I pushed myself to take better photos while I was in Tokyo recently; shooting in the rain while my friends were enjoying hot coffee indoors, bruising my feet walking round the streets and overcoming my fears to shoot complete strangers. I wanted to do better than I did in 2008, where I shot mostly buildings on a
I wanted to do better than I did in 2008, where I shot mostly buildings on a Tadao Ando pilgrimage. I wanted to capture a sense of life in Tokyo, and infuse my photos with a sense of story. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I learned a few lessons from the experience. So if you will, here are lessons learned from the adventures of a hobbyist photographer.
1. Wear Comfortable Shoes
Sounds almost too obvious to be ridiculous, but I paid for this lesson dearly with bruised feet that hurt for days after I returned home. See, I like to pack light, and I had to dress for a formal occasion during the work/pleasure trip, so smart me decided to pack a single pair of dress shoes and walk up and down Tokyo in it.
Not only did it make walking hell after a couple of days, it impeded my movement and my ability to shoot, and I had to rest more as well. Never again!
2. Be Brave/Shameless
Tokyo was the first time I tried street photography, and it was hard for me to overcome the fear/shyness barrier to shooting complete strangers, unasked, on the streets. A photographer I spoke to told me I just had to get over it, and this is something I still need to work on.
3. Camera in Hand is Best
Having a camera in the bag is good. Camera slung around shoulder, even better. Having the camera in hand, hood off, switched on, is best. There were moments that went by so fast, from when I saw them to when I had the camera lined up to my eye, that they would have been impossible to capture if I hadn’t been ready.
The shot below would have been impossible if the camera wasn’t in my hands, from the moment I spotted the car I had 3 seconds to shoot it before it sped off. I missed so many shots with my camera tucked away that I pretty much carried it in my hands the last couple of days. Was it troublesome? You bet. And it made shopping impossible. But it made all the difference.
4. Don’t Look at the LCD Previews
A couple of pros I met at separate occasions both advised me not to look at previews after shooting. At first I was skeptical, but I learned it really works. To paraphrase them; it’s better to keep watching the scene than to watch TV, as you don’t want to give up on a scene until you get home.
Secondly, you got what you got. The shot you took isn’t going to change after you looked at it, if you got it, you got it, if you didn’t, you didn’t. The only exception, I was told, was during tricky lighting situations to check for exposure. Otherwise, turn previews off and leave the Play button alone.
Last reason, and I discovered this for myself, it’s real easy for me to get discouraged. If I preview my shots immediately after and see that they suck, I spiral into a horrible depression where the evil voice in my head starts going “see? I told you that you were just a hack, you’ll never amount to anything, why does your work suck so much etc. etc. etc.” This was a really bad funk to get into, especially seeing how I needed all the positivity I could muster to do better later in the day.
So, leave the TV off, focus on shooting. Valuable lesson learned.
5. Shoot Alone
I can’t get into the zone while shooting with other people. I’ve tried, and I always become a cranky, horrible human being whenever I do. I need the freedom to do what I need to do, whether it’s jumping up onto railings, lying on the ground or spending 30 minutes just waiting, without having to think about other people. I need to be quiet to focus and get into the scene, and I can’t do that with other people hanging around.
6. Go Where the Story Is
I was wondering about how to shoot photos that tell stories before I left for Japan, and during my shooting trip I realized the obvious: if you want to shoot something interesting, go where the interesting things are happening.
7. Lenses are Opportunities
A big duh, but before Tokyo I really hadn’t shot with anything much more than a 18-55mm lens. The Canon EOS 7D I borrowed came with a kit 18-135mm lens, which opened up an entire new world for me; I realized I could shoot so much more with that extra reach. I was lucky enough to borrow a couple of telephoto lenses in Tokyo, and those opened up even more shooting opportunities.
8. Luck is Preparation meets Opportunity
I had lots of lucky shots – like the one below, where the birds flew by just as I aimed my camera towards the dome. And yet, as much as I can’t discount the element of luck in those shots…I realized I’d played as much a part as luck had.
I’d walked to that spot, with the intention of capturing a good photograph, done the training for years prior to learn how to use a camera and principles of composition, switched it on, lined it to my eye, and looked. If I hadn’t prepared, the opportunity would have simply come…and gone. It’s good to be lucky, it’s essential to be lucky and prepared.
9. Let it Go
I missed so many more shots than I got. Either the camera was in the bag, some setting was off, or the moment went by too quick. I had to learn to just let it go, and tell myself to focus not on what I missed, but to focus on what I could still shoot next.
10. 1 in 36
This was something I heard more than a decade ago from my brother’s photography teacher. Back then, we shot in film with rolls of 36, and he told my brother that if he could get just 1 good shot in 36, he could consider himself a good photographer.
I didn’t get it. Isn’t it the mark of a pro that every shot he took would be a great one? I only started to understand when I had the chance to look through a highly regarded photographer’s photos, straight off a shoot. I was really surprised to see a lot of them sucked. But the ones that were good, were really good.
I shot over 6000 photos during my 6-day trip, and out of those 6000 there are some that I’m happy with. Out of these, there’s a handful that I’m very happy with, and these are the only ones that I need. Whenever I got discouraged with crappy results in the field, I just kept telling myself “1 in 36, 1 in 36” to keep me going. Most of my pictures might suck, but I really only need a few to be good.