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Viewfinder Fox Newsletter - Issue #1: What is photography, anyway?

Viewfinder Fox Newsletter - Issue #1: What is photography, anyway?
By Michael Robinson • Issue #1 • View online
Shedding light on the matter.

Welcome to the first issue of the Viewfinder Fox newsletter! This issue is an introduction by way of advice. My way of thinking about photography focuses more on art and technique than technology. I still love nerding out about new lenses and cameras, but I understand the place of equipment in the art. My writing reflects that.
Viewfinder Fox is both where I share my photography and my way of thinking about photography. I aim to inform and amuse. For photographers, I want to help steer you in the right direction in your journey. For photography enjoyers, I aim to help you enjoy the art better. There will even be something for the gearheads.
Expect issues to be infrequent, but worthwhile every time. To start, some good photography advice that’s been floating around my head, and that prompted me to start a newsletter.
Making light
Photography forums are littered with questions like:
  • “What lens do I need for…”
  • “Why do all my photos come out wrong? I want it to look like…”
It’s the inevitable result of modern media elevating people who show off their fancy gear with frantic jump cuts and incredible sights. By intent or error, they give the impression that the equipment is somehow responsible for the pictures, and they helpfully have an affiliate-tagged link right to it on a store’s website.
So let’s step back and ask a better question: What is photography?
Let’s focus on the perks and pitfalls of technology for a moment.
Photography technology changes the skill level needed to make the art, and it’s not always for the better. My photography got worse when I moved from a dying PowerShot to a DSLR! Now, it’s better, but only because I developed skills with the technology while working on the art. There’s a similar phenomenon when a painter moves between working with paint, working with a pen tablet, and working with a graphics tablet where they actually draw on a display.
Most new photographers start with a phone or compact camera. Then, excited by the possibilities opened up to them, they buy their first photography platform. Usually a DSLR, but increasingly mirrorless. Even the entry level models have an overwhelming array of knobs and buttons and attachment points.
And the result makes them miserable. My actual first DSLR was a defective refurbished Nikon D3400. The replacement was also defective. I was sure I must be doing something wrong, but researching the problems confirmed the first as a bad shutter, and the second was a bad sensor. It went back, and I waited another year.
The resulting new D5600 also produced terrible images. Not defective, though. I just had no idea what to do. Phone cameras and my old PowerShot had little sensors and little lenses with lots of hand-guiding technology behind them. Little sensors and little lenses can produce impressive-looking results more easily because they tend to have huge apertures and quality glass that would be expensive with a lens made for a bigger sensor with room for a mirror to flip around.
The lenses for the D5600 were much bigger to go with the much larger sensor. A crop sensor lens and a crop sensor camera are small to someone accustomed to beastly full-frame DSLRs, but it was huge coming from where I was.
Huge means more skill to hold. More controls. More everything. I had to figure out focus points, and tune the diopter, and…
Well you get the idea. It was a lot.
New technology, better technology, technology better suited to your purpose, introduces new variables that will blow away any confidence you have in your photography because you don’t yet know what to do with it.
My advice to any budding photographer with a DSLR, mirrorless, or even fancy big-sensor pocket camera is to spend the first 10,000 shots on your new photography platform in different automatic modes. Go through them and see what choices you made. See what choices the camera made. The camera’s automatic modes try to encode several lifetimes of study and practice in the art of photography, and you can learn from that up to a point.
Most automatic systems that cameras have today started decades ago, and the refinement was relentless. Adding Digital to SLRs to make DSLRs set it back a bit as people had to figure out what digital was, and it took over a decade to catch up. My D5600 is from 2017 and was right on the edge of matching old film cameras. Now even older DSLRs are mostly up to speed. Mirrorless is…getting there. Most of the refinements in the move from SLRs to DSLRs were in the optical viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras use an electronic viewfinder, so there’s some catching up for automating with only data from the main sensor. A DSLR’s optical viewfinder has a dedicated and highly refined autofocus sensor. Mirrorless sensors have focus pixels.
Let’s go through some common troubles new photographers have.
Shooting technique
  • Squeeze, don’t stab. When you stab the shutter, it tilts the camera. Squeezes are much more lateral, and you likely have two hands on two arms with your elbows pushed on to your body for stability on that axis. Or some reasonable implementation of the same function. The key is always stability.
  • Stand firm. You don’t necessarily need a tripod and remote shutter, but humans do tend to move around, and the effect is amplified with focal length and exposure time. I’ve never had much luck following or giving explanations of good standing technique, so you can experiment like I did or look up videos.
There’s not much to say! It’s a highly physical thing that depends on the person, and on how they get around. Avoid spending money on anything until you have technique down. Good shutter technique alone is worth more than any expensive lens with bad shutter technique. See how slow you can get the shutter while handholding and still get sharp photos.
Short story about that: one of my first self-assignments when I got the camera was Jupiter and the Galilean moons. I couldn’t even find it in the viewfinder. A year later, I put the camera to my eye right on Jupiter and got a decent shot at 1/80. Handheld.
You only develop as a photographer with study and practice. Walk around. Chill out. Keep walking around the same places for weeks, months, years. Notice what changes. Take pictures. Try different angles, settings, framings, colors, light. I just noticed some interesting little berries on a bush I’d walked past 100 times. They were at such a development stage that they must have been there before, but I never noticed them.
That’s the secret. Photography is the practice and the study of finding, creating, seeing, and turning light into pictures.
It’s a winding, ever-diverging path. There are goals, like finding a niche or selling prints, and those are all valid, but you don’t get there without the practice. Anyone can take a pretty picture with a few weeks of intentional practice and a good mentor. Getting to the levels above that where people start saying “wow, wait a minute, what the hell, how did you do that” rather than “neat” takes time.
You want to blow minds, not just make someone pause a few seconds while scrolling.
Light and light accessories
Light occupies the entire space of photography: art and technology. All the compositional stuff. Color theory. The list goes on, and it all comes back to light.
Sometimes the only way to get the light you need is with new equipment. Here’s a suggestion of how to rank gear purchases by priority.
1. Light modifiers
The goal of light modification is to make the most of the light you have. Reflectors bounce the light to where the light doesn’t reach. Diffusers soften the light and increase the size of the light source so it spreads wider at the cost of range.
When you work with modifiers, think of the modifier as a light source. When I shoot with a big diffuser in front of my little pop-up flash, the flash is no longer the light source; the diffuser is.
A $9 diffuser around the end of your lens will spread the light from your puny little pop-up flash out and get much better results at the cost of some range. Unfortunately, pop-up flash range usually isn’t much!
Which brings us to…
2. A nice flash compatible with your camera’s TTL system
TTL means Through The Lens. Even some old film cameras had it, though it worked on different principles. TTL uses your camera’s brain to figure out how to expose a scene using the flash as support, or to replace the light if it’s powerful enough. It’s like auto-exposure, except instead of relying on ambient light, it figures out how much light to add.
I have my eye on a Godox TT685N (N for Nikon). You can use these off-camera with a remote controller attachment compatible with your flash. Always buy in-system: a Godox remote for a Godox flash, for example. What were once dismissed as Chinese knockoffs have turned into serious competitors, and most people without someone to bill for equipment can do fine with getting 95% there for half the price of first-party flashes.
Some photographers will tell you to go full manual with your flash. These are usually portrait photographers with friendly subjects and someone else to carry around an umbrella. TTL, cruise control for exposure, is best until you know enough to understand why the camera and flash made the choices they did.
The flash on my D5600 goes to 39 feet–or a guide number of 39 feet at 100 ISO–before considering the effect of aperture. You divide the guide number, 39 here, by the aperture and get the range at whatever ISO your camera manufacturer uses to rate the flash. Usually 100. 39 doesn’t go far at real-world apertures.
You can turn the ISO up to brighten the resulting image at the cost of more noise. Most modern cameras do well into higher ISO levels. My old PowerShot from 2007 turned to fuzz around 200 ISO. My D5600 is pristine up to about 800 and only starts to noticeably fuzz up around 1600.
Experiment to see how much more you can get from higher ISO before the compromise in noise gets unbearable. That’s probably when a better flash is called for.
Outside a studio, your subjects are where they are and in the orientation they are for a reason, so it’s best not to disturb them to get the shot. A flash can solve this while still looking quite natural.
You can get creative with this on inanimate objects by mixing flash with longer exposures and a tripod. Do this on a sunny day on the side of a building opposite the sun. You’ll get the flash plus light bouncing off objects around the building’s shadow.
As for animate objects, be respectful. While most animals don’t seem to react to flash, some may experience circadian rhythm disruption from it. I’m not sure how well-researched this topic is. The way humans perceive flash depends on how sensitive our eyes are, and other animals don’t necessarily share that sensitivity.
Err on the side of caution and only use flash if there’s no other way, and don’t blast animals known for their eyesight at all. In that case, it’s better to get a well-composed shot without blur and try your best to pull it out of the shadows from the raw file later. Make sure your raw image setting is at the highest bit depth it’ll go to. 12 vs 14 is a lot of dynamic range, assuming your lens and sensor can render to match it. Generally, cheap lenses do okay, and lenses get more expensive as they bridge the gap between the sensor’s potential and the capability of the lens. Storage is huge and cheap these days. You can afford the space.
On lenses and cameras
Yep. Sometimes it’s the right call. Bigger sensors capture more light and tolerate higher ISOs without noise. Wider apertures let more light in. Better-engineered lenses bring t-stop closer to f-stop.
Can’t get everything in frame? Look for something wider. Can’t reach the subject? Telephoto. The old wisdom that primes are always better is not really true anymore. Even the kit lenses that come with cameras are good enough to take sharp, beautiful photos with the right shooting technique and light. I’ve found Christopher Frost and Tony & Chelsea Northrup to be the most level-headed reviewers for cameras and lenses. They don’t just read off specs, they’ll walk through the good and bad and tell you who it’s for, and sometimes offer alternatives. Steer clear of Ken Rockwell: he’s more entertainer than reviewer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but he’s often suggested to less experienced photographers even though his advice ranges from excessively opinionated to flat out wrong. His site is great for figuring out the difference between two pieces of equipment with confusingly-similar labeling.
Avoid gear-focused forums like DPReview and sites like DxOMark that do highly technical reviews of lenses. These can be helpful when deciding between two lenses that are close, especially to decide if the price premium of the more expensive lens is worth it.
New cameras only come in when you need something your current one doesn’t have. For example: a bigger sensor with higher resolution paired with a lens that can actually make use of it is great for wildlife and macro since you have more space to crop.
Avoid full-frame lenses on crop bodies. If you check DxOmark, which I just advised you to avoid except for purposes like this, you’ll see the crop sensor test loses a lot of resolution on a full frame lens over using a lens designed for the format. This is likely to become a non-issue in the future since the dominant mirrorless camera brands favor full-frame.
On that note: don’t be dazzled by mirrorless cameras. Only the very latest are starting to approach the baseline of DSLRs, and those cost thousands. Most cheaper mirrorless cameras are older, and have huge problems like high latency and poor real-world autofocus performance.
Your best bet is to wait for real-world usage reviews months after launch. Early reviews are always rushing to get it done with gear sent by the manufacturer. The incentives are all wrong. Bonus: it might be cheaper by then, and older models of the same camera will go down in price.
And whatever you do, stay away from Amazon. They mix third-party sellers with their own stock in the warehouses, and that means people get fakes sometimes. Fakes can be decent, but why risk it? B&H and Adorama are among the top stores. They tend to have comparable return policies to Amazon for defective stuff, but might charge if you use their label to ship back a change-of-mind package. Keep all your packaging, and don’t tear the manufacturer box apart when opening.
Just know Adorama tends to ship and return by UPS, while B&H tends to ship and return by FedEx. You can figure out which they’ll use for you by going through the cart process until you reach the shipping information stage.
All else being equal, pick a store by which shipper has the closest full-service location unless you’re comfortable printing labels and taping up boxes. You’ll want to get comfortable with it if you stick with photography since you’ll start wanting to rent and buy used a lot, and that means shipping some stuff back, but this works for now.
Thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Michael Robinson

Pictures, attempts at converting advice and experience into wisdom, fabulous failures at aforementioned. Every other month.

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