Putting Your Best Foot Forward and Happy Accidents

Have I mentioned how important it is to put your best foot forward in everything you do? Maybe I have and maybe I haven’t, but in either case let me say it now.

It is really important to put your best foot forward in everything you do.

Historically I’ve not always been good at this. When I didn’t see the point or benefit in doing something, I’d often slack off on it, or just get it done as quickly as possible to get on to the next, hopefully more interesting thing. However, with age comes wisdom, and the wisdom I have now reminds me that my time here is limited, and if I’m doing something, I should do it well to get as full and rich an experience from it while I have time. This becomes more important, I think, when we add the idea of looking back at what we’ve done. It’s like getting a tattoo on your arm, but wimping out on finishing it when it gets too painful. What are you left with then? A half finished tattoo which will mock you for the rest of your life. Sure, you can get it removed, but you’ll still have the memory (and perhaps some scarring).

In life though, not everything can be so easily removed as a tattoo.

Before I wax too generally philosophic, I’ll move on to why this has been on my mind. When I was at the Force Fed Lies show this past Sunday, I had a brief, but very interesting, concept with their vocalist, Joe, which featured, among other things, this idea. Later, when I was processing the photos for that and combing through them looking for the best, it popped back in to my mind. Most of the photos were well exposed, and probably could have been posted. However, by taking a little time to pick out the ones with the best subject matter, and then popping them in to Photoshop for a little tweaking of levels, I could end up with a great, if smaller, crop of photos I could be proud to look back on. The choice to me seems obvious.

I think this is an idea that most photographers miss. I realize that every Professional, and most semi-Pro photographers know this, but they’re in the minority. Really, everyone with a camera phone who uses it to snap a pic now and then is a photographer at some level. Why do people, then, accept such poor quality photographs?

Well, for some it’s a limitation on resources. Maybe their camera sucks, and they don’t have the money for a new one. It’s even easier to think of someone who doesn’t have the money for Photoshop (though GIMP is pretty great these days, almost as powerful, and FREE, so that may be moot). For others maybe they just don’t see the photos as bad.

However, I know enough photographers who have very good taste and sense of what’s a good photograph, who have really nice cameras, and who still just dump everything off their camera and call it a day. I really can’t begin to guess why.

So here’s my encouragement to all photographers out there. If you think your photo is “good enough”, or that you’re as good a photographer as it is possible to be, stop and ask if it, or you, can’t be any better. I’d bet good money that both can be improved. Be critical! Work at it!

Here’s some simple ways to make some drastic improvements in your quality:

  1. Take a lot more pictures of the same subject than you think you’ll need or want. (But see point 2)
  2. Never take the same picture twice. Try in each to change even a little something, like the angle you’re shooting at or the length of the exposure, or narrowness of depth of field.
  3. To do the above more effectively, read your camera manual and try out everything in there.
  4. Never settle for good enough. If it’s not among the best 10% of pictures you’ve taken recently, it’s probably not good, and you shouldn’t consider using it (be it in a vacation album or posted on a website for others to see).
  5. Post process.

I want to talk about point 5 a little more, because far too many people skip this step. Even if a photograph is one of the top 1% of pictures you’ve taken recently, you may be able to make it better. Yes, the mark of a great photographer, and the goal of anyone who wants to be one, is to produce a perfect exposure in the camera. However, even great photographers process their photos. Sometimes, especially if you’re shooting raw, you get lucky and you maybe just need to sharpen them a little to correct for the formatting. Still, that’s a little something that needs done. It’s the attention to detail that will make you great. Don’t wuss out because it takes too long. Put the picture in Photoshop and tweak the levels a little bit to see what happens. You’ll usually find that the exposure you wanted and the exposure you got are a little off from each other, and it will show you in clear terms what you need to do next time to get a better in-camera exposure.

Doing too much to the picture after the fact can be a problem too. If you have to spend more than 5 – 10 minutes tweaking an image, it’s probably not worth using the image. Strive for perfection, but realize that sometimes you have to abandon an image with a subject or composition that you love because, objectively, it’s just not quite there. Keep it around and learn from it, but it’s not something anyone else needs to see.

You also need to realize that sometimes all of the above is crap, and the best pictures you take can be happy accidents that come out of the camera perfect. If this is the case, rejoice and relax and share them with as many people as will listen to you. (Bragging is okay too, but we reserve the right to tell you to shut up.)

What will this get you? Well, primarily a lot of nice feedback from friends and maybe strangers of how lovely your images are. Really though, a photograph to the photographer is a memory of a time and a place. Be it a vacation photo or a still life you set up in the studio, it’s a memento of the time you spent there. Your memento can be grainy, under/over-exposed, slightly out of focus, and/or slightly off compositionally. Your memento could also be stunning, and a photo that shows off the best of your abilities as a photographer at the time you took it. How would you rather remember your life?

I think, at the end of the day, the difference between a photographer and a good photographer is quality control. We all aren’t savants, and a savant with good quality control will probably always be better, but the rest of us can go a long way if only we put our best foot forward.

In the end though, and in the spirit of the happy accident, I’ll leave you with a few of the same that I found while processing the last Force Fed Lies set:

Neon Church Guitar

Force Fed Psychedelia

Neon Danny

Ciao,

– B

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