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Getting the Most out of Your Photography
by Gary W. Stanley

How do you go about getting more out of your photography? If I were to pick one word that best illustrates what a photographer needs in order to capture great images, it would be: Effort. 

To set the tone for what effort means in photography, let me share with you the conversation that I had with a beginning photographer at a recent seminar I taught.

This person told me how much she enjoyed photography, but she wasn't very happy with the photographs she has been taking. I asked her what she had for equipment. "Well, I just bought a Canon EOS 3 and some new lenses." Okay, that certainly is a quality system. "What seems to be the problem?" " I don't know! I use the camera on program, and still the images are not that great. "Why don't you take it off program, and use some of the other features?" "Well, I don't know how!" She had been willing to take the financial leap but hadn't taken the other steps needed to improve her photography.

At this point in the conversation I'm afraid to even ask the next question, but here goes anyway. "What kind of camera equipment did you have before you bought the EOS?" "Oh, I had a point-and-shoot," she said. You and I know this is like going from a Yugo to a Corvette. Not only am I wondering why she made such a huge jump, but who was the salesman that took her money?

There are not many shortcuts in photography, and the best equipment won't insure the best photographs. You still have to understand the process and if all else fails, read the manual.

Getting the most out of your photography means putting to good use the photographic techniques that you have learned, combined with a trained artistic eye, then, balancing these two elements to create a pleasing photograph. Any seasoned race car driver will drive circles around you and I with that Corvette, and probably embarrass a few of us with the Yugo. They learned the basic driving skills first and then honed the mental skills to improve their ability too see and anticipate the reactions of other drivers who are in the race with them.

Just like a racecar driver, if you want winning results, you'll need to pay attention to details. For example, just because you are using a tripod doesn't mean your horizon line will be straight. Using wide-angle lenses, will not guarantee that you'll automatically get maximum depth-of-field in your landscapes. Having a sophisticated metering system does not mean you will get perfect exposures every time you press the shutter. There is a direct connection between the effort taken to produce a good photograph, and the resulting image itself. How much effort you want to put forth is up to you. Let me show you some examples to illustrate my point.

On my last seminar in Utah, I brought some filters along that I was testing for LEE Filters. If you have ever photographed in Zion Canyon, you probably know just how difficult it can be to capture the feeling of the canyon. Besides challenging your widest lenses, there is a real problem with contrast. There can be as much as a three-stop difference between your exposure for the river, and your exposure for the mountain in front of you. Those graduated ND filters that I brought with me will do the trick. "Oh! You mean you have to take them out of the photo bag and use them before they'll work?" "You bet!"

For years I would bring filters for just such a situation and not use them. I'd leave my tripod at home and my macro lens in the bag because I didn't want to get dirty crawling around on the ground. I'd drag along a flash to use for fill, and never use it. For me I think it was laziness. If you're going to get the most out of your photography, you might as well use the tools available to you.

The folks at Lee also gave me a new filter to try, called an 81A Red. It has warming qualities and a CC 075 red incorporated in it. Now let me set the record straight by saying I don't like gaudy overdone filtration. I cringe at the mention of the word "Enhance." After all, I have Velvia for film and an 81A warming polarizer, what more could I possibly need? "Gary, you said you would at least try it." My conscience was bothering me so…. "I'll use it a few times and see how it works." Wow! Another lesson learned, and I'm still learning 

Getting the most out of your photography means being willing to try new things. It may be a new filter, a new lens or a new approach to your artistic vision. Allow yourself to be teachable. When leading photo tours or workshops, I'm just as willing to see a participant's composition as I am for them to see mine. You'll pick up one tip here and another idea there and gradually your own particular style begins to show.

Be willing to work on your weak areas. If you find that you have trouble getting correct exposures for example, try reading articles that will help you to improve in that area. When you're out shooting, you may need to take notes or use a voice-activated tape recorder to keep track of important shooting information. If you're pleased with the way most of your images come out, then don't change a thing. If not, you have to be willing to put forth the effort (here's that word effort again) to do whatever it takes to get the most out of your photography.

Okay! Let's see if we can tie this all together with a good list of common sense tips that will help you get the most out of your photography.

1. Buy the best equipment you can afford and learn how to use it. 

2. Learn and read how your equipment is supposed to work; experiment with your camera's various features. 

3. If shooting with film, learn that film's characteristics. Knowing what film to use is as important as selecting the right filter. 

4. Use a tripod whenever possible. 

5. Learn good basic photographic techniques, both mechanical and artistic, realizing that as with any worthwhile goal, it takes effort. 

6. Be willing to learn from others to develop those skills. 

7. Be willing to work on your weak areas. Take a workshop or photo course if possible. 

8. Take notes or record your shooting sessions, so you will be able to repeat your mistakes precisely (Just seeing if you're paying attention!). 

9. Be willing to try and use different photographic accessories such as fill-flash, filters, lens shades etc. to help improve your image. 

10. Use a quality lab! After all you've gone through to get the image, don't trust the developing to just anyone.

There are probably more things I could list here, but this will get you thinking. Besides, if I included everything you need to know in one article, I wouldn't have enough material to write a follow-up article.

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