From Confession To Photographic Penance

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Vision Is Better by David45 Comments

I have to tell you the response to Monday’s post absolutely blew me away. It clearly hit a nerve and that tells me there are a lot of photographers out there that have been told one thing in the face of a very different reality. And the truth is that the bulk of the pros I know routinely do some very dumb things, make mistakes, and in general take the messy way around to getting their images. Thankfully they are also as humble as they are talented, they learn from their mistakes and they move on. And also, they make absolutely beautiful photographs. And as far as I can tell, that’s the point. Someone please disabuse me of that notion if I’m wrong, but seriously, this isn’t math class. How you get there matters not one bit, generally speaking, so long as you end up with images that are beautiful, true, or both.

But lest anyone think that this is a celebration of mediocrity, it is not. What it is is a call to arms for photographers who deep inside that the photographs we take matter, and that the process ought to be as unique as we are, and as the desired images are. It might be a very messy process for you, but if that’s what it takes, then mess it up, because the images matter most, and any process that gets you there in the best way, is the process you must follow.

That said, it’d be a poor confessor that let us all of the hook without penance, without pointing out that our sins were not only forgivable but avoidable. So because I also believe deeply that our craft matters and the better you are at your craft and the more thoroughly you know your tools, the better your images have the potential to be, I want to encourage you to look at the long list of things you still do not know how to do, the habits that end up costing you time and money and missed opportunities. Life’s too short to get bent out of shape about most of this stuff, or to let it stand in the way of doing what we love. So be patient with yourself, and don’t beat yourself up, but be conscious of when those messy processes and habits we all love to cling to, hinder more than help, and get working on them.

Your images, your craft, and your passion for this art, deserve more than the labels we use, and the goofy expectations we carry for ourselves, but they also deserve more than a cavalier approach to things that matter. For some of us that means caving in and learning to shoot with a tripod. For some it means a more conscious effort to dial in that ISO, and for others still it means checking your pockets and for the love of Lexar stop washing your CF cards. If it affects you, your process, your images, or the gear it takes to create those images, it matters. So pick one, start small, if you must, but get to it. And in the spirit of the last post, the comments are open. What small steps are you taking to move you, your process, and your images, to the next level?

Monday’s post brought a tonne of new readers. If you’re new hear, welcome here. Feel free to poke around, leave a comment of introduction, and be sure to check out the five years of archives. If you’re looking to improve your craft then I heartily recommend you check out Within The Frame, The Journey of Photographic Vision. if you’re looking to improve your business I can’t think of a better book than VisionMongers, Making A Life and Living in Photography. I wrote both of them so if I were you I’d be very suspicious of the recommendation, but I recommend them all the same. Also check out, the online home of my eBooks. Improve Your Craft, Buy Less Gear. And all of them for only $5 each. Welcome here.


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  4. As I have stated before I love this craft. One reason is due to the fact that it allows me time to be by myself. In my own world. I’m kinda that type of person. But, and this is a big But for me, in order to grow and as I stated in the last post comments I must grow as a business person as well. So with that said and with you asking what we going to do to improve ourselves I must, and I will, get out and visit “people”, not places, not scenes to photograph but real living humans, I will “make contact” with my kind! Why? I must, they are potential clients, customers, PR folks. If I am to grow into a financially viable business I have to get out of myself and let the world know about me. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable just saying it. But I know they won’t eat me, so what the heck. As you have pointed out, live is to short, no regrets, if you believe in it, do it. As Andrew Zimmer says on his Travel Channel Show Bizarre Foods, “If it looks good, eat it”!

    Thanks again David,


  5. Your post on Monday hit a blog that I frequent – I came, I saw, and now I’m a reader. Thanks for the message. Keep up the good work.

  6. Thanks for this post and for the confessions post!
    Twice now I’ve been to possibly once-in-lifetime photo opps with my ISO set too high. Why? Because I’d been shooting low-light previously and forget to change it back the next day. The photos were usable but they would’ve been better at a low ISO. It does make me feel a bit better to hear that I’m not alone in doing this, though.

    I used to say I was going to tape a piece of paper to the back of my camera that said “Have you checked your ISO today?” I never actually did it, but I have become much better at checking it. I now check my EV, ISO, battery levels, and CF card before going out. I’m terrified of the idea of getting into the field and not having a CF card with me. I suppose if I have one more incident of high ISO I probably will tape that message to the back of my camera, though!

  7. 10 Things I am going to work on

    1) Learn how to clean a sensor
    2) Practice the C pose and S pose with people
    3) Have more courage in asking to take photos of people
    4) Stop worrying about the noise of my point and shoot camera
    5) Stop ogling new gear at B&H
    6) Photograph people I see every day
    7) Add key words and descriptions to photos that make the cut in Lightroom
    8) Notice the selection of shutter speed my camera has made after I dial in the apature in Av mode
    9) Test my ISO to see at what point grain really does begin to take away from the photos quality
    10) Put more people in my photos to tell a story

  8. Really enjoyed this and previous post and it’s great to have you back from your travels David! 🙂

    Things I know I need to improve:
    – really think about what I should improve and focus on them. This is a good start I think!
    – stop making excuses! The light might not be right now, but it might when I get there. And if it’s not, even a well considered crappy shot is a step closer to photographic nirvana than sitting watching the tellybox.
    – be more consistent. Not just in shooting, but in approach. Try to get the peaks and troughs of enthusiasm closer together rather than working myself up to a frenzy one day and burning out for a few more. A constant level will bring greater reward.
    – take fewer shots. Stop firing off at every conceivable angle and camera setting in the hope of getting it right. Slow down, think it through and know when to walk away
    – devote time to building up photographic contacts, be that flickr, people’s blogs, forums or ‘real’ people 🙂 Selfishness and wanting to be appreciated and learn without reciprocating is the path to disappointment and frustration.
    – stop buying stuff, invest in knowledge. Buy things that give you the required capabilities and work with it. Fussing over the relative sharpness of a 24-105 v 24-70 is inconsequential if the captured concept is a fuzzy mess in the first place.
    – in a similar vein, when you buy something, use it! I promise I’ll read all those eBooks, Within the Frame and VisionMongers – and all those other books I bought with good intentions but haven’t ‘found the time for’ (wish I read faster!) 🙂
    – write less, do more!

    Thanks again for a really great blog.

  9. LOVE this post and the previous one, too. I totally relate (and not just for photographic art, but for all art). There is the passion and the technique and somewhere in the middle is the voice. How we establish what is important to us personally, is personal and it is the well from which our artistic identity arrives, I think.

    Also, I’m new (found my way via the eBooks) and I love your blog — for the writing and the beautiful art!

    =) Liz

  10. I would be a new reader. And on a scale of 1-10 on how I identify with you it would be an 8. Yes, I’ve washed my CF cards, yes I hardly use my lens caps. Number one on my list for me to grow on is valuing my images. If I don’t, others won’t, and I am feeling the brunt of that happening right now. And maybe I’ll put my lens cap on–or just try to anyway 🙂

  11. New reader and quite possibly new fan too. I sat there laughing at my computer at your crack on washing CF cards!

  12. David,

    I have really enjoyed your last two post, thanks for the honesty. I think all too often we pretend to be above these things, I certainly do. I have on more than one occasion done each of the things you mention here. I agree with your call to take it more seriously, good post and your blog overall is great…


  13. Wow, I’m glad these last two pixelated posts have been about mistakes, etc. I have tried to reply twice and have apparently screwed up twice…..third time. The worst part about digital photography is that I can no longer say, “Uh, let’s shoot ONE MORE roll” when I forget to load the camera.

  14. Ooops….I think I made a mistake here. I tried to shamelessly promote my own blog that just happens to have today’s entry about the amount of inspiration I have gotten from THIS blog, and David. Guess I shouldn’t have thrown in my site URL, because it was kicked out…see, we do live and learn. (didn’t mean to break the rules. I wasn’t born yesterday, but I WAS born analog….!) My favorite ‘no film in the camera’ line used to be, “Uh….you are starting to get comfortable now. Let’s just shoot ONE MORE roll!!!”

  15. This falls right in with my blog for today, extolling the great inspiration that David duChemin has had on my shooting and my business. Would love for any and all to visit and feel free to comment. BTW, digital has done away with my old ‘no film in the camera’ line…”Uh, you guys are starting to feel comfortable…let’s shoot ONE MORE roll!!”

  16. Well, as previously stated, I made peace with photoshop. I have been so terrified of that program that I needed to learn how to use it better.
    I will find a mentor (I live in Baltimore, Is David Hobby taking anyone on?)
    I will stop arguing with my husband on how I shoot. he shoots differently. We just need to come to that conclusion.
    I will enter my stuff in shows and competitions.
    I will save so I can travel to a place where I have never been (Australia, South America, San Fransisco…)

    I will stop thinking I “Need this new thing or that silly piece of gear” and work with the serious amount of stuff I already have

    I will white balance, dammit.

    Okay, I feel better already!

  17. I have spent the last year investing more in education than I have in gear. I’ll probably spend a little more on gear than education this year but from here on out education is going to get a big chunk of my annual budget. It made a far greater difference than I expected it to, and my expectations were pretty high.

    One high value piece of information can change everything. I learned so many things I may have never known that I didn’t even know that it would be impossible to calculate the return on my investment in knowledge. Your blog and tutorials on Kelby Training were an important part of that high value investment – Thank you.

  18. David, I’ve been reading your site for about a year, and have read both of your books, and all of your ebooks. Amazing stuff. You really keep things in perspective regarding the love of the craft -vs- making a living at it. You are partially responsible for me being proud to be an amateur/enthusiast and having no desire to go pro. I’ll still do SOME paying gigs, but don’t want my families food to depend on it. Thanks David, for really placing things into perspective.

  19. I found a great solution for changing lenses on the fly – a camera caddy! You rope an unsuspecting friend into coming with you and then they hold stuff while you shoot, change lenses etc. They can also watch traffic when you dart into the street to take a photo! Buy them beer afterwards and all is good. 😉 I have one friend I take who’s awesome and he’s also a great “spotter” (he sees shots I might miss).

    My mini-goal right now, is to RTFM of my speedlight and stop using the “it’s complicated” excuse!

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  21. I didn’t read any of the comments from the previous post… I just saw that post as a “hey look…no one is perfect…look at all the stuff I do!” style self depreciating, but in a good and reassuring way, post.

    Everything we do is a learning experience. No one is a true “pro” if they think they know everything there is to know. This is true for any rapidly changing technology from programming languages to photography. So, although this current post seems a bit “well…duh…”, as usual, you’ve included your passion and your way with words to reiterate points that, I think, many people may have forgotten.

  22. Thanks David,

    Another great post. Your passion shows through every word and it is contagious! I find writing like this to be few and far between on the interblogs… both inspirational and grounded in being human. I’m shooting and learning and shooting more and having a great time doing it!

    I also just started reading your book “visionmongers” simply amazing, thanks for sharing that with us.

    Kind regards,
    John Nolan

  23. good morning David – what an excellent follow-up posting. I am by profession a therapist/substance abuse counselor working with people who are homeless. Photography is my personal therapy! For me, personally, it has been helpful to know what my own limitations are – i.e., no, I don’t do weddings – no, I don’t have a studio and shoot portraits, yes – I do travel and have shown my work and had some sales from that show. I keep plugging away at learning – light, my gear, the “how-to’s, and I’ve found that when I’m just really in the moment with the camera it somehow all comes together – and yeah, I still delete a lot of shots because the ISO was wrong, the experiment I was trying didn’t work, and on and on. Learning from my mistakes has been so helpful. I absolutely loved your book Within The Frame – I refer to it often. Vision Monger is next on my reading list. Keep up the terrific work you are doing with this blog David – it is so rare to discover the humanside of someone who is commercially successful (as you are) – and I do so appreciate it! Cheers!

  24. I think some of the best advice I have gotten is that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

  25. Thank you for your informational and motivational blogs. It’s nice to see the human side of a professional photographer. I am outlining my small steps.

  26. Whoa – there’s some new life in this comment section – we should start a forum, or maybe create a hashtag on twitter for all these great ideas. #piblog sounds good – let’s use it.

    Right now the thing I don’t do enough is get off my ass to take pictures. I make excuses, the light isn’t right, I’ve seen this street before, I only want to shoot strobist photos of hot models… whatever – sitting on my hands isn’t going to get me any shots, and it certainly isn’t going to make me any better.

    Me and a few guys booked a studio for a day in Ottawa – it has a cyc wall, tall ceilings, and it’ll just give us the freedom to screw around, screw up, and probably come out of there ahead. I also get to avoid the death-gaze of my wife as I slowly take out and polish my precious gear that she may, or may not, have seen me buy in the past year.

    The subjects and models we’re getting have been made no promises, and expect no great reward; we get to shoot things our way in collaboration with our models and each other… just getting out there and taking shots, breaking resistance for the day.

  27. I’ve been trying to improve my method of changing lenses in the field. Often I have one under my arm with the camera and lens on the tripod. I feel all thumbs trying to keep everything safe while quickly changing lenses to limit possible dust! But with patience, I have improved the juggling act. My other self prescribed lesson… improve my knowledge and practice of my tilt-shift lens. I love it, but I still feel slow in getting it set up.

  28. Well, I’m new to your blog and you have gone straight into my bookmarks. Love your way with words and passion for photography. I’ve only read this post and the one before it, but you’ve got my attention.
    I am a histogram user all the way. Test shot . . . then adjust settings. Works for me.
    Thanks for the book recs. I’ll check out the one about less gear right after my new lens purchase today. lol

  29. Your always humble but helpful advice is worth years of mistakes. Thank you for sharing the good, the bad and the ugly. Of course, we still need to learn some things about our craft the ‘hard way’. I have recently read Within The Frame (inspirational!) and bought a set of 5 eBooks from your site. A great deal. I highly recommend them to novice and pro alike. Next on my DuChemin to-read list: VisionMongers, Making A Life and Living in Photography. Now off to making images (mistakes,…er…images). : )

  30. Welcome to the New Year!

    With all the traveling, the blog has been largely quiet this year but this week the content of the posts has been huge!

    I do agree with nearly all you’ve had to say on the topics.

    I think it’s largely about striking a balance between the VisionMonger and the GeekMonger. At some point, you end up with a new piece of equipment and you really need to geek out with it a bit so that when the time arrives you can use it as a tool.

    Much like the Creative Exercises you “Assigned” in Ten and Ten More…

    Great posts this week!


  31. Steps I have taken to improve my craft and love for photography:
    Joined a photography club that has monthly judged competitions.
    Became a member of the board of directors of above mentioned club.
    Attend as many photography classes, seminars and workshops that I have access too.
    Stopped being shy (insecure) about myself as a photographer and have taken on jobs that I would normally avoid, like volunteering to shoot events for my company and becoming a regular contrubutor to a professional stock photography site.
    Enter contests.
    Found a mentor.
    Mentor other beginning photographers.
    Give my self little projects like going to Grand Central Station to practice shooting in an indoor-low-light-hand-held environment.
    Reading great books to help me jumpstart my career as a photographer like, ooooh let me think…….what was that book???. Oh yes, Vision Mongers.
    All a lot of work; All a lot of fun!!!

  32. Theologian, comedian, photographer. It all shows. What an interesting, unique path.

  33. someday when i turn “pro” and can afford to, i’m gonna get myself a mantra.

    but in the meantime, an “old saying” will have to suffice: “the beginning of wisdom is to know what you do not know.”

    from that starting point, there is something that i can learn.

    and i try to learn something new every day … such as: use a spirit level to make sure your monitor is true horizontally.

    i recent looked back at some older online photos of mine and noticed to my amazement that the verticals were slightly off. just off enough to drive me to distraction after i so carefully had corrected them.

    how? why?

    i was looking at them on a new – leveled – monitor. the old monitor that i used when editing them was off kilter by maybe 2-3 degrees. so what looked level to my eye subjectively, was not.


  34. Interesting posts David, at least we get the chance to spot some of our mistakes on the LCD these days, over my career I managed to shoot on the wrong film, usually transparency instead of negative, wrong flash sync and in one case no film at all! but they were usually recoverable, oh and I once took my camera bag to a job minus camera! Your exactly right in your words though, Image is everything.

  35. I think what you meant in your last post was that photography is a process, even for professionals! 😉 We always need to be learning and open no matter what we do!

  36. First of all, thanks again for your previous article, Dave. I believe I’ll work on improving my post-process flow and publish more frequently instead of going back and forth with trying to make an image “perfect” for an imaginary critic. It doesn’t mean I’ll settle for “good enough”. Rather, I’ll just drop the perfectionist tendencies, embrace and learn from my mistakes, and keep moving forward.

  37. David,

    Such an great way with words; and how did you know I regularly wash my Lexar cards?? .. lol

    For what it’s worth, to reinforce David’s recommendations…for anyone who hasn’t read VisionMongers…get it!!! This book has seriously turned me and consequently my business around for the better.

    All the best to you,

  38. I am still very green around the ears and make mistakes every single shoot (and every time I open my mouth)
    My favourite mistake used to be forgetting bits of equipment…either forgetting to pack them or forgetting to bring them home.
    I printed an inventory check list which I tick off as I’m packing and also (more importantly) when I’m packing up to go home.
    I also look at settings for the images that did work and the ones that didn’t and commit them to memory.
    As a music photographer, I had a tendency to take my eye of the ball in terms of exposure and captured great moments, but technically lousy images that I couldn’t use.
    I was regularly underexposing at high ISO’s with the resultant multi-coloured sandpaper texture when I pulled them back, so forced myself into the habit of over exposing by a maximum 1/3 of a stop which was easy to recover in PP without blowing highlights, and check the LCD for blinkers regularly.

    Another big lesson I learned was The Rule of Turds…if it’s crap, it’s crap…delete it.

    I’ll always make mistakes, but always endeavour to learn from them.
    I find that writing them down and being honest with myself helps, but I don’t beat myself up about it.
    I try to keep a balance…don’t get hung up on the technicalities, enjoy creating compelling images and let them convey the message ‘I want to share this wonderful moment with you’
    The pixel peepers can go to the beach and count grains of sand.

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