365: 5 lessons from the first 50 photos

by diarmuidmcdonald

My immersion into photography is a relatively new phenomenon. It began in early February of this year (2013) when I borrowed my housemate’s Cannon EOS 500D to photograph my Grandmother’s headstone. I was set to visit her empty house and the crowded cemetery on the Saturday, and during the preceding week I began taking practice shots of my housemates, empty streets, and the miscellany of crap that littered my room.

Something happened. I started to get attached to these over processed, badly composed and generally focus-void images. I would take a photo of the view from my window, edit it beyond recognition on iPhoto (with that truly horrible iPhoto vignette), upload it onto Flickr and subsequently check it every half hour to see if I could breach that ten view landmark. No matter how often I refreshed my inbox, that email from Magnum never materialised.

Everybody knows this is nowhere

Keen to move from ‘strength’ to ‘strength’ I followed my housemate’s advice and began a project 50 (50 photos: 50 days: 50mm lens) which I entitled ‘Opening my eyes’. The main function of this project was to learn how to work a camera, what the various apertures did, shutter speeds and so on, basic stuff. At the beginning I was adamant that all my settings should be manipulated to allow me a constant aperture of f8, and by the end I was day dreaming of that sweet depth of field at f1.4. This set of 50 photos is more a visual representation of my control over the physical camera function than any artistic talent, and that is precisely why I enjoy looking back at it.

If the project 50 can be understood as how I learnt to use a camera, my goal for the 365 is to learn how to take photographs.

I recently reached the first 50 photos mark, it passed a lot faster this time, and so I decided to make this post including 5 photos from this period, and detailing 5 lessons that I have learnt.


Lesson 1:

 – You can put your camera in a strangers face and…wait..they won’t punch you?!

Even though I had read countless blogs, seen photos, and watched youtube videos on street photography, a part of me was still scared of physical confrontation arising from shooting street. I had even taken quite a few candid shots of strangers a few months prior (although I had drifted from this during my furlough with film photography) and received no violent reactions of any kind. Despite all of this I left my flat feeling enthusiastic and inspired, I had the settings on my camera ready, I had done some research and I was feeling good about the whole street venture and yet I found myself fumbling with my camera, trying too hard to appear to be shooting architecture and just generally opting out of taking the photographs that I could visualize all around me. On one occasion I attempted to be sneaky and pretended to take a shot of Salford Law Courts while scoping out an interesting character only to find them move out of the way and gesture for me to get a better shot of the building!

Then, during a particularly monotonous friday lunchtime, something happened. I relaxed. I calmly approached people, took their photos without attempting to hide what I was doing, smiled and said thank you. My subjects smiled, and mumbled ‘your welcome’ or ‘okay’, and we both carried on our separate ways. Just like I had read we would.

Ultimately, I learned that to take the photos that I want to take I need not be sneaky, but instead walk the line between being friendly and, well, ‘ballsy’. I have included some helpful links and videos at the bottom of the page which I found really helped me with my confidence.

Day 50

Lesson 2:

  • Go Primetime

Another thing I learnt during this period is that for me, prime lenses are the way forward. My X-E1 came with an 18-55mm which I found to be heavy, obtrusive and not well suited to my style of working. This lens was usually kept at 18mm anyway (which on the X-E1 equates to approx. 27mm) which made the zoom function largely redundant. When I began taking photos my housemate explained to me that zoom lenses encouraged laziness and these words have resonated with me since.

I bought the Fujinon 35mm f1.4 and later traded my zoom lens for the 18mm f2 (second hand but in great condition). This decision may not make sense to everybody, it may seem financially foolish, wasteful or even limiting, but for me I am certain that it was the right move. I guess that is the real lesson here; there are no real rules when it comes to gear, what is right for you is what matters – if you can make an adapter to get that L glass onto your iPhone then why not! I am sure that the daily photos of your breakfast, lunch and dinner will look super sharp!

Lesson 3:

  • It takes more than practice to make perfect

I used to turn to flickr for my photography learning and inspiration, I would trawl through street photography groups without prejudice and see what other flickr users were doing differently and better. Since I began this 365 I have spent considerably more time looking at the work of iconic photographers, looking at the elements of composition and content in attempt to try understand what makes these photos so impressive, and how I can look to approach my own work in this way. I do still  browse groups on flickr, but I pay more attention to the photos of my contacts, and specifically to a handful of contacts whose work I particularly admire. I find that spending more time looking at, and analysing fewer photos gives me a better insight than just clicking past 100 shots in ten minutes.

Personally I feel that my own work has benefited more from this approach. By submitting photos to genre-specific critique groups, reading photography blogs, and studying high quality work, I have gained new insights into the fundamental elements of photography that I would have never stumbled across in 50 days wandering the streets of Manchester taking constant snapshots. I have learnt that while practice is very important in photography, there are valuable lessons to be learnt elsewhere.

This was reaffirmed to me yesterday by a much respected friend through Flickr whose work I admire, who advised me to ‘look at a lot of the photographs of respected masters, study those photos, and your work will constantly get better and better.’


Lesson 4:

 – The value of presets

This project requires me to take a lot of photos, which means a whole bunch of post-processing. Traditionally I would edit each photo, adding and adjusting the various sliders on Aperture at whim, until I was happy with the result. A minutes browse of my photostream will attest my sporadic and inconsistent post-processing ventures. Needless to say, it has never been my greatest skill. As you can imagine, this was a very time consuming process, and this is why I began making use of presets. I found a very good youtube video by Thomas Leuthard giving the exact adjustments that he uses for his B&W street work and emphasising the virtues of spending as little time possible post-processing. The video can be found below.

I now have two standard presets; one colour, one B&W. I do make adjustments depending on the photo, but presets give me an initial impression of the final product and save me a lot of time. I hope to develop my own presents in time, which I will share, but in the before then if anyone has any of their own then I would be keen to check these out (as mentioned above I edit on Aperture).

Lesson 5:

  • Some days you are not going to want to, or will be simply unable to take any interesting or inspiring photographs

Obviously with this project there are going to be days when I do not want to leave the house. I live in Manchester and it rains a hell-ova-lot; sometimes I look out the window, see the grey abyss and think to myself you know what? There must be some interesting nick-nacs around the flat that I can take a quick photo of.. Over the course of this year I will end up taking some pretty non-shots, some last minute cop outs and countless boring pictures of pedestrians. I guess this is just the nature of a 365 project.

49 downloaded

Photography is still new to me and everyday is a learning process, but writing this does make me feel like I am, very slowly, making progress.

Useful Links:

Presets (Thomas Leuthard) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JEcr29SSQU

Street Photography Tips (Digital Rev) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=In5sR-tUhCM

Eric Kim on why you shouldn’t be ‘sneaky’ in street photography – http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/04/27/5-reasons-why-you-shouldnt-be-sneaky-when-shooting-street-photography/