The Photographer’s Skill Priority Tree

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Inexperienced photographers are easily overwhelmed by the volume of information and experience that must be attained before they can consider themselves a good photographer. Hungry to learn as much as possible, many new photographers read a lot of books and articles. Sometimes, I feel that they read too much. Faced with all the information about your camera and the features new users should avoid, knowledge about ISO, Aperture, Shutter, White Balancing and the like, information overload is quick to be realized. The result is a massive army of photographers with a lot of technical know-how but not an impressive portfolio. The problem is that all of this information without a great deal of experience confuses new photographers, and their priorities aren’t in order. For that reason, I have created this list of what I will call The Skill Priority Tree.

Using the Priority Tree
Below is a list of items that you should consider when setting up for a photography session. The skills with the greatest amount of impact are at the top of the list: These are skills that you must do well in order to achieve a favorable level of photo quality. New photographers should only focus on the first few items. As your competence grows in each of these skills, only then should you concern yourself with the next item in the list. As you progress down the list, the overall impact each aspect will have on your finished product will decrease, but these skills are what will set your photos apart from a less experienced photographer. Think of the last few items on this list as refinement skills. On the same accord, time spent on refining any of the skills at the bottom of the list are not going to be beneficial to you until you’ve become acclimated with everything before it.

The Photographer’s Priority Tree

Subjects
Selecting an interesting subject is half of every photo. Developing the knack for finding good subjects requires some practice and a whole lot of experimentation. Subject matter is, of course, subjective. But you need to clearly define what subject matter interests you. You will not develop your skills if you are not enjoying your work. For the time being, leave your camera in Auto Mode and focus on finding subjects for your photographs. Don’t discount anything. Take lots of photographs of lots of different subjects. You will learn very quickly what subjects you are drawn to, and you will develop this key aspect of your own style. You can move down the list after you

Composition and Perspective
[singlepic=139,280,,,right]You have developed some skill in the selection of subject matter. To some degree, you may have already fallen into composing your shots based on instinct alone. But now it’s time to learn a few compositional rules. The first rule you’ll want to learn is the Rule of Thirds: The human eye is naturally drawn to photographs where the subject is placed a third of the way from two edges of the photograph instead of centered. Centering your subject matter yields far less interesting photographs. Next is the Rule of Diagonals: Linear elements are much more appealing set at angles rather than at a horizontal or vertical position. Depending on what type of photography interests you, there are many other rules that you’ll discover with some research. Then you’ll need to learn when to break any of these rules for a specific cause. I would suggest spending a lot of time practicing your compositional techniques.

Focus
In the world of auto-focus lenses, we have grown accustomed to ignoring the focus ring on our lenses. Focus has become so easy, almost mundane, that many never learn the finer points of focus. I’m not saying that auto-focus is bad. But you need to learn how to focus manually. So disable auto-focus (both on the lens and on the camera) and spend a few weeks snapping shots focusing manually. Keep in mind, a sharp focus may not always be the exact look you want. Or perhaps you’ll want to fine-tune what’s actually in focus. Auto-focus will make assumptions. And even if you have the ability to control your camera’s auto-focus, it will never have your eye. Your camera will never precisely function the way you wish one-hundred percent of the time. But that’s why every SLR camera allows you to override auto-focus, usually with a simple touch of the button. Once you are comfortable focusing manually, you can switch back to auto-focus. But you should be prepared to override comfortably, effectively and without hesitation. Don’t be surprised if, like many photographers, you develop a preference for manual focusing. It’s hard to give up that much control. Once you have confidently gained control of your focus ring, you may consider moving onto the next item.

Post-Production
Post-Production skills are any of those involved in finalizing your image including cropping, levels, color correction (white balance) and so on. To make this step easier, and to give yourself more control, we need to first be concerned with the image format used when taking the photograph. TIFF and JPEG files are the most common formats, and I expect that up until this point you have been shooting with one of those formats. Both are great formats for snapshots of your nephew’s birthday party, but for your artistic work, you should consider using your camera’s RAW format. RAW files can be a little tedious as it is not a standard format: Each camera manufacturer has its own format. To use RAW files, you’ll likely need to get special drivers or import software from the manufacturer (it likely came on a CD with your camera). Why RAW? RAW has an advantage because it has yet to be formatted or altered in any way. The file basically shows exactly what your camera’s sensor sees. A typical JPEG or TIFF output has already corrected colors, contrast, sharpness and more with each photo. Sometimes, these corrections can’t be undone. RAW gives you the power to control all of these corrections on the fly.

Now that we are using RAW, you can expect to spend a little more time on post production, but the final product will be much closer to your vision for each photograph. When you’re importing a RAW file, you will be given the opportunity to adjust most of the camera-level settings. The first thing you should tweak is the white balance. Under some light, the lighter objects in your photo may have a bluish or yellowish cast to them. If you know what the light source was in each photo, you can probably select one of the pre-sets defined by your camera. These will get you pretty close, but you may want to fine-tune with the slider. You will also want to look at the exposure settings. If your image appears too dark or too light, this is the time to make this adjustment. It is much less distructive than your editor’s brightness/contrast adjustments. After you’ve made these tweaks, you can complete your import. I use Adobe Photoshop CS3, so I am able to open RAW files directly, and CS3’s RAW importer allows me to do many more tweaks before I fully import the image. I find that the importer is a lot more accurate than editing post-import. I do, however, prefer to adjust curves and levels directly in Photoshop as I feel its interface is much easier to use, and the quality of output is about the same.

The set of post-production skills that you need to develop will vary depending on what type of photography you have developed. Portrait photographers, for example, will want to learn some touch-up skills (here is one tutorial). Landscape Photographers will want to learn how to get the best out of their shadows. If you’re interested in Black and White photography, you’ll need to learn how to control contrast and brightness (See my introduction to the Cybia Fotomatic Tools). In the near future, I plan to write a few more articles about post-production work, so stay tuned for those. Until then, there are a ton of great tutorials on the web.

Aperture Priority / Shutter Priority
Most cameras, even the high end ones, have a lot of modes: Portrait mode, landscape mode, sports mode, party mode. My advice: Don’t bother. Opportunities change quickly, and you will not be quick at switching between these modes. There are also circumstances where these specialized modes aren’t going to be best for what you’re doing. One caveat: If you have a point-and-shoot camera, this may be the only way for you to have any control. But if you have an SLR camera, the two most useful modes are Aperture Priority mode and Shutter Priority mode. With a little practice, these modes will give you far more control than any of the program modes.

Aperture Priority (AP) is the favored mode of portrait and Landscape photographers. You control the size of the aperture while the camera meters and calculates the shutter speed for you. AP allows you to control depth of field quickly and easily. Larger apertures (lower f numbers) give you a shallower depth of field, perfect for close-up work or to keep noisy backgrounds in check. Small apertures yields a deep depth of field, keeping everything in focus which is ideal for landscape photography. Use AP mode when you want control over light and depth of field.

Shutter Priority (SP) gives control of the shutter speed while the camera calculates the aperture needed to achieve the desired shutter speed. For obvious reasons, this is very desirable when shooting sports or when you want to freeze the objects in your shot. But it is also useful when you want things to blur, like a waterfall. Just set a slower shutter speed. Just be aware, your lens will be the limiting factor with SP mode. Set the speed too fast and your images may come up dark. Most cameras have an indicator telling you when your settings are beyond the limitations of your lens.

AP and SP modes are very useful, and one of these will become your favorite shooting mode. For many hobby photographers, there’s no reason to move on, and there would be no shame in that. You will, after all, attain an incredible amount of control from AP and SP modes. But if you want to have complete control of your camera, you’ll want to move on.

Manual Mode
Manual mode photography takes a lot of knowledge and skill. It is an incredibly steep learning curve. You will need a great deal of patience and a great deal of practice. But you will gain the ultimate control. You will be able to control shutter speed and aperture independent of each other. On the plus side, you’ll be able to do things that you can’t do in any other mode. For example, you’ll be able to keep the detail in the shadows without bleeding the bright spots dry of definition. On the negative side, it’s not your fastest mode, so it won’t be good for certain shots. But if you have the time to set everything perfectly, then you will gain a great amount of detail and possibly the perfect photograph. The perfect photograph is worth every ounce of effort.

Equipment
I placed equipment on this list to make a point. It is very important that you realize this is the absolute last item on this list. Your camera may be limiting, but until you have accomplished all of the above, you have no reason to upgrade. An inexperienced photographer with a $5,000 camera setup is not going to produce any better work than an experienced photographer with a much simpler camera. Add-ons such as filters, flashes or faster memory cards may have more of an impact than you would think. Learning to use a Circular Polarizer filter or how to use your on-camera flash effectively will make a definitive impact on your work. And when it comes to the cameras themselves, many photographers will state that a great lens makes a much larger difference than the camera body itself (though lenses are an expensive upgrade). I guess my point is this: A good camera does not make a good photographer. Your equipment has a much smaller impact that you may believe. So instead of spending money on the next camera body, learn everything above first.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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