Five Photography Related Answers To Five Photography Related Questions Part One

Five Photography Related Answers To Five Photography Related Questions Part One

Over the last several years, I’ve been fortunate enough to grow an audience wider than I’d ever thought possible. From the days of taking photos of whatever was in front of me, to speaking at the Phase One Stand Out Photographic Forums this October in LA and San Francisco, it’s been, to the say the least, quite an adventure. All that would not be possible, however, if it wasn’t for the Google and, more importantly, a core group of photographers who, at one point or another, shared with me the answers to questions that had been burning so bright in my mind, that I literally couldn’t sleep until I’d found a satisfactory answer. 

Sleep deprivation aside, the irony of the position I’m now in isn’t lost on me. With each new message and/or email that I get, I’m seeing that it wasn’t just me burring with these photography-related questions - it’s everyone who picks up a camera (for the most part). For each person who either doesn’t want to know, doesn’t care to know, or just doesn’t think to ask, there are, I’ve found, a ridiculous amount of people who, like me, yearn for the these questions - some basic, some advanced - to be answered. So, with that said, I’ve paired some of the photography-related questions that I get emailed to me or Facebook messaged to me from time to time along with some photography-related answers. 

Disclaimer: the following list isn’t exhaustive nor is it the work of a professional trained in such matters of answering such hard-hitting questions such as those found below. These questions and their respective answers are what I’ve learned over the last few years which have helped me avoid some of the analysis paralysis that prevented me from moving forward with my work. As with anything, your mileage may vary, tongue should sometimes be planted firmly in cheek, and this offer may not be valid in all states… 

1. What Camera Should I Use? I’ll admit that even now, several years after I picked up my DSLR and began shooting and years after I honed in on shooting what I want and creating images as I envision them (eh, mostly), I still lie awake at  night imagining what life would be like if I shot with a Sony, Nikon, Hassie, Phase One, or if I became strictly an iPhone shooter. Honestly, it’s a question for the ages and can be answered quite simply… No camera is going to change what you shoot. Will it change the way some of what you're shooting look? Perhaps in some cases like when you start hitting the Medium Format range, but the difference now between consumer and pro-sumer cameras, etc is not really enough for you to allow it to be a stumbling block to your work and developing a style. Second and third cameras are great and may be useful in boosting your interest in shooting and when it comes down to it, it's one camera and one lens... And remember, it’s not the gear. 

2. What Lens Should I Use? This question is a bit more difficult to answer. I know that loudmouth Internet Yahoo’s will be quick to spout the “it’s not the gear” mantra whenever someone brings up a question about what camera or lens to get, but in my experience, in some cases, it actually is the gear - specifically - it’s the lens. For example, if you want a decent amount of bokeh, you’re not going to get it with an f/4 lens nor are you going to get the contrast and color pop from a 100.00 plastic starter lens. THAT SAID, this shouldn’t be a limiting factor to your work. If that’s what you got, embrace it and run with it. Search around on Flickr for the cheapest lens you can think of and within minutes you’ll find there are people who are doing absolutely incredible work with it. I think a good mantra to follow is, "it’s not the gear, except when it is..."  

3. How Do You Develop A Style? Over the years, I’ve learned that there are a couple of different answers to this question. To me, style comes from somewhere incredibly deep down inside of us - it’s our core values, our principles, it is, quite literally, who we are. Developing a style is somewhat more difficult than simply recognizing that, but the boiled-down answer to this question is simple: keep shooting and it'll bubble out of you. While there are fundamentals to learn, there is something to be said about putting those fundamentals aside for a minute and working toward something. Yes, you should learn how to expose properly, yes, you should learn the rule of thirds, but NOT because that’s how science tells you will make a photo work. Learn the rules so you know WHY a photo works. Er, I digress again. Developing a style doesn’t come from years and years of work - it comes from somewhere much deeper and much more personal. Keep shooting and you’ll see it. 

4. Do I Really Need To Learn The Fundamentals? Believe it or not, this still keeps me up at night. Part of me wants to say “yes, you need to learn ‘em” but then I think about all the incredible work that I’ve seen put up by people who don’t know a Rule of Thirds from a Micro Four Thirds and I think, “well hell.. why even bother? Just keep shooting…” I would say, personally, that there was never a period of time in my photography upbringing where I sat down with a book and said, “ok, chapter one - rule of thirds, etc” It just sort of happened through shooting and absorbing what was around me. That’s not to say I didn’t Google stuff like, “why do my photos sucks” and “how to sell your camera online.” I did. Often. What I mean here is that if keep shooting, you keep developing your eye and eventually you’ll begin to see what works and what doesn’t. Amazingly enough, once you find what makes a photo “work,” you might be surprised to learn that people have written entire libraries on the subject…

5. Do I Really Need To Learn Post Processing - I mean, Ansel Adams didn’t use Photoshop and…? Yes. It’s 2014 and most likely none of us are actually Ansel Adams. Beside that, even in the darkroom I’m sure AA did some post work. In fact, I’m certain there’s a quote floating around the Internet about how he feels about Photoshop, etc. Regardless. There are few things that irk me more than looking back at old work and knowing that with just a little bit of photoshop and/or proper lightroom technique, my work would have been much more solid. I recognize there are purists and film shooters who'll disagree, but learning how to bring out the best in your images Capture One, Lightroom, and/or Photoshop is what'll make your work stand out, 9 times out of 10. 

In all seriousness, I hope these answers are helpful to at least a few someones out there. I know when I started out, I read article after article that comparing lenses, cameras, strobes, filters, etc when in fact, I should have spent all that time shooting and while I love the fact that you're here, I can't help but want you to close the computer and go shoot something right now. 

Lastly, I mentioned in the opener that I am speaking at the Phase One Standout! Photographic Forum in Los Angeles on October 15th and San Francisco on October 18th. If you’ve got a moment, please check out the website and consider joining us. In addiiton to some very cool things offered by Phase One (no, it's not a free IQ250), I’ll be sharing the stage with a bevy of talented photographers who will bring you some incredibly killer information. Tickets are affordable. I truly hope to see you all there!

Thanks for reading, 


John Schell's picture

John Schell is a Lifestyle photographer and writer currently based in Miami, Florida

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great article, I"m still developing my style and trying to hone my post skills (:

Great article John , really hit the spot here truly helpful.....posts like this make the difference ,look forward to hearing from you again.

Great post!

For #5... I would argue that Ansel Adams would actually be VERY pro-Lightroom, etc. He often said that he was a print-maker, not a photographer. His specialty was the darkroom and mastering ways to process photos. Using Lightroom, Photoshop, etc, is just the digital equivalent of that. Film shooters couldn't be masters without learning proper development. Digital shooters can't be masters without knowing how to post-process their photos.

Well, I suppose I should qualify that by saying someone could be very good at taking photos, but that they won't look their best without proper post-process, film or digital. Post-processing skill and camera skill are not necessarily linked.

Justin beat me to the punch on this one. Ansel Adams was one of the biggest manipulators of all time. People don't realize how much control you actually have in the dark room. From the choice of film, development of the film, the choice of paper, dodging, burning, toning, hell even the old stocking over the enlarger trick, the choices were vast. The big difference was envisioning the finished product BEFORE you shoot. It took careful planning. OH yea forgot to mention that Ansel even added the moon to the final print by stacking negatives (i think thats how he did it) . I wonder how that would be perceived today by the "purists" lol.

BTW this is hands down the best photography blog on the net in my opinion. My hat is tipped in gratitude to you sir!!!

Ansel Adams wrote three must have books! The Camera, The Negative and The Print. Two of these deal with what we today call post-processing! So to say he was a purist is very true, he totally understood the medium he worked in. As well as the limitations and how to work within them to create great images.

"Learn the principle, abide by the principle, and dissolve the principle. In short, enter a mold without being caged in it. Obey the principle without being bound by it." - Bruce Lee

I like this article but, what I think is funny is that "Do I Really Need To Learn The Fundamentals?" is number 4, really? To be blunt if you understand the Fundamentals you basically answer all the other questions.

The fundamentals is not just composition it is understanding the relationship of f/stops shutter speeds, ISO, Also understanding what different lenses and their properties and functions are. Also learning to see light, how it falls, the direction, the quality, and temperature.

If you have an understanding of the fundamentals then picking gear is lot less based on here say and more based on what am I trying to accomplish? It is funny you brought up Ansel Adams, because he is the perfect example of Post Processing started in the Camera.

When Ansel Adams would shoot he would pre visualize his image before the capture all the way from development to the darkroom. Which is what the Zone system is about. If you ever get a chance I recommend reading his notes on how he shot "Moonrise Over New Mexico" this one of his most well known shots and what he called a guess as far as exposure.

It is long painful read but shows how he would read light and process to the final print.

I am not saying everyone needs that expertise, but what I am saying If you want to be a Professional you need the basics and it you are a serious amateur the basics wills open a creative door for you.

When I get the question, "What camera and lens should I get?" I ask these questions:
What is your Budget?
What do you want to shoot?
How much do you understand the basics?

Last if you understand the fundamentals Photoshop stops being a triage tool and becomes a creative tool.

And if you have not guessed I have a film background. ;)

I would answer these questions differently.
1. What Camera Should I Use?
- Doesn't matter that much.

2. What Lens Should I Use?
- Depends on what you can afford. Also, depends on what kinds of photos you want to take, so it depends on your style.

3. How Do You Develop A Style?
- Start by looking at other people's photographs and finding stuff you love. You can't develop a style if you don't know what you love. It's your guiding star. Finding out what others love and why will help too. Finding out what you hate is also a good step.

4. Do I Really Need To Learn The Fundamentals?
- Yes. Period. By the way, why wouldn't you learn the fundamentals? Too busy? Not really into it? Not that you need to slavishly follow rules, but breaking rules without knowing what they are is amateurish.

5. Do I Really Need To Learn Post Processing - I mean, Ansel Adams didn’t use Photoshop and…?
- Ansel Adams did a lot of post processing and was a strong advocate for it. He spent long hours in the dark room, as described in his autobiography. AA aside, if you you are strictly documenting, maybe post can be avoided, but I'm guessing not entirely. Even newspaper journalists are allows a short list of editing techniques. Otherwise, it's just lazy to refuse to edit. Part of the appeal of SOC (straight out of the camera) is how well an image can come out when you hobble yourself by refusing to do post. I think I'd rather look at the best image possible. Another part of the appeal of SOC is the sense that photographs tell the "truth," so why mess with it. That's a documentarian approach, not an artistic one. That's cool, except that I feel that SOC photos can lie as well as anything, and editing can bring out more "truth" than might otherwise come out of the less-than-perfect SOC image. Is it a lie to make a sky as blue in the image as it was in real life. Some, but not I, would say yes. I say, learn post.

John, all your comments are valid. Great article!