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Stop Thinking!
by Jim McGee

I'm just getting started in photography so I read everything I can find about it.  My goal is to become a really good photographer. Not because I want to become a professional, but because it is something I really want to do. The problem is, there are so many things you have to remember about composition, aperture, shutter speed, film, etc. etc. I'm always worried there's something I'm missing. Even though I follow all the rules for composition I just feel like my pictures are missing something. But I don't know what that something is. I've included some shots. Can you tell me what I'm missing? I'm trying to think of everything but evidently there is some something I'm just not aware of.

Thank you for any help you can give me,

Actually the images that Liz sent weren't bad at all for a beginner. Unfortunately we don't have time to critique the photos of every reader but something in Liz's email struck a chord with me. I can remember feeling exactly the way that she does.

When I got my first real camera, a used manual SLR I purchased with two lenses and a camera bag for $100, I took it on a ski vacation to Vermont for it's first outing. My previous experience with photography was with a cheapie point and shoot camera. My total research into the how's and why's of making pictures was to read the camera's manual over a beer the night I arrived. Obviously I had visions of greatness!

The next morning I was up before sunrise to grab breakfast and head for the slopes. When I looked outside, there were several inches of fresh snow. The freezing rain at the beginning of the storm had covered the tree branches with a thin coating of ice. I thought the fresh snow might make a good picture so I threw the camera in my car and headed for the slopes. It turned out I wouldn't get there for several hours.

I had a 35-70mm and an 80-200mm lens. That morning I only shot with the 35-70mm because the 80-200mm felt heavy and awkward. I had no tripod because I didn't know I needed one, and no polarizer or filters for the same reason. I had no idea about shooting when the sun was out or when it was passing behind the broken clouds that scudded across the sky. I held the camera the wrong way (and would do so for some time) because that's what felt right and I didn't know any better.

What I did know was that I loved being outdoors and it was kind of cool composing pictures with a camera instead of drawing them on paper. I shot two whole rolls that morning. That was a lot. Previously I was one of those people who could have a roll of film in the camera for a couple of months before I used it up. The last two shots were using that big awkward zoom lens. I had gotten to the ski resort, and from the parking lot I took one picture of a distant mountain at 80mm and another at 200mm. I remember thinking the big lens was a pain to shoot with but with that much zoom it might have some potential.

A week later I finally got around to getting the film developed. When the guy in the camera shop offered me $200 for the camera I'd paid $100 for, I realized that I actually had something that was pretty decent. The knowledge that I had a "real" camera made me more excited about the shots I had already taken. In fact, I liked most of my shots. I could see a big difference between shots where the sun was out and shots that were overcast but all in all I thought they looked pretty good. So I took them to a friend who was serious about photography to get his opinion. I prepared myself for the worst because I knew he would be brutally honest and I do mean brutally honest.

I was surprised and fairly impressed with myself when he kept repeating "you've got a good eye" as he went through my pictures. I was starting to think that this photography stuff is pretty easy. He explained that when he shot a roll of film he was happy if there were two or three shots he was really happy with. I figured I was doing something right since I was happy with most of mine! He tactfully suggested I probably had a good eye for composition from sketching, but that I might want to buy some photography books to work on fine tuning my shots.

Back I went to the photo shop where the guy behind the counter suggested and early version of Kodak's Guide to 35mm Photography as a good starting point. Being an engineer and a detail guy, I read the book from cover to cover and set out to take some great shots. For the next ten rolls of film I shot, there wasn’t a single shot I liked. Every time I lifted the camera I was thinking about two-dozen things I needed to be aware of to make sure my pictures were perfect. As a result they all pretty much stunk.

I finally went back to my photographer friend with the ten new rolls and my two original rolls from Vermont and asked what I was doing wrong. I went through the new shots. Most were technically correct but they just weren't all that interesting. I talked about settings and shutter speeds and focusing points. 

He gave me some sage advice:

"You're thinking too much. When you talk about your Vermont shots you talk about what you were seeing and feeling. When you talk about this new stuff all you talk about is camera settings. See the difference?"

I didn't. I told him I just didn't know enough to remember the settings when I shot those first two rolls. I just put it on aperture priority and worried about what I was putting in the picture.

"Exactly" he said. 

But if I do that, I protested, how will I ever get better? His advice was that you can't learn everything at once, so focus on learning one thing at a time. When you've got that nailed, go on to working on something else. "You're thinking too much."

The next day I went down to the lake and shot a roll of film just walking around with the camera in aperture priority. I took the roll to the one-hour lab and that evening I had a surprise - images I liked. When I looked at them in detail I found things that could have been better. A blurry foreground for example. That could be fixed by changing my focus point. So next time out I just left the camera in aperture priority again but this time I just took a second to touch up my focus point if I wanted depth of field in the shot. I started being critical of things after I got my images back. That taught me what I had to pay attention to for a particular type of shot. Gradually my images improved and my eye was sharpened.

I look back at that first roll of film and there are several images that I really like. The sawmill shown here still hangs in my office. It's one of my favorite shots. Not because its technically perfect (it's not) but because of the memory it evokes.

It's funny how the mind works. Do something often enough and it becomes habit. That means the task, whatever it is, moves from the conscious (something you have to think about) to the sub-conscious (something you do without thinking). After a while good photographic habits become ingrained. You look for a dozen things in the viewfinder and make adjustments without ever thinking about them. But sometimes, to get to that point, you need to push all the clutter out of your mind and just take the shot. Stop thinking. There's time to be critical afterwards. And your images will improve.

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