This morning I’m going back to fundamentals and answering a question from several months ago that asked, simply, how and why do you choose a particular lens or aperture for a scene. I love this question because it gets to the heart of what it means to be a photographer, or any artist, and that is about making choices.
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After spending most of my last dozen years with photographers, mostly in a teaching capacity, I’ve come to the conclusion that the single hardest thing for photographers is making decisions. If I took all the questions I’ve ever been asked from all the photographers I’ve ever been with, hands down the most common question would hinge around what setting, what lens, what camera, I would use, or how I would do my final edit or pick the images that went into a submission for a magazine or for consideration for a competition, and I think we’re terrified of making decisions. More accurately I think we’re terrified of making our own decisions and being wrong.
So before I answer what should be a really simple question I’m going to dig around a little bit on this issue because more important than you knowing what aperture or lens to use is knowing how to make a decision about these things and having the creative freedom – and courage – to do so.
So. In usual fashion, I’ve got 3 ideas I want to share with you, along with a couple rabbit trails, beginning with the most fundamental: there are no rules. There is no should. When we decide on a lens or aperture or a shutter speed or whatever, we are not discovering the one right setting that we “should” be using. We are making a choice and that choice is based on criteria only you can know. So the most important question you can ask as an artist, a craftsman, or a human being is this: what do you want?
Put another way: what, in this situation, matters most to you? Is it the inclusive look of a wide angle lens? Is it the reach or compression of a longer lens? Is it a sense of motion better communicated at 1/30 of a second? Is it sharpness from foreground to background? Having some sense of what matters to you must be the starting place. Even if you don’t know 100%, and you need to try a few things to discover, in the end, what it is that works best, you need to start somewhere. I’ve found no better place to begin than simply asking myself, “what do I want?” What do I want to say? What do I want the image to look and feel like? This will either help or result in your shrugging your shoulders in which case it doesn’t matter, so pick a lens, get to a decent exposure and then start playing.
The most important thing is that you begin. Not that you deliberate.
Of course knowing what you want to say, or what you want the image to feel like implies that you have a working visual literacy and when you first begin you really don’t. That comes with time. And that, i think is one reason why these questions get asked so often. So I’ve got two things for you. One – when you have the chance, ask the better questions. Don’t ask “hey, what lens did you use for that?” or “what were your settings?” Who cares? That’s not what you really need or want to know; those questions will teach you precisely nothing. Nada. Zip.
The better questions are these: “Why did you choose the lens you used?” or “can you tell me why you used the settings you used?” How did those result in the photograph I’m looking at?
Second, the single best thing you can do to become more visually literate is to study more photographs. And as you study them begin to pull them apart – what lens do you think the photographer used and why? What shutter speed? What aperture? Did these choices make a difference to how the image looks and feels, and why? Ask these questions before you look at the EXIF data, not afterwards. But even when you do look at EXIF data, ask yourself WHY?
Finally, the best way you will learn photography or any craft or skill, is not only better questions but going off, on your own, and doing it. Failing at it. Learning from your mistakes, and trying again. There is no photographer in the world who can tell you which lens to use for one scene or another. There is no such thing as a portrait lens. Every time I see articles titled, This Year’s Best Landscape Lenses, I want to beat myself senseless with my tripod. You can make landscapes with every focal length. You can make portraits with every focal length. There is no best. Someone’s just trying to sell you something. It’s not about the subject but about the aesthetic of the photograph that gives your subject, whatever it is, its best expression. And that, my friends, is up to you and you alone. There’s also no ideal shutter speed for any one particular subject because I have no idea if you want that thing frozen sharp or if you want to pan with it, or even if you want to make it a blurry mess of colour and shape. Only you know this. And if you don’t, try it. Find out what works for you. Because with settings, like lenses, there is no universal “best.”
For a moment, forget the lenses and the settings and all that other technical stuff – stuff that matters and is important because it makes the image look and feel the way it does – forget it all and ask yourself this one question: what do you want? Then, make a choice. No one can do that for you. The choice to go monochrome over colour is a mix of all kinds of reasons for me, reasons that include the subject, the story I want to tell, what I want to with the final images, and somewhere in my gut this indefinable feeling that says “Hell, yes!” when I think about making one series or another in black and white. And you know what? Sometimes I’m wrong. And what I thought was a hell yes is a hell no. Great. Now I know.
This is why vision or intent matters so much. It’s where we begin. And if you don’t know what your vision or intent is at this particular moment, that’s OK too. Use the camera as a tool for exploring that, for playing, for taking creative risks, until you get that Hell Yes feeling inside, that creative excitement that’s saying, let’s see where this goes! That’s why we make the sketch images and try different lenses and settings, to see what gels for us.
I want to let you in on a secret. None of us really has any idea what we’re doing except that we decide to do it. Sometimes we nail it, sometimes we don’t. There’s no manual of “What should you do” that some of us get and some of us don’t. We’re only guessing. Making choices and riding them out until they either get us where we want to be or show us that we’re on the wrong track and then we make a u-turn and try something else. But the moment we get a glimpse of it, a sense of what we want our images to say, to look like, to feel like, then we’ve got the first hints about the next decisions we make.
All this, by the way is how editing works too. You either choose your images based on an expressed purpose – a story or a series or a mood or feeling – whatever, then you find the image or images that do that. For me it’s a hell yes or a hell no. But it starts with knowing what I’m saying yes or no to. And, because we see what we want to see, and sometimes we’re too close to an event when we edit, I almost always do 2 or 3 edits as time goes along, and as I do, often what I’m looking for changes and so too do the choices I make.
It all comes down to choice. Your choice. For some this will be terrifying. I’m not sure what to tell you except that no one ever died from picking f/11 instead of f/2.8 or using a 24mm only to discover an 85 might have been a stronger choice. You’ll learn, but not if you never start making those decisions on your own and evaluating the choices of those decisions based on what you want or need out of your photographs. And for others this will bring you tremendous freedom. Stop looking over your shoulder. No one’s looking. Forget what the magazine article or Facebook post told you to do. Make your choice. See what happens. Then try again. We take this all so damn seriously. Relax. We aren’t curing cancer here.
So. How do I choose a certain aperture or lens or composition or shutter speed or any of the hundred other choices that are mine to make? I ask myself what I want the photograph to look like and then I start making decisions. When the decision feels right I keep going. When it doesn’t feel right, I try something else. And to train my sense of what feels right or doesn’t, I study as many photographs as I can. Early on, there’s also a lot of value in getting qualified critique from people you respect. However you do it, it all comes down to making decisions, owning those choices, and learning from them when they aren’t what I hoped. It comes down to courage and a willingness to risk and learn. Be brave, friends.
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