Master Your Gear & Creativity Soars

In becoming the photographer you want to be, technical excellence is a given.

What photographers like Winogrand and Heisler and other acknowledged masters have in common is technical mastery. They may not know everything there is to know about photography, but they know what they need to know to get the images they envision.

Getting through a volume of work will allow you to know your gear so well that your process becomes second nature and your creativity soars, closing the gap between expectations and reality. It’s a muscle memory that lets you shoot as easily as you jump on a bike and ride.

A nugget Gregory Heisler once told me is one I often repeat. He was articulating the frustrations many photographers experience, particularly at the beginning of their obsession with photography. He said the left side of our brain, the logical side, is busy worrying about camera settings—white balance, f-stops, shutter speeds, histograms, focus points, etc.—while your right brain is going, “Shut up! I’m trying to take a picture!”

The left brain, right brain dilemma. Left brain thinking is associated with logic, details, and planning. The right brain is more about images, emotions, and creativity. Does this left-brain/right-brain battle sound familiar?
The left brain, right brain dilemma. Left brain thinking is associated with logic, details, and planning. The right brain is more about images, emotions, and creativity. Does this left-brain/right-brain battle sound familiar?

Photography is all about decisions making and problem solving; from where and when you trigger your shutter to what to include or exclude from the frame. Then there are the choices of which lens or focal length to use and all the exposure and technical controls your left brain is obsessing over.

It’s no wonder I often see photographers struggling with the technical details before they can even begin to figure out all the other variables that make pictures great. Before your left brain can be freed from the chains of technical constraint, before technique fades to the unconscious and becomes intuitive as you explore your subjects with abandon in a dance of color, tones, and light—you have to pay your dues by shooting the volume and learning from experience.

Dealing with low light requires you be on your game technically to make the most of difficult low light situations. Young men at a hotel bar in Mabote, Mozambique, near the South African border. 
Dealing with low light requires you be on your game technically to make the most of difficult low light situations. Young men at a hotel bar in Mabote, Mozambique, near the South African border.

Your ability to master the digital processes and photographic fundamentals is necessary, and it will happen as you work through the volume. It takes time for your technical savvy to catch up with your desire to capture the great images you know you are capable of, so don’t despair, and never give up; better work is on the horizon and in this blog I’ve got ways to simplify your technical process to speed things up.

I include some important general technical concepts sprinkled throughout the Nikon Manifesto section of the blog. The Nikon Manifesto Big Six can be transformative. Give it a try.

You will find some of the ways I shoot that have helped me work faster and smarter. I know there are ideas there that can help you, too. I have been doing this a very long time and over the years I’ve made a lot of technical mistakes. Getting through a volume of work means making mistakes, which can be the greatest teacher. Mastering your technique and process is essential, but it’s just the beginning. It’s the starting line in becoming the photographer you want to be.

“I took a lot of ‘the operation’s a success but the patient died’ pictures…. I had a perfectly executed boring-ass picture that I had done. I even saw it happening like a train wreck and there was nothing I could do about it.” 

 Gregory Heisler 

Simplify

For years, I was successfully avoiding the myriad options available through my camera’s menu system. I had my way of shooting and it worked fine. But when I started to tweak my camera by changing a few key settings, I learned just how fast and intuitive my camera could become and it helped free me creatively.

No assignment challenged my technical abilities more than the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver. I’m not primarily a sports photographer, but shooting the Olympics was a test in stamina and problem solving, shooting in a wide variety of fast-moving situations where the light was often low and constantly changing. Because I had gone through a volume of work before taking this assignment, I was prepared.

The opening ceremonies were often dark and dim, which meant raising my ISO to 3200 and shooting wide open. This was shot in Aperture Priority with exposure compensation at –1 stop. 
The opening ceremonies were often dark and dim, which meant raising my ISO to 3200 and shooting wide open. This was shot in Aperture Priority with exposure compensation at –1 stop.
The Gold Medal Ice Dancing Champions had enough light to allow me to shoot at ISO 2000 and still get a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. With the white of the ice and the even arena lighting, I opted to take the camera off Aperture Priority and switch to manual for consistent exposures as I followed the skaters. 
The Gold Medal Ice Dancing Champions had enough light to allow me to shoot at ISO 2000 and still get a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. With the white of the ice and the even arena lighting, I opted to take the camera off Aperture Priority and switch to manual for consistent exposures as I followed the skaters.

As photographers, we are problem solvers. When we get to the scene of a photo, there are so many decisions to be made. The easier and more second nature your ability to make these decisions, the better your work gets—and it’s the volume that will get you there. For me, the mantra of less is more holds true in so many areas of photography, but particularly when it comes to the technical things. I want to be able to react quickly so I don’t miss important moments. As a professional photographer, it’s crucial.

By keeping things simple, I can devote less of my energy to the technical and more to the creative side. The simplicity rule starts with what I take with me. To stay nimble and quick to react, I don’t want to be weighed down with too much stuff.

“The only thing that gets in the way of a really good photograph, is the camera.” 

—Norman Parkinson

But, as a rookie photographer, weighed down I was. I would pack too much equipment for each shooting session, wanting to be ready for anything—a good idea in theory, but not in practice. Carrying too much gear took a physical toll and actually hindered my image-making process. As I gained experience, I realized that I didn’t have to take everything, but instead make the most of what I did choose to take. The trick is to know what to expect from each assignment and make your best guess for what you might need.

The best camera is the one you have with you, and talented photographers can make great images from the most basic equipment. If you guess wrong and the picture you want is out of reach for the lens you have, then move up or move on, and get great images that are accessible to you.

Image 2-13 Image 2-14

Great images are great images. It doesn’t matter if they were taken with an iPhone, a medium-format digital camera, a DSLR, or a pinhole camera. It’s not about how or with what the picture was taken, it’s about what it communicates to and evokes in the viewer. There’s a whole rebirth of minimalist film cameras, as with the Lomography movement, which has a large following of photographers who prefer the unpredictable and raw look these inexpensive plastic film cameras provide.

As a street photographer, I always have a camera with me, and I like to challenge myself and work within the constraints of the camera, from iPhone to Nikon V3 or Coolpix A—yet I can get beautiful results and, surprisingly, can make big enlargements that look like they came from a much larger-resolution sensor. I often take advantage of a camera’s shortcomings by exploiting those shortcomings to capture mood and atmosphere.

The photos below were all taken with an iPhone 3GS and its 2.7 megapixel small sensor. My Nikon cameras have much bigger sensors and many more megapixels. It’s not always about the camera but more about maximizing your camera’s features for the best possible images.

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There may come a point, however, where the equipment does matter, when technical limitations surface and the demands of the job exceed what you can do with the gear.

You will know when the gear starts to limit you. For example, if you are continually drawn to high-ISO, low-available-light situations, yet are unhappy with the noisy results you are getting, it might be time to consider a new camera body with better high-ISO capability. Or perhaps you like sports or wildlife and notice that your images are not close enough, yet you can’t physically move in. Might be time to invest in a longer lens.

There’s much, much more on simplifying your process and transforming your work for the better in The Nikon Manifesto Section of the blog. Though much of the information is talking about Nikon gear, many if not most of the ideas and suggestions work with whatever tool you choose to shoot with.

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