Developing a Photographic Process
As with everything you do in life, it takes 10,000 hours to master what you’re doing. Or in the least to feel comfortable with it and to begin to feel proud of your output. I’ve been shooting terrible photos since early high school. I distinctly remember running home from school so that I could spend the afternoon flicking through camera and photography magazines looking at all of the expensive DSLRs and equipment that I couldn’t afford and probably wouldn’t ever need. I remember being bullied by a bunch of the cooler, hippie kids in the grade above me because at the time they were way better than me at taking edgy, artistic photos in weird and interesting places and I was just some kid with a camera.
Not long after, as I ramped up my studies for HSC, and started seriously pursuing Software Engineering as a career for myself, I made a deliberate decision to shift photography from something I was actively pursuing, to a side-hobby. Something that I didn’t put too much effort into, or take too seriously. When I did this, something really interesting happened. Over the following couple of years I would still take photos whenever the feeling hit me. I would travel to places like Melbourne, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York. I’d take a few sneaky photos documenting the people, and the places that I’d seen, but at no point did I put any pressure on my process. I just shot photos that kinda felt right.
“I just shot photos that kinda felt right”
There was no divine point in time where it happened, but gradually, taking photos became a kind of secret, passionate and incredibly satisfying thing for me to do. It became the place I’d go to when I was frustrated, or angry, or just bored and needed to be myself. And with that eventually came output that I started to feel proud of, and satisfied with. It didn’t ever, and still doesn’t ever matter to me much that other people like my work. It’s a bonus, but for the most part I love the photos that I take and I feel at my happiest when I’m taking pictures.
Common questions I get are “What is your workflow like? What tools do you use? And how can I take pictures like you?”. I’ve learned that creative process is often not a very prescriptive thing. You’ve kind of just got to find what works best for you, and what feels right, and go with it. I’ve been lucky enough to find that. But it’s worth noting that my process is always changing. I’m constantly tweaking what I like, and don’t like. Experimenting with different things and examining the results then evolving based on that.
I still take a lot of photos that I don’t like. I think for every photo that I post on Instagram, there’s about 10 photos that didn’t make that cut. And I can be pretty brutal when it comes to making those judgments about whether a photo is worth keeping or leaving.
You’re reading a rough overview of the process I go through when I’m taking photos as it is right now. Although I’m describing a lot of this explicitly here, it tends to happen fairly automatically for me. I don’t think about it or deliberately follow these steps each and every time, but when I sat down in a cafe to think about what I more often than not tend to do, these were the things that came to mind.
1. Picking a person / place / thing to take a photo of
Knowing your way around a camera is only a fraction of what’s involved in taking great pictures. By all means you need to know Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO, Manual Focus and all of the rest but that alone won’t get you shooting pictures that are worthy of GQ. Once you have that you need to find exciting people, places and things to take photos of.
I’ve learned that this is primarily a mindset thing. When I lived in Sydney, Australia I would complain that there was never any exciting places to take photos. It definitely became easier for me to find these places when I moved to San Francisco, CA but I realized that I could always find something, or someone to shoot if I really wanted to.
I follow the work of a lot of talented people that live in Australia and there is definitely no shortage of great subjects to shoot. On the way back home for the holidays I felt nervous that my hometown wouldn’t be as photogenic as California, that all of my friends wanting to see great photos of where I grew up would be disappointed. But actually, with fresh eyes I looked at a lot of the places I used to spend all of my time in entirely new ways, and I did my best to capture that.
It’s rare for me to go out of my way to pick a person to take photos of. I might meet someone who has an interesting look, and I’ll make a note to keep an eye out for the right moment to take their picture, but I definitely don’t have a list of ‘People to take photos of’… I swear!
When looking for a place to take pictures, I usually go off word of mouth recommendations, or if I see a place on the internet I’ll screenshot it and hope that I remember that screenshot exists when the weekend rolls around. I’m open to the risk that it might not work out, and that’s okay. I’ve definitely spent an entire day shooting pictures in a park or on an island and just wasn’t satisfied with any of the shots that I got.
2. Picking a Camera to use
There’s definitely a feeling of knowing and trusting a camera, even though it’s just a physical object. I have a lot of different cameras these days that do different things, but I also have my go-tos that I just feel really comfortable shooting with. I’ve put them through their paces, and I just know exactly how to work with them. You need to get to that point with your gear.
Olympus OM-D EM1 (17mm f/1.8)
DSLRs are for professionals that need exceptional image quality for large prints and to look insanely cool when they’re lugging around a huge camera/lens. I don’t need any of that, so I use this small, light micro four thirds camera and a fixed focal length lens. I absolutely love this camera because it has physical buttons in all the right places for controlling everything, and once you get the hang of where they all are, it’s super easy to adjust for a photo without looking at the display or the viewfinder. You’ll also never see me swap out this lens. I shoot with it all the time, and I’ve become accustomed to visualizing the focal length in my mind. I can be walking down the street and frame a shot with this lens, in my mind. It sounds absurd, but my mind has become a physical extension of the lens.
You know it. Chase Jarvis used to always say “the best camera is the one you have with you”, and he could not be more right. I literally always have this thing with me. When I’m too lazy to lug my (already pretty small) OM-D, I can just slide my phone out and I have a pretty crazy camera with me. I’ve been using iPhones for photos since my iPhone 4S, and with each iteration the camera just gets better and better in leaps and bounds. Some of my best photos are shot with my iPhone, and again I use it so much day in and day out that I know it like the back of my hand. I can frame photos before I’ve even opened up the Camera app.
“the best camera is the one you have with you” — Chase Jarvis
In terms of Apps that I shoot with on my iPhone, the native Camera is where all of the magic happens. It’s quick, I can get to it from the lock screen without any extra effort. I can tap to focus, and if I’m feeling like I need that little bit more control, I can slide the exposure meter up or down. But I don’t have to spend too long ‘working’ on the setup for the shot, I can just focus on framing and composing the shot and stay focused on who or what it is that I’m actually capturing. I think that’s nice, if I need more control over a shot I’d have my OM-D but sometimes I just don’t and my iPhone is all that I need.
I own a couple of 35mm film cameras that I’ve experimented with on and off since I was younger. Having moved to California it’s been difficult to keep such an expensive and experimental hobby going. I’m hoping to spend more time working with film in the near future and improving my comfort with it as a medium.
3. Composing the Photo
You need an eye for good composure. I’m always looking around at my surroundings observing things imagining what it could look like within the frame of my camera. It becomes a subconscious thing that you don’t really know that you’re doing, but you’re always doing it. And I find that I’m always casually keeping an eye out for a few different photographic devices that I could take advantage of in a shot:
I find myself paying attention to leading lines that I could use to draw the eye to a specific point of interest. There’s almost always lines passing through your photo and subtly manipulating the way the eye moves, once you master how to control that you can pretty much take control over positioning your subject within your frame. If you’re shooting a photo of some architecture, have the building come to a tip off-center, or if you’re shooting a portrait of someone you might decide to use the doorway to frame them.
I try to find patterns that could make a sweet background for a portrait, or sometimes even just be nice enough for a photo in and of itself. There’s patterns everywhere if you know how to look for them. I usually shoot patterns flat, as opposed to on a weird angle which allows the pattern to almost bleed through the frame really naturally. If you’re taking a photo of the floor of a nice cafe, you’d almost always shoot top-down first otherwise the pattern gets skewed and distorted which is harsh and unflattering. It’s almost like, getting good at letting the pattern ‘be itself’ and ‘breathe’ in your shot.
I manipulate perspective a lot these days without knowing it. I’ll look back at photos that I’ve shot and notice that what really makes the image stand out is that I managed to find a perspective that worked really well. These days with everyone having access to a camera, and always taking pictures it’s incredibly hard to shoot photos that are unique and stand out. Perspective allows you to do that. If you find a perspective that no one else has, that works well for you — you can shoot magnificent photos of ordinary people, places and things that others would never think to capture. I think I’ve built up an inventory of go-to angles that are my ‘starting points’ in various situations, and I’ll move around from there with wherever my subject takes me.
I’d argue that lighting is one of the hardest things to master in photography. Even just slight slip ups in lighting will make or break a photo. You can use lighting in so many different ways, you can use it in a really subtle yet powerful way that speaks volumes to your audience, or you can make loud and bold statements with strong lighting. I’ve never had strong experience with Studio lighting, I stick to natural light always. Having said that, I’m also terrible at shooting in low-light situations (go figure), so I tend to avoid night photography unless I really have to.
When lighting your photo, it’s as much about planning as composing. Plan around the lighting conditions of your location. Go at a time when you know there will likely be interesting light (see Golden Hour, Sunrise or Sunset). Find a perspective where light is doing exciting things, like shining through a narrow window onto the wall or find places where lighting is soft and perfect for a portrait of a close friend.
I think soft light is my favorite kind of light. It illuminates faces in a more even, natural way. Harsh light can be hard to understand, not to mention expose for and work with. I’ve also learned that great lighting can come from some of the most unexpected places. While hanging out with buddies at an Arcade Bar last night, I was watching a group of guys playing a multiplayer video game on a large screen. It occurred to me that the soft blue light coming from the screen was so subtly but beautifully illuminating all of their faces and underlining how much focus they had on the game they were playing. So I pulled out my phone and tried to make that light the subject of the photo, the fact that they were in the photo became irrelevant to me.
Take things out of your frame. This is the most ‘active’ action I take in composing, is to simplify my frame. I will always take the conscious step to say “what can I see in my viewfinder that is irrelevant or taking away from this being a nice photo” and I do everything I can to remove it. I’ll move where I’m standing, I’ll change my angle, or I’ll say “Hey, can you move that bin out of the frame for me”. It allows me to control the narrative of the little world that I’m capturing, so that the audience is only seeing exactly what I want them to see.
4. Exposing the Photo
Obviously exposure goes hand in hand with lighting. When you first learn how to take photos with a camera, you learn how to get the ‘correct exposure’ for a scene. Finding the right balance of Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO to get the picture to look as close to how the Human Eye perceives it as possible. But once I learned that, I started to explore ways that I could capture photos differently. Deliberately underexposing in order to draw out the shadows and purposefully hide all the details of people’s faces, instead exposing for a small glimmer of light shining through the bus window.
I don’t do anything crazy with auto-bracketing, but I will shoot a scene multiple times with different exposure variables so that I can go back later and find what worked the most. With experience you get a knack for knowing what kind of exposure will be the most effective in different situations, but that comes from doing it in different ways a lot and learning.
5. Importing the Photo
When I was younger I would go out and shoot a lot of photos, then come home and maybe days later I’d find the time to import photos into Adobe Lightroom. Long after having experienced the moment that I was in when I shot a photo, the vision I had for the shot had kind of faded. I’d screw around with settings in Lightroom but usually it was more of a chore than it should have been. So now I try to restrict the amount of time between capturing a photo and importing, editing and publishing it. That’s just what works best for me personally, but I look up to a lot of incredible professional photographers that will take photos, and spend months working on them before publishing.
Apple SD Card to Lightning Adapter
$29 USD on Amazon
I carry this with me everywhere and use it a lot. Once I’ve shot a set of photos and I’m ready to import them, I’ll stick my SD card in and import them onto my phone. Even though my OM-D allows me to connect over WiFi and import my photos to my iPhone, it’s not as fast and easy as it is with my lightning adapter.
Free, installed on every Mac
When all is said and done, I’ve edited my shots and I need to back them up and store them for later. I import everything into Apple’s Photos app. Not for any specific reason other than because it’s on every Mac, and the UI is really simple for importing. I don’t interact with Photos in any other way other than to import my Photos and move on.
Free, Pro Subscription available
It used to be the holy grail for hobbyist and professional photographers alike when I was younger, but less so these days. I don’t actually use Flickr for the community and sharing features, but I subscribed to Flickr Pro ($49.99 per year) which gives me 1 TB of Cloud Photo Storage and they have an insanely great Desktop Uploader which lives in the background on your Mac and will auto-upload photos to Flickr.
What makes the Desktop Uploader amazing is that it’s super smart at finding duplicates and filtering them all out so that you’re not uploading the same photo twice. My backup process involves dumping everything into Apple Photos, and throwing every photo I have at the Desktop Uploader, then letting it do its thing filtering it all out and uploading (at full quality) to the Cloud. I then have access to all of my photos on any device, anywhere by signing into my Flickr account and I don’t have to worry too much about physical backups.
6. Editing the Photo
I also didn’t like dealing with sitting down at a desk, adjusting countless knobs and switches in Lightroom. It made taking photos feel closer to work than to something fun for me. I now exclusively do all editing on my iPhone in a few key Apps that do exactly what I need. I find that I don’t use these apps for Filters like people would think, but more for Settings Presets that work as great starting points for my images.
(Free w/ In App Purchases)
There was a time when I didn’t like VSCO, it seemed too filter-ey for me and you could recognize a VSCO photo when you’d see one. But it has come a long way lately. I find that you can use VSCO in a way that’s less about Filters (a la Instagram) and more about Presets. While I don’t remember their names, I have my favorite Presets which are best suited to different styles of photo. I’ll use those as a launchpad for tweaking a few specific variables that I’m comfortable with — Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Skin tone, Sharpness, Grain, Saturation and Temperature.
I don’t often stray from my well beaten path of these variables, but if a specific photo calls for it I might make other changes, and over time I get comfortable with tweaking new things and understanding how that influences the photo I’m trying to create. When I’m editing my images, I strive to lean towards as little adjustments as possible so as to keep the photo clean and clear, not give it that overdone, unrealistic feel that we all know.
By no means is VSCO perfect. More recently I’ve noticed that VSCO has some software issues with overusing CPU, causing my iPhone to drain battery pretty quickly and often putting my phone into ‘Low Memory’ mode where iOS will lock up and be incredibly unresponsive, or reduce the screen Brightness in order to compensate. I’ve had issues with aberrations on my photo exports and bad exports that I can’t publish.
Which can be incredibly frustrating…
(Free w/ In App Purchases)
When I wasn’t using VSCO I was using Priime a lot. It became my secret sauce. But it’s not as much a part of my workflow as it used to be. I use it a lot to edit Boomerangs (Live Photos that loop like videos in Instagram), because Priime allows me to perform edits on Live Photos. It’s an incredible app that is more on the subtle and realistic side of Camera Editing apps than VSCO. I’ll also use Priime if I want to edit a specific thing that VSCO doesn’t do as well, like Straightening. Priime provides a better straightening tool that lets me properly measure how straight my photo is. It also has a far better skin tone adjustment tool. It’s an incredible app that has become my secondary tool for making more precise edits that I know I want to make.
Right before publishing photos on Instagram, there’s a bunch of features that they provide for editing photos/stories. I rarely use them, but I have been known to use Instagram’s Lux effect (tap the Sun icon in the middle of the Navigation Bar during Import) to exaggerate the colors of my images but often only applied to 10–15% of its full intensity. I’ve used an Instagram filter twice in the last 2 years, they’re more often than not too-fake or unrealistic for me. But that’s about the extent of my Instagram editing usage.
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” — Pablo Picasso
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” was the biggest lesson I learned as a photographer. I spent countless hours when I was younger taking too many throwaway awful photos, just experimenting with the ‘rules’ of photography like Exposure, Lighting and Composure. I made more mistakes than I could count, but then I started to understand and master the rules, so I looked at ways that I could deliberately break the rules and use the rules as photographic devices to convey what I wanted to.
I shoot and edit on the spot, so that the vision I have for a photo doesn’t get lost after the fact. So that I can capture it the way I first felt it and then I can remember it that way forever. I do this mostly because it’s the most fun and enjoyable thing for me. Any one photo doesn’t drag on for too long. I shoot, edit, post and move onto the next photo I want to take. As I’m writing this I realize how closely I live to the mantra “the best photo is the one I’m about to take” without even knowing it. I never place too much value on one photo because the next one could be even better.
I hear a lot from people that we should put our phones down, and “live in the moment”. I take comfort in watching people Instagram their food, or take photos of their friends, or take a picture at a concert. When it’s not overdone, it means that people are enjoying their life so much that they want to capture it and keep that memory with them forever. That’s a powerful thing that our phones allow us to do today, and it’s exactly why I shoot photos.
I shoot photos because I look forward to the day that I’m old, and I’ll sit down and look back through all of the photos I’ve taken and vividly remember all of the incredible memories I have of the people that I’ve met, the places that I’ve been and the things that I’ve seen.