Heaven on Earth

I don’t actually do New Year’s resolutions. Ever. But this time, I had to. As 2018 was coming to an end, I took some time to recollect precious memories by combing through close to a terabyte of RAW files on my hard disk. In a way, looking through photos taken on my travels is an extension of the feelings experienced while capturing them. What a great way of finishing the year. Except that the process has also filled me with a generous amount of regret. Quite mixed feelings there.

A SLAP IN THE FACE

I found some images I seemed to have forgotten about, but were – actually – pretty decent photos only in need of a crop and post processing. I ended up developing a few. Some of them, like Heaven on Earth, were taken in 2017 with my well-loved, entry-level, crop-sensor Nikon D5300. Not the best dynamic range or sharpness or any of the technical mumbo-jumbo, but some of the images were still quite acceptable in quality.

And, to my surprise, the ones I liked most, those with some kind of an essence, an atmosphere, were actually taken in daytime. 

To my annoyance, however, I’ve also discovered that upgrading to a D750 this summer made me somewhat sloppier, especially regarding image sharpness.

I started relying too much on autofocus, which – to my utter annoyance – resulted in less than ideal image quality in some cases. 

So this is where my New Year’s resolutions come in. Almost literally.

I’ve decided that I have to take some serious steps to improve my photography. I figured, I need to set serious (perhaps even measurable) goals to better my craft. In lack of a better synonym, l came up with the word craft and I quite like it.

So here are my resolutions. Five resolutions I thought about long and hard. Five resolutions that I came up with based on what I think will help me build a better portfolio. And, perhaps, five ideas for you – fellow enthusiast –  to kick-start your photography year.

#1 M3: MANUAL MODE MORE

Manual settings, manual focus, manual everything.

Upgrading to the D750 filled me with a false sense of security. I was thinking I can rely more on this camera than my old one. Gosh, how wrong I was. I falsely believed that technology will surely be more precise than my eyes. Mind you I’m short sighted and tend to leave my glasses neatly tucked away when outdoors. I can see well enough to navigate, but – at least so I thought – not well enough to focus properly. 

This sloppiness resulted in more frustration than I could have imagined. Unsharp edges, back-focusing issues, things I couldn’t quite see on the small display when taking the images. But lord, looking at them at 100%. The horror.

So, the decision to distrust my gear and use manual mode more came quite easily. I’d like to call it M3, for the sake of coolness.

M3 for me also means I will finally have to get grips with DoF, hyperlocal distance, and other, more technical sides of taking a shot. It’s quite time to start using that PhotoPills app for other than planning sunsets and sunrises. This will hopefully push me to think more precisely about the final result I wish to achieve on the spot.

But this is not all. I will try to work more in camera, i.e. manually, rather than post-process. Use filters instead of blending exposures would be a start, for instance. As I’ve said, manual everything.

#2 LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY WEEK

M3 naturally leads to the second item on the list. Learning something new. Every week is quite ambitious, but I clearly need this to force myself to take time for photography, and for that matter for myself.

I’m an educator. I’m quite aware of the fact that learning never ends really. We learn from our mistakes, perhaps less from our successes. We can learn in many different ways and in all sorts of situations. But, as appealing the learning-by-doing approach might seem, sometimes deliberate, conscious learning is necessary. There’s no way around it. At least for some of us.

So, conscious, deliberate learning is what I will aim for in 2019.

I already have a neat little list of things I want to work on. Of course, on the more technical section of my list there’s the hyperfocal thing, using Lightroom more efficiently to organise my files.

However, I’m more intrigued by the less technical items on my list. I’ve quite recently discovered colour theory for myself. It all started with an illuminating article on the subject by the amazing Erin Babnik. Colour can make or break an image and the way hues interact can be very powerful. The use of colour schemes and colour grading fascinate me a great deal. In particular, I’d like to understand better how to reach a better representation of what I experience when taking the shot.

How I plan doing it? There are multiple ways, but I will have to dedicate a few hours every week to tick off an item of my list. In a digital world, it’s not difficult to access knowledge. There is an endless amount of online courses, YouTube tutorials, and podcasts. The challenge will be to find the ones that will the right match for me.

But, we should not forget to look beyond the digital world. Go to a gallery or a museum. Get an audio guide and learn about about the art on display, discuss it with someone and be inspired. Paintings can be a particularly valuable source of inspiration and learning, but more on this perhaps in another post.

#3 SEIZE THE DAY

Literally. Shoot more often during daytime. Going through that terabyte of images made me realised there were quite a few I really liked, not just the ones taken during the golden hour, sunsets or sunrises. Of course, I would be lying if I said those are not the best time of the day to take landscape photos. They surely are, simply because of the properties of the light at that time of the day. But, with this taken into account, magnificent light conditions can happened during the day as well.

If we restrict ourselves to taking images only at peak times (let’s call it peak times, surely they are the most popular periods for most photographers), we rob ourselves of opportunities to take other, different images. Unique photographs can be taken at all times of the day as long as we know how to use the light that we have and where to shoot during the day.

#4 EMBRACE THE WEATHER

I am so very frustrated every time I’m at a great location and the weather is awful. But, to be fair, there’s no awful weather if we learn to work with it. Of course a rainy overcast day might not be ideal for a sunrise or sunset shooting, but it offers nice conditions for photographing forests, for example. Fog can and haze can be beautiful in some landscapes.

What I’m trying to say is, instead of hating on the weather – which we cannot change really – we can embrace it. Instead of waiting for the ideal weather to happen or at least what we think the ideal weather for landscape photography should be like, we should rather embrace it. The questions we should ask ourselves is what we can do with the weather we’ve got at the location we are at. We can’t influence the weather, but we can influence our artistic choices.

#5 SPEND ON LEARNING AND MOBILITY, NOT GEAR

This is not to say that you shouldn’t spend on gear. Tripod falling apart? Must get a new one. Camera bag still not figured out. Sell it and get a new one. My M3 resolution also means I should probably get a set of grad filters to work more in camera. Whether I’ll really buy it, not quite sure yet.

What I do mean is, however, to spend rather on a course or on getting to places than on the newest gear. You probably don’t need the new Nikon Z to capture a great image. It’s not the camera that makes the image, it’s your artistic vision and your knowledge. Your gear is just the tool. The more you know, the more you can squeeze out of your camera. If you know nothing, not even the best gear can yield the results your seeking.

Your gear can’t get you to places either. A flight, a train ticket, or a car can. For me, this means I’m going to purchase a few online tutorials and, finally, force myself to get a driving licence. Why I don’t have one? Long story short, I had a foreign licence when moving to Austria that expired and became invalid in the bureaucratic maze of acquiring a residence permit because of wrong or incomplete information I was given at the time. Expat problems. But, 2019 will be the year I get back to driving.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This post seem to have turned out a bit long-winded, but genuinely hope it gives you a few ideas how to improve your photography in 2019. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and curious to know what your New Year’s resolutions and plans are.