Hope Versus Fear

It seems that society is always migrating toward two opposing expectations, and this dichotomy is even showing up in the photographic community: hope versus fear.

I hesitated at writing this article for some time because it borders on political and other types of beliefs, but if you're trying to improve yourself as a photographer, I really think you need to understand whether you're veering towards one of these two extremes. If you don't come to grips with this, you're not likely to improve, certainly not improve as fast as you can or should.

First, a bit about myself. Growing up, one of the first thought structures I was exposed to was the scientific method. Hypothesis, test, analyze, refine, repeat. Many of you probably realize that I still practice this today, though perhaps not as formally as scientists do. 

I'd call this proactive pragmatism. Some call it lifelong learning. 

The reason why I tend to improve at what I do over time is that I take my current knowledge and skills, and then challenge them. Could I do a little better at capturing the peak moment in a sports sequence? Hmm, I don't know. Let's form a hypothesis: I don't know the sport well enough, or the team's or the player's tendencies well enough. Okay, so how do I test that? I try learning more about the sport, team, and player and shoot again. 

Now that isn't a well-controlled test with all but one variable held constant. No Nobel Prize is going to be awarded for that. I'm not a scientist, though, I'm just using a simplified version of what scientists do so that I have a structure to work with.

Did my results improve after my study? If yes, then I have potential confirmation of my hypothesis and need to see if I can refine that and do even better. If no, then I need to form a completely new hypothesis and test that.

So where does hope and fear come into play?

In the sports example I just used, curiously both the hoper and the fearer tend to do the same thing instead of what I just suggested: they crank up their frame rate. The person devoted to hope just hopes that the camera is fast enough to capture the right moment, while the person devoted to fear is afraid that they aren't able to find the right moment themselves, so they want the camera to try to capture it accidentally. 

I remember the days when 2.5 fps was considered miraculous, though it didn't help my own personal hit rate any. Then it was 4 fps, then 6 fps, 8 fps, 12 fps, and these days 20 fps. 

None of these gains in frame rate have had much of an impact on whether I get a sports or wildlife shot. I was standing next to another pro shooter at a football game last year, and he was surprised that I was on and off the shutter during a play. He was down with the shutter release from just before the snap until his buffer filled. Was he getting more keepers than me? No.

My observation of "shutter mashers"—those that rely upon fast continuous frame rates (and focus) to capture action—is that most of what they do is increase their workflow and the number of images they throw away. 

With birds in flight, for instance, I'm always struck by how many keep the shutter release pressed and the frames piling up after the bird has passed them. Bird heading towards you: possibly good shot. Bird parallel with you: possibly good shot. Bird flying away from you: not at all likely a good shot. The only way a "flying away from you" shot tends to work is if the bird is clearly flying towards something interesting, and the shutter mashers only get that by accident. But I've seen them stack up 24 or more frames of a bird flying away from them. 24 frames that they had to download to their computer, look at, and throw away (or at least mark in some way so that they ignore them).

Relying upon hope or fear doesn't necessarily make you a better photographer. Worse, it can make you choose gear poorly, too.

The person relying upon hope just trusts that their camera maker will get around to offering the performance or feature they need. Given that the best photos are moments in time that generally don't repeat, waiting for a camera maker too long means that you're missing out on potential great images. 

While I'm not a great advocate of switching systems (or bodies within a system), there are times when you have to take what the camera maker is or isn't giving you into consideration. Pros who regularly budget for gear upgrades are among some of the most likely brand or camera switchers, as they can't afford to be passing up on the best possible images they could take. 

Meanwhile, relying upon fear—typically fear of missing out in the gear context—has people switching gear thinking that it's the equipment that causing their photos to be less than they want them to be. Rarely have I seen that to be the case, though it does happen from time to time.

Don't get me wrong: a little bit of hope or fear can be a good thing. I go into every shooting session with hope that I can capture something I believe will be present, and with a little bit of fear that I might miss it if I'm not paying close enough attention. The hope comes from study of the subject and anticipation of what I'm shooting. The fear can add a bit of adrenalin and concentration to help me capture it, as long as I don't get carried away with it. 

But hope and fear shouldn't be the things you rely upon to improve. 

The thing will help you improve the most is being pragmatic. Set goals and practice. Goals are things you can put into your hypotheses (e.g. I want to improve X, so maybe if I do Y I'll improve X). Practice is a form of testing (and also a form of hypothesis: e.g. if I practice more I'll get better). 

Don't go buying camera gear willy nilly thinking it will help you in some way. Test that hypothesis: rent a lens or camera from my pal Roger Cicala at LensRentals and see if you can verify that a change improves something for you before you commit your big bucks to big change (hmm, hypothesis: new gear will make me better; test: rent it and use it; analysis: look at the results before concluding). 

Today's assignment: form a hypothesis about something you think might improve your photography, come up with a test to see if it does, perform the test and analyze the results. Repeat often.

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