Wonderfully described. Well, it made me think again so mission accomplished.
    Love your writing as well as your photographic vision.
    If I may ask, How come most of your shots contain totally dark parts while other parts in the frame are well lit, as far as I know most of modern cameras have so much wider dynamic range?
    Is it PP?
    Thanks,
    Guy

    1. Guy,

      Thank you for your kind note. I usually look for highly contrasty light and scenes. Then I set up my camera in a way that I get these “totally black areas” (Shadows +3 or 4). In some cases, I do some post processing, mostly bumping blacks and shadows.

      All the best,

      Olaf

  7. Very well expressed, Olaf, and I totally agree. These days I try to come up with a solid project and attempt to fit my photography into the project’s goals rather than just going out and hoping to get the occasional “pretty picture.”

    1. Doug,

      It is always wonderful to hear from you. You are so right focusing on your own project – this is exactly what makes our photography worthwhile! Looking forward to our meeting.

      All the best,

      Olaf

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