Shoot Better, Edit Less
By Jim Zuckerman
Published by SekonicWish you spent more time shooting and less in front of a computer, fixing less-than-perfect photos? Jim Zuckerman explains how to capture stronger images in the first place.
Time is precious for all of us. For a professional photographer, it also means money. That’s why knowing your craft is important. Not only will your pictures be better, but the time spent in postprocessing will be significantly reduced. Three important areas you can focus on to "shoot better" are: cropping in-camera, exposure, and paying attention to the background.
I have never been a fan of cropping my images. An image that is significantly cropped can’t be printed large without an obvious degradation in sharpness and an increase in visible noise. That’s why I do whatever is necessary to get as close to the subject as possible, to frame it exactly as I want, and to use the appropriate lens. Too often, wildlife, birds, sports action, mountain ranges, tall ships, architectural details, and many other subjects are farther away from us than we’d like. It’s very easy to think, "Well, I’ll just crop it later in Photoshop." Yes, you can do that, but if you are shooting a 21-megapixel camera, after cropping the image it may be reduced to an effective 10 megapixels or less, depending on how severe the crop is.
Don’t do that. If possible, get closer. If you are shooting birds, figure out ways to attract them to you. In the shot of a blue grosbeak (image 1), for example, I set up a feeder just outside my office window. On my desk, I positioned my camera and a telephoto lens (with an extension tube that allowed me to focus very close). As I worked at the computer I could monitor the activity at the feeder. I nailed a branch on the feeder to make the scene look completely natural. With this setup, I could fill the frame with the subject. The image is not cropped at all.
At a sporting event, use the longest lens you have. When I photographed funny cars at a drag race competition, image 2, I used the longest lens in my arsenal to fill the frame with the action. The photo was taken several years ago on medium format film in a Mamiya RZ 67 II with a 500mm telephoto lens, which provides a view roughly equivalent to that of a 300mm on a 35mm camera. That was enough to obviate the need to crop.
With a wide angle lens, you also have to pay attention to detail and avoid the need to crop. For example, if the lens is placed very close to the foreground, you need extensive depth of field to avoid having to crop out the blurred elements close to the camera position. Out of focus foregrounds are almost always visually annoying. In landscape work, almost without exception, the foreground needs to be as sharp as the background. In image 3, for example, had the ice in the immediate foreground been less than sharp, I wouldn’t have been happy with the picture and I would have spent time cropping the ice out.
There are many exposure controls in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom – exposure, highlights, shadows, fill light, recovery. Adjusting a large percentage of your pictures with these controls takes a great deal of time. It’s much better to get the exposure right when you take the photo, and that’s why a handheld meter is so important. It is precise down to 1/10 of an f-stop, and it is consistently accurate. If you want to have complete control over your medium and at the same time save an enormous amount of time sitting in front of the computer working on postprocessing, use a handheld meter. It will be valuable in every kind of lighting situation possible, from contrasty model shoots (image 4) to complex, backlit subjects like unicorns and waterfalls (image 5)!
Paying Attention to the Background
Backgrounds are just about as important as subjects in making a picture work. If they are messy and there is a lot going on in them, they tug at our eyes and pull our attention away from the subject. That's what's going on in image 6. All of those graphic lines distract the viewer’s eye from the costumed model.
Just as you carefully consider your subjects, you need to give some thought to the background. Is it too light? Too messy? Too attention-grabbing? Does it have distracting lines or colors? Is it too sharp or not sharp enough? The background should either complement the subject or be an integral part of it. Sometimes there is nothing that you can do to adjust it; other times you can change your shooting angle to make the background completely different. Throwing a background out of focus can be a good way to eliminate distracting elements, but when those elements are brightly colored or have graphic shapes, or both, it can't be eliminated so easily.
Sometimes one highlight is enough to hurt a picture. Look at the portrait I took in India, image 7, and notice the white area above the woman’s shoulder. This is very distracting. A moment after I took the picture, I realized the problem, moved an inch to my left, and shot again, eliminating the offending highlight in image 8.
It's good to get into the habit of quickly moving your eye around the viewfinder for a brief moment or two before you shoot. Check for distracting elements behind the subject. This can save a lot of pictures.
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