Feeling stuck with photography
October 14, 2010 7:38 AM   Subscribe

How can I enjoy photography again?

I picked up a camera for the first time when I travelled in America, and enjoyed taking photos a lot as I went from place to place. A few people remarked that my photos showed an unusual way of looking at things. A few people thought I had the potential to take really good photos.

Since I got back from travelling, whatever motivation and interest in photography that grew in me has withered away completely. I bought a Pentax K-x, but it hasn’t worked out. I’ve found it extremely frustrating actually - firstly, because it uses AAs, and it’s been a huge pain dealing with rechargeables and chargers; secondly, because the camera itself has been faulty and unpleasant to use. I’m feeling annoyed and overwhelmed by the complexity of DSLR photography - and especially broken DSLR photography. I feel like I need to throw the camera out and buy something new, that actually works. But I don’t have the money to buy a second new DSLR. Plus, I also feel like the fact that I’ve been disappointed with what I’ve shot using this more complex camera is proof that I’m fundamentally untalented.

It seems like I didn’t reckon on the huge difference between what it likes to take photos with a point-and-shoot, with an LCD to show you what your picture is going to look like (a good idea, as I had an above-average P&S), and a DSLR with its viewfinder giving you a very vague idea of what you might get. It seems so hard to make my pictures correctly exposed, focussed, composed, and levelled. I also didn’t reckon on the difficulty of finding things to photograph in my hometown. I don’t live in New York, and you just don’t see people walking around taking photos - so street photography of people is just not going to work. I wouldn’t feel comfortable and wouldn’t really know how to take photos of people anyway. I feel like I don’t have the natural talent, nor the creative eye, nor the technical ability, nor the tools, to take photos of, well... anything.

I just feel totally disheartened about photography.

Is there anything I can do? Give up? Buy a simple camera? Buy a more complex camera? Get rid of the kit lens? My town is small, and there aren’t really any photographic groups to join or such. I wouldn’t know how to take photos in groups or collaborate with people either. Maybe the hobby isn't for me, but my K-x taunts me every time I look at it.
posted by schmichael to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What worked for me:

- It is not about the camera. We photographers are under constant advertising pressure from cameramakers, keep that in mind. You have a DSLR with full manual controls. That's more than most 20th century beginning photographers had.

- Shoot on manual. DSLR allows you to take a shot and immediately look at the image. So do that. Use the camera for its autofocus but everything else adjust manually. This will give you a quick understanding of the principle of capturing light with either sensor or film.

- Shoot what you love. Find the subject matter that draws and keeps your interest and focus on it.

- Look at photos from last century photographers. Bookstores have photobooks you can look at for free.

- Finally, two words for you: hot models :) Your perceived skills will improve overnight.
posted by andreinla at 8:05 AM on October 14, 2010

If you hate your camera so much, sell it. It sounds like you would be happier with a simpler camera, so why not switch back to your point and shoot? (Why did you switch to the Pentax in the first place?)

As for your town being boring, I find that hard to believe. There is always something to photograph. I think it takes time to look at the world and see the possibilities for pictures. You should look at photography on line or borrow photo books. I find looking at photographs can be inspiring.
posted by chunking express at 8:06 AM on October 14, 2010

A few people remarked that my photos showed an unusual way of looking at things.

I genuinely think that that's the most important requirement for becoming, with time, a good photographer. The key stuff you want to look at is focussing, composition, light, and how it works. You don't need equipment, you just need to see. Why don't you just take a few weeks "off" from the camera, and just wander around really looking at your surroundings - how the light falls, how colours go together and clash.

Does your town have a community college or some other place that offers photography classes? I really benefited from a beginners' SLR course a few years back. Knowing what all the knobs and buttons on your camera actually DO will really increase your sense of control over the medium. More than that, though, a good instructor will go over fundamentals of composition with you, and that's the kind of knowledge you can apply to any photography, SLR or P&S.

Don't feel bad about the quality of your shots. You have to take a HUNDRED terrible shots to get one good one. I think I'm an OK photographer, but I have taken so many TERRIBLE photos over the years. You've got to start somewhere.

Don't stress too much about the equipment. The best camera is the one you'll take around with you. If you're not comfortable with your SLR, get a different camera or go back to your old P&S. Don't feel like you need to use an SLR to be a real photographer.

Just do what you enjoy, and the rest will fall into place.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:07 AM on October 14, 2010

I don't have any great advice, other than I don't think buying new equipment is likely to help you, either technically or in terms of your enthusiasm, at this point in time.

I've never used a K-x, but I think we've probably reached a point in the evolution of DSLRs that there aren't really any terrible cameras. Of course if it doesn't actually work as it has been designed to that's a different matter. (What exactly is the matter with it?)

Whether a DSLR is an appropriate type of camera for many people is another matter, but in my opinion that's usually as much about whether the person finds it too bulky to bring with them and thus leaves it in the bottom drawer, rather than whether it's too difficult to operate - in full Auto mode it shouldn't really be much harder to use than a P&S to once you master the half button press for autofocus. So if you can't get remotely enthusiastic about taking photos with your K-x then perhaps photography just isn't your thing (it does seem revealing that you talk more about other people's reactions to your travel photos than how much pleasure you actually derived from the process or the outcome).

It sounds like you feel self-conscious with a DLSR, which is particularly understandable if you're not that familiar with its operation, and that is inhibiting you. In that case my advice would be to set aside a few hours to read the manual again and make sure that you understand the basics, and then set yourself the task of simply walking around your own home (or some other place where you won't feel self-conscious) and trying to take interesting photos. You might be amazed what you find when you force yourself to try and see like a photographer.
posted by puffmoike at 8:26 AM on October 14, 2010

A new camera does take a lot of getting used to. Your lens is different, so you may have to shoot from a different distance from your subject than before, you'll capture more or less depending on the lens too. So, keep in mind that most any photographer would experience the disorientation you are. You just need to hang in there.
posted by xammerboy at 8:36 AM on October 14, 2010

It seems like I didn’t reckon on the huge difference between what it likes to take photos with a point-and-shoot, with an LCD to show you what your picture is going to look like (a good idea, as I had an above-average P&S), and a DSLR with its viewfinder giving you a very vague idea of what you might get.

You need a PEN. (Great video review here.) Superior image quality, fully manual setting (if you want), and a Live View LCD. Much simpler than a DSLR, if you want it to be.

Or just go back to the point-and-shoot. Chunking asks a great question: Why DID you switch from your old camera? Was it for better image quality? More control? Or just the next logical step?
posted by coolguymichael at 8:42 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you started off taking pictures you enjoyed and since others told you that were good at it you have assumed that your pictures *must* be magnificent henceforth. This may be an over simplification, but try to shoot for its own sake and review the photos later. Don't fuss with the equipment much or scrutinize the images in the viewfinder. Just shoot.

I'm no professional, but I went through a similar arc after receiving some kinds words about my photos. I'm back to where I enjoy it and I regularly nix 25% of the shots I take and consider 5% of them to good enough to share. Now and I again I catch a zinger, but that is at best a once a year experience.
posted by dgran at 8:43 AM on October 14, 2010

DSLRs are big, expensive, complicated systems that can dissociate you from the whole photography experience if you're not careful. I found the DLSR as a concept to be dissatisfying in a number of ways, and I'm bothered by the marketing of a very specific tool as a general purpose consumer instrument. I don't drive the Expedition to the supermarket just because Ford thinks I should, and I don't take snaps of the sunset with the D300 just because Nikon would like me to.

(...also, well, because I don't have an SUV, kids or a Nikon. Minor details.)

Barely-on-topic rant aside, my suggestion (which is very personal and might be totally wrong for you... my apologies if it is) to you is this:

Start from the start. I'm hearing from you a potential for a true passion for photography, so explore photography the same way you might explore the back-catalog of a new band you like: chronologically. Skip the first two or three albums, though, unless you're a chemist.

1. Search craigslist, th'Bay, and your local pawn shops for a camera built sometime between 1930 and 1970. A camera with some basic auto-exposure is dandy, but starting with an all-manual shooter is a great way to learn. As long as it works. If you decide to do this and start seeing models you might like, drop me a line through MeFi or Flickr anytime. I'll send advice day or night (regardless of the hemisphere).

2. Go to a camera shop if there's one in your town and buy some black & white film. You can't go wrong with Kodak Tri-X, or Ilford HP5 Plus, or Fuji Neopan 400. These are all solid all-purpose b&w films. If you prefer colour, there are still hundreds of inexpensive options there, too, and having colour processed and scanned can be quicker.

3. Open. Load. Close. Wind. Don't think! Shoot! Repeat.

4. Bring your film to a lab, or to a supermarket, or to a drug store, or to anywhere that might process a bit of film. Ask them for just processing and scans.

5. Enjoy! Post your results for us to see! Very few of us have ever been to New Zealand (though this is, admittedly, a guess), and we'd love to see even the boring shots of your town.

Rolls #1-10 might very well be a crapshoot, but this is a good thing. My hope is that by slowing down the whole photo-taking and photo-enjoying process you'll find the sense of discovery and joy that (in my probably flawed opinion) has been disappearing from photography since the mainstream went digital. At the very worst, you'll discover that happy accidents simply look better on film, and you'll get a few rolls worth of happy memories with an initial cash outlay of under a hundred dollars, which is a fraction of what the major manufacturers want from you to get started with a modern digital system.

This bit, though:

so hard to make my pictures correctly exposed, focussed, composed, and levelled

...is unavoidable. Improvement comes with both an understanding of the fundamentals (which, yeah, sounds onerous) and with practice, and I'm afraid the problem remains whether or not you're shooting with a viewfinder or an LCD screen. I won't assign homework (yet), but most of the fundamentals are conveniently outlined in the same work: "The Negative" by Ansel Adams. The basics of exposure are as relevant to glass plate negatives as they are to digital point-and-shoots.

What do you think? Might it work? As I said, I'll help in any way I can.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:50 AM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

You seem to have two problems: You don't know how to use the camera that you've got (exposure and focus? That's pretty basic.), and you don't enjoy shooting what you're shooting.

For the first, TAKE A PHOTO CLASS. There are hundred of them, it's easy to find a decent one, and by knowing how to use the tool you've got, you'll be able to get better results pretty quickly. Assignments are often lame, but DO THEM because they teach you the rudiments of setting out for a specific goal and figuring out how to achieve that goal with your tool.

For the second, get a Holga or a Lomographic 4-shot. They're toy cameras, so the whole point is to screw around with them and be surprised by what comes out. They'll also give you a much better sense of what photos look like and (if you become a better photographer) make you much better about editing prior to taking the shot (film has that conceptual advantage, at least). They're novelties, but they're cheap novelties and a lot of fun, and can make even a "boring" town look pretty wild and goofy or trippy and dreamy.

(For what it's worth, I do almost all my shooting with a Minolta XG-M, from around 1980. It's from the golden period of film cameras where internal light meters were cheap, but they didn't have the auto-advance "feature" that tends to break. They're up on eBay for around $50-60, and 35mm film is still pretty cheap and easy to get processed.)
posted by klangklangston at 9:32 AM on October 14, 2010

Oh, also go to your local library and start taking out photo books. I'm loving John Gutmann's Restless Decade right now, as he seems to be right between Walker Evans and Robert Franks. Great stuff.
posted by klangklangston at 9:33 AM on October 14, 2010

I've been there. Stay far away from Flickr. That's poison. I'd also stay away from Strobist-y commercial how-to blogs for a while, though they could very well be useful once you've got your headspace a bit more sorted.

Look at lots of good photography. Really good photography. Go to a really good photography bookshop and look through lots of monographs. Buy things like the Sally Mann book. Read blogs that talk about established or fine arts photographers like Conscientous, Lens Culture, Alec Soth's blog and some others from their relative link lists. Read magazines like Eyemazing (I'm sure a decent library will stock these kind of things.)

Hopefully that will start to get you inspired again. Good luck!
posted by Magnakai at 9:49 AM on October 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

It seems there are two issues here: Grappling with a new camera, as well as being back home and being in too familiar surroundings.

Do you really need a dslr? It seems like you were using a PNS first. I just got back from a trip from Greece, where my dslr died (seawater/rain incident) and I took out my PNS for the rest of the trip.

Results: Near indistinguishable for all the tourist type shots. Pixel peeping the results indicate that the dslr has a slight edge, but for web/blog use for the kind of photography, a PNS is perfectly fine, and actually less time for me to put online since I don't need to convert the raws to jpegs.

A dslr is much more complicated to use than a point and shoot, hence the name, point and shoot; proper focus and exposure is key, as dslrs generally don't have the massive depth of field most PNS cameras give. In addition, PNSes usually give very nice punchy color out of the box; my experience with dslrs is they aren't as "pretty" - it's up to the photographer to post process later to deliver to the viewer the feel/emotion he/she wanted to portray.

Don't be disheartened. Check out this site on some photography techniques and tutorials: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com

posted by TrinsicWS at 10:03 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is a shit ton of good photography on Flickr. If you can't find it, you're being lazy. HCSP, Contract Killers, Farewell Photography ... the list goes on and on.
posted by chunking express at 10:12 AM on October 14, 2010

You have two issues: gear and subjects.

The gear question for photography is I think very simple in your case. You need gear you enjoy using. This may involve a class that can familiarize you with the basics of DSLR photography or it may involve a new camera or going back to your old camera. The most important thing for any camera is that it inspires you to pick it up and shoot with it.

Subject is trickier, though you had some great experiences that will help guide you. What did you shoot when you traveled—friends, strangers, buildings, bugs ... ? And what did you enjoy the most?

Some photographers shoot only one or two kinds of things—you aren't required to be able to make magic out of just any situation. Being a photographer is often as much about building the context within which you can take great shots as it is about taking that shot.

If it was traveling itself that inspired you, maybe you can plan weekend trips that will get your juices flowing. New sites are huge for inspiration!
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:04 AM on October 14, 2010

You could get an old Nikon F3 and a suitable lens for not so much and just do Old School. [This dude, for example, uses all sorts of equipment, and some of his results are really nice (or so I think)]. I'm still using mine, which I bought well-used 21 years ago - although we have 2 types of digital cameras at home. [Check the mirror foam padding, though. There are web-selling resources for cheap and good replacements, but still.]

What I did change in comparison to 10 years ago is that I order high-res CDs together with the prints in order to get stuff onto my computer and fiddle a little whenever I feel like it. Works great for me.
posted by Namlit at 11:14 AM on October 14, 2010

I have a degree in photography and I still take tons of bad photographs. That part is completely normal. If you had an opportunity to look at all the shots from a professional photogs shoot you would be shocked at how many bad images there are. That's what makes photography so awesome: you can experiment and play and fail and succeed without a huge investment of time like you would have in a drawing or painting. So give your self permission to not be awesome all the time.

I would NOT recommend using a Holga at this stage. I shoot almost exclusively with toy cameras so this is not bias against them but I do find that beginning photographers sometimes get really frustrated with them. Toy cameras give you a really narrow range of conditions in which they will take adequately exposed images and you have to be able to tell when you are in those conditions. Once you get comfortable with assessing lighting conditions then you should give them a try.

Go back to your P&S. Go outside and take pictures. Look through the viewfinder, don't look through the viewfinder, take 25 pictures of the same scene from 25 different angles, take pictures you know will be boring. Just TAKE PICTURES. And this is really important: Do not judge your pictures while you are taking them. No deleting, no thinking this is awful, I'm no good at this. None of that! Just play. Then, go home and load them all up on your computer and look at them. This is where criticism comes in. Which ones do you like? Why? Why are they better than others? Lighting? Composition? Subject matter? You will quickly start to get familiar with what you like to shoot.

In the meantime, research photographers, the really good ones. Photo books at the library, online galleries, Magnum's website. . .Look look look at great photography with a critical eye. Why do you like it? Are there certain qualities of light? Subject matter that interests you?

Also, you should find tutorials or books that talk about the basics of photography. Shutter speed and aperture. These are the two aspects of your camera that control how your images look. The awesome thing about a DSLR is that you can set up a scene (like in your back yard) and photograph it with a bunch of different settings and then see the difference almost immediately. Don't worry about flash and lighting just yet. You can do plenty with just your camera.

So, that's my crash course in photography. The main ingredients are experimentation and looking. You don't have to be great right away; that comes with practice and passion! Sorry this is long but I really love photography and I don't like when people get frustrated with the tools. Its not about tools. Photography is more about paying attention to the parts of our world that interest us. Cool? Now, go take pictures!
posted by rachums at 11:43 AM on October 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Having taken pictures for the better part of a decade but only owning a DSLR for less than two years, I've found that my mentality of how I approach photography with more gear in tow has forced me to relearn a lot of principles that I thought I had mastered- the sort of stuff you don't usually learn in a photography class or is made obvious by looking at pictures - like how to approach a scene without being distracting, how to take a picture of someone and get them to relax, how to grab that moment or grab it again if at first you don't succeed.

Also, several of my friends are convinced my camera does all the work so I gladly hand them my camera while I take whatever point & shoot camera they have. Fiddle with the menu, get into the manual settings and start snapping away. Often times if they are not photographically inclined beyond a P&S, my pictures will easily trump theirs and a lesson learned.

In truth, I highly recommend mastering a point & shoot camera. Many P&S's actually come with a degree of manual control that is almost on par with a DSLR. Canon S90/S95, I'm looking at you. In automatic mode (or scene-type selection modes), it should show you what settings it used to take the picture with. From manual mode, you can adjust against those settings and learn what minor or major deviations will do. This was the basis for most of my learning, aside from a couple lectures from dad.

And yes, those of us who call ourselves photographers - we try and put up our best work for display. Of a particular shoot where I'll take between 200 to 2000 pictures, I typically at best only will use 1-10%, and if that happens to be over 20 I really try and distill it down further.
posted by liquoredonlife at 3:03 PM on October 14, 2010

Also, several of my friends are convinced my camera does all the work...

Been there as well. They often mean it as a compliment regarding the fine equipment, but they don't realize how dismissive it is of the skill to see a good photo regardless of the equipment.
posted by dgran at 11:41 AM on October 15, 2010

It sounds to me like you have two issues: you're not inspired, and you lack some knowledge of the fundamentals. I tend to solve both of those problems by befriending people who are photographers. Taking a beginner's class would also be a great way to get your learn on. I often find that I don't necessarily "feel like" shooting until I actually get out and start shooting, and then I get excited about it.

Where in NZ are you? I'm in Wellington. If you want to meet up sometime, send me a MeFi mail.
posted by hootenatty at 2:45 PM on October 15, 2010

Hi everyone, thanks for all the good answers.

Since a few of you mentioned, here are some of my photos. These are from the last six months or so with my DSLR. These are my favourites, but I've tried to include some ones which didn't meet the potential I felt on various occasions. I don't update this regularly.

Just to clarify: I do understand aperture, shutter speed, white balance, ISO, focal length, and other basics. It just seems like putting all of these things into play when outside, faced with a subject which I may only have a limited time to capture, plus the feeling like I need to take an excellent, creative, distinctive, technically perfect photograph, plus my camera malfunctioning - it feels like I'm trying to build a house of cards with Parkinson's.

As for my camera's faults: firstly, it can only take three photographs in a row, then it locks up and processes for several seconds. Something went wrong and it can no longer shoot continuously. Also, the time it takes to display a shot image on the LCD seems very long. The second fault is perhaps not a fault of the camera, and may be because of a battery charging problem - every time I take AAs out of the charger and put them in the camera, the camera battery meter shows a completely depleted status. If I turn it on and off again, this will change - to full or half-full. But after taking ~15 photos, the camera will power off. If I turn it on again, it will shoot some more photos, but basically it keeps dying and I have to check every shot to see whether I am still using a living camera (DSLR viewfinders still showing light even when the camera is off). Whether this is a problem with my camera, batteries, or battery charger, it makes me realise that it was a very dumb move of me to buy a camera which relied on AA batteries, just because it was cheaper than a camera which comes with a lithium battery and a proprietary charger included.

I feel like, even if it functioned perfectly, it would still spend a lot of time on my shelf just because I would never carry around a big camera all the time - it just doesn't fit into my lifestyle.

I would have sold my camera already, except that I don't want to face up to the devaluation of its possibly twofold crippling faults.

My plan, basically, is to buy an iPhone 4, and then, because it will be on me all the time, take more shots of sudden found-opportunities or in social situations, and get more comfortable aking photos, that way.
posted by schmichael at 5:54 PM on October 16, 2010

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