F-stop and Smell the Flowers
Modern cameras make it easy to take pictures quickly. But when you can, it's better to slow down, think about your choices more, and shoot more purposefully.
I'll admit that if you're a sports photographer or consider yourself an action shooter of another variety, you probably shoot in a lot of circumstances that require split-second decision making. Most other types of photography still benefit from capturing that "decisive moment," that instant when everything comes together in just the right way. But we often have more time available for considering options than we realize. Or at least more than we take advantage of.
Right from the very start, choices abound. And unless you consider your options, you're accepting some form of default. Suppose you are hiking along and come into a field of wildflowers, or perhaps at this time of year, let's say you are snowshoeing along and find a grove of trees flocked in fresh snow. Or maybe you're just enjoying a day out with your family and stop at a roadside "scenic vista" and realize why they put that sign where it was. No matter. The variables of the situation may vary, but underlying each is a basic reality. In each there's a moment when you realize you are standing face to face with a potential subject to photograph. Even serious photographers sometimes set up their shot from some default location without considering alternatives. Following a guidebook or trusting in the placement of marker signs may get you in the ballpark, but won't guarantee you are positioned to maximize your chances of a hit.
Good images may result from default choices, but great ones generally require more thought. Simply walking up on a possible subject doesn't mean you are optimally positioned to photograph it. Such defaults tend to lead, at best, to images that look pretty much like what everyone else who did likewise ended up with.
A similar situation exists when considering your camera settings. You probably don't just start shooting at the aperture your lens is set to when you take it out of your camera bag. But far too often I see people cranking the f-stop all the way down to get the maximum depth of field without considering just how much depth they actually need. Stop down too much, and you force yourself to use slower shutter speeds or higher ISO speeds to compensate. Both can have their potential drawbacks. Maybe you need that extra depth of field and tempting fate seems warranted. The same observation holds true for most camera settings. Don't believe me? Check again. You may just have a default position you haven't fully examined yet.
Here's an exercise for you to do at home on your own. Go through the images you've taken with a zoom lens. If you tally up how many were shot at one end or the opposite in terms of focal length, you may be surprised. I like zoom lenses as they allow me to crop as I see fit when shooting rather than wasting resolution by digitally trimming part of the frame off after the fact. When shooting with a zoom, you can select any focal length over its range, but it's easy to fall into bad habits. You find just the right shooting position that renders a pleasing perspective and you zoom to frame a composition. How often do you find yourself shooting at either the maximum or minimum focal length? When you run into the end of the zoom range, it's tempting to call it close enough. Switching to the next lens up or down in focal length is certainly an option, but can take time. There are no perfect solutions to such a predicament, but when you have the time, don't just take the easy way by default.
Deciding just what settings and other choices to go with comes down to a matter of preference and experience. We all do the best we can, and hopefully we learn both from our successes and our failures. Not everything works out as we'd hoped, but it sure can be nice when it does. Practice may not make perfect, but can help get that much closer.
Of course, all these decisions can take time as I acknowledged at the outset here. But when time isn't so much at a premium, the question should become how best to take advantage use of it. To make the best decisions you can, it helps to be familiar with your subject and its surroundings. And the surest way I know to do that is to pay attention and relax. Slow down and smell the flowers, as the saying goes. Regardless of subject and circumstance, it helps to feel at home and at ease with your craft. Somehow, things just seem to fall into place if you slow down and let them, and your surroundings should start to come into focus. If you're worried about making the most of that brief window of golden light near sunrise of sunset, plan your day so that you arrive early. No sense rushing things if you don't have to.
It's often the little details that can make the image. And they're not likely to be listed in a guidebook or emblazoned on a sign. You notice them only by taking the time to do so.