10 Photography Rules I Learned in 2014

In Creative Process, Photography by Chris FoleyLeave a Comment

2014 Was a very strange year for me, in many ways. This was the year we packed up our life in France and relocated back to the States, triggering a surprising bout of culture shock in reverse. I was also fearful about where my photography might take me upon returning to the States. In France we had ready access to some pretty amazing places, architecture, scenery, people, food, and cultural events which, to my eye, were more exotic and pleasing to make photos of. I was quite nervous that I’d quickly discover that my photography skills amounted to nothing without these interesting things to point my camera at. Luckily that wasn’t the case, and my skills, my patience, and my eye continued to grow after I returned to California. What a huge relief!

From there, I bought and sold a small army of new and used lenses as I began to experiment with various focal lengths and techniques. I had only used a Canon 50mm f/1.4 EF USM lens in my travels for more than a year on a full-frame Canon EOS 6D and I was ready to stretch my legs a bit. This process led to me eventually becoming completely fed up with my Canon system, and trading it all in for a Fuji X system, which I fell immediately in love with. It stands to reason that the more passionate one feels about one’s craft, the more risks one takes, and that summed up my 2014 pretty well.

I learned some things along the way, and I’ve put aside ten of those things here to share with you. I’d love to know if any of these things resonate with you at all. Keep in mind, these are not 10 universal rules of photography. Not by any means. They are 10 rules for me. Ten things that I’ve learned through the course of pounding my head against the wall over and over again while chasing my own muse. What’s interesting to me is that none of these 10 rules is technical in any way. They’re all process stuff, the feely stuff. The artist stuff.

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1. Always have a camera with you.

While this one should seem pretty obvious, it’s really not. I had to train myself to always grab the camera on my way out. I even started keeping my Black Rapid sling strap on the key rack next to my car keys and the dog’s leash so that I’d remember to not forget my camera.

And keep in mind that I’m not referring to a smartphone. I mean a real honest to goodness camera. The iPhone is terrific to shoot with in a pinch, but there have been countless times that I’ve seen something while driving or walking that I have to make a picture of, and all I have with me is my iPhone, or nothing, and I just can’t get the shot. I’ve missed things this way that I knew could be made into salable prints that people would be interested in. And I’ll tell you what, my wife Pausha would never let me hear the end of it, whenever this would happen.

Always have a camera with you. Buy a nice point and click and keep it in the car. Get a Fuji X model, or a micro 4/3 system. It really doesn’t matter.

2. When in doubt, go wide.

There have been very few times when I’ve been walking through some fabulous city or another with a 35mm or 50mm lens and wished, like truly wished, that I had more reach. It has happened, sure, but not really all that much.

On the other hand, almost every damned time I would go out with a 70-200mm I found myself cursing that I couldn’t get wide enough to make my shot. I’m not a fashion shooter, and when I do shoot portraits it’s usually with an 85mm equivalent prime. I don’t really walkabout with a lens like that as I far prefer the 35mm or 50mm feel. My favorite walk-around lens is now the Fuji XF 10-24mm f/4 OIS and I shoot that until I start to lose the sun. Then I slap on the Fuji XF 23mm f/1.4 (35mm equiv) and that will get me through sunset and any evening shooting that I might want to do. These are my 2 favorite lenses for street shooting and general walkabouts.

3. Ditch the DSLR – lifting weights is for the gym.

Yeah, it’s true: I’m not getting any younger, and I have no patience for carrying a bunch of heavy gear around with me any more. Take a full-frame DSLR, magnesium body, and attach a high-quality lens to it, and you’ve got a recipe for neck and shoulder pain. I’m a total Mirrorless Convert, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have walked away from the DSLR paradigm for many reasons, least of which is the weight and bulk.

My chief experience with Mirrorless systems is limited to the Fujifilm X100S, X-E2, and the X-T1. With one, or even two of these over my shoulder and a small zoom or prime lens attached I can walk around for hours and fill up two cards before I even become aware of the weight.

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I might even be willing to give up image quality to minimize the physical damage to my own body. Luckily with the quality of the image output from these cameras coupled with the overall astonishing quality of the Fujifilm series of lenses, I don’t have to give up anything. In fact, most of my own side by side image comparisons from my Canon EOS 6D and an entry-level Fuifilm X-E2 proved to me that I was getting better digital images, and better print quality (at large print sizes) from the smaller, more pedestrian Mirrorless system. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and now that my camera doesn’t weigh as much as a coffee table, I happily bring it along whenever I may roam. My Canon spent most of it’s days in the closet anyway, poor lonely heavy thing that it was.

4. Shoot something personal every day.

Even if I can only get out for 20 minutes, and venture a block or two from my home, I get out every day and shoot something. Anything. As long as it’s not tied to a client project. Shoot a flower, shoot somebody walking their dog. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s your own. I see it like drawing in a sketchbook. Every artist sketches to keep their chops up and their eye sharp. I’ve found that it’s really helpful to have a theme to shoot against and explore for a week. This week for example I’m working on “Distortion as Expression.” I don’t have a fish-eye lens, so I have to go out of my way to create distortions in my images, and it’s been a fun challenge.

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5. Full Frame isn’t so important.

You know, I’m feeling now that the Full-Frame craze is just the new “Megapixel Myth.” Full Frame, who cares?

NOTE: I’m not a huge fan of the Micro 4/3 systems because the sensor size is so much smaller that getting a really good foreground/background separation is not so easy, so while I wouldn’t really recommend that system for serious shooters, I do appreciate the latest APS-C sensor models over all but one or two Full-Frame models.

With the Fuji X-Trans CMOS sensors however, and their (again) astonishing line of lenses, achieving great subject to background separation is very easy with gorgeous background rendering and super-sharp focus where you want it. The system delivers superb images at high ISO despite the APS-C sensor size that dramatically outperforms the Canon 5 MkII and Canon 6D Full-Frame models. I haven’t gone side by side with the Fuji X-T1 and a Canon 5D MkIII yet, and I don’t feel that I really need to. I’m getting incredible results printing my Fuji images at 30” x 40” even with images that were shot at ISO 1600. Full-Frame? Meh. It used to matter, but I feel like that time has passed.

6. Your prime is worthless if you can’t shoot it wide open.

I’ve gone back and forth about this one a bunch, and this really speaks to one of the points of frustration that led me to dumping my Canon system. I owned the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens and hated it. I owned the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens and hated that too. I rented the coveted Canon L Series 85mm f/1.2 and hated that on general principle. I found all of these lenses to be almost entirely useless until they were stopped down to at least f/4 or f/5.6.

I’ll be damned if these lenses just would not acquire focus accurately, and I tested them on 2 bodies. Even when I’d lock focus everything on the focal plane would be soft. And I’m not talking about having a very narrow depth of field, I’m talking about soft focus, and that soft focus would plague me until I stopped down the lens to “cheap lens territory.” At that point it would be tack sharp. A prime is worthless if shooting it wide open gives you blurry images.

7. Life is too short to deal with Chromatic Aberration.

I don’t think I need to even get into this one. Almost every Canon lens, including very expensive L series lenses, would suffer from this scourge. My Canon EF – L 70-200 f/4 was crawling with chromatic aberration. It got so that I just stopped taking the damned lens out anymore. The only lens that I didn’t get a ton of CA on was one that I’d only rented once, the excellent Canon L 135 f/2 portrait prime. That thing was solid. I had a Tamron Ultra-Wide that was really good at keeping out the CA, and a terrific Sigma Art series 35mm f/1.4 that had it, but not nearly as badly as the Canon lenses. Trouble is that this Canon 135mm, the Tamron Ultra-Wide, and the Sigma 35mm are all crazy heavy lenses. So we’re back to rule #3 again. Sigh.

8. Portraits are all about Rapport.

I got my first paid portrait job in 2014, and it was a spur of the moment thing. I was onsite working with a client when the CEO asked if I could handle a corporate headshot shoot, right now. I had my camera with me and a few lenses, but no lights, no flash units. We found a great location in a nearby historic building that had some terrific ambient light and I pulled somebody out of the marketing department to hold a piece of white foam core in lieu of a reflector. It was pretty shoddy but we got some great shots that the executive team is using for national PR efforts as well as on their blogs, and print advertising.

What I didn’t know already, but was able to intuit from my days (in a past life it now seems) as a music producer, is that the first 15 to 20 minutes was going to be crap. It took me a little while to overcome my own panic, and locate a place on our location that would look really great to the camera. Some time was then spent getting the technical stuff out of the way and trying to keep a busy CEO from getting bored, disappearing into his iPhone, and overall becoming entirely impatient with the process.

It wasn’t until I got him talking about his company’s activism that he started to loosen up and I began to get some keeper shots. The more passionate he became about his work, the more he started to really shine through, but it took a while for him to come out of his shell, and for me to stop having it be all about me. In the end, I realized that portraits are about the connection first, and the images second.

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9. Sit on your discards for a little while.

This one’s a little counter-intuitive, but failing to recognize its importance has come back to bite me a few times. I’ll go out and shoot a whole bunch, come home and excitedly get the images imported into Lightroom and dig right in. This one’s a select, let’s flag it, this one’s bad, I’ll reject it. Well, the sad truth is that I would routinely reject images that weren’t actually bad. Their only crime is that they didn’t fit what I was looking for inside of the day’s shoot, and that’s going to happen. Even if you go out searching for some specific shots, other things will catch your eye and you’ll come home with images that fall outside of scope. That’s a good thing, and I’ve learned to save the rejecting process until a few days have passed.

That’s not to say that I don’t immediately discard images which are completely unusable; out of focus, overexposed beyond the point of recovery, poor composition, or accidental exposures, such as when I hit the shutter release when I only meant to lock focus. I’ll kill these right away, but I no longer discard based on subject matter for a little while.

Too many times I’ve needed an image of a child playing with a balloon, or something similar for an article that someone on my team is working on and I think OH YES I HAVE A PERFECT IMAGE FOR THAT just to fire up Lightroom and discover that it’s gone. And it’s gone because I rejected it. And I rejected it because it wasn’t exciting to me the day I imported it because I was more interested in the baby turtles that I shot and the pictures of the little girl with the balloon just seemed to get in the way.

Sit on your discards. Disk storage is hella cheap and we’ve all got access to crazy amounts of it. Don’t throw good images away because you don’t feel you have room for them, or because you don’t currently think that you need them.

Of course, if you are bringing in images that fall outside of your immediate needs, you’re going to have to ensure that your organizational kung fu is strong, and this brings us to our next and final rule.

10. Make better use of Keywords.

This is a huge one for me. My image library has grown a lot over the past couple of years and my keyword workflow got way out of hand. At one point I realized that I had acquired over 500 different keywords for my images. Some of them were redundant, some downright duplicates (one being capitalized and one being lower case) and in almost all cases, I wasn’t applying keywords to all of my images, only when I could be bothered to, which wasn’t often. My system sucked, and I wasn’t using it.

The more unwieldy my keyword workflow had become, the less likely I was to even use it at all. I came to avoid it like the plague, and because I wasn’t using keywords to their full advantage, I wasn’t saving as many images because I knew I wouldn’t be able to quickly find them later anyway, so why bother?

So, first I created a handful of import templates in Lightroom, one of each of my cameras, one of each country that I routinely shot in, and another for each of 3 areas in California that I frequent: Santa Barbara, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Then, I completely overhauled my keyword tagging system into a top-down workflow that I could use to quickly add only the most relevant keywords to my images. Sometimes I will add them on import, and other times I will add them when I handle my discards and perform post-processing to my selects. (see screenshots)

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This keyword system was easy to achieve but required just a little bit of strategic planning up front. First, there are some keywords that I want to use for my own use and aren’t intended for public consumption. Other keywords I’d like to stay attached to the image file upon export for posting to various Stock Libraries and Social Media channels. Lightroom allows you to specify which keywords will be included on export and which ones will only be used to organize your images in Lightroom. Since implementing and fine-tuning this system, I’ve had much more control over my inventory of images, which comes in really handy when an opportunity to share and/or sell something comes up.

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That’s it. My 10 photography rules that 2014 taught me. I hope that you got something out of this article. Please do speak up in the comments, and share this article with friends you think might benefit from it. I’m looking forward to seeing what rules 2015 will teach us.

Cheers, and happy shooting!