Lion of the Blogosphere

Advice on how to be more competent at photography

Commenter albert magnus asks:

What’s the best way to be competent at photography? Are classes better than books? Do you need all that expensive Adobe software? I’ve taken a lot of pictures, but I never seem to get better at it.

Whenever you see a photo that looks great, most of the time the photo did not come out of the camera that way as a JPG, but has been worked over in post-processing software.

I shoot all of my photos in Raw and then use Adobe Photoshop CS6 (which includes a Raw developing module called Adobe Camera Raw). Yes, it’s not cheap software.

If you are looking for the poor man’s Raw processing solution, I recommend DXO Optics Pro 8 which is only $99. There’s a free 31-day trial which briefly I tried, and I think I like Adobe Camera Raw better, but if I didn’t have $600 I could make do with DXO). I would then finish the photos off (resize, sharpen using the Smart Sharpen filter, save for the web) using the free edition of Adobe Photoshop CS2. (Why is Adobe giving its old software away for free? It must be some marketing ploy to get you addicted to expensive Adobe products and then you will want to upgrade to the latest edition. It’s the new “freemium” model.)

Why can’t you use the old version of Photoshop to develop your Raw files? The answer is because it doesn’t support any current camera that you would be using. Also, the latest Raw converters (including the DXO program mentioned above) have all kinds of cool stuff that wasn’t in the CS2 version of Adobe Camera Raw.

In order to use a Raw workflow, you need a camera that saves Raw files. The best entry point into shooting Raw is the Panasonic LX7 which goes on sale from time to time for only $299. The lens produces a little more flare than I like, but otherwise the LX7 is light years ahead of just about any other fixed-lens camera. Stepping up to the world of interchangeable lens cameras is going to be a lot more expensive.

As far as learning how to use the software I mentioned above, the bad news is that it’s pretty complicated software and it can be intimidating if you don’t know anything about photo editing. As far as whether it’s best to lean in a class or on your own, it’s obviously less expensive to learn on your own, but people seem to enjoy attending classes (which is why MOOCs are going to be such a hard sell as an alternative to traditional education).

I hope this post helped.

* * *

Lightroom 4, for $149 direct from Adobe, is also a viable alternative for those too cheap to shell out for Photoshop CS6, and then you can still use free Photoshop CS2 to finish off your photos. And in fact, it may be easier to learn how to use because there is so much instructional material based around Adobe products.

* * *

I deleted what I wrote before about the Lightroom database, because David Flory says that “Lightroom maintains its own database file, and can optionally export your photo changes in XMP sidecar files (which will let other programs like Adobe Bridge see your changes) It does NOT mess with your original RAW files or make them inaccessible to other software.” So that sounds like a plus for Lightroom, but not super useful to the amateur photographer who doesn’t have that many photos to keep track of.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

January 21, 2013 at 4:24 PM

Posted in Photography

23 Responses

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  1. Thanks a lot, that’s very useful. I’m not sure the software is so hard to use as much as I’m not sure what to do with it.

    albert magnus

    January 21, 2013 at 5:34 PM

  2. You forgot to mention Adobe Lightroom, which uses the same Camera Raw development software as CS6, and is specifically designed for managing RAW photo libraries. It’s also a lot cheaper than Photoshop, although it’s editing and auto color correction abilities are much more limited. If you have a large collection of RAW files, I think it’s pretty much essential just for keeping track of them.

    For Nikon users only, I still think Nikon’s own Capture NX2 software (free trial ~$130) does some of the best development of Nikon RAW files. Nikon cameras have a nearly magical intelligent regional exposure adjustment (D-lighting), which cannot be utilized in Adobe software, but is fully adjustable in Capture NX2. Nikon users should definitely download the trial and try it out. Nikon’s own free ViewNX software is pretty competent management/viewing software, and can substitute for Lightroom for many users.

    David Flory

    January 21, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    • Lightroom 4, for $149 direct from Adobe, is also a viable alternative for those too cheap to shell out for Photoshop CS6, and then you can still use free Photoshop CS2. And in fact, it may be easier to learn how to use because there is so much instructional material based around Adobe products.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      January 21, 2013 at 6:03 PM

      • FYI, Lightroom maintains its own database file, and can optionally export your photo changes in XMP sidecar files (which will let other programs like Adobe Bridge see your changes) It does NOT mess with your original RAW files or make them inaccessible to other software. The RAW’s can be placed anywhere you like in the filesystem, and Lightroom keeps track of your changes with its own database. For example, I have it set up to import all my RAW’s into directories arranged by date, i.e. 2008/12-12-2008.

        I’d like to add that Photoshop and Lightroom are really totally different products. Lightroom has nothing approaching PS’s editing power. It’s real strength is it’s capability for organizing and working with huge RAW libraries, its fast, non-destructive editing (with easy comparison of multiple snapshot versions of your edits), metadata management (including GPS tags with maps) and fast output of jpgs, Flash galleries, PDFs, etc. You ought to download the trial and try it out. You can specify at import to leave all files at their current location, so it won’t move or rename your RAWs.

        Thanks a lot for the info about the free Adobe software! I didn’t even know that was available. Photoshop CS2 is really enough for just about anything not involving 3D or really huge files.

        David Flory

        January 21, 2013 at 9:40 PM

  3. […] Earlier today, I asked why Adobe is giving away Photoshop CS2 for free. The question is now answered. They are embracing the whale model. In fact, Adobe always sort of used this approach, selling Photoshop Elements for one-seventh the price of the full version of Photoshop. Adobe is simply moving this to the next level by just giving away a less useful version of Photoshop for free. […]

  4. In response to Albert Magnus: You can learn a great deal from books, but there isn’t any substitute from actually having one’s work critiqued intelligently. A photography class from someone whose work (and whose students’ work) impresses you would likely push your photography to a much higher level.

    I’d like to add that the essentials of photography–framing, exposure, aperture, shutter-speed, depth of field, focus, etc.–are unchanged from film photography. Only the “film” and “darkroom” has changed. Traditional books and classes on film photography can be very useful in forcing one to slow down and understand the fundamentals of composing fine photographs.

    David Flory

    January 21, 2013 at 5:55 PM

  5. Lightroom will accommodate your pre-existing directory hierarchy if you so wish. Or any new arrangement you wish to set up. For some reason I originally set it to keep the output of different cameras in different directories, but within those directories to use the default LR pattern of year, month, date nested folders. Doing this was unnecessary, since I can search for specific cameras using the metadata LR stores. (Even down to serial number if one’s cameras are all the same model.) Similarly with respect to different lenses, various ISOs, and so on–things for which it would be absurd to set up distinct directories. And naturally I keyword photos by subject, location, or genre. There is much discussion of this in Martin Evening’s books and probably other Lightroom books.


    January 21, 2013 at 9:51 PM

  6. If you don’t have a good eye and can’t frame things, it doesn’t matter how good the camera or the software is. Some people can “see” a good photograph, and take it, and others just can’t. I guess it’s the inverse of being photogenic.


    January 21, 2013 at 10:35 PM

  7. lion, your advice isn’t that great. photography is about seeing and feeling. to take great photos, first study the masters, find several you really admire, and try to copy their style. after doing that for several years, work on developing your own style. photography really has very little to do with computers or software.


    January 22, 2013 at 1:01 PM

    • Ansel Adams wrote a famous three-part series on photography: The Camera, The Negative and The Print. He clearly felt that the technical stuff was important.

      Before computers, any real class on photography had a darkroom component to it. The computer is the new darkroom.

      That’s not to say that there aren’t people who are competent with the technology but take lousy photos nevertheless. But it’s the important next step for people who previously only look at the JPGs that come straight out of the camera. And I think the #1 reason why photos don’t look is because they need post processing. Many stunning photos you see would look like garbage were it not for the post-processing.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      January 22, 2013 at 1:05 PM

  8. Thank you for the suggestions from the other commenters.

    I know there is an element of art to photography, but like anything else there are probably just a dozen rules of thumb you can learn that will make you much better and don’t require any creativity or talent on the photographers part.

    albert magnus

    January 22, 2013 at 4:42 PM

  9. You should consider teaching a Skillshare class on photography.


    January 22, 2013 at 11:41 PM

  10. Technical stuff is important, which is why I shoot in raw, and do that stuff Lion mentioned. However, Lightroom can’t save you from duckface.

    To learn about composition and framing, look at photos you think look nice done by people who probably got paid for their work. Look carefully and notice what’s in them, as well as what isn’t in them. Remember that a lot of the art of photography is catching the way the light interacts with the subject. Go from there.


    January 23, 2013 at 5:30 PM

  11. The only photography advice the Lion should be giving anyone (at this point, at least) is to ask someone else.


    January 23, 2013 at 5:36 PM

    • Notice how I tolerantly allow comments like this, even though they have no purpose except to lower the blogger’s self esteem.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      January 23, 2013 at 5:42 PM

      • I was with you until “no purpose”. My post served lots of other purposes. It told you to stop posting about things you just dabble in (again, at this point–you’ll note that I’m acknowledging things may change). It told others to forget what you said and look elsewhere. It satisfied my own desire for truth. etc.


        January 23, 2013 at 5:51 PM

      • Well you’re wrong. The advice to learn how to post-process is good advice. It’s what you would learn in any real photography class.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        January 23, 2013 at 6:12 PM

      • Saying “learn post-processing” and listing a few software titles is not advice that needed or deserved to be given.

        But hey, that’s me. I just think you’re a much more effective blogger when you’re not trying to pass yourself off as some kind of artistic type. It shows. To someone who knows what they’re (you’re) talking about, it shows.


        January 23, 2013 at 6:33 PM

      • Yes, the advice is needed because most people don’t realize they need to learn post-processing; maybe they are lazy and just think that good photographs come from thinking artistically or something. Photography is a lot like what Thomas Edison said about invention being 99% perspiration and only 1% inspiration.

        As far as more specific advice on HOW to post-process, I assume that my readers are smart enough to buy a book or avail themselves of free learning resources on the internet.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        January 23, 2013 at 8:51 PM

  12. lion, i agree with RBG, and while yeah, he could have said it in a “nicer” manner, you could argue that his tone is consistent with the tone of your blog: direct, honest, no bullshit — which is a huge compliment. now i think most of us who come check out your blog — out of the ten million other blog sites out there — we love and admire your thinking and your writing because you are the opposite of the MSM, you think for yourself, and you cut through all the lies and misconceptions. i don’t know what you think about christopher hitchens, but in a way, you remind me of him, and that is very high praise. yeah, hitchens was wrong about a bunch of things, but he was a brilliant and original thinker. did you read his book on mother teresa, and his other book on bill clinton? awesome.

    this is just a long way of saying that just like you are an amazing blogger, you are not an amazing photographer. you are a beginner — or at least, you are “not accomplished”, as you said. i guess if someone wants to ask you in particular for photography advice, maybe they like you work, and it’s your blog anyway, so you have all the right to give the advice. however, in the pursuit of truth and honesty, i think you should know better than to give bad advice, and you should recognize when you’re wrong. after all, isn’t that what your blog is about — finding out the *real truth*, not the bullshit msm truth?

    just like there is a “big lie” about law school, there is a “big lie” about photography. the big lie about photography is that photography is a technical, technological pursuit. that is about 99% wrong. in searching for an analogy — analogies are dangerous, and usually don’t work, but fuck it — i would say something like:

    1. being a great driver comes from knowing how to use the stick shift
    2. being a great cook comes from knowing how to do “plating”
    3. being a great writer comes from having a great vocabulary

    anyway, my point in all this is that being a great photographer comes from knowing how to see things that other people don’t see. it comes from becoming very sensitive to light and life and beauty, and using the little machine to capture this light and life and beauty. post processing can be important, but really, is just the “icing on the cake” as well as just the beginning. you need to know how to use a camera — fstops, shutter speed, lenses, etc etc — and you need to know about post processing, at least a little bit — but that is just 1% of photography.

    and finally, in case you were wondering, i actually *am* an accomplished photographer, and a professional photographer — although saying that someone is a “professional” photographer is not saying much these days, there is a lot of crap out there. even more importantly, i am an art director and creative director, and i have worked on some major advertising campaigns. i get paid for my creativity, my eye, and my aesthetic. that is how i make my living, and i love it.

    alright my man, gotta go, back to work!

    ps. love your blog, lion. few people have made me see the world in new ways. you are one of them.


    January 24, 2013 at 2:02 AM

  13. […] my comment on lion’s blog: […]

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