Photography brain-dump


“People always ask me if I have any words of advice for young people”
William H. Burroughs

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
The Great Oz

Here it is: the sum content of the tricks and short-cuts I’ve learnt in the past couple of years about taking halfway decent photographs. It’s no substitute for genuine talent,  but as Woody Allen said “90% of life is just showing up”, and in the same vein 90% of genuine talent can be faked. And frankly, if you’re willing to take advice on child-raising from Burroughs, then what follows will seem fairly sane by comparison.

General pointers

“How do I take good photographs?”

A friend asked me this on a climb not long ago. I asked him where his camera was, and he replied that it was in his pack. I asked him where mine was, and he pointed to where it was hanging off my shoulder strap. Lifting the camera to my face, I took a shot of him quizzically pointing at me, with the mountains arrayed in the background. It was a good photograph. Why didn’t he get an equally good shot?

If you’re not taking photos, then you’ll have a hard time taking good photos.

If you’re faking genuine talent, then you need to take a lot of photos. In “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he suggests that 10,000 hours of practice is needed for a genius-level of mastery in any field. And while you won’t be Ansel Adams, I do know that if you take 10,000 photographs then you’ll learn a few things. Thankfully this is a largely costless exercise in the era of digital photography. (Incidentally, the standard file-numbering system for a digital camera starts at 1 and rolls over at 9999 – since getting my Nikon a couple of years ago, I think I’ve rolled over about four times. It’s a good way to keep track).

“Yield” (good photos as a percent of total taken) in photography is ridiculously low. The best photographers, from what I’ve heard, would be delighted if they got 2 good shots for every roll of 36 taken. More often, it was one or less. I think my yield is between 0.25% and 1%. On a good weekend in the mountains, I’ll take maybe 500-800 shots and the best four or five turn up in the blog. The nice thing is that nobody knows this – for all you know (until now), I took five shots and they all worked out great. There’s no objective difference between a great shot that was taken on its own, and a great shot that was one of a hundred taken of the same scene.

Volume like this requires that your camera is on-hand all the time. If you’re digging your camera out of your pack all the time, then you just won’t shoot enough. Here’s my only genuinely original contribution to the field:


The aluminium bullring costs nearly nothing, and both saves wear on your shoulder strap as well as making it much easier to clip and unclip the camera (especially in cold weather with gloves – which is why I use a full-size krab). At a pinch, I find I can even take photos without unclipping the camera. The camera itself hangs down a little under my arm, which I feel might protect it. But it does take the occasional bash, and it may break in a bad fall – but ask yourself if you want a pristine camera that has never taken a good shot, or a broken one that has taken thousands…?

Gear & settings

I use a Nikon D80 with a Nikkor 18-200mn VR lens. I have a cheap infra-red remote, a $7 tripod (because it’s light, and dispensable – I’ve belayed off one, and I broke another one up to use as snow pegs during a storm). But my pride and joy is my polarising filter. There’s a reason everything looks cooler when you have sunglasses on. It’s the difference between this:


which is nice, and this:


which is nicer. Same shot, same exact settings, but a 90 degree twist of the filter makes a whole new photograph. Trees look alive, water looks crystal clear and blue-sky on snow looks amazing. Get one, and before each shot, do the Twist.

I shoot in P (Program) mode all the time. Mainly because Ken Rockwell says I should, and it’s dead easy. Real photographers know all about f-stops and apertures, which awes me.

My D80 is set to Ken’s recommendations, although I tend to keep ISO fixed at 200. The other major departure is that I shoot on the Cloudy white-balance setting as a matter of course – only in bright sunlight do I switch to Sunny. I like the warmth that the cloudy setting gives. As he mentions, the exposure meter on the D80 is suspect, so this is the one setting that I fiddle with on a shot-by-shot basis. I shoot jpeg in 3872×2592 format – because RAW is just too big given the volume of shots and relatively small amount of post-processing I do.

Framing & Composition
I read about an experiment a few years ago where they measured how the movements of an artist’s eyes, when viewing a painting or photograph, differed to the movements of an average subject’s. They found that the average subject honed in on the central focus of the scene and stayed there, whereas the artist looked at every part of the image with almost equal intensity. Quantitative differences like that intrigue me, because if you can find out how talented people differ, then you can copy what they do and start to fake talent.

So I try to look at the whole scene through the viewfinder. Simple things like getting a straight horizon, some symmetry, checking that pylons aren’t sticking up in odd places. Take a shot with the subject in the center, another with it off center. I look at the corners and the edges a lot, and try to imagine them as a frame in themselves. I take multiple shots of the same scene with very tiny movements in position – it’s remarkable how just a few degrees to the right or left can totally change a photograph. As far as possible though, I want to frame the entire shot in-camera, rather than having to adjust things on the computer later.

If you’re faking talent, and you want to nail a scene, then half a dozen shots usually does it.

Time of day
If I look at the photos which I like best, I generally find that most of them were taken in early morning or the evening. Guru Ken makes the same point, and also adds that the best colours only stick around for a minute or so. Again, if your camera is in your pack, or you only shoot one photo of a sunset, then what are the chances that you’re going to get a great shot?

In the mountains, I get up before dawn and start shooting right away. I know that the first shots will be fairly uninteresting, but it gives me an idea of where everything is, and you start to see how the light is going to play out. Then it usually gets better and better, until suddenly everything goes flat (usually around the time that the sun fully clears the horizon by 5 degrees or so). The same in the evening – where possible, I want to be camped a good hour before sunset, and start shooting.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography has been around for a long time. The best tutorial and examples I’ve found are here. I use Photomax to produce mine, and used the discount coupon in the aforementioned tutorial to buy it. If I’m absolutely honest, I find Ratcliff’s images a little overdone, but that’s personal preference. I rather prefer these.

The D80 has an exposure bracketing function, which allows 3 shots of different exposures. I should use a tripod more for these, but thankfully Photomax is quite forgiving; hand-held works out OK most of the time.

I can’t add much more over Ratcliff’s tutorial, except to make two observations. Firstly, I find I use HDR more when the weather is overcast or the light is bad. When the light is good, I don’t need to bother. Secondly, a badly composed scene doesn’t become good when you HDR it. If you put it through Photomax and the default settings just don’t work, then no amount of playing about with the settings will make it good. Move on.

If everything has worked out, then I don’t use any post-processing and photos go straight onto Flickr and the blog. But some shots may need a little extra love, often because I screwed something up. Personally, I find that is easier for basic operations like resizing, cropping and straightening. As mentioned above, the D80 exposure meter is suspect, and so I tend to shoot slightly under-exposed on the basis that I can lighten a dark shot but overblown highlights are lost forever. is good for this (it’s free, too).

Auto-levelling (in both and Photoshop) can both save a photo and create interesting new effects. This shot of Kita-dake was taken with white balance set to Cloudy – my default, and seemed right at the time, but didn’t come out as I wanted:


When auto-leveled, it becomes:


a huge improvement.

Sometimes it does interesting things – here’s a before-shot on the Yari galcier:


and here’s the after-shot, which became almost posterised:


More recently, I’ve been experimenting with manually adjusting the curves in Photoshop (although the same goes for

1. Add a new Adjustment Layer (Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Curves – or click the half-shaded circle in the Layers window and select Curves).


2. Select each colour seperately (Red, then Green, then Blue) and push the curve into an S-shape.


I used this for the most recent shots on the blog (the light on Amagi was not great). The waterfall shot is HDR, but all the others are straight single-shots with the curves bumped a little. The shot above went from:




Not a huge difference, but just enough at the margin to really pick up the beautiful light that day. The further you push the curves, the more luminous the scene becomes:




(The contrast was also bumped a little for this one, but the bulk of the work was done through adjusting the curves).

That’s pretty much it. A few simple admonitions for young and old, to quote Burroughs again. I hope it’s maybe useful, or at least interesting. But of course, what it really comes down to is “go to beautiful places and press the shutter” – and I do admit that Japan makes it awfully easy..

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