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Only show the good ones

I can teach you how to be an amazing photographer in one simple lesson. That lesson is this - only show the good ones.

This may seem like humor, but it’s very true. Even the most inexperienced photographer can get a lucky shot from time to time. Inversely, the world’s most amazing photographers have hundreds of horrible images. The difference is, these great photographers don’t ever let you see them. Their portfolios look amazing because their less than stellar photos end up in the recycle bin. 

When you invest in better camera equipment, photography lessons, expensive trips to amazing destinations, and time to hone your craft, what you are doing is increasing your odds of getting a better photo. With the photo instruction we provide at Divetech, that is what it all boils down to - to help you increase your ratio of good photos to bad photos. 

Nauticam EMWL
Author, shooting a sea turtle with the Nauticam EMWL lens. Photo credit: Ben Phillips.

I myself feel like I am an average photographer at best. I know the nuances of photographic composition, but I often struggle with it. I routinely make dumb mistakes in focus, exposure settings, and strobe intensity. My co-workers will often hear me mumbling curse words from my office, as I take my first look at the day's photos.

When I tell others that I am a mediocre photographer, they immediately disagree. And the reason they feel this way is because I only keep and show my best photographs. However if you were to examine my memory card after a dive, you’d find I have a mediocre ratio of good shots to bad shots. On a typical dive, I will take 200-300 photos, and perhaps I will show 5-10 of them.

This lesson was hammered home to me a few weeks ago. The Cayman Turtle Center will periodically release many of their hatchlings into the wild, and I had the opportunity to tag along and photograph these cute little critters. In my 30 minute time with them, I saw 50 baby green turtles swimming like mad in all directions and I took hundreds of photos. However when I got home, I was crushed to see that almost all of them were not usable. I could offer excuses as to why, but the bottom line is they just weren't good photos. Many of them were out of focus, poorly lit, or just had bad composition, despite the near perfect sea conditions I had that day. Much to the dismay of my girlfriend, I began deleting these photos as fast as I could. It lead to this dialogue: 

Her: Why are you deleting them? 

Me: Because they all suck. 

Her: Nooo! Keep them!

Had I posted every shot I had from this adventure, it would serve to let my Facebook friends know I had done something cool this day, but reduced my reputation as a good photographer. 

Could have potentially been a good shot, but it's horribly out of focus, so it must go.

To make the sometimes difficult decision on what to keep and what to throw out, you need to be super hard on yourself. Here’s some of the criteria I personally use to determine what gets saved, and what goes in the trash bin. 

Don’t let anyone else see the photos 

Your friends, dive buddies or significant other will always be supportive of you, and even if they see a bad photo, human nature will prevent them from telling you it sucks, and this will build up a false sense of confidence. It will also lead to doubt when it comes to deleting a photo that’s marginal. When you first download your photos, do so alone before anyone can come up behind you and supportively say “that’s a good shot….”

After the photos have been imported into my Lightroom catalog, I make several passes through them. The first pass is performed in 'grid view' to quickly delete any obvious junk shots.

Lightroom's 'grid view' allows for you to see many photos all on one screen.

My second pass will be made in 'loupe view' which is just a fancy way of saying it shows a single photo on the screen. When making my second pass I will look for the following reasons to delete more photos:

Bad focus

I want to remove any shots that are out of focus. Having some parts of a shot out of focus is ok. Bokeh, is using depth of field to help draw your viewer's eye to the subject. However whatever the subject is, it needs to be sharp. If your subject has a face, it should be in crisp focus, particularly the eyes. No matter how awesome the rest of the photograph may be, if the eyes and face are not in focus, the photo isn't a keeper.

Look for bad composition

This is a tough one. Composition is defined as “the artistic arrangement of the parts of a picture.” Explaining this definition cannot be done in a short article. In art schools, students can spend many semesters on the subject, if not entire degree programs. When it comes to composition, your photos should have some balance to them. Simplicity is one thing I try to instill in my photography students. The photo should be as simple as possible, with your eye immediately drawn to the subject. You can have a perfectly focused and illuminated shot of the pygmy seahorse, but if he is lost in the confusing clutter of coral, it’s not as good as the photo that has simple negative space around him.

Some photographers have a natural gift for composition. Others like myself struggle with it, and have to work hard on it. Some quick rules of thumb:

  • Identify a subject in the frame. This can be a fish, diver, coral head, or a bait ball of 10,000 fish. But pick something to be the main focus of your shot. This is your subject.

  • Place your subject into one of the 'thirds' of your photo frame. If you don't know what this means, read up on the rule of thirds.

  • Now look at your negative space. This is all of the area where your subject isn't. Make this space a simple as possible. Find a way to isolate the subject and remove from the negative space, as much clutter as you can. This is done by changing the angle that you are shooting from, not by physically moving things underwater. Shooting up can help simplify the background.

Here's an example of bad composition. My subject, the Lettuce Leaf Sea Slug, is clearly isolated with the use of a strobe snoot, however he's cut off in the bottom of the frame.

Here is the same sea slug, where I've changed my angle just a bit, to allow him to be placed completely in the frame. The background clutter has been isolated by use of a snoot, and the viewer's eye is drawn right to him.

Look for bad lighting

Provided you are shooting RAW, Lightroom does an absolutely amazing job of recovering badly over and under exposed images. However, like Miracle Max, it can only recover photos that are mostly dead. Sometimes though, the photo turns out to be all dead, particularly shots where your strobe intensity was too much. At this point there is only one thing left to do, and that's to hit the X and move on.

An example of bad light. My subject was the lion fish and my strobes completely missed him, lighting up the background instead. Also the light that did hit the background is way too strong.

Find your own 'Shen'

When I worked at Reef Photo, I had a co-worked named Shen. Shen is an amazing photographer and a good friend, but he was also super critical of my photographic work. His philosophy was “Don’t keep a photo you wouldn’t frame and hang on the wall.” This thought process of course leads to very little photos in your collection, but the ones that do remain will form a spectacular gallery. Every weekend, I would go dive and shoot photos, and on Monday I’d proudly show Shen what I thought were my best shots. And each time, I’d be crushed as he would rip it apart, and tell me every little nuance I did wrong. One day, I was sitting at my desk and was looking at a particular photo I had taken that weekend. Shen walking behind me stopped abruptly and stared. “That’s a good shot,” he said. I was overjoyed.

Some will read this, and think Shen was just a jerk, but his harsh feedback was exactly what I needed. Shen was there coach that made you grind out 10 more shuttle sprints when you felt like you were ready to die. He pushed me and made me better. Every time I'd take a photo, I'd think of the feedback Shen had given me prior and would try like hell not to make the same mistakes again. The criticism in the long run made me a much better photographer, and I’m so grateful for it. If you are able to find someone to give you open and harsh criticism, you'll learn much from it.

Here's a photo of an adult pipefish peeking at me - an uncommon find for us here in Cayman. If you were to zoom in, you'd see his eyes are in actually focus, although his snout isn't, so it's not a keeper. More importantly. he's lost in the clutter of the reef that surrounds him. There's no clear subject in this photo, so it needs to go.

Here is the same pipefish. By changing my angle a bit, I was able to put a little void in the reef directly behind him, and this created some negative space to more clearly define the animal. His eyes are out of focus though, so this one has to go as well.

Different pipefish, but here I was able to get really good negative space behind him. His eyes and snout are in focus, and he's properly lit. Keeper!

When in doubt, throw it out

If your brain is giving you some subtle doubt about the quality of the photo, go with it - delete the shot. My own personal practice is to walk away and take a break from the computer. When I return, I'll make another pass though the catalog, and many borderline shots that survived the first cut will be removed at this time. Often I'll even revisit shots I took months or years prior and delete them.

It’s hard, I know

I know it’s hard to throw out some photos, particularly ones that come from those once in a lifetime moments or experiences. Sometimes the nature of the whale shark encounter, or the time the dolphin played with your group are not great quality shots, but too memorable to discard - and I get it. My computer has many of these shots.

I just chose not to show them.

Happy shooting!



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