One question you might have as you start your photographic journey is which photo editing software you should get. For a long time now, Adobe has been at the top of the chain, with Photoshop and Lightroom dominating the market. So complete was Adobe’s dominance, that others companies were content to market their software as mere add-ons (or plug-ins) to Adobe’s products. Apple actually fled the market and discontinued its Aperture software altogether.
The question has taken on renewed vigor recently, however, as additional companies are now offering their own photo editing platforms, and there are a few additional entries into the market. In addition, some people are dissatisfied with Adobe’s latest pricing model, which involves a monthly charge for use of the software rather than purchasing it outright. As a result, you’ll hear a lot more people talking about this question.
Which Photo Editing Software? Lightroom
Let’s get right to the answer first, and then we’ll backfill with additional information for those that want it. The answer (at least for me) is that you should get Lightroom. It is very robust, easy to learn, and has been the industry standard for several years.
To obtain Lightroom, get the Photography Plan from Adobe, in which you get Lightroom and Photoshop for $10 a month. While you will get Photoshop as part of the deal, I recommend you start with Lightroom and get comfortable with it first. In fact, you may use nothing more than Lightroom for eternity, and that is just fine.
With that answer in hand, let’s go back and explain things a bit. I’m doing this in the form of a question and answer session, which I think covers all the major issues.
Why Not Start with Photoshop?
Photoshop is the most powerful photo editing software on the planet, bar none. It is an amazing tool, and I love it. But it probably took me about a year to get comfortable with it. It took me a few years to get to the point where I felt like I was proficient. At this point, I have been using it for several years and I still don’t feel like I have truly mastered it (there are very few who have). It is very non-intuitive, complicated, and difficult to learn. Therefore, I just don’t think you should start out here.
On the other hand, you can learn Lightroom in a weekend. You will find that the vast majority of the edits you want to do can be done in Lightroom. It is getting more and more common for advanced photographers to use nothing but Lightroom to edit their photos. As a result, you can get by just fine with Lightroom. In any case, if you get the Photography Plan, you’ll have Photoshop too, so you can always pop over and use it when the situation requires.
Is this What You Use?
Sort of. I actually use some of Adobe’s other applications as well, such as Premiere (for video) and InDesign (for pdfs), so it made sense for me to get the entire suite of Adobe software. I get the Adobe Creative Suite, which sets me back $50 a month. Of course, I get Lightroom and Photoshop as part of that package. But if I stopped teaching photography, such that I no longer needed Premiere and InDesign, I’d revert to the Photography Plan. Assuming you are just using Adobe products for photography, the Photography Plan is all you need. There is no point in you spending the extra $40 a month.
But I Don’t Want to Pay Monthly. Can I Buy Lightroom?
As I type this, it is still possible to purchase Lightroom outright. But its days are numbered.
The latest standalone version is Lightroom 6 (I could not find it on Adobe’s website, but it is possible that it is tucked away somewhere – the last time I looked I found it but only after searching for a while). In any event, you can buy Lightroom 6 from other retailers. It typically costs about $150, although you can often find it a little cheaper. If you go this route, however, be warned. Adobe has already announced that it will be doing no further updates to this software. That means if you get a new camera, it will not be supported.
Can I Buy Photoshop?
Not really, but you do have two options, neither of which is ideal. The first option is to buy Photoshop Elements. This is a scaled back and more intuitive version of Photoshop. It isn’t as powerful as Photoshop, but if you don’t need some of Photoshop’s most advanced features, it will be fine for you. You can get this new from Adobe for $70.
You simply cannot buy the current version of full Photoshop (as mentioned previously, you can only rent it). But you can buy old versions online. The last version of Photoshop that was offered for sale was Photoshop CS6. You will find copies of this for sale online. Be warned that this is a few years old now, and if you have a relatively new camera it will likely not be supported. It hasn’t been updated in a few years. This approach is fraught with potential problems, and I do not recommend it, but if you are dead set on getting Photoshop without the monthly subscription, this is your only option.
How Good Are the Other Non-Adobe Products that are Available?
By all accounts, the other products that are available are very good. I’m not trying to steer you away from any of them, if you are inclined in one of those directions. I am particularly intrigued by Capture One and Luminar.
I have only dabbled with the other products. If you are interested in full-scale comparisons of all the other software that is available, others have already done it. For example, you can check out Darlene Hildebrandt’s series where she tests all the software available here (for part 1) or here (for part 2).
What’s Your Connection to Adobe?
I have no affiliation with Adobe. I get nothing from them, I don’t know anyone that works for Adobe, and I have never even been contacted by them. None of the links you will see here are affiliate links.
There is more to it though. For example, if I made my living teaching Photoshop and Lightroom, then regardless of my affiliation with Adobe, I would still have a vested interest in pushing people toward those products, wouldn’t I? But I don’t. I have made a free video series to help people get started with Lightroom quickly (A Flying Leap into Lightroom), but it is free and I get nothing from it. To be completely transparent, among other courses I am contemplating, I am thinking about making a video course on Lightroom at some point. But at present I get nothing from teaching Adobe products.
All that said, am I an Adobe apologist? Maybe. I like Lightroom and Photoshop (and Premiere and InDesign for that matter). I have been recommending Lightroom and Photoshop for years, so perhaps I’m just locked in at this point. I don’t even mind the pricing model, and in fact I jumped on it as soon as it was available because the cost to buy Photoshop was so high ($750 to buy and then the upgrades were about $300). I have been using these products a long time, so perhaps an ingrained desire not to learn other software is clouding my judgment. I don’t think so, because I think that if something better was available I would instantly view it as a way to make my pictures stand out a little bit more (plus I actually have some of these other software applications and use them occasionally), but I acknowledge that possibility.
Which Version of Lightroom? Lightroom Classic or CC?
In late 2017, Adobe split Lightroom into two different applications. They created a more streamlined version of Lightroom that is best suited for mobile devices and cloud storage and called it Lightroom CC. Adobe updated the prior version of Lightroom and called it Lightroom Classic. So now we have Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic. You may be confused about which one to get and use.
When it comes to which one to get, it is sort of a false choice, at least if you get the Photography Plan I recommended earlier. In that plan, you get both. No need to worry. If you get a different plan, then you will have to choose. Adobe offers a plan with cloud storage and Lightroom CC only for $10 a month, and another plan with cloud storage and both Lightroom CC and Classic for $20 a month (see the chart at the top of this page). Honestly, I think these other plans for people who take their pictures with cell phones, and not for serious photographers, so I just don’t think they are for you.
As just mentioned, under the Photography Plan, you get both Lightroom CC and Classic. So which one should you actually use? Use Lightroom Classic. It is much more robust. Think of Lightroom CC as Lightroom Lite at this point. In the future, Adobe may add more features to Lightroom CC, but right now it is lacking a lot of the features you will find in Lightroom Classic.
But here’s the deal. When Adobe put the Classic designation on the prior version of Lightroom (even though they updated it at the same time), that was viewed as the kiss of death by a lot of people. Classic means old. Old means obsolete. Therefore, Lightroom Classic must be headed for the junkpile.
It could happen. Adobe might put all its resources into updating Lightroom CC. While Lightroom CC isn’t nearly as robust as Lightroom Classic, perhaps it gets there in the future. At that point, there is really no need to have two different versions of Lightroom. Under that scenario, Lightroom Classic goes away.
But it is not something we need to worry about when deciding which photo editing software to choose. First of all, we don’t know if things will go down that way. And even if that does happen, by then Lightroom CC will presumably have been updated considerably, such that it won’t constitute a significant step backwards.
Why All These Different Names and Numbers for Lightroom?
It is just a function of how Lightroom was developed. In the beginning, there was just Lightroom. As new versions came out, they just got a new number. So we had Lightroom 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. It is quite tidy and understandable.
But then in 2013, Adobe started the subscription model. Everything started getting called CC, which stands for Creative Cloud. At the time, Lightroom was exempted from this model, so you could still buy Lightroom 6 or go to the subscription model, which was called Lightroom CC. During this timeframe, you had either Lightroom 6 or Lightroom CC.
This was the state of affairs until late 2017, when Adobe announced that there would be two versions of Lightroom (that is also when it announced it was discontinuing support for Lightroom 6 and there would be no future versions for sale). Adobe put the CC designation on the mobile-friendly, cloud-based version of Lightroom. Adobe called the other version Classic, as noted above. So now you still had Lightroom 6 lingering about, and you also had Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic.
If you are considering a new computer, you will want to make sure it can handle your photography needs. Even if you are content with your current machine, you might like to see how it measures up. How do you do that, when there are a million models out there? And if you start looking at the specs, you might quickly be confused and overwhelmed.
I’m here to help you with that, and show you what you need to know to make sure your machine will run the appropriate software and handle all your photos. Before we run through that, let me say that this doesn’t matter if you us a Mac or a PC. We are just talking specs here.
When shopping for a computer, there are really only 3 things you should look at: the processor, memory (or RAM), and the hard drive. We’ll go through each.
The processor is just what it sounds like. It is the little unit that does the computing. It is basically the engine of the whole operation. It is measured in gigahertz (or GHz) and the larger the number the faster it goes. In addition to the speed, you will want to pay attention to is the number of cores. As computer manufacturers tried to build faster and faster processors, they found it easier to split the unit into multiple cores (to disperse heat, as I understand it). Software developers then built their software to run processes on different threads. For most new computers, you are looking at 4, 6, or 8 cores.
Most processors are made by Intel and currently the state of the art is the eighth generation Intel Core processor. You’ll see the processor designated as either i3, i5, or i7. What these numbers represent is quite confusing, as there are many different models available and it is actually different for desktops versus laptops. In general, the i3 is a budget model. The i5 version will be very good and usually are quad-core processors in desktops. The i7 processors are the best, and what you should aim for if maximum speed is the goal. The i7 processors are better have a feature called hyper-threading that allows the machine to handle multiple threads of data at once.
After the i3, i5, or i7 designation, you will also see a 4 digit number. This is the model number of the processor. Intel increases the number with each new model, so if you see two i7 processors with different numbers, the higher one will be newer and will get you better performance.
There is no magic or formula to choosing a processor. Adobe requires only a minimum of 2 GHz to run Photoshop, which is less than every processor I have been able to find (there is has no stated minimum speed to run Lightroom). You simply want your processor to be as fast as possible with the largest number of cores. The best way to choose is just to look first at the i3, i5, or i7 designation and then look to the model number after that. Bigger is better.
My Recommendation: the most current Intel Core i7
The next thing to look for is the amount of memory in the computer. This one trips people up sometimes, because memory sounds like storage. They are two separate things, however, and we’ll talk about storage in the next section. Memory doesn’t save anything – it is just the storage of information while the computer is running. When you turn your computer off, the memory is wiped. Essentially memory just makes the computer run. You will sometimes see memory referred to as RAM, which stands for random access memory.
Memory is actually little sticks that plug into the motherboard of your computer. The sticks come in different sizes, measured in gigabytes (GB). The motherboard of the computer will determine how many sticks are allowed. If the computer’s motherboard accepts two sticks of memory, then that is all you can plug in. However, your computer might all up to 4 sticks of memory.
How much memory do you need? You will need at least 4 GB to run Photoshop, so that is a bare minimum. Most new computers start at 8 GB, and that is generally sufficient for most users. 16 GB or more is what you will want for extreme performance.
My recommendation: Shoot for 16 GB and up, but 8 GB is ok.
The Hard Drive
The hard drive is where you store stuff – like your programs and your photos. For the longest time, these were spinning drives. While these spinning drives work fine, they do involve moving parts, which means they are destined to failure at some point. On the upside, however, they are pretty cheap. Purchased separately, you can get a hard drive measured in terabytes (TB, which is 1,000 GB) for around $100.
Something interesting happened in the computer world in recent years, however, and that is the development of solid state memory. This is like what you use in flash drives and it involves no moving parts. In addition, the computer can access data on these drives much quicker than on spinning drives. Everyone wants to switch to solid state memory, but there is a drawback. Solid state memory is much more expensive than spinning drives. If you bought the component on its own, a 256 GB solid state drive would cost a couple hundred dollars.
To get the benefits of solid state memory without spending a fortune, buy a computer with a relatively small solid state drive on it. Common sizes are 128 GB, 256 GB, of 512 GB. You then store all your software applications on this drive. You can save your operating system, Photoshop, Lightroom, other Adobe applications, the Microsoft Office applications, and other applications on a 128 GB drive and still have a little space left over. You will get the benefit of increased speed in doing so.
This solid state drive will probably not be large enough to store all your photos, documents, and other information on it. Store that stuff somewhere else. Either get a computer with an additional spinning drive or add one to it. You can also just save it all to an external hard drive. Since the computer is not interfacing with this data very often (like it is when running a software application) you really don’t need the speed of solid state for this. In this fashion, you get the benefits of solid state without spending a fortune.
My Recommendation: 256 GB solid state drive to store your operating system and software applications. Separate hard drive if 1 – 4 terabytes to store all your photos, documents, and other data.
As an Aside
If you are looking at desktops and you use Windows, I heartily recommend that you assemble your own computer. If that seems crazy to you, I promise you it is much simpler than you think. It requires no knowledge of computers and it takes no tools beyond a screwdriver. For the most part you just plug in the components. You can get exactly what you want and it will cost you much less than it would if you bought one off the shelf (or online). Not only that, but you can upgrade the system without buying a whole new one. You can add drives or memory to your system. It is actually pretty interesting. If you think you might have any interest, check out the Newegg website. There are tutorials on there and they sell all the components you might need. That’s what I did, and I’m very glad I did. I have now assembled a few different computers.
A System to Handle Large Files
Getting the right computer matters more to photographers than it does to others. Your standard computer user is creating documents, spreadsheets, and the like. Those sorts of files are typically measured in kilobytes and are relatively small. On the other hand, photographers are working with pictures that are measured in megabytes. Just one RAW file from a standard DSLR or mirrorless camera will be upwards of 25 MB. That’s a lot of data. Further, the files can get larger from there as you work with them (combine, add layers, etc.). You need to make sure your system can handle it. Looking closely at these three core specs will go a long way toward making sure your computer can handle this data. Of course, there are additional items you’ll want to consider as well, but these core specs will point you in the right direction.
This week we have a guest post by Dr. Summit Shah from Columbus, Ohio. He specializes in travel photography and you can check out his work at SummitShahTravelPhoto.com.
The Traveling Experience
Traveling is a once in a lifetime experience, and there are amazing places throughout the world to visit. The differences in cultures, architecture, people, food, scenery and climate are intriguing, and many places are breathtaking. Once most people take their first trip, they cannot resist visiting more regions and having new experiences. Although almost every possible destination has its own charm, there are eight experience that should not be missed.
#1 The Northern Lights in Iceland
There is nothing quite like viewing the Northern Lights of Iceland, and this in itself is an excellent reason to visit. This is one of the best light shows nature has ever presented. When it is completely dark, the viewing is optimal, and the lights are spectacular. From September until the middle of April, the nights in Iceland are always guaranteed to be dark, and this is the perfect time for a visit to a beautiful country. The trip is best planned for about a week because although the Northern Lights will remain active for two or three nights at a time, they will also disappear for four or five.
#2 Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
Anyone who has ever had the desire to climb a mountain should scale Mount Kilimanjaro. This is the world’s biggest free-standing mountain, and presents travelers with the ultimate adventure. Africa is a fantastic destination, but the majestic views from the accessible summits are beyond words. Many individuals have climbed this mountain without being spectacular athletes. All that is necessary is a lot of determination, the right gear for the climb, and the desire to have an adventure.
#3 The Solo Adventure
Traveling with either family or friends can be fun, but once you have traveled by yourself, it will change your life. You learn how to be self-reliant, and will find you talk to the other travelers and locals a lot more. You can always take your first trip somewhere close to home, but eventually you must go abroad. There are so many destinations to choose from, the people are incredible, the destinations beautiful, and you will enjoy the differences in tastes, music, atmosphere and culture.
#4 Highway One in California
Highway One runs alongside the Pacific Ocean in California, and everyone should experience this drive. You can begin in either Southern or Northern California, have delicious dinners at roadside diners, and the coastal view is absolutely stunning. Watching the water cascade over the rocks, catching the occasional waterfall, and breathing the fresh, clean air make this drive unforgettable. You can even rent a convertible to heighten the effect.
#5 The Delicacies of Japan
When most people think about Japanese food, they conjure images of ramen, sushi, bento boxes and udon, but this barely scratches the surface. The Japanese consider food to be an art form, and each cook chooses a specific dish. It takes decades to perfect the dish, and the results are tantalizing. Tsukiji’s Fish Market is famous for their fresh sashimi, and a traditional multiple course Japanese meal is available at kaiseki. The aromas are an enticing as the food is delicious, and Japan should be included on your travel destinations.
#6 The Blue Hole of Belize
Finding a beautiful destination to go snorkeling is not difficult, but the Blue Hole of Belize is also unique. The name of this natural phenomena comes from a blue circle, and a hole beneath the surface of the water is responsible for its creation. The snorkeling is best in the perimeter’s shallow waters, and the experience will stay with you for your entire life.
#7 The City That Spans Two Continents
Istanbul is an impressive city, and is located in both Europe and Asia. The city has everything you could desire including history, culture, food and a vibrant nightlife. The Ottoman Empire’s old traditions blend seamlessly with the pursuits of modern society. There is so much to see here, and the Istanbul is so extensive, you should stay for a minimum of a week.
#8 The Best of Tanzania
There are sixteen game parks in Tanzania, and the Serengeti is included. There is no better place to see the wildlife of Africa. You will see African leopards, Cape buffalo, black and white rhino’s, African elephants and so much more. It can be exciting seeing these animals in movies, but the experience is completely different when these majestic creatures are only feet away.
The Ultimate Vacation
Every destination you choose to visit will offer you something different. The world is inspiring, and the experiences available should not be missed. Most people already have an idea of where they would like to visit, and the best advice is to start packing your bags.
Dr. Summit Shah has always been passionate regarding allergies, which is why he is a well known speaker at seminars, and publishes exceptional articles. He is considered an expert regarding food allergies, and provides medical advice to some of the most prestigious groups in Columbus.
Today I would like to introduce you to a change you should make in your focus controls. This is a change you probably don’t think you need. Even after I tell you about it, you might not think it terribly useful. But it is. People I have taught have consistently pointed to this change as one of the more significant things they learned in my classes.
It is called back button focus. First I will tell you what it is and why it will help you. After that I will show you how to set it on your camera.
What Is Back Button Focus?
Normally, your camera sets the focus point when you press the shutter button half-way down. With back button focus, however, what you do is set the camera so that it changes that. Instead of using the shutter button to set the focus, the camera will set the focus when you press a button on the back of the camera. All you are doing is changing the button that sets the focus.
The Benefits of Back Button Focus
Why would you do this? Doesn’t using the shutter button to set the focus point work just fine?
Well, yes, it does. But back button focus is better in some circumstances. In particular, it works better where you don’t want the camera to reset the focus before the shot. With normal focus (using the shutter button), you can scarcely take a picture without the camera resetting the focus point. After all, you need to use the shutter button to take the picture, and that is the very button that sets the focus as well.
When you use back button focus, however, the two operations (focusing and taking the picture) are separated. Now you can set your focus once and take as many pictures as you want using the same plane of focus. There is no chance of the camera resetting the focus point.
When might you use this? There are a variety of circumstances, but for us outdoor photographers, a common scenario is when you are set up on a tripod and taking multiple shots. You might be waiting for some something to happen or just taking different pictures as the light changes. You doubtlessly set your focus point before the first shot, and you don’t want the camera trying to reset it every time you take a picture. With back button focus, you can be assured of this. The camera will not try to reset your focus point no matter how many shots you take.
Using Back Button Focus with the “Focus Then Recompose” Method
If you are familiar with the “focus then recompose” method of setting your focus, back button focus may appeal to you right away. What you do when you focus then recompose is (just like it sounds) set your focus point without regard to the final composition, then move your camera into final position to take the picture. Using the normal way of setting the focus with the shutter button, you would have to hold the shutter button down halfway as you set up the final shot. If you remove your finger from the shutter button, the camera will likely attempt to re-focus when you take the shot. With back button focus, on the other hand, you simply press the back button to set the focus, and that is the focus point that will be used for the final shot. It is much easier and less likely to lead to focus problems.
How to Set Back Button Focus
If you want to set your camera to use the back button to set the focus, how do you do that?
Obviously it varies a bit by model, but typically what you will do is go into your camera’s menu and find where it allows you to reset certain camera controls. In Canon cameras, that is the “Custom Controls” menu item. Click on that and the following screen will appear:
From there, you reset the AF-ON button so that it starts the auto focus (noted as AF start). You should also change the shutter button control so that a half-press will no longer start the auto focus. That is the icon directly above the AF-ON button in the screen above.
As I am writing this, I only have my Canon camera with me, so I cannot give you the specifics for other models. I will try to update this later. It should be a similar procedure though.
Using Back Button Focus
You might be concerned that back button focus is difficult to get used to. It isn’t. The button is conveniently placed right where the thumb of your shooting hand goes. Very quickly the feeling will become natural.
You need not worry that you will forget to set the focus either. It has been ingrained in all of us since we first picked up cameras not to take the photo until we hear that satisfying little beep that tells us the focus is set.
As a result, I definitely think you ought to give back button focus a try. It is a minor improvement that can occasionally have significant results. It separates two camera functions that occasionally don’t work well together. Plus, it isn’t permanent, so if you find your don’t like it, you can always change back to the old way.
If you are reading this, it is because you have a passion for creating great photographs. You think a lot about how to improve your photos. You work at it. Probably a lot. So let’s talk a little about how to do that. Specifically, what does it take?
But First, What It Doesn’t Take
You probably already know a few things. You know what it doesn’t take. Let’s knock out some of the things it doesn’t take first.
It doesn’t take talent. We can debate the extent to which talent exists and matters at all, but when it comes to great photographs there can be no dispute that talent won’t get you there. It only takes you so far. Most of what it takes to create great photographs is learned.
It doesn’t take art school or specialized training. We have all seen the work of fantastic self-taught photographers. There may be more great photographers without any school or training than there are great photographers with it.
It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of scientific principles to create great photos. Understanding the science behind cameras, optics, and pixels is nice, but it really does very little for you in terms of getting great pictures. I suspect we all know camera geeks who know everything about the technical stuff but cannot take a good picture to save their lives.
It doesn’t take the latest and greatest gear either. You’ve no doubt encountered people – usually at camera stores – with the latest and greatest who cannot take a good picture as well. This one confuses people sometimes, because they see great photographers using the top gear, so they assume the gear is the cause. Just understand that the expensive gear is not the cause of the great pictures, but rather a symptom of the illness that causes these photographers to spend every waking moment trying to create great photos.
And Now The Obvious Answer
That leads us to what it does take to create great photos. You probably have a pretty good idea of what it takes, and that is effort. Lots of it.
But what does that mean? Effort at what? At studying? Or shooting? Or planning shots? Or at editing? And how does this effort translate into great photographs? Saying that great photography requires a lot of effort is pretty obvious, and frankly seems somewhat unhelpful.
Let’s see if we can make it more concrete.
What I Learned From Two Giants
In that regard, I recently came across the views of two different world class photographers. Both expressed concrete views and action steps for the creation of great photos. Let’s start with them.
Giant #1: Joe McNally
The first one is Joe McNally. If you aren’t familiar with him, he is a former National Geographic and Life magazine photographer who has had his pictures on the cover of every major magazine you can think of. He still does assignments and spends a lot of his time teaching and lecturing. I have been to a few of his live presentations and watched hours and hours of video of him teaching. He is pretty amazing.
In a recent view of him I watched, McNally was critiquing the work of others. There were largely street and portrait photographers, so all the work involved pictures of people. As he critiqued the photographs, one theme kept coming up. That was that it appeared to him that the photographer had just captured what they thought was a special moment, and that was it. After that, they moved on, proud of the special moment they had captured. McNally kept stressing that the photographer needed to continue to work with that subject or scene.
You are probably not surprised that he was telling the photographers to take more than one picture. We all know that we should do that. But when McNally got into how he would approach the scene, the extent of the effort became clear, and it was somewhat surprising. In the case if a photo of a guy doing some sort of mechanical work, he talked about how he would approach it. Obviously, he stated that a few shots was insufficient. But then he made it clear that even 10 – 15 shots was inadequate. Rather, McNally said that in order to feel like he had captured this scene, he would need to spend all day there photographing the same subject.
An entire day photographing one guy!
Giant #2: Jay Maisel
Next, I want to talk about the approach of Jay Maisel. If you aren’t familiar with him, he is a New York photographer that has been working professionally since the 1950’s. He has photographed everyone from Miles Davis to Marilyn Monroe and he has many, many famous New York street scenes to his credit. You’ve probably seen some of them, even if you didn’t know it.
I watched a series of videos on KelbyOne where Scott Kelby spends a day walking around New York with Jay Maisel shooting and asking him questions. At some point, Scott expressed amazement that Jay was getting all sorts of shots that he wasn’t even seeing. Jay asked him if he knew why that was, and Scott confessed that he did not. Jay then matter of factly told him it was because Scott didn’t shoot every day. Jay went on to use the analogy of a weight lifter who wants to get better at lifting weights. There is only one way. Lift weights every day. The same goes with photography.
The extent of this became even more clear throughout the video series (there are actually two of them). Jay has been walking around shooting in New York every day for years. He covers the same places over and over again. Until recently, he owned his own 5 story building in New York that was filled him negatives, slides, and prints from his years of doing so. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you photograph every single day and you do it for years and years, you will end up with some great photographs.
Turning All This Into A Practical Approach
That should give you some idea of the level of effort that is required for us to get great photographs. Now let me try to translate that into something you can use in your photography. I have to preface this by saying that I’m nowhere near the league of these photographers, so please don’t take this like I’m pretending that I am. There are just things that I see outdoor photographers doing that I think I can help with using the lessons from these photographers.
1. When to Shoot
When I review the work of others, a few things keep coming up. The first is that often they are shot in the middle of the day. It is really, really difficult to take a great outdoor photo in the middle of the day. Why do so many people seem to do that? Because it is convenient. Because that is when stuff is open. Because it is easy to sling a camera over your shoulder and walk around in your normal routine and try to capture a few photos.
To get special photographs, you need to break out of this comfort zone. It isn’t fun, but you need to get up early. That’s when the best light is. That’s when the sky looks the best. That’s when you get interesting colors. Or you need to stay out late. And you need to do it often. You need to apply the level of effort we have been talking about in this article.
Of course, I’m directing these comments at those who shoot landscapes and other outdoor scenes. That’s partly because that’s what most readers seem to be interested in, and partly because the comments from McNally and Maisel apply to other types of photography (largely portraits and street scenes). Some types of photography can be done all day, but not landscapes. Not good ones anyway.
2. Where to Shoot
The next thing that needs to happen is that you have to do something more than go down to the local park. You need to find special places to take your photographs.
Sure, it is convenient to just stroll down to the park that is a few blocks from your house, but that’s not where you’re likely to get great photographs. Is it technically possible? Yes. But is it very likely? No. You need to apply a level of effort to picking and getting to these locations.
3. How Much to Shoot
And from there you need to increase the level of shooting. That is true in terms of the number of days (think Maisel) and the effort you put into those days (think McNally).
How to Keep the Fire Burning
But now we reach the crux of the issue. How do you go about doing that? Do you just force yourself to go out and take more pictures?
What about, for example, one of those “365 projects” where you force yourself to take pictures every day for a year? You can do that if you want, but for me that’s just not the answer. Because we run into another phenomena, and that is the level of interest that is required to create great photographs.
If it isn’t fun, you aren’t going to do it. Just forcing yourself to photograph every day doesn’t seem like that great an idea. I don’t think it is sustainable and I think it would ultimately ruin photography for you. In addition, if you don’t have a sincere interest in the subject matter you are shooting, that is going to come across. Your pictures will be ordinary.
So what is the answer? To some extent that is personal. It will change depending on the individual. I do have one answer though. That answer is to make up trips and outings for yourself. To the extent you can get away from home and work, hit the road and go photograph in scenic spots. That may involve flying somewhere or just a roadtrip. In addition, even if you cannot get away from a weekend, make up little outings for yourself around town. Think about places you’ve been meaning to get. Pick one spot, and then kill it.
Get out your calendar and fill it up with these trips and outings. Make this the year you improve by leaps and bounds.
If you haven’t done it before, photographing fireworks might appear difficult. It really isn’t though. As support for that statement, I point you to the image above. I am pretty happy with it, but I took it many years ago, very early in my photo career, with basic entry-level equipment. So this is definitely something you can do, and it shouldn’t cost you anything.
That said, photographing fireworks does require some preparation. In fact, the difference between success and failure is often in that planning. In this article, I will walk you through the steps so that next time you plan to attend a fireworks display you will be ready.
Scout the Location
It is really important to scout the location of the fireworks display beforehand. The best way to do this is simply by arriving early. If you do that, the organizers will already be setting things up so you will gain a sense of how things will be arranged (versus scouting on a prior day when that may not be the case). This is important, not only because you want to get an overall sense of the place, but also because you’ll need to figure out the following:
Fireworks location: You’ll need to know where they will actually be shooting the fireworks, obviously. That way you can make sure you have a clear line of sight to them.
Access: It is common at fireworks displays to restrict access to certain areas. You’ll need to see where you can and cannot go.
Crowds: It is important to understand where the crowds will gather. For one thing, you may want the crowd to be part of the picture. If not, you’ll need to figure out where to set up so there are no people in your way.
Foreground: An important – but often overlooked consideration – is the foreground of your shots. The subject is obviously the exploding fireworks, and the background is just the black sky. What’s left is the foreground, and it is often the difference between a pedestrian picture of exploding fireworks and something special.
Set Up: All these factors will give you an idea where to set up your tripod.
If you try to do all these things on the fly, bad things will happen. You’ll be rushed, for one. In addition, all the people gathered for the display will hamper your movement and ability to set up where you want. Get there early and you won’t have those problems.
Dial in the Exposure
You will also want to take some time to dial in your exposure as well. There is more to this than just getting a proper exposure level.
The most important consideration is your shutter speed. I find that a good shutter speed for these shots is between 4 seconds and 8 seconds. You can go a little faster or slower if you want, but be careful. If you use a much faster shutter speed, you won’t capture the full explosion of the firework. Even worse, what you do capture will look jagged and unpleasant. On the other hand, if you use a much slower shutter speed, things just won’t show up well in the frame.
Next, set your ISO. As with virtually every situation, you want to use as low an ISO as possible. Because you will be using a rather long shutter speed, you can often get away with using a low ISO. This is important because dark tones such as you will have in your picture lend themselves to digital noise. By keeping the ISO low you will minimize that. Start with an ISO of 100, and only raise it if you need to. That said, I frequently use ISOs of 200 and 400 as well. The point is just to keep it rather low.
Finally, set your aperture. Depth of field is usually not a big consideration in fireworks shots. The background is black and you are usually not trying to capture something immediately in front of you. Therefore, you can safely use a moderate or even large aperture. Start with a default setting of f/8 and adjust from there. Don’t be afraid to change the aperture a lot though. In fact, this is the control where you have the most latitude.
Set Up the Shot
Next you face questions about how to set up the shot. The first element of that is composition. In that respect, you should pay attention to two things.
First, pay attention to the foreground. It is the big variable in your shot. Since the subject is obviously the fireworks and the background is the black sky, the foreground is the only thing worth thinking about. As mentioned previously, the foreground is often the difference between a pedestrian shot and something special. After that, just make sure you do not crop in too tightly. You don’t know exactly where the fireworks are going to go. If the fireworks are cut off the picture is ruined.
Once you have the shot framed, lock down the camera on your tripod. Make sure everything is stable and tight. Consider using mirror lock up (if you are using a DSLR) or, better yet, Live View.
Next, set your focus. Just set it on something far away. It pays to have this set before the fireworks start. Use manual focus if you need to. This is a situation where Back Button Focus pays dividends, since there is no possibility that the camera will try to refocus while you are taking pictures.
After that, just be sure your remote shutter release is ready. Now you are ready for the display to start.
How to Capture the Explosions
Capturing the exploding fireworks is sort of tricky. If you wait to see the explosion before triggering the shutter, then you have missed the first part of the explosion. Who when do you pull the trigger?
Honestly, a lot of times you are going to have to just sit there and click the shutter over and over again without trying to time it too much. The odds are that you’ll get a few good ones. I’m sure that method seems less than ideal, but that is just the way it is done a lot of times.
If you want to try to time the explosions, there are two things to look for. The first is the little white dot you sometimes see when the fireworks are shot into the air. When you see a few of them go up, explosions are imminent so go ahead click the shutter. The other way is to wait for a black sky. When that happens, you can be sure that a few fireworks are about to explode.
Either way, this process admittedly requires a little bit of luck. You just never know exactly when the fireworks are going to go off.
Processing the Fireworks Photo
Once you have captured your fireworks photos, you can make them look a lot better with just a small amount of post processing. As with any photo, there are a lot of different processing options, and there is no “one size fits all” way to do it. Still, there are three adjustments that will improve the vast majority of your photos. These will work in Lightroom or Photoshop. They are:
1. Pull Down the Highlights: Exploding fireworks are really bright, and they are likely to result in something of a dynamic range problem. Further, the brightness makes them look white and takes away some of the color. Simply pulling down the Highlights slider will go a long way toward improving them.
2. Pull Down the Blacks: Pulling down the Blacks slider will do several things for you. First, it will maintain strong contrast between the black background and the rest of the picture. Secondly, it will make the background more of a blank canvas for you. Finally, it will also tend to reduce the visible digital noise in the picture.
3. Increase the Saturation: A rather strong increase of Vibrance will dramatically improve your fireworks shots. You can also pull up the Saturation slider, but be more judicious about that. If you’d like one color in particular to pop, use the individual color channels in the HSL/Color/B&W panel.
Of course, you can also spend a lot of time processing these pictures if you want. Feel free to apply your normal workflow. But if you want a quick method of making changes, go with those 3 edits.
If you’d like to see an example where I walk through the process very quickly, check out this 2 minute video:
Fireworks Edit - YouTube
Getting It Right
The key to successful fireworks shots is preparation. Things move fast once the action starts, so you’ll need to have everything prepared ahead of time. If you are making adjustments to your composition, or your focus, or your exposure during the fireworks display, you are missing out. Further, it is important to be ready from the start. As the fireworks display progresses, the sky will get filled with more and more smoke and debris. For this reason, often the best shots are near the beginning of the display. Don’t wait for the finale!
I am writing about this picture because I hope it will inspire you to keep looking when you are pretty sure you are destined for failure.
I was down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. If you haven’t been there, there is a lot of beach with heavy commercial development up and down the coast. This is not the sort of coast where you are going to find great scenic views, unless your idea of a scenic view is one full of condo buildings. I was walking around in the middle of the day when the light was at its worst. In fact, the skies were totally clear so I knew I was going to have a problem with harsh shadows even if I did find something worth shooting, which I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to.
Not exactly a recipe for success.
That said, I had an idea. I knew this odd shaped pier existed. I believe it to be called the Malecon Vallarta, but I am not entirely positive.
My thought was to take a photograph along the beach where the pier absolutely dominated the frame. That would hopefully allow me to create something interesting even though the sky was a boring, blank space. The other part of my vague plan was to shoot from underneath the pier so that its elements would dominate and provide some interest. Finally, I wanted the water to be serene, so I planned to use a neutral density filter.
I was walking around with my bare minimum kit. That consists of my camera, a “walking around lens” (Canon 24-105 f/4), a remote shutter release, and a neutral density filter. I’d need each of these items for this shot.
I set up to the right of the pier and composed the picture. I tried a few small variations, but I never strayed too far from what turned into the final picture (above). I really liked it with the pier in the top half of the frame, as though you are looking up to it. The only aspect of the composition I didn’t like was that the horizon line is right down the middle of the frame. I decided that was ok though, since you don’t see much of the horizon line in the picture.
In setting the exposure, I knew I wanted a 15 second shutter speed. Why 15 seconds? I knew I was going to bracket the shot to deal with the dynamic range problem caused by the bright sky and the darker foreground. By limiting the shutter to 15 seconds, that would allow for a longer shutter speed for the overexposed picture in the bracket. Even as bright as it was, and even using a 15 second shutter, that 10-stop neutral density filter is so strong that I had to moderate the aperture and raise the ISO a bit. I ended up keeping the aperture at f/11, which is enough to provide a pretty wide depth of field when shooting with a wide angle/shorter focal length. I increased the ISO to 400, which is higher than I like, but not something likely to result in a noise problem.
Then I just took a few brackets for the picture, making minor changes between them to make sure everything looked as good as possible. I was immediately optimistic about what I was seeing.
I knew this shot was going to require some work. I wanted to brighten some of the darkest areas of the picture, and tone down some of the highlights. I also needed to add some color. Finally, I wanted to sharpen the pier. These are pretty common changes, but the difference here is that I was going to have to really push the changes a lot further than I normally would.
That said, it was easy. I made the edits in about 30 seconds on my laptop using Lightroom. To deal with darkness/lightness issue, I didn’t even use the bracketed photo, but rather just used the normally exposed shot. I pulled the Highlights all the way down (-100) and pushed the Shadows all the way up (+100). I also pulled down the Blacks a bit (-30) to maintain contrast. While these sort of moves are pretty common for me, I usually don’t push things nearly this far. After doing that, I felt like it was a touch dark overall, so I increased the Exposure by .39 stops.
Here I have just pulled down the Highlights (-100) and pushed up the Shadows (+100). I also pulled down the Blacks (-30) to maintain contrast.
With that done, I punched up the colors using the Vibrance slider. I pushed it all the way up to +88. It is very common for me to increase the Vibrance, but I cannot remember ever pushing it that far. A normal adjustment for me is less than half that amount.
Here all I have done is increased the saturation of the colors. I did that by cranking the Vibrance slider up to +88.
After that, I went to work on sharpness. I didn’t want to push things here because I didn’t want to sharpen the water or the beach. I increased the Amount of sharpening to 53, but also Masked it by 21 to keep from sharpening anything but the pier. After that I simply increased the Clarity to 23 and the Dehaze to 17.
Here I have just added a little sharpness and clarity. I pushed the Clarity to +23, the sharpness Amount to 53 (with Masking of 21), and pushed Dehaze to +17. As Dehaze often makes the picture a little darker, I increased the overall exposure by +.39 as well.
The final result, after I did some minor cleanup work with the Spot Healing Brush and the Clone Stamp tool in Photoshop to remove a few boats, was the picture you saw at the top of the page.
It was my favorite picture from the trip, and it is all the more pleasing given the low expectations I had going in.
Where the Rio Grande winds its way through desolate countryside between Texas and Mexico, there is a large bend in the river. On the north side of this bend is a national park aptly named Big Bend National Park. Measured in land area, it is one of the larger national parks (over 800,000 acres). Measured in number of visitors per year, it is among the smaller parks, at 300,000-400,000 visitors per year.
You have to really want to come here. This place is hard to get to (that is even true for me and I live in Texas). It takes me 9 hours to drive here from the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The nearest major airport are over five hours away (Midland or El Paso). This place is truly in the middle of nowhere.
And that is part of it’s charm. This park is a big remote desert scape for the most part.
Due to the vast size of Big Bend National Park, you should plan on only seeing part of it during your visit (unless you have a lot of time to spend here). Otherwise, you will spend an enormous amount of time driving around. It is many miles between different parts of the park, and you will only be able to go about 40 miles an hour (and that is on the main road).
If you have not been here before, I recommend you start your exploration in the Chisos Mountains part of the park, which is right in the middle of it. This is actually an area of fairly dramatic mountains, which is surprising given the flat terrain all around. The area you’ll want to head to is called the Chisos Basin, which is in the middle of all the mountains. In addition to having mountains, there is much more vegetation in this part then in the rest of the park. While the rest of the park feels like a desert, this part doesn’t. The mountains give you great opportunities for hiking and scenic views. In addition, there is plenty of camping, there are Ranger offices, there’s a convenience store, and even a small hotel here.
The Best Views
We are photographers, so we are always looking for the best views to serve as background for our pictures. I’m going to give you the three best in the Chisos Mountains area. I have listed them here in order of easiest to get to two hardest.
Window View Trail
This is by far the easiest one to get to. You need walk less than half a mile. Further, you’ll walk on a paved path and there are benches along the path. From here you will have nice views of the mountains surrounding the Chisos Basin. Most people prefer sunset for this trail, and that makes a lot of sense since you can get back to your car/hotel/campsite easily in the dark.
Note: Don’t confuse this Window View Trail with the Window Trail, which is a much longer (5.6 mile) trail! They both begin at the Chisos Basin Trailhead.
Lost Mines Trail
In terms of “bang for the buck,” the Lost Mines Trail is probably your best bet at Big Bend National Park. By that I mean that this trail has the most striking views while keeping the amount of effort to a moderate level.
View from the end of the Lost Mines Trail in Big Bend National Park
The Lost Mines Trail is a 4.8 mile trail (round trip) requiring a moderate level of effort. There is a small parking area at the base of the trail, which is only about a mile from the Chisos Basin Campground. There are moderately steep uphill parts to the trail, particularly at the very beginning and near the end. Along the way there are some night nice views. In fact, if you don’t have the time or the inclination to hike the whole trail, you can just walk up about a mile and get some pretty nice views. The real payoff, however, is at the end of the trail. At that point the trail opens up to a larger area with views in all directions. Per the park literature, what you are looking at from here is Pine Canyon and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.
If you do one thing in Big Bend, I think this is the one to do. It is just a great hike that is not too difficult but gives you great views.
While the South Rim offers perhaps the most dramatic views and all of Big Bend National Park, do not underestimate how hard it will be to get there. Getting there involves a 7 mile hike with 2,000 feet of elevation change. Of course, you will need to double that distance to get back. There’s a lot of up-and-down as well, although no scrambling or anything overly strenuous. Still, given the length I would describe this hike as fairly challenging.
Now let’s talk about the pay off. Through the entire hike you will be walking through trees and other vegetation. At the end, you will reach cliffs where there is an abrupt change in scenery. All along the cliffs you will overlook a vast desert. It is striking. These are perhaps the best views in Big Bend National Park.
View from the South Rim in Big Bend National Park
I can promise you the hike back will be no fun. It is just a long way. If you wait for sunset on the South Rim, the hike back will be even less fun as you’ll be walking in the dark. That is definitely doable – I walked much of the trail back in the dark on my last visit there and had no difficulty staying on the trail – but not a lot of fun. There are back country campsites along the trail to the South Rim if you want to catch sunrise or sunset (or night photography) along the South Rim.
Perhaps the top reason to come to Big Bend National Park is night photography. Big Bend is one of the darkest places in the entire United States. Check out the DarkSiteFinder map:
The dark spot in the middle of the map is Big Bend. As such, there are few better spots to capture the stars or the Milky Way. When I am serious about capturing the stars, this is where I go.
This is a standard view at night in Big Bend – at least when the Milky Way is up. This particular shot was taken from the Chisos Basin Campground.
What to Bring
In short, bring everything. You’ll want wide angle lenses for landscapes and you’ll want the big telephotos for wildlife. You’ll want the big tripod for your night photos. You’ll want scaled down versions of your kit for hiking.
Normally I try to give you a flavor of what you will need and what you won’t, but there is just nothing you won’t need here. Bring it all.
Additional view from the Lost Mines Trail
Navigating Big Bend
Big Bend is one place you will want a paper map. Cell service is terrible. Obviously wi-fi is out of the question. I recommend the National Geographic Big Bend Trails Illustrated Map. It has all the roads and trails of the park. It is also waterproof and tear resistant, so it will hold up over your trip. I have used mine several times and always find it invaluable.
Where to Stay
There’s actually a hotel here called the Chisos Mountain Lodge. It has both rooms and cabins and is located right at the Chisos Basin Trailhead, which is where you pick up the trail to head to the South Rim. Every time I have been to Big Bend National Park, however, it has been full. Therefore, I cannot attest to whether it is nice or a dump. You will need to make reservations well in advance if you want to stay here. It is really the only non-camping option as the next nearest hotels are probably over 50 miles away (in Terlingua to the west or Marathon to the north).
If you are up for camping, there is a pretty nice campground nestled within the Chisos Mountains. It is appropriately called the Chisos Basin Campground. There are mountain views in every direction. There is generally availability unless you’re coming during spring break or a holiday weekend. You can arrive anytime of the day or night. You just pick a spot and then leave your money in an envelope ($8) or near the entrance to the campground.
View from Chisos Basin Campground
If you are up for some backpacking, there is ample opportunity for backcountry camping in the area. As mentioned above, there are many campsites along the trails toward the South Rim. They will all be marked on the National Geographic map referenced above. The upside is that these campsites are very remote and in fairly scenic spots along the way. The downside, of course, is that you will have to haul all of your gear in and out. Again, the hike should not be underestimated.
Do you want to become more creative? I think we all do. But how do you do that? By focusing on creativity itself? I really don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think you can really teach creativity.
But at the same time, I don’t think creativity is something you are either born with or not. It definitely can be learned. But you don’t learn to be creative by trying to be more creative. That might sound odd at first, but it is true. You don’t become more creative by studying creativity itself; rather you become more creative by learning more about the practical aspects of photography. Creativity can only happen if you have mastered the nuts and bolts of photography. Specifically, it comes from you putting together these various nuts and bolts of photography in new and interesting ways. The more you know, the more creative you will appear.
Creativity in Photography as “Making Connections”
The best description of creativity I ever heard described it simply as “making connections in new ways.” You simply take existing concepts and connect them in ways that others haven’t. You make connections between things, between elements, between concepts, and you can use all these elements to create new and unique perspectives. In our case, those things we are trying to create are photographs. Those concepts that you will use to create the connections might be rules of composition, or focusing techniques, or post processing techniques. For our purposes here, think of all of these techniques as dots.
If you only have a few dots available to you, then you don’t have a lot of opportunities to be creative. No matter how you move or re-arrange the dots, there are only so many ways you can connect them.
If you only know a few photography concepts and techniques, you have fewer “dots” to work with. That results in less opportunity for creativity.
If you have a few more dots available to you, and you will then connect them together in new and interesting ways. You’ll do that in all sorts of ways depending on the subject and scene you face. In other words, you will make the connections between the dots. The more dots you have, the more connections you can make.
Having lots of photography techniques and concepts at your disposal results in lots of “dots.” You can use these in a variety of different ways, resulting in a myriad of opportunities for creativity. Of course, you shouldn’t use them all at once, but it is nice to have them at your disposal.
Using the Dots Analogy in Photography
Now let’s take this concept and apply it to actual photography. Here’s how it might work. Let’s stay you are just starting out in photography, and you are photographing a coastal scene at sunset. If you are a beginner in photography, you will know very little about photography techniques. You won’t know enough to even try different things. You won’t know what is possible. As a result, you are likely to hold the camera up at eye level, put the horizon line in the middle of the picture, and auto-expose that picture. That’s it.
In that scenario, you don’t have enough dots to connect to make an interesting picture. Creativity is limited, to say the least.
Even if we add a few dots, you won’t have much to work with. Let’s say you know about the Rule of Thirds and you know enough about exposure to underexpose the sunset to bring out the colors. That is nice, and may result in a really nice picture. But your opportunities are limited. You only have a few dots and, once you get beyond the obvious, you will be stuck.
But now let’s start adding more dots to the equation. Let’s start with the Rule of Thirds as one of our dots, which we just mentioned above. You can work with that the emphasize the sky more, or the foreground more, as you see fit. Let’s say you also know a little more about composition, so you are familiar with the importance of foreground elements. As a result, you start looking around for something to use. You also start looking for leading lines and shapes to use. You also know about the effect of the size of the aperture on the sun and its rays, so you might use a smaller aperture to add a starburst effect (or not) or to generate different depth of field. After that, you might use exposure compensation to underexpose the photo and add mood. You might take your knowledge of shutter speed to slow it down and blur the water. Or you might even add a neutral density filter to do that further. You might also add a graduated neutral density filter to even out the exposure. Or bracket the photos so you can blend them later.
Or you might do none of these things. It doesn’t matter. The point is that if you don’t know about these things, you’ll never do them. If you do know about them, then you have options. You have dots. You can work with those dots to draw your own connections. Now you are in business. You can get creative by drawing connections.
Using the Practical to Become Creative
The point is that you can get more creative by studying the practical aspects of photography. You don’t need to be on some mystical quest for deeper appreciation and new ways of seeing (although you can do that if you want). Those of us that don’t think of ourselves as particularly creative people can make ourselves creative simply by continuing to learn and work at it. You can learn creativity – or at least the basis for increased creativity – by continuing to study the practical.
You’ll hear people out there talking about getting beyond the nuts and bolts of photography to get to the “soul of photography” or some such. What I’m saying here isn’t totally inconsistent with that. You should be on a consistent quest to improve your photography and to try to take it to deeper and more creative places. But you don’t get there by making yourself something you are not. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior when you are focused on the practical aspects of photography. That’s a totally viable path to creativity.
Although this has nothing to do with photography, I’m reminded of a show called “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.” In that show, Gordon Ramsay goes into struggling restaurants and helps them turn things around. Invariably, he strips down the menu, simplifies everything, and gets back to basics. These chefs always have themselves twisted up trying to create culinary masterpieces with a thousand different ingredients. Rather than use a bunch of different spices to try to manufacture flavor, Ramsay always focuses on getting the best local ingredients available and turn them into simple, classic dishes. He gets them away from pretentious creativity into a focus on practical aspects of cooking and running a restaurant. Every time.
And that’s what I want for you. Rather than trying to force creativity, focus on the fundamentals. Master the techniques of photography. That way, you can take your own intuition and apply all this stuff in your own unique way. You won’t have to try to be creative – you won’t be able to help it.
A question I seem to get pretty frequently is, “I’m going on a big 2-week trip to [exotic location], so what lens do you think I should buy?” My answer usually surprises them. I tell them don’t buy any lens at all.
Rather, rent a lens. Judging from the surprise I get when I tell people this, it seems that not a lot of people are familiar with how easy it is to rent a lens. You can rent pretty much any lens you want for as long or as short as you want. There are reputable places online so don’t need a store near you. A lens that would cost you thousands of dollars to buy can be rented for about a hundred dollars or so a week.
The Process of Renting Lenses
If you’re not familiar with the process, here’s how it works. There are two big rental companies online: LensRentals and BorrowLenses. I have used both of them many times and have always had positive experiences with both. Pick one and browse their selection of lenses. When you find the one you want, you set the rental period. It can be as long or as short as you want. Usually, you set it a day or so before you leave for your trip and then have it end on the day your get back. One caveat is that you cannot end on a weekend, so you may have to pay until the following Monday. Another caveat is that you have to be present and sign for the delivery, so if there is any chance you might miss the delivery driver you might want to give yourself an extra day. In any event, the lens is shipped to you on the scheduled day (sometimes they send it to you early, if the lens isn’t already rented, which is really nice). They will include the return address label as well. You just use the lens until the rental period is up, pack up the lens and put the return label on the box, and ship it back. Pretty easy. The shipping costs $25.
If you’re worried about breaking the lens or getting it stolen, you can buy additional protection. The cost is actually pretty reasonable. In the case of LensRentals, the damage protection costs about 15% of the rental, and the damage + theft protection costs about 25% of the rental. If you purchase the protection and something happens, you’re only responsible for 10% of the cost to repair/replace. While I almost never buy insurance or protection plans for anything, I find I often shell out for this protection to avoid the worry.
Of course, you can also rent cameras and all sorts of other stuff as well. You can try out of a whole new system if you want. I starting doing this on occasion, and I now usually rent either a lens or a whole new camera system for any major trip I take. Doing so has probably saved me a fortune. For example, I once got very excited about tilt-shift lenses and was determined to get one. I rented it first and was bored with it in less than a week. I found them to be a pain and the results were not worth the effort. If I would have bought a tilt-shift, I would be out about $2,000, but as it was I only spent about $100. Bullet dodged. I had a similar experience when I got excited about medium format digital. Rather than buy, I rented first and then quickly realized the limitations. That would have been a really costly mistake.
Another clear case when you should rent or buy is if you are going somewhere to shoot wildlife. The best example is the African safari, but it could be anywhere. Supertelephoto lenses cost a fortune! There are plenty in the range of $5,000 – $10,000. How often will you use it when you get home? Probably not enough to justify that kind of expense. Since you will likely only need it for the duration of your trip, you are better off renting.
I know I am probably coming off as a cheerleader for these rental companies, but I just think it is a really good deal for most people. Of course, if you have a camera shop in your burg, they might do rentals as well, so check with them.