Classic to Modern
100 Things I've Learned About Digital Photography
Updated January 13, 2012
Feel free to agree or disagree with items on my list. I believe I've learned them, but future experiences could prove me wrong. These may or may not apply to what you do with a camera, because we each do something different.
1. There's a big difference between documenting and having something to say.
2. For technical quality, it's all about the glass.
3. You can get more bokeh far cheaper by shooting close to the minimum focus distance than by buying a faster lens.
4. The best gear may improve your technical quality, but it won't improve your artistic quality.
5. No matter how good or bad your gear is, you still have to work within its limitations.
6. Your processing skills need to be just as sharp as your shooting skills.
7. Titles and captions are valid parts of the viewer's experience.
8. If you want iconic abstraction, photography is not your medium. Try cartooning. Photography can do pictorial abstraction reasonably well.
9. The subject of a photo must be identifiable by the viewer, unless they know beforehand they'll be seeing an abstract photo.
10. In digital photography as in the rest of life, presentation is everything and the package is the product.
11. "Visualize the image first" may seem impossible advice. If so, shoot to see what things look like when photographed. Later on you'll be able to pre-visualize and then make the photograph look the way you want it to look.
12. You are free to choose how to -- or whether to -- mat, frame, mount, hang and show your work. There are no rules.
13. A composition looks better if it balances both left-right and top-bottom.
14. Photo editing skills (selecting the best) are just as important as shooting skills.
15. Photography is a head game. Get your mind in the right state and it will all go much easier.
16. For a photographer, an uncalibrated monitor is worse than useless.
17. People may buy your work for all kinds of reasons you never thought of.
18. On a backlit screen, photos look better on black. But on a reflective surface like paper, photos look better on white.
19. Shoot both the vertical and horizontal versions, unless there's just no way to frame it the other way.
20. Shoot an additional "compositional bracket" frame, wider than your original framing, in case you want a slightly different crop later.
21. 12 megapixels is enough. More could be good if you want to second-guess your framing.
22. Your intentions drive your shooting decisions, and therefore your processing decisions and your presentation decisions. If you know your intentions first, your photographs will stand a better chance of getting out into the wide world, instead of sitting unseen on your hard drive.
23. Well-composed photographs seem to look good anywhere from thumbnail size to large print size.
24. Expressing abstract ideas requires a series of photographs. You can't do it well in one image.
25. Shoot what you can shoot. Don't worry about all that stuff out there you can't get to. Thanks to Sally Mann for that one.
26. It's way easier to find interesting subjects in a place that's new to you.
27. Good color comes from good contrast and perfect white balance, not from the Saturation slider.
28. To get good data, expose for a right-loaded, well-contained histogram; make sure your focus is sharp and shoot RAW.
29. For static subjects, go back a second time, in different light, to see if you can improve the photo.
30. The camera's LCD display and histogram show the jpeg version. Know how much you can "overexpose" the jpeg and still get maximum data in the RAW file.
31. Digital and film photography are different media, with different constraints and therefore different creative possibilities.
32. A 6kg camera bag is too heavy for long walks, but I can carry 4kg all day.
33. People who ask a lot of questions when you're out shooting are mostly bored and want your interesting life to entertain them. Other common reasons: they're afraid you're documenting something they don't want known, you're a fine excuse for leaving the security desk, or they hope you will take their wedding photos cheap.
34. You need zoom lenses if you can't zoom with your feet, such as at a bridge railing. They're also handy if the action requires very fast focal length changes. Or it's too dusty to change lenses. Otherwise, you can get sharper pictures with those few truly excellent primes.
35. There's a lot to be said for adding bokeh in processing, particularly with respect to the cost of your shooting gear.
36. Know your audience. The general public will prefer photos of cute animals, kids, sunsets, flowers, old people's hands and landscapes, regardless of technical or artistic merits.
37. Shooting for a personal project fine-tunes your intentions and therefore your attention.
38. Reality is what you point your lens at. Everything else is your interpretation of reality.
39. Some viewers think they're "seeing reality" in your photos. You can't stop them. You can only handle your manipulations subtly, so they go on believing it in comfort.
40. Firmly plant the canned air on a sturdy level surface before blasting dust out of your camera. This prevents spraying any liquid.
41. Not many gadgets are worth carrying around all day, but a lens-cleaning pen and an LCD loupe are 2 of them. If you have an EVF camera, you don't need the loupe.
42. I spend a lot less time straightening photos in processing if I shoot with a monopod or tripod all the time.
43. It's tempting to work with all possible photographic techniques using all possible gear and all possible processing effects, but that will get you nowhere. Creativity flourishes better with narrow constraints.
44. The 2:3 aspect ratio works great for horizontals, but 3:4 seems better for verticals.
45. Unless you cut your own mats and glass, nonstandard crop shapes are very expensive to frame, and therefore much harder to sell at a profit.
46. Don't stand and zoom. Set the focal length based on the perspective you want, then frame by walking forward or back.
47. Layered .tif files save and load much faster than .psd's, and otherwise behave the same.
48. When sending image files out, always send jpeg's. Send them as sRGB unless you have a specific reason for a different color space.
49. There's no way to prevent people from stealing the photos you put online. You can only make it a little more difficult for them. Not giving away all rights to a social media site is a good start.
50. Successful cloning is like successful plastic surgery: do a little with each step rather than a whole lot at once.
51. It's impossible to take a bad photo of zebras, hot air balloons, or sunflowers. They self-organize the image. Look for ways to photograph other subjects such that the image self-organizes.
52. You need to take 10,000 photos before you're any good at it, and probably 100,000 to be among the best. I'll let you know for sure in about 2025.
53. Check the printer nozzles before each printing session. It's well worth a sheet of ordinary paper and a few pico-liters of ink.
54. If your business card doesn't make people say "Wow", at least some of the time, try again.
55. Big lens hoods make you look important, intimidate people, and make your gear look expensive. To attract less attention, work without them. In other words, you may have to unprofessionally remove the lens hood to get more professional photos.
56. Sometimes a static subject persists for years after you take your photo. Other times it disappears or changes the next day. You can't predict which it will be.
57. Noise reduction plug-ins, lenses, printers and computers vary in quality. Buy the best. Photography is hard enough without also fighting your gear.
58. Taking your time while shooting is a lot more difficult than it sounds.
59. Making photographs is easy if you don't know how, but very difficult when you do. Apologies to Edgar Degas for that one.
60. You have to show your work to strangers. If you don't, you'll never know how people outside your family and friends react to it. You won't know if or what you are communicating.
61. No single photograph will be equally liked by everyone who sees it.
62. To keep your self-respect, adhere to these pricing rules: 1.) Looking is free, 2.) Owning costs money, and 3.) Promotional freebies are mass-produced at a very low per-unit cost.
63. Letting someone use a photo free is only a good idea if it promotes your work.
64. "In exchange for photo credit" translates to "we get your photo free and you get nothing but a line in your resume." It's always a good deal for somebody, but not necessarily for you.
65. Look behind you. The best shot might be where you are not yet looking.
66. Work the subject: shoot it several different ways, including ways you are pretty sure will not look the way you first thought this photo should look. Thanks to Cedric Rudisill for that one.
67. Some viewers think all photographs are snapshots. They're not your audience.
68. After looking at enough photos, maybe you begin to see that you're interested in certain themes and bored by others. That's a good indication of what direction your work should go in.
69. As a photographer, you need to study the history of photography. If you don't know what's been done, you can't build on it, and you won't know if your work is interesting.
70. Each destination for your photos is a different medium, and demands a different approach. Photos that work great on Flickr may or may not work as well in a book, in a series on your own web site, or published with a magazine article.
71. If you want to photograph small birds, you'd better have a trust fund to spend on the lenses.
72. Starting out, maybe you do need to take all the standard shots people have always taken: the waterfall, the bee on a flower, your friends in mid-jump. Get them out of your system, then go shoot something new.
73. Your vision is unique. Even if millions of people (assuming they each have a vision) shoot with the same gear as you do, none of them will do it the same way you will.
75. You can't really finish; photography is a journey, where you go from average to better, and perhaps to really good.
76. Knowing what you "don't shoot" is just as important as knowing what you do shoot.
77. Categorizing what you shoot into themes and projects is both extremely important and painfully difficult.
78. For a book you need 30-100 photos. Fewer awesome photos is better than a great many less-than-awesome photos. Photo book readers have attention spans like everyone else. Thanks to John Paul Caponigro for that one.
79. Going to art school would have helped with writing artist statements that are hard for the general public to understand, but I'll get by.
80. The camera is for getting useful image data. The photo isn't finished until you've interpreted that data in processing.
81. Do you take a picture, or do you make a picture? You are required to decide that yourself.
82. A photograph can provide hints that a series of events took place in sequence over time. It can lead the viewer from a primary to a secondary focal point so she gets two sequential "reads" of the image. It can imply what events lead up to and will happen after the moment of exposure. But telling a story in the movie sense is out of the question.
83. I believe in using the best gear, but I also believe a really good photographer can make a great image with a $50 point-and-shoot or a 50-year-old rangefinder. Great photographers know how to work within the limitations.
84. You do your art because you can't not do it. All other reasons are extraneous.
85. If you find yourself shooting next to a group of photographers, all pointed the same way, pack up and go somewhere else.
86. Look where you're not expected to look.
87. The spectacular photo opportunity described to you by the helpful passerby is invariably not worth pursuing. Thank them and go back to what you were doing.
88. Upon arriving at a disappointing place, where the picture you envisioned fails to present itself, take the best photo you can anyway.
89. If you bought a pro DSLR and pro-quality lens, shoot with it in the rain, snow, wind, dust, cold, hot or anything short of underwater. You paid for gear that can withstand the elements.
90. For greater dynamic range use a lower ISO. Out in the bright sun, shoot with the super-lowest ISO. Thanks to the charts on DXOMark.com for that one.
91. Unless you are a photojournalist, don't listen to photojournalists. You can do anything ethical to get a shot and whatever you want in processing.
92. Perhaps for the first time in history, the superior capabilities of a product has resulted in its name becoming synonymous with "fake." Hence, we never mention that we use the best photography software tool ever created.
93. Since several of your processing steps involve correcting what the shooting gear did wrong or failed to do, it's important to understand when and how your camera and lenses introduce flaws.
94. Getting the hang of how much will be in focus is difficult with a lens that varies max aperture over the zoom range.
95. Educating yourself about color spaces, color profiles and soft proofing will pay off.
96. In an ideal world you would decide on a project, then buy the gear required to shoot it, then buy the software required to process it. Purchases should be purpose-driven, not shoot-everything, I-must-have-it or that's-so-cool driven.
97. In processing, fine tune your white balance while looking at reference colors: sky, grass, skin. Everyone knows what color those are. If you don't have any in the shot, tune your white balance to maximize the color range, or to get the mood you want.
98. A subtle vignette added in processing can do wonders.
99. Sharpen last. How much to sharpen depends greatly on where and how the image will be seen, at at what size and viewing distance.
100. None of this matters if there's a meteor streaking through the sky overhead, aliens are landing, or an iconic landmark is crumbling. Just get the shot.
:: Ten Bonus Things I've Learned
101. Wait two weeks before looking at your photos. By then you'll have forgotten the circumstances of the shoot, and can see them only as images -- the way your viewers will. The last thing you want is to be influenced by "I stubbed my toe getting this" or "that one happened right after a good lunch."
102. The only thing you ever really take a photograph of is light.
103. Better gear gets you better data. You want the best data you can get, because it gives you the most freedom in your processing and presentation, both now and in 25 years.
104. Technical photographers shoot with perfect focus and accurate exposure, yet have nothing to express in their pictures. Artistic photographers burst with visual ideas but can't get anything to work. They really should get together and make photographs as a team.
105. The amount of bokeh you can get at any given aperture, focal length and focal distance is proportional to the size and weight of the shooting gear. (Update: until the Lytro camera came along.)
108. Photography is the art of exclusion, but you can go too far. Sometimes just the right amount of context makes a great shot out of an ordinary one.
109. A lens with a 62mm or smaller filter size will allow you to shoot through a standard chain-link fence. Remove the hood and poke it into any of those diamond-shaped holes.
110. If it's more than 2 miles from the car, it isn't photogenic.