Photography Good to Great

When Jim Collins penned his best seller “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t”, he could have also been talking about photographers. Some photographers make the leap from good photos to great photos, others settle for mediocrity, or even worse, believe their photos are great when they are actually just good. For many years, I fell into this last category.

I took great snapshots, believing they were great photos, only sobering up when I saw examples of high-end photography by the likes of Heather Evans Smith and wedding photographer Chip Litherland.

A few years ago, I discovered that my iPhone photos were just as great (read: mediocre) as my “real camera” photos (my DSLR, which I treated like a point and shoot camera) and I remember thinking: “Less work, same images, easy phone editing apps and filters, and fits in my pocket?! Sign me up!!”

But iPhone and “real camera” photos, especially when the latter is maximized to its capacity, are not the same. And to be a great photographer is about more than just knowing how to frame a shot. Some things I’ve learned about photography in the past few months:

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7th grade chorus picture. Hairstyle courtesy of the 1980’s and Ogilvy Home Perm.

The camera does not only take what it sees. In the seventh grade, we wore these horrible satin school jackets for our chorus photos. Courtesy of the 1980’s, I had a home perm and the “one size fits all” jacket was mislabeled because it was clearly “one size fits none”.

When our photos came back, there were collective groans and Ms. Maxwell our teacher told us: “The camera only takes what it sees.” This statement is very  untrue. What the camera sees and how it captures and processes an image depends on several factors, including the build of the camera (sensor size and other capacities), the lens, the settings (ISO, F/stop, shutter speed, white balance, image kind and size, focus setting, etc.), if the subject is moving or if the photographer’s hand is shaking, if the shutter was open when the subject was about to blink and so on. In other words, the camera takes what it is capable of seeing through a combination of its own physical constraints, the photographer’s artistry and technical skills, and what the subject is doing — not to mention what the camera’s engineer programmed it to do.

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iPhone’s finest. Mead Garden in Winter Park, Florida.

iPhone photos look great — because they’re normally viewed on a 2 inch screen. But try to enlarge one, or go granular with your details, and you’ll be out of luck. Some of the newer iPhones have advanced technology that have made those photos better than before but they still (at least for now) do not compare to a DSLR photograph. For one, there is much more data in a DSLR. When editing an iPhone photo in an app and you have some easy corrections (defogging, reducing noise, increasing contrast, adding a filter to make it artsy), but try running it through professional editing software and there’s not enough data. The darks are much darker and the lights are much lighter and there’s not that much you can do to it. And while the newer iPhones have introduced some depth of field, it’s still not the level of bokeh you can achieve with a DSLR — mainly because there’s more to bokeh than an unfocused background.

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Photo of a monk (my cousin) in Thailand. Deep depth of field and distracting elements (such as the truck) on the right.

And speaking of bokeh, while there are times when you would want the full scene to be in focus, when doing portraits, even candids, they can make a beautiful image even more beautiful. This photo on the right, taken at my beloved grandma’s funeral in late 2010, captured a very tender, candid moment where my cousin, a lifelong Theravada Buddhist monk, sat in contemplation. Had I known how to use my camera, I would have focused more on the monk while trying to achieve a shallower depth of field with the background.

Similarly, this shot of my young niece at a wedding is a nice photo but the people in the background, although darker, duller somehow, are too in focus and prominent.

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My niece at a family wedding in 2010.

Contrast it to the photo at the bottom of this post, of a young woman in an outdoor group setting, taken in January 2017. It was the very first day I committed to taking all of my photos using aperture priority.
Had I not adjusted my DSLR settings, the camera would not have known I was trying to achieve a shallow depth of field and the people and trees in the background would have been at least partially in focus. The strong separation would not have been there.

Without adjusting my camera, the people and trees in the background in focus. It would have made a good snapshot. Likewise a late model iPhone would have given an option to blur the background. That would have been good, too.

But there would not have been the many points of light, from the tiny sun rays filtered through the trees.

I lowered my f/stop for a very shallow depth of field, maintained a fairly low ISO because of the tree cover, noticed she was positioned far from friends but close to me, and clicked.

By using a DSLR camera and taking a few moments to make technical decisions on how to control the color, light and focus, I was able to take this photo from good to great.

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All the bokeh.

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