Things That Won't Make Your Pictures Better

My year in photography ended like it usually does, at my parents’ house where I took pictures of the Christmas festivities and all of the excessive preparation of food. This year I sent the gallery to my parents, and then got a curious email from my dad essentially asking me why my camera takes better pictures. I did not have an answer. As is usual for me though, I do a lot of insight from the negative. So, for the new decade I present up to ten things that will not make your pictures any better.

ISO 12,800

High ISO cameras are all the rage now. In fact, they’ve been all the rage ever since the dawn of the digital SLR era. Somehow we’ve all forgotten that we used to get by with Tri-X (ISO 400) as “fast” film, and pushed Tri-X (ISO 800, maybe more if you tempted fate) as “last ditch desperation” film. These days if a camera sucks at ISO 400 all we can say is that it either has a “tiny crappy sensor” or it was built by incompetent monkeys from Germany.

But here’s the thing. It doesn’t really make your pictures better. I think it encourages people to take lots of bad pictures in dim bad lighting. In particular, it enables that smug “oh I would never shoot with flash” attitude which really means “I don’t really care if the light I use is any good”.

All of this griping might seem hypocritical from a guy who bought a D700 at least partly because of its high ISO performance. But, what can I say. There are times I find it useful. There are times it lets me make a picture I would not otherwise be able to make. But it doesn’t really make the pictures better.

Weather Sealing

Every time I hear someone gripe about not being able to buy a camera body because it is insufficient build quality, and in particular if it is not “sealed against the elements” all I do is snicker and think of this photo.net thread about skydiving with a D-Rebel.

The payoff message is about eight or ten replies in. Trust me, if you aren’t working harder than that guy, you don’t need weather sealing.

That 500.9 Lens

See ISO 12,800. I thought about it, but I don’t think I have anything to add.

Lighting Equipment

Of course, the flip side of being obsessed with not using flash is being obsessed with using flash. I swear there are more strobe lit pictures of boring skateboard people, cats, iPods, or half-dressed women with tatoos at that stupid Strobist flickr group than I care to stare at for one second longer. And they all seem to be afflicted with the same one light in front (or behind) and one to the left (or the right) lighting scheme. I guess I should not complain, as I’ve been as guilty of this sort of fooling around as the next guy. After all, those Christmas pictures my dad liked were really well lit, thanks to the kick ass cross-lit living room for Christmas scheme that I stole from, well, the Strobist.

Carrying a tripod

Tripods are a great way to carry around 10 pounds of extra weight so that you can take bad pictures that are really really sharp. Alternatively, they are a great way to carry around 10 pounds of equipment that you never ever use.

Here is the thing. I don’t begrudge anyone their tripod. For certain kinds of work in certain environments, tripods are indispensable. If your goal is to make huge prints and your favorite subjects mostly sit still, then by all means bring the pod along. Or, if you are shooting something that is very far away and requires a huge lens to reach it, you have my blessing. However, spare me all the pious rhetoric about how the only way to get technically acceptable images is to always have your camera on the tripod and the mirror locked up as you breathlessly hold the plunger of the cable release at the ready. For a lot of pictures and in particular a lot of subjects, this would be death.

A camera bag that does not look like a camera bag

Here’s a hint: when you take the camera out of the bag, people will know it’s a camera bag. Get over it.

A Spot Meter

I think Ansel Adams made spot meters popular. His classic treatise on the control of exposure and development in black and white photography unleashed a legion of disciples into the world, each one methodically pointing her spot meter at things to make sure she knows where Zone VIII will fall. I went through a spot meter phase when I shot a lot of slide film. You had to be careful with slide film because if you hit it with a stop or two too much light it tended to just go white on you.

It’s not clear to me that all of this is needed any more. If you have sufficient experience with your camera and are good at reading light, you can mostly trust your camera’s “multi-segment” meter to get pretty close to the exposure that you want. Sure, you might have to compensate for extreme tones once in a while, but that’s easily done. Finally, you can easily find out if you missed badly by quickly scanning the histogram of the picture on the back of your camera. Oh wait, that would be chimping…

Not Chimping

People like to dump on chimping. I think this is dumb. I think if we are going to carry these complicated digital cameras around we should exploit every advantage that they afford us. And, to my mind chimping is one of the biggest. You can chimp to get a good meter reading while nothing is happening, and then shoot away when the going gets good. You can chimp to set up your flash on manual and then take an hour of flash pictures without worrying about the TTL metering going nuts. You can chimp to make sure you didn’t blow out that highlight. You can chimp to make sure your mom’s eyes are in focus.

I don’t completely understand the hate, but it probably stems from the sort of “I get everything in one shot” dick waving that is popular among most male photographers. Only the weak, the thinking goes, would need to use something as dumbed down as the chimping screen to check their work. Real men get it right the first time and every time. Well, I guess if you really are perfect then more power to you. I’ll use my dumbed down chimping screen, thanks.

A Bigger Camera

For most people, bigger cameras are mostly just heavier. Aside from providing you with a good workout, all that extra weight doesn’t amount to much of an advantage in my opinion. Of course, some big cameras have unique advantages that are not in smaller cameras. But, if you are reading this weblog, chances are you did not need those things. So, carry smaller cameras. Your back will thank you.

Of course, if you are one of those genetic freaks whose hands are just SO HUGE that you can’t even pick up a Canon S90 point and shoot because your fingers are the size of footballs, then by all means get that 1D mark IV. Who am I to stand in your way.

A Smaller Camera

Smaller cameras are smaller. This means you carry them more, which is a great advantage. However, I am tired of people claiming that smaller cameras are “less intrusive” or make the fact that you are taking pictures “less obvious.” I occasionally test this theory by trying to take hip shot candids of people with my small point and shoot. Here is what I learned:

1. The pictures are always out of focus.

2. The people point and yell at me anyway.

3. I never get anything better than the time I pointed a Nikon 8008s film SLR with a 24mm lens right into the face of that lady at the bus stop and snapped 5 frames.

The truth is that the big camera brings out more anxiety in you than in your subject. If you project a relaxed state of mind and have a rapport with your subject, no one will care if you are pointing that 24-702.8 zoom in their face. The way to disappear with a camera is to get people used to the fact that you will always be pointing a camera at them. Then they forget you are there.

There. I made it to ten. One parting thought: reading long winded blog posts about photography also won’t make your pictures better. Happy new decade. Go shoot some stuff.