Ground Rules for Assignments

Some of the posts that I’ll make on this blog are assignments intended to help you develop your eye for photographic opportunities and composition. To that end, I’ve put together some basic suggestions — “ground rules” implies that they’re more rigid than most of them are. So, for what they’re worth, here are my suggestions for photo shoots:

  • Always carry your camera. Always. Not only do you not want to miss the miscellaneous great shots you’ll run across from time to time, but carrying it with you encourages you to look at the world compositionally. You have a cheap digicam, right? It’s tiny compared to one of those DSLRs that you wish you could carry around, isn’t it? Then you can take it everywhere with you — in your backpack, purse, briefcase, jacket pocket, or whatever. Moreover, because you’ve got a cheap digicam, replacing it would cost much less than it would if you had higher-end equipment. If you want to reduce the potential for incidental damage to your camera while you’re carrying it everywhere, invest $10 in a cheap case that reduces the potential for damage to your camera.
  • Carry a spare set of batteries everywhere, too. Use rechargeable batteries. They pay for themselves almost immediately. Carry a set of rechargeable batteries with you everywhere. Carry a set of standard, non-rechargeable batteries everywhere if you can, too.
  • Think about what else you might want — and be able to — carry around with you. Items to consider: a spare memory card (but your cheap digicam can probably fit a bazillion pictures on a decently sized card, because it probably only lets you save compressed files, right? My Kodak can fit about 1300 files on a 2 gig card, even if I’m shooting at maximum resolution), a miniature tripod (comes in really handy, and you can probably get one for around $20), and — can I say it again? — spare batteries.
  • Never do anything that you feel unsafe doing in order to complete one of my assignments. Don’t step out into the street in front of traffic to get a shot. Don’t go into places you don’t feel comfortable going in order to get shots. Don’t hang off of tall buildings to get the perfect angle. If you do any of these things, I’ll understand your drive, but disclaim responsibility based on the fact that I just warned you not to. On a related note:
  • Be smart about the law. Know your rights as a photographer and how far those rights extend. At least in the United States, you can generally point a camera at anything you can see if you’re standing on public property; among other things, this means taking pictures of people in public places is, in general, perfectly legal without permission. I’m not a lawyer and can’t give you advice on specific situations, but there are good resources on the Internet that can spell out the law better than I can. For photographers working in the United States, this flier from the Portland, Oregon law office of Burt P. Krages gives a pretty good overview of the relevant issues. (I carry copies of this in my backpack, too.) The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has other useful information, although it’s targeted toward journalists — this page clarifies some of the privacy issues, and this page has a state-by-state guide on privacy issues. For photographers in other countries, The Yard Collective, a street photography club on DeviantArt, has some information and suggestions here.
  • Develop the habit of looking at the world compositionally. As you walk around the town where you live, or sit at your desk at work, or spend time doing whatever you do during your day, imagine that you’re looking at the world through your viewfinder or on your camera screen. If it helps, you can actually do this.
  • Make a point of offloading the pictures from your camera as soon as you can after shooting them. This gives you a chance to take a critical look at your pictures while you still remember shooting them. Try to see both what works and what doesn’t in your own shots. Be as detached and objective as you can.
  • Look at other photographers’ work critically to see what works and what doesn’t. Spend time analyzing shots that you particularly like in terms of subject matter, composition, and exposure. Look for elements and ideas you can incorporate into your own shots. Look for ways of seeing and shooting from which you can learn.
  • When shooting, shoot a lot. You’re using a digital camera and don’t have to pay for processing. You can always delete the pictures you don’t like, and storage space is cheap. It’s better to take a shot you might not like later than miss a shot you’ll wish you’d taken. Shoot slight variations on a single shot so that you can see what works and what doesn’t when you’re looking at your own pictures critically — and so that you can avoid the “I wish I’d shot this slightly differently” regret. Hopefully. Some of the time. Shooting at varying exposure levels is another good idea will provide you with options after the fact: your cheap digicam will not always properly auto-expose, and you probably don’t have the option of controlling exposure manually. What you probably can do is modify the assumptions it makes by making it comparatively brighter or darker. Do this by bracketing individual shots until you have a feel for when your camera is and is not correct, and how much it is likely to be off in varying circumstances — and then keep doing it when you think you know your camera, because even you (yes, you, {insert your name here}) are going to be wrong about this sometimes.
  • Think before you shoot. Try to imagine what the shot will look like onscreen or printed once it’s been taken. This implies not only that you should try to see two-dimensionally (and therefore avoid classic trees-growing-out-of-heads problems), but that you should remember that framing strips away any context outside of the frame, that you have to make choices about lighting (although your cheap digicam will probably make more of these choices than you’ll like), that you’re making what will be a more or less irrevocable choice at the moment when you push the shutter release button and freeze the image on your memory card. (This is another reason to shoot a lot, and shoot slight variations on a particular composition.)
  • Never be so focused on what you’re shooting that you miss other opportunities. There are always other things going on around you besides what you’re focused on. Cultivate a sense of awareness beyond the subject at which you’re directly looking. It would be a shame to miss a great shot just because you’re thinking about other things.

I’ll talk more about camera use and composition later; what I want you to take away from this, for now, is the ideas highlighted at the beginning of each paragraph. I’ll be referencing this post at later dates, too.

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The Cheap Digicam Manifesto

The increasing prevalence of very high-quality images on the Internet tends to obscure a basic fact about photographic aesthetics: equipment does not, in and of itself, make for effective images, nor is the possession of expensive photographic equipment a necessary prerequisite for the creation of images of this type. Those of us who see ourselves as hobbyist photographers and aestheticians, but who can’t afford higher-end equipment, are often frustrated by our own failures to appreciate this fact. We find ourselves feeling inferior to those with higher-end equipment because we unconsciously absorb the belief that we are incapable of achieving excellent results due to the equipment we use.

I contend that this is not, in fact, the case. There are numerous aspects of image composition that contribute to the question of whether an image is worthwhile, effective, or aesthetically pleasing. In fact, many of the photographers who have defined photography as an artistic genre used cameras that were less technically capable than the one that I carry around in my backpack. Although the possibilities opened by expensive equipment can be very attractive, there are many possibilities for producing striking, powerful images with inexpensive equipment, without requiring that large sums of money be invested in equipment.

I myself am a poverty-ridden grad student and hobbyist photographer who carries a Kodak Easyshare C653 digicam everywhere I go. An inexpensive miniature tripod and a few sets of rechargeable AA batteries complete the equipment that I use to create my photographs. My entire photographic setup is worth less than $100. Though I’m sometimes frustrated by the limitations of my own equipment (inability to control depth of field is particularly frustrating), being a graduate student and teacher’s assistant precludes me from spending more money on my equipment, and I believe that focusing on what I can do with it gives me opportunities to produce some rather impressive work, which you can see in my own DeviantArt gallery.

I think that perusing my gallery will show (a) that there is a great deal of potential for cheap digicam-based photography, and (b) that my own competence with both photographing and postprocessing has grown greatly over the three-plus years since I’ve gone digital. I propose to use this blog space to share what I’ve learned with other photographers: in terms of technique, composition, postprocessing, and other related concerns. I intend to produce articles on software, camera technique, postprocessing, and more thoughts on photography.

Follow me, won’t you? And please share your thoughts. I would be grateful for the opportunity to interact with you on these matters.

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