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Sweating the Small Stuff

Don't sweat the small stuff, and it's all small stuff. Or so the saying goes. But this is horrible advice if you really want to make the best images you can. In photography, details matter.

You press the shutter release and capture a moment in time. What was a fleeting moment in time when you shot that image becomes preserved for posterity once the shutter release has been pressed. Whatever you captured in the resulting image is preserved as it was. If you ended up with a great image, congratulations. If it turns out other than you had hoped, better luck next time.

Sometimes, the moment you see the resulting image you realize that it doesn't measure up to what you expected. Occasionally the problem is all too obvious: the exposure was off, the image came out blurred, or whatever. But sometimes you notice a problem with an image long after it passes the test of seeing it for the first time as a photograph rather than a collection of objects in front of your lens. The next day or the next week perhaps you identify that dark thing in the corner of the frame as being the edge of your camera bag. Weeks later, maybe someone points out a blurred area in the field of flowers you hadn't really noticed before. Funny thing for me at least is that once I first realize a problem such as these exists I can't help but see that flaw every time I later look at the image. I go from not noticing the problem to being nearly unable not to notice it.

Yes, it might be possible to mitigate a particular problem after the fact by working on that image in Photoshop, but that somehow never seems as satisfying. For one thing, it takes extra time to work on images to this level of detail. And the resulting edited shots will rarely come out completely as they should either as most digital edits reveal telltale artifacts if you look closely enough.

And this brings me to my basic point. If you're going to look closely in order to get the details right in Photoshop, it's probably worth considering what would have happened had you looked more closely before firing the shutter in order to create that image. I mean, if you're going to capture a moment in time, you'd really ought to try to make it a good one.

One of the things I like about landscape photography is that I often have the time to study my composition in the viewfinder before taking the shot. The light at sunrise does change quickly, but not that quickly. And even as it does change, I knew ahead of time that it was going to do so, and fairly accurately I knew when. I wear a wristwatch that, once I program into it the correct longitude and latitude, can tell me when the sun will rise and set that day. Even once I know what it will tell me, I find myself looking at it again occasionally just to make sure. If I plan my day well, I generally have a at least a window of time to double check things before I shoot.

What kind of things? Well, for one thing, just where is the edge of my camera bag and can I see it through the viewfinder. There are plenty of things it can be helpful to check. You'll develop your own list through experience as you catch yourself making mistakes you currently only notice after the fact., if at all.

Sometimes photographers think that all they have to do is take more images under the theory that even if some of their shots don't come out the way they hope, at least some will. But this only works for some types of problems. If the detail you missed was that area of flowers in the field blurred from a wind gust, taking more images would probably have increase your odds of success. A gust of wind hopefully is just that: a momentary gust, causing movement in the frame one moment and gone the next. Shoot enough images and you will hopefully end up with at least one that catches everything between gusts. But if the missed detail is the edge of your camera bag intruding into the frame, it may well be there in every shot no matter how many you take. With your camera locked down on a tripod and shooting with the same focal length, the framing won't change even as the light at sunrise does. The image with the absolute perfect light will still have your camera back showing down there in the corner. I remember once shooting a whole series of images starting before sunrise only to realize near the end that a trail marker sign was smack dab in the middle of every shot. In the pre-dawn darkness, I couldn't see it at all but my camera could with a sufficient exposure time. A photograph, once taken, can be unforgiving. What you failed to notices will get captured right along with what you did see.

A magician's stock in trade relies on the tendency of his audience to focus on where they think the action is and miss what's happening elsewhere. A quick sleight of hand and the trick is done. Few stand a chance of noticing if they're convinced they should be looking elsewhere. We photographers do this sort of thing to ourselves all the time. In our preoccupation with the subject, we become the magician, tricking ourselves into ignoring everything else. We never even notice those pesky details in the background and around the edge of the frame until it's too late.

The small stuff can matter, and the time to pay attention to it is before you shoot, not after. Is the horizon level? Is everything in focus the way you want it to be? If you scan around the edges of the frame, will you find your camera bag or some other distracting intruder? That tree branch poking into the frame you noticed only after the fact probably didn't jump into the frame the moment the mirror lifted up and the shutter fired. It was probably there all along but you were only paying attention to your subject not what else might be there.

Again, there's no need for me to attempt to present a complete list of my own foibles since you'll naturally accumulate your own list of details to double check as time goes by. If you haven't already started to develop such a list, you will, or at least should. Small stuff can make the difference between a good image and a great one.

Maybe you do find yourself with insufficient time to check everything you'd like to beforehand, and maybe no matter how much you do check you'll still later find something you missed. Add that to your mental list to check for next time. But the closer to come to catching everything, the better off you'll be, and the greater your satisfaction will be when you get everything just right. And the more impact those image will likely have for everyone else who views your images. There can indeed be a payoff to sweating the small stuff.

Date posted: February 21, 2016


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