Better Habits for Better Photography

Kali Climber
Kali Climber, Eastern Sierra, California. Developed habits allowed me to get this shot off quickly after diving for the dirt to create this unusual composition.

Today over on twitter someone reminded me of something Galen Rowell taught me many years ago, and I realized the subject required more than 140 characters to explain. The basic idea sounds simple to start with: Essentially, after you shoot, the idea is to leave the camera back at some “default” set of settings. In my case, that’s typically auto-focus, ISO 100, aperture-priority, f/16, RAW, mirror lockup enabled. (Except when it’s something else.)

At first glance that’s sensible enough on the face of it. Those are some pretty reasonable “will work with a lot of landscape images” sorts of settings, and having relatively reasonable settings in the camera will reduce the chance that I forget to change some setting (ISO 12800, or f/32) that I won’t want on the next shot.

But the benefits of this habit go deeper than that.

Galen took this idea to the next level, in what he described as expert systems for photography. If I know (because I have great habits) that my settings are what I’ve described above, I can respond more quickly. Imagine that I’m walking down the trail with my camera backpack, and I turn a corner, and there it is. “Celene Dion riding a unicorn through a field of baby animals under a big blue sky“, (warning: link is a silly video digression) and I’ve only got three seconds to get the shot.

It’s when the light or situation is fleeting that the “camera at defaults” shows its power. It’s daylight, I have a lot of light, I probably don’t need a tripod and I don’t have time to set one up. I raise my camera to my eyes, glance at the shutter speed, really the only big problem I may have right now is shutter speed, the shot can work if I’ve got the shutter speed. I check it against the 1/f rule and the motion of the unicorn. Either I can immediately shoot, or I can dial back the f/stop or up the ISO if necessary and then shoot. Either way, I can shoot fast.

The thing to notice here is that I don’t have to think about much. I’ve built a habit that reminds me which of those things I need to check in a basic shooting situation based on the camera already being in a default situation. That “thinking” and adjusting can be done in a second or two, leaving me a full second before the the one-of-a-kind image is lost. Galen’s focus on being able to respond very quickly to elusive, momentary light (with or without unicorns) made this a perfect technique for his shooting style.

But there is yet a deeper benefit to these habits as well. If you haven’t shot for a while, it takes a few days to clear the rust off your habits and really start making excellent images again. This isn’t just a matter of technical perfection or errors, over the first few days of shooting after a break my compositions will show improvement as well. As I get “back into the groove” of my photo habits, I can spend less and less time thinking analytically about my image, which leaves my eyes and mind more open to seeing.

The less I think about technology and technique, the better my compositions and seeing are.

It’s not that the technical stuff isn’t important, it is, but thinking about it in the process of shooting gets in the way. Realizing this, I’ve adjusted my work habits not only to include this idea of “defaults” and “checklists”, but even adjusted the way I think about exposure, using the histogram to quickly and visually ascertain if the exposure is “good enough” and moving on without overthinking it if it is, leaving me “seeing” rather than “thinking” about the world around me.

Build your own habits, and you might just be surprised at how much it changes your photography, I know I was!

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Great post. I´ve found it very interesting.

    Just one question. Youve said, ISO 100, RAW, Aperture priot¡rity set to f/16, autofocus, and mirror lockup enabled (I dont understand this, guess its due to my english but this is not my main doubt).

    wouldnt be more versatile and useful something like f8 or so?

    I love this place!

    Thanks from Spain.

  2. Fernando: f/8 might be a better choice for some folks, it depends on what sort of work you do, since I usually am photographing landscapes that need a large depth of field, and I am usually working with a tripod. But if I were doing street photography, I might use f/8 indeed. And if I were doing wildlife photography, I might use f/2.8, or, shutter-priority at 1/1000s as my “defaults”.

    Mirror lockup: Most DSLRs have a setting where you have to press the shutter button (or cable release) twice to take the shot. The first press flips up the SLR mirror inside the camera. The second press actually takes the picture. When you are photographing on a tripod and using a cable release this reduces the vibrations that can slightly blur your photo. I think the term in my camera book in Spanish for “mirror lockup” is “bloqueo del espejo”

  3. Thank you so much, Joe, for your excellent answer. You´re right. When I wrote my comment I was thinking about street photography, no landscapes.

    And thank you again for the explanation and translation of “mirror lockup”.

    A great blog!

  4. I love the idea, and really wish some of the otherwise useless buttons could be turned into a “reset” button that just goes back to your preferred settings.

    I am surprised that you have mirror lockup in the default. Try to use that when you’ve just come around the corner, and by the time you’ve realized why the viewfinder stays black, Celine Dion is gone. Too bad Canon insists that MLU is not worth a button.

    I’m surprised you use a double-press with cable for taking pictures with MLU. I use a 2-second delay, triggering with a cheap clips-on-to-the-strap remote if vibrations are particularly critical. The remote was the best $25 spent on my camera ever.


  5. Lars: In terms of reset-to-settings, the EOS 7D (and probably other models, but I have the 7D) has three “default settings”, still getting used to precisely how that works in practice but it looks like it actually addresses that point.

    agree with you that my choice to use MLU may seem odd, but I’m used to it as a default–even when moving quickly I still usually use a tripod, etc. I don’t so much recommend it, though, as recommend that people figure out the defaults that work for *them*, and build habits around those defaults. What the right defaults are are going to depend a lot on what you shoot, and how you shoot it.

    A remote might be a good idea, though, indeed. Good suggestion.

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