Why are photographs more interesting than reality?

Why are photographs (sometimes) more interesting than reality?
-a backdoor explanation of Live View photography

Ever wondered?

There are four main reasons that artistic photographs can (sometimes) exceed reality…

1. They allow us to focus on the details of a scene at length, while with reality, our brains force us to start with the most interesting, and only get to the details EVENTUALLY, often after the opportunity has passed. Normally, changing what we’re focused on to the peripheral area would also change the composition of the scene, but not with a photograph where the composition is “locked” but your attention can wander around it.

2. They can take us to places we can’t go ourselves…

3. A talented photographer can make those of us who are somewhat artistically challenged, see ordinary things in an artistically superior composition.

4. And they distort reality…..the colors, the geometry and time, and they limit your field of view.

You can list other things photographs do that are important to us, like help us remember a person or event, but from a technical/mechanical/physical view, the above four things are what can make photographs MORE fascinating than reality.

Now, ask yourself: “WHY does a camera have a viewfinder?” If your goal is to capture REALITY, a viewfinder is a waste of time….but your goal is NOT to capture reality, is it? Believe it or not, it’s not EVER the goal. At the very least, EVERY time you take a picture, you reduce your field of view from EVERYTHING in front of you, to a small “slice” of everything in front of you.

A viewfinder shows you how the camera is going to ALTER reality. Instead of reality, the viewfinder shows you the LIMITED FIELD OF VIEW that is going to be your photograph. That is the ONLY purpose to a viewfinder, to show you how the camera will allow you to CHANGE reality.

Given that, the best viewfinder is the one that MOST ACCURATELY shows you what the camera is going to do TO reality…..given THAT, the PERFECT viewfinder is the one that shows you EXACTLY what the photograph is going to look like before you take it…..anything short of that, is a viewfinder doing LESS of it’s job.

Follow the reasoning then…..why do we have SLR cameras?

We have SLR cameras for two reasons. Second, they enable light to reach the autofocus module until the time you TAKE the picture, at which point the mirror in the camera flips to send light to the sensor/film. I say that’s the SECOND reason, because the first reason is much more basic, much more IMPORTANT, and also came FIRST.

We initially created SLR cameras to solve a problem. Before SLR, cameras had two “light paths,” meaning, light came through the main lens to expose the film, but that meant it could NOT go to the eye of the photographer, so there had to be a SECOND lens sending light to the viewfinder. It mostly worked, but in one way clearly failed. The two light paths could not LINE UP. Meaning, the photographer and the camera were seeing things from two different points of view…meaning, the photographer could NOT see EXACTLY the way in which the camera was going to alter reality into a photograph. It failed miserably when you changed the lens to a focal length NOT duplicated by the viewfinder.

SLR solved that problem by putting a mirror behind the lens that sent light to the viewfinder, and whenever you took a picture, the mirror would “flip” out of the way allowing the SAME LIGHT PATH to go to the film. VOILA! Both the camera AND the photographer were now seeing the same thing….seeing the same LIMIT OF THE FIELD OF VIEW that the camera was going to capture.
And there you have it, the most important reason that we have SLR cameras, is to allow the photographer to SEE THE PHOTOGRAPH BEFORE THEY TAKE IT!

Now the much harder question. Why do we STILL have SLR cameras?

This is an important question, because as it turns out, while the SLR was showing the photographer the altered field of view, the camera was in fact making OTHER alterations to reality! Other alterations that the SLR was NOT showing the photographer!

Yes, while the SLR solved ONE problem, it fell down when it came to a couple others. The big one, was exposure. Depending on what aperture your lens is set at, and what shutter speed you’re using, and what speed film (or ISO setting) you’re using, the EXPOSURE, or brightness of the image changes. And SLR had absolutely ZERO ways of showing you this change. Sort of.

Actually we invented something called a “light meter.” It measures light, and tells you if your shot is going to be too bright or too dark. Definitely helps. With one HUGE problem. A light meter, even today’s BEST most expensive light meter, has absolutely NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE SHOOTING. When it says the shot is too bright, it means it’s too bright for a scene that is MEDIUM GRAY. When it says the shot is too dark, it mean’s the shot is too dark for a scene that is MEDIUM GRAY.

In fact, until the photographer makes some adjustments (exposure compensation) the most advanced camera in the world ASSUMES you’re shooting something MEDIUM GRAY. How often is THAT going to be right…..umm, almost never. And no matter what, the camera does NOT know what your artistic vision for the shot is. You have to “program” that into the camera (exposure compensation) but you have to accomplish this WITHOUT seeing the image the way it will be captured. No way around it, you have to GUESS.

So obviously, in the case of exposure, what would be REALLY handy, is seeing the ACTUAL photograph before you ever take it. Then you don’t need a light meter at all. You look at the image, it’s too dark, so you make an adjustment and BAM, it’s exactly right. In fact, you CAN do that with an SLR, we call it “shoot/review.” You take ONE shot, review it, make a decision that it’s too dark or too light, make an adjustment (guess) and then shoot again. And usually AGAIN. It’s really too bad a camera can’t just SHOW you what the photograph is going to look like BEFORE you take the shot….if only it could SHOW you the effect your settings changes are having on the exposure, now THAT would be perfect. In fact, using our new defintion of the purpose of a viewfinder…to “show us how the camera is going to alter reality” to make the photograph…a camera that shows you how the photograph is GOING to look beforehand, is a PERFECT VIEWFINDER. And an SLR, by that definition, now becomes a very VERY imperfect viewfinder.

Which is where LIVE VIEW comes in.

Explaining Live View, as is turns out, is much harder than it should be. After all, it magically shows you the photograph AS IT WILL BE, and allows you to make decisions about exposure and white balance and even depth of field AHEAD OF TIME, in REAL TIME, and actually SEE those changes as you make them. That explanation alone should make every artistic photographer desperately want this feature. But that is NOT the case.

Live View cameras with quality lenses and sensors have been around for more than a decade.

Granted, not INTERCHANGEABLE LENS SYSTEM cameras with Live View, but those ARE here now, and have been here for quite a while.  And the technology has existed for such a long time, which makes one wonder, “WHY HAS IT TAKEN SO LONG FOR US TO GET HIGH END CAMERA OPTIONS WITH LIVE VIEW?”

(true live view, IN the viewfinder)

The unfortunate answer is, the people with the MOST knowledge of photography, just didn’t understand the value of Live View, and THAT was most puzzling. Long-time, serious photographers and professionals almost universally resisted Live View. In fact, still today, it’s like pulling teeth to get someone raised on SLR to understand the value in the switch.

And the reason, I think, is finally clear.

They don’t understand what their viewfinder is for.

Now that sounds like I’m being insulting, but really, have you ever read in a book, or a magazine, or heard in a class or a seminar….ANYWHERE, the definition of what your viewfinder is for? No, it pretty much doesn’t exist. Great photographers are using this device hundreds of times a day, 365 days a year, and in the case of SLRs using them correctly, but NOT knowing exactly what their purpose is!

If you don’t know what it is the viewfinder is supposed to be doing, you can’t evaluate if it’s doing it WELL! And THAT is why, when electronic viewfinders hit the scene, something that is necessary for a Live View camera, you had many, many, MANY pro photographers saying:

“They are not as good as optical viewfinders.”

Which was true. Well, it was true if their PURPOSE was to accurately represent REALITY. Which it never, EVER was!!! No, electronic viewfinders did NOT represent reality as well as an old optical viewfinder, but if you consider the REAL purpose of the viewfinder (see above)

“…show us how the camera is going to ALTER reality.”

They are CONSIDERABLY BETTER than an optical viewfinder! Even 12 years ago they were! It was always just a matter of understanding the real purpose of the viewfinder. After that, it’s no longer a contest, the optical viewfinder makes the SLR camera a distant at best, second-best choice!

And all of that makes recent camera reviews that include comments like:

“And now the quality of the electronic viewfinder image is starting to catch up with optical viewfinders”

…comments like that are just plain absurd. SLR/optical viewfinders have been the second best solution for more than a DECADE!

…but it’s still pretty hard to convince professional photographers that SLR needs to be replaced. You can roughly throw all experienced shooters into 3 categories:

1. Those that have reasoned it out.
2. Those that are stubborn and have to have it SHOWN to them.
3. Those that are so stubborn they can’t even conceive of something being better than the camera they’re an expert with.

If we quit wasting our time on the “3’s” lol, and hopefully the above explanation goes a long way toward convincing the “1’s” then what we have left is the very large group stuck as “2’s.”

Because you see, “showing them” doesn’t mean giving them the camera and letting them try it. It has surprised me that a lot of people can shoot a Live View camera for WEEKS, but always be shooting it like an SLR, and to get the most out of a Live View camera you have to do two things:

Use the viewfinder, NOT the LCD
Put it in MANUAL MODE, ignore the light meter, do not let the camera make decisions. Take charge, and be amazed.

If you SHOW this to a shooter….in all but the rarest of cases, the light bulb will come on. They were misled before now, by books and teachers and CAMERA COMPANIES and other pros, so this is a big mountain of misinformation to hurdle….contrary to all that they were taught, the REAL purpose of any viewfinder is to “show you how your camera is going to alter reality.”

And here we’ve reached the bottom line. A Live View viewfinder shows you far more information than an optical viewfinder, therefore, is simply a much BETTER viewfinder. And you cannot….by DEFINITION….have a Live View viewfinder on an SLR camera.  And SLR camera can STOP being an SLR temporarily and PRETEND to be live view, and it does that by ceasing to be an SLR.

Fortunately, today, we have fully-professional, Live View camera systems to choose from. We’re only left to wonder why anyone still MAKES an SLR.

You could say “wait, what about the SECOND reason we had SLR’s in the first place?”

Oh yeah…..reason 2. SLR’s allow light to reach the autofocus module until you take the picture. That’s important. In fact, the only flaw in that system is that when you DO shoot, the mirror redirects the light AWAY from the autofocus module and TO the sensor, and for that fraction of a second, the SLR STOPS FOCUSING. Fortunately, today, not only do we have on sensor focusing that’s just as fast as the old style separate focus system….it works FULL TIME.  Effectively eliminating the only other reason we STILL have cameras built on SLR design.  And because the data is coming to an electronic viewfinder, our focus options include things like eye tracking, focus peaking and focus zooming…..even smile and face recognition using the main processor.  Modern focusing withOUT the moving mirror is far more advanced.

As of 2017, some of the fastest and most accurate focusing cameras in the world are NOT SLRs, and the fastest cameras of the near future will absolutely, positively, NOT have moving mirrors in them.

If you understand the real reason for a viewfinder, you start to realize that the mirror in an SLR camera, is in your way….it’s blocking your view.  That mirror is:

1. eliminating features and options
2. preventing you from seeing the way the camera alters reality
3. making your camera larger, heavier, more complicated, more expensive and more fragile
4. limiting your choices in lenses

…and returning….NOTHING.

Lose the mirror……. It’s the most important feature to NOT have on ANY camera.


Great photograph? Or great moment….

One of the hardest distinctions to make, especially when we’re just getting started in photography, is the difference between a great photograph….which the photographer deserves credit for…and a great moment, which exists without the photographer.

Some of the photographs that are considered to be the greatest of all time, are really just GOOD or OK photographs where the photographer was in the right place at the RIGHT time.

Here’s a gallery of what Sports Illustrated considers the best sports photographs of all time…see if you can see what I mean:

Sports Illustrated:  100 Greatest Sports Photos of All time


My ideas….

I get asked a lot where my data comes from.  I get asked “how do you know?”

That happens because I have some pretty radical ways of looking at things, but I back those up with statistics and evidence and reason.  It can be kind of interesting to look at where all of my conclusions come from, and that would be this complicated work environment on my computer.

I always have Paint Shop Pro 7 open…..the ancient and venerable PSP 7.  I use it because the workspace is super clean, all the palettes can be moved around, the browser  is always floating, and I tend to have a dozen or more open images….that’s one important way I remember things I’m working on, I leave open images as reminders.  They’re visual cues for me to keep returning to:

Because one thing I pretty much never do, is take a new idea and push it through all at once.  I write it down, or make sketches or notes or take test pictures and leave those ideas open in one of several places so I can wait for the idea to take final form naturally.  That’s why, on just about any day, I’ll have as many as 20 open text documents….they’re quotes or the foundation of an essay, or a chapter from a book or just something I want to proofread.  In some cases I’ve edited and re-edited a document over and over for more than a decade.

In almost all cases, an idea has existed for MONTHS before anyone sees it in any form.

And all of my documents are organized by topic and date, in folders I keep front and center, going all the way back to 2002.  Some days I just pick a folder and open every document in it, delete some, correct some, combine them, shuffle them.  It’s a fluid process:

But having ideas is easy.  Having an opinion is even easier… so I have a set of rules for my ideas, and the most important one is that I don’t put any idea “out there” until I’ve tested it.  Usually I’ve both tested and researched it, but the testing is more important, and I do this in four ways.

I do side by sides.  Whenever I compare ISOs or focal lengths or apertures, or composition styles…whatever it is, I create what I call a “VS”

A “versus” image:

Right now my “VS” folder has more than 2000 files in it.

The other way I test is by taking it into the field.  I teach photography, One on One, which gives me an endless laboratory environment to test out theories.  If I want to know if it’s possible to learn to “focus-recompose” and use it with extreme shallow depth of field, I don’t use myself as an example.  I carefully watch 20 or 30 learning photographers as they go through the process and take NOTES.

If I want to know what focal lengths are most popular, I don’t guess, I let photographers use a variety of lenses over a long period of time, and keep statistics on which images most people preferred.

Teaching One on One gives me an opportunity to PROVE that some of the traditional ways we do things, don’t actually make sense…and I prove that by taking a large sampling of shooters using a traditional method, and teaching them a better method, keeping track of how things get easier or faster or more effective.

Another thing I do, is obsessively watch other photographers in the wild.  This is how I came to the conclusion, a long time ago, that our present two systems for learning:

Formal education
Crowd-sourced on the internet

…are both actually pretty ineffective.  Most photographers, even most full-time working professionals, do some very obvious things incorrectly.

(if you want to know how I know they’re doing it incorrectly…that’s simple….go back up to One on One Classes above)

And the last thing I do, to test ideas and support theories, is I SURVEY large numbers of photographers.

Twice every year I survey 1000+ serious or professional photographers to establish trends and preferences and behaviors.  I started in 2013 and since 2014 I’ve been paid to collect this data.  It allows me to find out broad patterns, to understand photography and photographers as a WHOLE.  I get to skip past individual biases and look at AVERAGES and common factors.

I also do a lot of smaller surveys:

Beyond testing, I reinforce ideas with lists, flowcharts, notes and diagrams. Probably my most powerful tool is graphically diagramming composition.  I create about a thousand of these a year:

I think one of the things missing in photography, is the complete tear-down and re-build phase.  Our knowledge about photography and how to learn photography is a patchwork tacked on to old school photography.  There are a few problems with that, and one of the biggest is that the technology side of photography dramatically changed in the last 20 years.

Another problem, is we’ve learned more about light and composition and style in the last 20 years than we had in the previous 100….but we nostalgically give more weight to the older ideas.  Photography needs a house cleaning, and a redecorating.

That’s what I do.  I’ve been tearing down photography for 16 years, and putting it back together in a way that not only makes more sense….it’s much easier to LEARN.



The book “The Mountain and the Pebble” on Amazon


The photographer…

She turned the corner and was immediately struck by the beauty of the…..but wait.

She took a few steps back and took in more of the scene, and realized there was quite a composition here, she pulled out her camera and fired a shot or three, lowered the camera and just looked for several minutes.

Then, with a better appreciation of what was in front of her, she took just one step to the left, and shot again, smiled, put her camera away and continued home.
On the way, the couldn’t stop thinking about the pictures she’d just taken, and while running them around in her head, she realized it all would have worked better from even farther away, she’d go back again tomorrow.

The next day she did go back, went directly to where she’d taken her second round the day before, backed up about 20 feet and tried again. Twenty more feet and tried again…..and twenty more feet and…


The angle was getting better but she was pulling too many objects into the shot, she would need a longer lens so she called it a day, went home and first thing on day three, she packed all of her lenses and went out the door.

She spent a couple of hours that day, moving forward, moving back, circling to get the best angle, and swapping lenses. She probably had 40 or 50 good, unique looks at this scene, and decided it was time to look at them on a larger screen. She went home, loaded up the pictures on her computer and piped them over to her TV for a good, wide field of view gander.

She culled the batch, and left herself with just 3, but while she liked them, she wasn’t sold on any of them, she’d go back tomorrow.

On day 4, she tried shooting from closer to the ground, and she tried getting very very close to the subject and using her ultra-wide angle. This felt closer to her goal, but from down low, the light was wrong, it was clear this would work better with a morning sun.

But the next day it rained.

She still went to shoot, even though she new she wouldn’t have the light she needed, and she was very pleasantly surprised. The wet streets became a kind of mirror, and her composition changed dramatically, it would no longer be wide, it would be TALL. She snapped a few tests, but knew that what she really needed, was an evening shoot, so the streetlights would be on.

She planned to return later that night.

It stopped raining. The streets dried. Her plan would have to wait.

No rain in the forecast for days 6 and 7 and 8, but back she went. She did some test shots from the opposite side, tried some crazy intentional motion blurs and created some multiple exposures. She also noticed a balcony, 8 stories up that she’d somehow overlooked. She could shoot DOWN!

On day 8, she finally got someone to answer the door to the apartment with the balcony, and even though they thought she was crazy, they finally agreed to let her come in and shoot. The balcony was a cool angle, but she could tell that the spot she MOST wanted, was unfortunately, just a little bit too far to the north, she wasn’t going to get that perfect shot. Still, from this angle, the brick streets formed an amazing pattern, so she clicked off some black and whites.

Day 9….it rained.

She knew what she wanted to shoot, and from where. She knew how she wanted to shoot it and when, and the forecast for today was rain right through until late afternoon. The streets would be wet. The waiting was tough.

Finally, 6pm rolled ’round, and off she went. She had her plan on a checklist. Angle, focal length, a few notes on technique. She had made a special “tripod” that let her set her camera pretty much right down on the ground in portrait orientation.

Everything was right, the scene, the light, the conditions, the concept and now…

..the execution.

She took dozens of pictures from only slightly different spots…..12 inches to the right, 4 inches back, just a couple inches higher off the ground. Somewhere in today’s 50 images, she had THE one.

She had THE very best possible possible picture of the……

More Dave Selfies….

You can find my original article on how to take better selfies, HERE

….and, very honestly, this new gallery is by popular demand.  I don’t think it’s the subject so much as people like to see the variety of options for shooting selfies.

And it’s not so much that I love looking at myself, but I have ideas all the time, and I’m the subject that’s most frequently available.

No lengthy explanations, just a gallery of Dave’s:



And…..two brand new ones, in the rain.


The pictures I’ve stared at….

I took a picture today, and in the 6 hours since I pronounced it “done,” I’ve re-opened it, gone full screen on my 42″ display, leaned back and looked at it….probably 5 times.

It’s this:

I’ll understand if you don’t feel the same way about it that I do.  I’ve looked at it for a few reasons, one being that I just plain like it.  It’s simplicity, it’s symmetry, it’s contrasty crushed-black and whites.

I’ve looked at it because it was a complete idea, in my head, exactly like this, right down to the details….and then with less than 60 seconds of actual shooting, the picture matched the vision, and I shut down the shoot without bothering to check it on the camera…and I re-open the finished product, more than once,  to double-check that that’s what really happened, lol.

I had several choices for the outer ring, all of the others were smooth and perfect, I chose duct tape specifically so it would contrast with the shiny ring.

And there were plenty of ways I could have faked this image, I love that I didn’t.  I fired a camera that can take 12 frames per second and just DROPPED the ring through the shot.  Kept the winner.

I shoot 1.25 million pictures a year.  I edit more than 40,000.  So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that most things I shoot and keep I DON’T go back and look at, over and over.   That behavior defines certain photographs as uniquely special.

It may seem obvious, why I’ve gone back and looked at this picture so many times since the day I took it, in 2013.

Olivia is stunningly beautiful, that’s the obvious part.  But I have better pictures of Olivia.  I have sexier pictures of Olivia.  I keep going back because it’s just astoundingly………….perfect.  The color grade, the light, the body position…the DETAILS in the body position, the perfect curves and the perfect curves on the perfect curves.  Even my choice to have her “snap” into position before each shot to create the horizontal lines in the water that counter the s-curves of her body.


Depending on the day, I might tell you this is the best photograph I’ve ever taken.

It’s all simplicity.  It’s pure composition.  It’s straight from the camera.  It’s something no one else, not one other person would have seen.  I hoarded this image for several years.  Didn’t share it, didn’t use it for anything, just saved it.  It eventually became the cover of my book, “The Mountain and the Pebble.”  By the time I published that book, I’d likely gone back and viewed this image 200 times.

I waited 7 years to take this picture.  I had all the pieces in my head, I knew exactly what I was going to do and how I was going to do it.  The problem, is out of the 7 months I shoot sunrise in the water every year, maybe 5 or 6 or 7 days we get that liquid gold sun popping through just the right gap in the trees.  Fog on the water happens maybe ONE day out of those.

Then I have to BE THERE.  I have to have the right subject, and then I can’t screw up.  The light lasts maybe 5 minutes.  Oh, and this shot is from HUNDREDS of feet away, there’s no other way to take it.

I think it’s worth staring at on it’s own merits, but I think I stare it mostly out of disbelief that I ever pulled it off.


All in all, over the years, I’ve probably had a couple hundred images that were real, “go back and check them out over and over.”   My favorite 86 images to date (not counting the water drops above and the shot below) NO ONE has ever seen but me.  I don’t share my favorite pictures as a rule, they go into my private stock.

But this next one I’ve looked at, maybe more than any other.  And that’s saying something, because I shoot beautiful women every day.

But the lines……….are mathematical perfection.

It looks like I chiseled her out of soft light.

It’s possible I was falling in love with her at the time, which unfairly skews the voting, but no matter how many times I go back and look at this, it’s just as remarkably beautiful as the first time.

I did something with this I normally don’t do…I re-cropped and re-edited it several times.  Usually I just go on instinct, and make my decisions and stick with them.  But this is actually “Myranda-001-003”   My favorite picture of Myranda, the third edit.


The Mountain and the Pebble is on Amazon


The problems with camera design…today.

You would think…with the millions of people flooding into photography, 7 or 8 MAJOR players in camera manufacture, and the thousands upon thousands of professional and serious photographers providing feedback on cameras….

…that camera DESIGN would be very mature about now.  It’s really kind of SHOCKING just now IM-mature, camera design really is.  Here’s a great example, these two Canon bodies are TWENTY YEARS APART!

Canon and Nikon, in the last 20 years…..the 20 years that should have prompted the MOST innovation….have changed almost NOTHING.  Is it that they arrogantly believe they’ve had it right all along?  I don’t think that’s the problem…I truly believe the problem, is they don’t want to make major changes to a form factor that consumers ASSUME is good.  It’s just marketing.  As long as they remain sales leaders, they don’t rock the boat.

Along the same lines, Canon and Nikon have obstinately refused to design-out the moving mirror.  From the first time we put an LCD screen on a digital camera, the goal in camera design should have been to find a way to make a camera WITHOUT a mirror blocking the sensor.  That important moment, the first camera with an LCD, was CASIO and it was 23 years ago.  For TWENTY-THREE years Canon and Nikon have managed to manipulate the market by refusing to innovate.   It’s easy to imagine that if they had embraced the future of photography to the same degree other manufacturers have, we’d all be much farther down the path to camera-design maturity.

But how do we KNOW?  How do we know that camera design is “immature.”  That’s actually pretty easy.  They’re all different.  Not just different in the case of specialized cameras for specialized needs, but pretty much every camera maker uses a different control layout.

Believe it or not….there really IS a best way to design a camera.  Not for everyone, we always need variety in design, but for MOST people, there really is a best way.

If we know what that BEST WAY is, then all manufacturers make their cameras, more or less…………that way.  And they may also make some variations to satisfy individual tastes, but one good way to measure the maturity of a product’s design, is the industry adopts STANDARDS.  Cameras don’t have standards.  The shutter release is on the right, in front.  That’s about it for consistency.

So the first two problems with modern camera design are:

1. We still have moving mirrors, which today, mostly just block features.

2. We don’t have a STANDARD, best design for control layout.

Here’s one of my favorite, frustrating examples, the EXPOSURE COMPENSATION DIAL.  Why the heckfire do we even HAVE this on a camera?  Let alone, have it in such a prominent place on so many models…..

This is a Sony a7 body, which otherwise is brilliantly designed.  But there is that HUGE, un-necessary exposure compensation dial.  And it’s bad enough that it’s there at all, wasting real estate, complicating the interface, but it’s in the PRIME spot for a dial…the dial that SHOULD be there.  The control dial you can barely see, a little to the left, a little lower, a little inset…THAT’S the important one.

Because this whole camera is PROGRAMMABLE.  If you move that dial (the one to the left, down, inset) to where the compensation dial is, and make it big and easy to find and easy to use……and you want to shoot this camera in priority or auto with compensation, GREAT, just use that dial you just moved for compensation!

This is the CORRECT design, on an a6000:

That dial is HUGE, it’s easy to find, it’s easy to use, and it can be set to be your shutter speed control, your aperture control, or yes, even your exposure compensation dial.  The numbers you usually see printed physically on an exposure compensation dial are just there for looks, because that information is ALSO available in the much better locations, on the LCD and in the viewfinder.

This is a critical component of  a GREAT design.  When you shoot in priority, the dial you use the most is THIS dial, this is where it belongs.

When you shoot in manual, THIS is the most important dial.

Even when you shoot in auto, and use compensation, this is the dial.

If camera design was mature, pretty much every camera would have one, large, easy to find dial right under the thumb.  The a6000 version is so good, that even though we’re talking about a very small camera, you can still operate it easily with heavy gloves on:

Design problem number three:

3. Every modern, shooter’s camera should have a prominent, easy to use control in the most obvious place…under the right thumb.

And that leads us to design problem number FOUR:

4. All of the important controls should be on the RIGHT, under the THUMB.

If you hold a camera correctly, your left hand is busy under the lens.

It’s for support, and it zooms or focuses but what it DOESN’T do, is adjust settings.  That’s done by your right hand.  So why……….WHY?   Do so many cameras put controls to the LEFT of the LCD?

This, above, is the back of a Nikon D7200….to adjust white balance, ISO, or just to hit the MENU you have to stop what you’re doing.  There is no excuse for this, it’s just a TERRIBLE design.  It’s not even that hard to put them where the RIGHT thumb can get to them:

The above Sony a7 design is much better….if we get rid of that GOOFY exposure compensation dial, and move the shutter speed dial up to where it belongs, we actually have room for the MENU button on the right.  That’s how close this camera comes to being the best design out there.

But just having the controls on the right, under the thumb, isn’t enough…if you have to drag your eye away from the viewfinder to do things….so our last, current design problem, is too many cameras require the shooter to STOP SHOOTING.

5. A well designed camera should be controllable without removing your eye from the viewfinder.

Here’s a fact…almost no one shoots a DSLR that way.  They shoot, then they look at their camera, then they shoot, then they look at their camera.  There is NOTHING fluid about that design.

Take a minute to watch other photographers…it’s incredibly rare that they shoot fluidly, and pretty much all of them shoot, then have to stop and look at their camera, either to review an image, or to change a setting.

Those are DESIGN FLAWS.  And we’re too deep into the digital age of photography, to let camera makers get away with them.

Is my lens sharp?

A very common problem, that takes a long time to answer well, is
“I just got this new lens, and I’m not impressed with the images.”

There are lots of things that could be wrong with a lens, or camera and lens, but in most cases, the shooter is trying take the wrong kind of picture to really TEST the lens.

If you want to know about the lens, ISOLATE the lens, eliminate the other variables.

The first thing you want to do, is take ONE, VERY SHARP IMAGE.

You don’t want to be confused by motion blur, so use a faster shutter speed.  That means test it in good light.  You don’t want to be distracted by noise, so use your lowest ISO, that means test it in GREAT light.  You want to use your sharpest aperture, start by finding out what that is…you can Google it…it’ll likely be around f8.

You don’t want to blur your image, even slightly when you press the shutter release, so use the timer.  Use a tripod.  Turn the stabilization off.

You don’t want to be confused by subjects that are several different distances from the camera, so shoot something FLAT.  You want to be able to scrutinize details, so choose a subject that HAS fine details.

I like a poster or image with tiny text, flat on a wall in excellent light.

And you want to eliminate the possibility of focusing mistakes, so try autofocus and manual focus and try each one several times….afterward, only consider the SHARPEST example, that will show you the POTENTIAL of the lens.

But if your AF results are very different from you MF results, you may have a problem.

Don’t complicate your life with RAW, just shoot jpeg, you should get an image that is indistinguishably sharp, without the chance for user error in developing the RAW file.

If you can make ONE image, razor sharp, you’ve proven your lens CAN be sharp.  It’s possible you have focusing issues, but the lens itself, is intrinsically SHARP.

Constellation framing…

As a tool of composition, we all know what a frame is….some kind of an element in an image that contains our subject, pushes attention to it.

Sometimes these are physical and obvious…

…sometimes they’re subtle, in the background:

..sometimes they’re subtle and in the foreground:

…a vignette can be a frame:

…they can be odd shapes:

…they can be clever:

…they can appear to be the subject itself:

…they can even work in 3 dimensions, when objects in front and behind the subject frame it in space:

Even the border of the image itself is a frame, but it takes a unique kind of image for us to really notice…

We all know what a normal frame is

But here’s one most of us don’t recognize…I call it the “Constellation Frame” or the “Cloud Frame.”

It’s formed by an irregular set of points or shapes…they usually don’t exist in the same plane:

The separate points work together to “assemble” into a loose, subtle frame around the subject.

One of my favorite ways to add a Constellation Frame, is to randomly brighten or highlight points, scattered around the subject..


…points I’ll be brightening, and adding saturation:

Finished product, “Constellation Framing.”


I won’t shoot Antelope….

Why I don’t shoot Antelope.

It’s INCREDIBLY important that no one take this essay personally…this is just my own, extremely narrow view of what is art.

I don’t shoot Antelope. A lot of people do, and pretty much every one with everything from a Nikon D5 and a prime lens down to a $70 prepaid cellphone does, if they get the chance.

I won’t do it, I’ll explain why, but first I’m going to make a leap here that seems confusing, but I promise I’m working on the exact same topic.

There’s no such thing as “steel wool photography.” The other day, someone asked in a photography group “have you ever tried ‘steel wool photography'” and I very bluntly said “there is no such thing.” He was talking about the unique art where you spin burning steel wool, throwing sparks and take picture of it.

I probably won’t ever do it…no promises, but probably never…for a reason similar to why I won’t shoot Antelope.

I’m not really interested in shooting frozen bubbles either. Same reason.
Steel wool as a subject is just crazy cool. But taking the picture is really not hard. The shots you get are cool for only one reason: Someone originally thought the thing up. The VALUE in the shot, in my very narrow view, belongs to the person who thought it up because the idea is UNIQUE.

Someone figured out you can freeze soap bubbles…it’s not a naturally occurring thing……when you take a picture of a frozen soap bubble, by far, the coolest thing in that shot, is THE ORIGINAL IDEA.

You may take a great version of it, with good composition, technique, light….you may even invent a clever new version…but at the core, the VALUE of that shot still rests with someone else’s UNIQUE idea.

Steel wool….someone else’s unique idea.

We’re not talking about a TECHNIQUE for achieving a goal many people envisioned…we’re talking about a unique SUBJECT that NONE of us envisioned until someone else did it.

I personally have no interest in duplicating other people’s UNIQUE ideas.
Remember….no one should take this personally….I’m not saying anyone else is wrong to do it. I’m saying that in my own, very restrictive view of art, learning from other people is fine, copying other people’s GENERIC ideas is one thing, but copying someone else’s UNIQUE idea is wrong. That’s just me.

I can’t promise that I’ll never do it. I just try really hard not to. And it can BE really hard, because I’ve thought up very creative, new ways to use things like steel wool and frozen bubbles and just resisted the urge. I went and did other things. It’s a hard concept for some people, but I really do believe there is a line between learning general techniques that we all can envision, and copying UNIQUE ideas that none of the rest of us thought up until we saw someone else do it.

And now we come back to shooting Antelope. I won’t do it.

About ten years ago I was reading an article in a photography magazine, about the winning photographs in a competition. There were some AMAZING, ASTOUNDING pictures. One in particular, was just a brilliant use of light and composition, and to me, there was clearly a great deal of thought into angle and time of day and technique. But the subject was a snow fence on a beach. An incredible composition of a fairly pedestrian subject. The winning picture…

….was of Antelope Canyon.

Antelope Canyon is something every photographer has seen, because it gets photographed all the damned time, lol. Everyone who goes there shoots it…everyone that shoots it gets a good picture….every picture gets “oohs and ahhs” from friends for the simple reason: Antelope Canyon, all by itself, is incredible. It’s a work of natural art. A masterpiece of light and form. It’s mind bogglingly beautiful.

And whether you shoot it with a Nikon D5 and Zeiss prime lens, or you shoot it with an iphone 6s, you can get a picture that will amaze people. Whether you’re a seasoned fine art photographer or you’ve only ever taken shapshots of your own bum, you can get a shot of Antelope Canyon that impresses. It’s just plain too damned easy to shoot.

So I won’t do it. I also won’t shoot pet deer or catch fish in a Koi pond or boast about winning an auction on ebay. Why do something that’s been done a million times, is the easiest thing in all of photography, and you could just Google the darned thing and get a better shot?

Of course, when I GET THERE someday…..I may be proven a liar. I may not be able to resist the gravity of Antelope Canyon. I always have a camera, and the temptation may just overtake me…..I’m hoping not.

And there’s always the possibility that when I get there….someday…..I’ll look at Antelope Canyon and think of some BRAND NEW, UNIQUE way of photographing all that beautiful rock and light. If THAT happens, sure….I’ll take the shot.

Of course if I then share it, I’ll suffer the rest of my life watching a million people copy my unique, original idea.

(all of the images in this essay are free to use stock photos)