Advice to a young photographer

I just wrote a reply over on Lightstalkers to a young photographer of eighteen, asking about what it takes to be a working photographer, The comment before mine brought up the subject of beards, so I started with that:

The beard is a must if you decide to pursue landscape photography. For that it should be big, bushy and unkempt.

Grizzled and stubbly is good for many other types of photographers, but be prepared to fill it out on a few weeks’ notice if you do the type of photography which will take you to places where being clean-shaven carries as much credibility as wearing a frilly pink dress.

Just kidding, of course—JR’s comment above made me smile.


As a photographer, be sure you have an absolute handle on the technical aspects of photography. You’ll need to be proficient, to the point where you can produce a well-exposed, well-composed and well-focused shot whenever you are called upon to produce one. Learn to prepare yourself and your gear. For me, it’s stepping off the train, I have a personal ritual of checking that the ISO on my camera is suitable. (checking that it’s not still on ISO 800 from the night before when I’ll be shooting in the daylight.) After that, I check that autofocus is set and that exposure compensation isn’t dialed two stops in the wrong direction and that my battery isn’t about to die. (That’s also when I pull a piece of gaffer tape from the sharpie pen I’ve wound it around and tape my 5D’s power switch on, because it’s in an easy position to get bumped to off, most likely at the worst possible time.)

Kind of a pre-flight check, but the thing is, I do this not even when I’m “shooting,” but all the time. I always have some sort of camera with me, so I give it a once over, generally as I leave the house and look at the light or step off the train. Doorways, I guess, are my trigger.

When I was teaching myself light, I used to carry an incident meter and meter everything, in much the same way. The thing is, you’ve got to have your camera ready at all times. You don’t want to lose a shot that you’re expected to take, because of something stupid like a full roll of film or a memory card you forgot to format.

Next, master the “straight shot” – a picture devoid of artistic tricks and arty overtones. Unless you have a quite unusual editor or a lot of personal clout, it’s better to not shoot your work pictures on a fisheye Holga using cross-processed expired film.

After that, when you’re comfortable taking a competent shot on ten seconds notice, start to think about how you can take a better shot. How can you add something that you see and no one else sees, something profound and inspired. Having studied music, this is something I think of as “virtuosity.”

While the world has hundreds of perfectly competent musical performers, to get to First Chair, you need virtuosity, a term that has it’s roots in the concept of being touched by God. This is the thing that tells you that the violin piece you’re hearing for the first time must be done by Jascha Heifetz, or that the photo you’re seeing for the first time could only have been done by Diane Arbus.

When you have that, it doesn’t matter what you shoot, because everything you choose to shoot will matter. This comes through being relentlessly demanding of yourself and editing your stuff with a cold, unbiased eye.

Of course, orchestras are filled with musicians who will never be first chair, musicians who are fine technicians and probably have comfortable, enjoyable lives, doing what they love to do and there are just as many photographers doing the same. Nothing wrong with that, but I wouldn’t recommend striving for that when you’re eighteen. Dream big.

Most of the world’s significant images were made by people with cameras not as advanced as whatever you probably carry and captured in less than a sixtieth of a second, often by people your age.

Go read about John Filo and his Kent State photo:

Here’s a guy about your age, who reflexively shot something he found mildly interesting and not only won a Pulitzer, but helped bring the end of the Viet Nam war, without going more than a couple of hours from his home in a small Pennsylvania town.

(Plus, he did it with a Nikkormat, half a roll of Tri-X and probably a 50mm Nikkor lens, a setup that would probably cost you $50 today in decent shape used. I don’t like gear discussions, but I find something joyful about that.)

OK – I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent and ranted too much, but good luck to you. Wherever you wind up, you’ll want a solid body of work to open doors and show people that you can do what they need you to do. After that, keep looking for those three or five photos that will define your career and make you live forever.

by Jim O’Connell | 15 Mar 2009 11:03 | Tokyo, Japan

Lenses for portraits

I got an email today from someone asking about portrait lenses.

Looking at her Flickr stream, she seemed to be using a Nikon D-80, which is a DSLR with a cropped sensor, so my answer leans a bit towards users of those cameras. For a long time, I used a Nikon D-100, which has a similar sensor.

Basically, the most important factor in a good portrait is not the lens or the camera that you use, but the level of connection and intimacy you can create between your subject and the viewer.


She asked for a recommendation for a prime lens, but in the end, it wasn’t my first suggestion. Shooting with primes is great, but it can be a lot of work. If you’re shooting a few hundred frames in a session, this can lead to a lot of pictures that look quite a lot alike. Getting something good in a short amount of time often requires a lot of different compositions.

In general, I despise most discussions about gear. No matter how much you try to speak in very general terms, someone will undoubtedly chime in to argue that the new Smegron 3-1500mm f:13.5 zoom that they heard will be announced at Photokina two years from now is the obvious best choice for portraits. These things are a matter of taste, which is really impossible to quantify. For example, one of my favorite portraits ever is one of the painter Francis Bacon, shot by John Deakin. I like it because it’s raw and unflattering, shot in close with a wide lens. In effect, he did it wrong and it works astoundingly well because of it.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote to her, perhaps some of you may find it useful as well:

Hi –

It depends a bit on the camera you use. If you are using a camera with a cropped sensor, like most of the digital SLRs on the market, you may find some of the more traditional portrait lenses to be a bit tight in composition. Still, if you like a close-cropped face in the portrait, something like an 85mm lens is still a good choice with a lot of flexibility. The 85 is a classic portrait lens for 35mm film photography. Being a slightly telephoto lens, it adds a bit of compression to the features of the subject, which is very often flattering. Wider lenses, especially those below 35mm, can be a bit unflattering, at the extreme making the subject appear moon-faced.

The kind of telephoto compression to which I refer is the effect you may have seen with a long telephoto lens, say a view down a crowded street from far away where the people appear almost stacked upon each other. When you read about lens equivalents with cropped sensors, they may say something to the effect of “a 50mm lens becomes an 80mm lens” but this is deceptive. A lens with a 50mm focal length will not have the telephoto compression of an 80mm lens, so you can’t expect the little bit of flattering that you’d get with an 80 or 85 millimeter lens.

That said, a 50mm lens is capable of taking excellent portraits, on any DSLR, regardless of sensor. You just need to get up and move your feet to do your composing. The same with an 85mm lens. It’s a lot of work to shoot a dynamic portrait session with a prime lens, but the benefits can be worth the effort. With any prime, you’re going to get good optics and a wider maximum aperture than on most zoom lenses. The wider the aperture, the more control you have over “bokeh” or out-of-focus blur, which can be good for isolating your subject from a distracting background. Wider apertures also let more light into the camera, allowing you to not only shoot in lower light, they help autofocus do it’s thing better and faster.

So for a good prime, I’d recommend getting the fastest 50mm prime you can justify getting. A 50mm f:1.8 can be had for between $80 and $120. That’s a simply fantastic price for a lens that fast. A bit faster f:1.4 will run you about $300. Canon makes a f:1.2, but it costs about $1,500. I have one of these and while it’s a real beauty, it’s a beast as well. It weighs a heck of a lot more than the others, which is a real consideration when shooting all day. I shot a model in my little studio the other day using that lens and others and after a couple of hours, my shoulders were simply aching. Still, the simply creamy blur it makes in out of focus areas makes it worth the pain—sometimes.

But you know what? If I had one lens to use for a portrait session where there’s be a lot of different poses and styles, where I need a lot of flexibility in composition, I honestly wouldn’t be shooting with a prime. For one thing, I often work in small spaces—my studio in Tokyo is about the size of a 1-car garage. Other times, shooting dancers, I’ll be on stage with them, with not a lot of space to move around.

In these cases, I use a zoom. On Canon, I like the 24-70 f:2.8 L zoom and on Nikon, I like the 28-70 f:2.8.

Both lenses are real workhorses. F:2.8 is about the fastest you can get in a zoom and they are pretty expensive and heavy, but I find them to be a good trade-off between price, weight and performance.

First, I’d take a good look at the lenses you own now. Even the “kit lenses” that come as an option for most DSLRs are often great, flexible lenses for portraits. After all, the makers know that a good percentage of new users will be soon taking their cameras to weddings or pointing them at newborn babies, so I suspect they optimize for those situations. In that case, you might best improve your portraits by getting a good flash with a diffuser or working on your composition. Get on your feet and engage your subject—your portraits will improve.

Shooting in your camera’s RAW mode makes a big difference as well. With that, you can go back and make subtle corrections to lighting and white balance, which is crucial for getting good skin tones.

Still, if you want a good prime, I’d try out a good 50mm. They’re just too much of a good value to pass up.

Good luck!