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I Built a Panoramic Photo Rig Made of 6 Nikon DSLRs, and It’s Awesome

My name is Paul Bruins and I am hopelessly addicted to panoramas. It has now been 48 hours since my last fix. If I don’t shoot up at least one fresh panorama per week, I start to experience severe withdrawal symptoms.

I shot my first multi-image panorama way back in 1982, with a small instamatic camera. It was a panorama of the “Bloukrans” bridge under construction, which was too large to fit into the tiny viewfinder of my camera, and thus required multiple photos to capture in its entirety.

After clumsily sticking the prints together with scotch-tape I was instantly hooked on the concept of multi-image panoramas.

Sticking together glossy paper prints was clearly not the most successful way of doing things, but this was in the early days before digital photography (and stitching software), so I didn’t really have any other option.

Some years later, when digital camera technology became readily available (and affordable) I was one of the first in my circle of friends to make the switch from film to digital. My first digital camera was a measly 2.1-megapixel Sony Cybershot, with terrible image quality when compared to 35 mm film. But that didn’t matter to me, because if I took 10 photos of something and stitched them together, I could easily end up with a 15 megapixel image.

The more I zoomed in to my subject, the more photos I needed to capture it and the larger (better quality) my final stitched image would be.

Besides the improved image quality, the biggest benefit of shooting multi-image panoramas is the freedom of composition and lens-choice that you get when you aren’t always trying to squeeze all the beauty of the landscape into one frame.

When you’re shooting single-frame images, your choice of lens is entirely determined by how close you are to your subject and how much of your subject you are trying to capture—if you want to capture a lot of stuff close to you, then you stick on your ultra-wide lens; if your subject is far away, then you mount your telephoto and zoom in on it. But what do you do if your subject is both far and wide?

If you zoom out a little to capture the wideness of the subject, then the top and bottom of your photo often becomes a lot less interesting than the rest. Why not simply zoom in until your subject fills the frame, and then take multiple images to capture the entire width of your subject? More importantly… why should we EVER allow our compositions to be constrained by our lenses and viewfinders, when most modern stitching software is able to join multiple images together so seamlessly?

However, when digital cameras first became available, our stitching software options were limited to one or two programs, none of which did a very good job of it. Of course, the fact that I didn’t have a clue what parallax was, and how important it was to always rotate your camera around the centre of the lens (the nodal point)… well, that didn’t really help things either. Some of my early panos were impossible for any software to stitch seamlessly, and I often ended up spending hours in Photoshop afterwards, desperately trying to hide all the most obvious stitching errors with the clone brush.

Fast-forward about 6 years, several camera-upgrades, two dedicated panoramic tripod-heads, huge leaps forward in the stitching-software-department, and hundreds of practice attempts later… finally my panos were turning out seamless and flawless.

Finally I felt totally free to capture any subject, confident that my camera and lens would capture all the details, and that the stitching software would be able to put everything together afterwards.

But who was I kidding? I wasn’t totally free at all!

There was one kind of subject that I was never able to capture as a multiple-image panorama, and that was any subject that included multiple moving objects. Since each successive photo in a pano-sequence is taken a second (or more) after the previous photo in the sequence, the moving objects will be in a different place in each photo, which tends to completely confuse the stitching software.

I used all the tricks in the book when I did have one or two moving objects in my composition, but try as I liked, some subjects were simply impossible to capture… including my most favorite subject of all time: Table Mountain as seen from Blaauwberg beach (too many moving waves).

My addiction to panoramas and my love for Table Mountain soon led me to begin adopting a most unsuccessful compromise, the “Croporama.” This is where you crop off the top and bottom part of your photo so that it looks like it could be a panorama. This should probably be called a Fake-orama, since it shares absolutely no similarity with a true panorama, other than the aspect ratio. While shooting Croporamas, our compositions continue to remain constrained by our lens choice. Also, the cropped image will obviously always be smaller than the original single-frame image, and thus always of a lower quality.

The photo below might look like a panorama, but it’s definitely not. This is not what Table Mountain looks like from Blaauwberg beach. It looks much bigger than this in reality. It is my use of an ultra-wide lens that has made it recede into the distance, to appear much smaller than it really is.

This “moving objects” conundrum seemed like a show-stopper to me, something that I would never be able to overcome. Unless I built some kind of tripod-head that could support multiple cameras… to capture all the images required for a panorama at exactly the same time!

At first the idea seemed too ludicrous to even contemplate. How would a thing like that even work? How would I get all the cameras’ shutters to fire at exactly the same time? How would I be able to ensure that the exposure from each camera was exactly the same? And more importantly, how would I be able to eliminate those dreaded parallax errors with the cameras spread out next to each other?

After many discussions (and paper-napkin-sketches) with friends, I decided to attempt the project. To build a rig that could fit onto a standard Arca-Swiss tripod mount, which could be light yet strong enough to support six DSLRs. As much as I would have loved to attach six Nikon D810 cameras to my rig, that would have been both too heavy and completely unaffordable, so I put that idea out of my head as soon as it entered.

I would have to settle for something much less, an entry-level camera, the one with the best image-quality for my buck. I didn’t have to look very far (or long), the superb (24 Megapixel) Nikon D3200 seemed like the obvious choice. I was able to find six “as new” second-hand camera bodies for about half the price of a second-hand D810 body, which was well within my budget.

The next consideration and decision was which lenses to buy. The most versatile lenses are, without a doubt, zoom lenses. But a good zoom lens is usually much more expensive than a good prime lens, which made it very tempting for me to go with the Nikkor 35 mm f/1.8 prime (cheap yet very good). The zoom lens vs. prime lens decision was made considerably easier with the knowledge that with a zoom lens I would have to adjust the angle for each camera every time I adjusted the focal length (to ensure a consistent overlap of the images). That seemed more trouble than it was worth, so version 1.0 of my pano-rig would definitely be using fixed-focal-length lenses!

The shutter-release system proved to be easier to build than I’d imagined. An electronic-genius-friend of mine simply connected six shutter-release cables together into one (inside a small weather-sealed box), with a single wire coming out the other side of the box to connect to the trigger mechanism. Once I’d connected all the cables to the cameras, I was able to auto-focus all the cameras with a half-press of the trigger, and to fire all the shutters with a full press.

All that remained was to build the rig to hold everything together. The most obvious (and easiest) design seemed to be to mount each camera in portrait format in a straight line next to each other, as close together as possible, yet still allowing some space between to operate each camera. It made sense to spread the direction that each camera would be pointing in a fan-shape, with the left-most camera capturing the left-most image in the pano-sequence.

But the words “Parallax Error” were booming loudly through my head the entire time that I was considering this potential solution. To completely eliminate parallax error I would have to mount each camera vertically above the other, so that the nodal points of each lens would all be on the same vertical plane.

But while the vertical option seemed ideal and preferable to the horizontal option (from a parallax point of view), I was concerned that this solution would also require the longest (and most-fiddly) setup-time before shooting, since each camera would have to be pointing a bit more downwards than its lower neighbour (or aiming more upwards than the camera above it). The more I considered this arrangement, the less the idea appealed to me.

After considering a number of other options (and many, many more napkin-sketches later), I finally settled on the “Banana Arrangement”. This is where all the cameras are mounted in a semi-circular formation pointing inward, so that the left-most camera takes the right-most photo of the pano-sequence. While this cross-over arrangement would probably not completely eliminate parallax errors, I figured that it would reduce them to an acceptable level. As long as I didn’t include too many objects in the immediate foreground of my compositions, the parallax errors would be negligible.

No matter how much brain-power I threw into this design, I was unable how to mathematically calculate what the ideal radius of my banana would be, and the ideal spacing between the cameras.

When in doubt, prototype!

So I bought a short length of steel cable-channel, some steel L-brackets and a bunch of nuts and bolts, and I started playing. I attached the cameras to the L-brackets, and bolted those onto the cable-channel in all conceivable arrangements. As I’d suspected, the banana arrangement proved to be the ideal arrangement, with all the cameras pointing inwards instead of outwards. The biggest downside to this arrangement would be the mental gymnastics that I would have to go through while trying to compose my panoramas (since the left-most camera takes the right- most photo).

The cable-channel proved to be much too flimsy to support the six cameras, and its weight combined with the weight of the L-brackets meant that my first prototype was completely impractical. And since I was (unfortunately) born with two left thumbs, I would need to find someone else (more practical than me) to manufacture the rig to be much lighter (aluminium?), and much more rigid (to eliminate all vibrations).

Fortunately I also have a mechanical-engineering-genius-friend whom I was able to turn to in an attempt to solve the weight and rigidity issues. So I paid him a visit (with prototype in hand) and asked his opinion on how the rig could best be constructed. After a couple of hours of brainstorming (and many more paper-napkin-sketches later), we finally hit on the idea to mount the banana on top of a length of square aluminium tubing (for maximum rigidity), and to drill the whole thing full of holes (for minimum weight).

My Gitzo tripod has a maximum load capacity of 25 kg, but my Kirk ball-head can only manage 6.5 kg. Nikon D3200 camera bodies weigh 455 grams each, and the 35 mm prime lenses each weigh 305 grams. Six of each will add up to just over 4.5 kg, which meant that (unless I wanted to upgrade my ball-head) we would have to ensure that the rig would not be heavier than 2.0 kilograms. The solution was to construct the vertical camera-mounts and the banana- shape from an 8 mm aluminium plate, then use a 4 mm square box tube underneath to stabilize everything… and then drill the whole thing full of holes!

Besides adding rigidity, the box-tube also allowed us to control the balance of the rig on the tripod once the cameras were fitted. Before we bolted it all down, we were able to slide the banana-plate forward and backwards on the box- tube to establish the ideal position to ensure optimal balance. I will admit that the centred (and perfectly balanced) carrying handle was not my idea, but I am ever so thankful for it, as this rig would be very awkward to carry without it.

So after 6 months of planning and scheming, buying cameras and lenses, and building the aluminium rig, I was finally ready to attempt my first multi-camera panorama. If only the weather would cooperate!

But we were in the middle of another typical Cape Town summer, with hazy (smoke filled) skies, daily gale-force winds, and not a wisp of a cloud to be seen anywhere! The first opportunity to test the rig came a full week after it was completed. Of course I did shoot a couple of “proof of concept” panos in my garden while I was waiting for the weather conditions to improve, but as soon as the air cleared a little and the wind died down to a stiff breeze, I was out on the beach to test my contraption.

There is no better subject to test a multi-camera panoramic-rig on than a sky full of kite-surfers! There are at least 40 (fast) moving objects in the photo below… which my rig manage to capture perfectly… with not a single stitching- error to be found! Not a single kite-string was disjointed, every wave lined up perfectly, and the 35 mm focal length offers a completely natural perspective. Table Mountain looks exactly this big (relative to the people in the foreground) when you’re standing where I was standing while I was shooting the images for this panorama.

As our summer starts morphing into autumn, so we’re finally getting some nice weather again here in Cape Town. The wind is much less ferocious, the air is getting clearer, and the clouds are starting to fill the skies again at sunset.

Operating all the cameras at the same time is proving to be easier than I thought it would be. The horizontal nature of the “banana arrangement” lends itself to visually aligning the cameras with the horizon, so getting the horizon perfectly level is a whole lot easier with this rig than it is with a single camera.

The biggest headache so far has been keeping the lenses clean and dry (with plenty of flying sand and salt-water spray), but I have since discovered that it is a whole lot easier to just cover everything with a light blanket when I’m not shooting, than to keep popping all the lens-caps on and off.

At this stage I’m still playing it safe and allowing a 30–40% overlap between each of the images. I could probably get away with a 10-15% overlap with these 35 mm lenses, but I prefer my horizontal panoramas to have a (roughly) 2:1 aspect ratio. Plus… when you shoot too wide… the light tends to start getting confusing (when the shadows on the left of the photo are pointing in a completely different direction than the shadows on the right).

But even with the generous overlap that I have allowed, these panoramas are still roughly 15,000 pixels by 6,000 pixels in size. That works out to a whopping 90 megapixels in total… that’s medium-format territory… and not too bad for a couple of entry-level DSLR cameras!

Besides Table Mountain, there are a whole bunch of other subjects that I am now finally able to capture as high-resolution, freedom-of-lens-choice, multi-image panoramas. As soon as I am comfortable using the rig for day-time panoramas (when I can do everything with my eyes closed), I plan to start capturing panos of car-headlight-trails at twilight… and perhaps even some panoramic star-trails? Who knows what next? The possibilities are endless!

Finally, I feel totally free to capture any subject with my new multi-camera pano-rig, confident that the cameras and lenses will capture all the details, and that the stitching software will be able to put everything together afterwards!

About the author: Paul Bruins is a Cape Town based professional photographer who has spent the past 12 years exploring and photographing every corner of his home town and province. His images have won numerous competitions and awards, and have been published on calendars, in magazines, and as book covers. To see more of his work, visit his website or follow him on Flickr, Facebook, and 500px.

Try to be The Dumbest Photographer In The World

I always say the Universe’s favorite hiding place for the most awesome stuff is right behind fear. Isn’t that a little unfair? Why doesn’t the Universe put the great stuff right before the fear, so everyone can enjoy pure bliss?

Although there are a million laws in the Universe, you only need to know one for your photography right now: it expands. Always. But what does that have to do with fear, being dumb and your photos? Let me explain.

If the Universe always expands, you have to comply or otherwise you’ll struggle: if all your friends try out new things and you don’t, you won’t fit in anymore; if the company you work for expands big time, you either grow with it and embrace the change or you’ll get fired.

As long as you have a relationship with something or someone, you relate to each other. Once you relate to each other, you are connected—if your friend tows your car, you better not hit the breaks.

It’s the same with the Universe, your life, and your photography. Since the Universe expands, you as a person and a photographer have to do the same. Otherwise you fight against an insurmountable force. I tried it multiple times and almost died, developing severe suicidal depression due to my ADHD.

You can take vacations, you can take creative breaks, but as soon as you stagnate (creative) depression hits you. Maybe it won’t hit you as severe as it did for me, but every one of us can become depressed. This is why I say you have to be dumb to become better at photography and life.

Of course, the definition of smart and dumb depends on perspective, but let’s try something. Decide for yourself whether you would consider the following person smart or dumb:

  • Is it dumb to quit your well-paying job while in debt to become an artist with no savings and not one sale in sight?
  • Would you consider it clever to go against the advice of hundreds of well-educated people to do so?
  • How smart is it really to be homeless over and over again to just take photos all day that no one really needs?

As someone that studied statistics and goes by reason and logic, I have to say it sounds pretty dumb. So why the hell would you want to be the dumb photographer?

Well, it already makes you unique by default. If you always go where no one else goes, you’ll end up where no one else ends up. If you always do what no one else does, you’ll get what no one else gets.

Whether it eventually leads to your own photography paradise depends on how well you learn and improve from your mistakes, of course, but the insights, knowledge and skills you gain are rare and precious. It’s the road less travelled by, and that’s what makes all the difference—for you, for your photography, and for all the photographers you care about.

What’s more, being the “dumbest” photographer in the world is actually pretty easy. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, and a lot of people will judge you, this is the one rule you have to follow:

Always go where no one goes.

This rule has served as the ideal fuel for the motor of change in history. As soon as you feel that you are part of the masses, leave. Turn around, walk away, and forge your own path.

It may feel lonely and you have to trust your instincts more than ever before, but it’s the right way. How could you ever experience your journey as unique if millions of others have walked the same exact path before you? How could you grow as a human and photographer if you just follow the steps of others?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should blindly walk where no one else is going.

Listen to what the photographers you admire advise you, and evaluate their advice based on how successful they are with their philosophy. If they are not where you want to be, don’t follow their advice… it’s as simple as that. They might have the best arguments in the world to defend their path, and it’s their right to do so, but you also have the right to learn from their experience and go elsewhere.

Why is this article not called “10 Crystal Clear Ways To Become More Successful”? Because abstract guidance, if done right, leaves you much more room to create your own thoughts, actions, and steps.

Any rule or advice you read that dictates steps and a path rather than helping you define and create your own, is almost certainly bad. It’s turning your unique creative soul into a bad remix of what’s already been done or someone else is doing at the moment.

I personally believe that you can only teach what you’ve personally proven with your own success. If you want to start your own business, from whom would you rather learn? A college professor that knows all economic theories in the world, or an entrepreneur who has already achieved your goal and runs multiple successful businesses?

If you want to check how “smart” a photographer is, just tell him this:

Pics or it didn’t happen!

If a theory isn’t proven by a successful photographic experiment, it’s nothing more than a hypothesis. Photographic scientist claim wisdom, but they don’t put it to the test themselves.

In science you always base your studies on the proven facts of other studies. Reason and logic are the driving forces behind it. But that doesn’t apply to photography or art. Photography is emotional. Period. As soon as you try to calculate it, it loses its heart and soul.

There are proven ways to run a profitable business, but where will proven strategies in photography get you?

Basic technical knowledge and composition rules is as far as “strategies” will take you in photography. This art is 10% logical and 90% emotional—90% you have to figure out yourself, and 10% you can learn from others.

Just compare photography to poetry or novels. The 10% is the ABCs and grammar, 90% is having a great (visual) story to tell from within. If it truly was the other way around, we would all take the same photos, wouldn’t we? Do 90% of the photos you see online offer you a unique perspective of the world? No, because having the honesty to look within yourself for inspiration is harder than looking left and right.

To be honest, I’d rather not even give you any examples. I would love to keep your creative soul free and independent.

Picasso claimed: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” I know what he means, but I politely disagree. Good artists copy, great artists steal people’s hearts by pouring their own into their artworks. The answer is always within you, not around you. It’s not in the past or the future, it’s in the now. That’s where you are and that’s where your photography and art has the most fertile soil. Connect the dots from the past, but focus on creating in the now.

Don’t fall in love with your fellow photographers’ work, love yourself and let them fall in love with yours. That’s the true meaning of giving. Please feel free to steal the mindset behind the following examples, but create a unique journey and photography that can’t be copied. That way you become touchable and untouchable in the best way possible.

The following examples that were captured due to “dumbness.” not lessons to be replicated. In 2013, when I discovered street photography, I tried to educate myself on the subject to improve. No matter where I looked or whom I asked, the “golden rules” were pretty clear.

This is what happens if you’re dumb, don’t listen, and do the exact opposite:

1. True emotions come from strong facial expressions

2. Don’t capture people’s backs, it lacks emotion

3. People walking past buildings are boring

4. Black and white highlights structures and patterns best

5. Black and white brings out more “soul”

6. Zoom lenses are a big no-no

7. Eye contact attracts viewers most effectively

8. The quieter and smaller the camera, the better

9. Capture unique characters that stand out

10. The closer you get to the subject, the better

I hope this article inspires you to become a bit more hungry and foolish, as Steve Jobs once said. Be dumb, take risks, trust your instincts and create your own path, because that’s the only path there is. It may be more challenging at first, but it’s much more rewarding in the long-term. And even if we both walk the road less travelled, it doesn’t mean that we are lone wanderers without travel companions. We can always share our unique insights with each other. Whether it’s through social media, emails, or meeting up every once in a while in this insanely beautiful forest of billions of creative souls.

If you have any questions or ideas on how we could become dumber together, please reach out to me. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this to re-evaluate my own. Let me try to finish this article with the dumbest last line I could come up with:

If you want to be dumb, follow my advice, but if you want to be the dumbest photographer in the world, please don’t and share your insights with all of us!

About the author: Marius “VICE” Vieth is an award-winning fine-art photographer, entrepreneur, and coach based in Amsterdam. His brand new label Eye, Heart & Soul empowers rising and established photographers worldwide. Connect with EHS on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to level up your photography game! This post was also published here.

The Battle is Over: My Micro 4/3 Camera Outsold my Full-Frame DSLR

The battle is over, and full frame cameras have lost the race. Here’s why.

I’ve been selling photos through a high end stock agency for the last two years. In my collection are images from a full frame DSLR, an APS-C DSLR, and several Micro 4/3rds cameras, and after tallying my sales for an entire year, it turns out my highest selling image was taken with the Olympus OMD EM10. That’s right: the entry level OMD model.

What’s more significant is that I would not have even been able to create the photo with a DSLR. To capture the traffic on the Vegas strip I used the Live Composite mode which is unique to Olympus.

Now you may think that this is an anomaly, but guess what… my second most sold image was taken with the same micro 4/3rds camera, too. Put simply, a 16-megapixel micro 4/3rds sensor outsold a full-frame sensor many times over. And the funny thing is, it cost me far less to purchase, and was easier to carry along. Was there enough resolution to go around? Absolutely! The agency I work with asks for 50MB TIFFs and I was able to hit this mark easily by shooting in RAW and processing through Alien Skin’s Blowup software.

In addition to shooting travel work, I’m a photography teacher. People ask me what camera to buy all of the time, and I honestly can’t think of a reason why I would recommend a DSLR anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, I was a loyal Canon shooter for years, but they totally missed the mirrorless boat. Nikon is way behind the ball as well, and their slumping sales numbers prove it. And while Sony got into the mirrorless game, they got all caught up in the full-frame hype. As a result, the lenses are huge which totally defeats the purpose of a smaller camera. Dare I also say, their selection of zoom lenses is rather disappointing.

Meanwhile micro 4/3rd users enjoy seemingly endless options from Olympus, Panasonic, Voigtlander and more.

Why do I feel the need to write this piece? It’s to counter the marketing machines that have done a great job convincing people that they need a full-frame sensor. They are preying on unknowing customers and it’s just wrong.

Try it yourself. Walk into a camera store and tell them you are looking for a pro quality camera. Do they pull the micro 4/3rds body from the case or the more expensive full-frame DSLR? I think you already know the answer. These camera salespeople need to be educated as well. Then again, if they work on commission it’s their job to mislead you. This is why I am voicing the benefits of micro 4/3rds systems.

My cameras have five stops of image stabilization built into them. This means I can hand hold at much slower shutter speeds than a DSLR. This alone negates any ISO advantages the full-frame sensor had. Then there’s the depth of field benefits of micro 4/3rds. At f/4 I am gathering a ton of light but getting the equivalent to f/8 depth of field. This means there’s no diffraction to worry about as I am using the lens in it’s sweet spot. When I want shallow depth of field I use one of the many amazing f/1.8 lenses. For a trip to Iceland I even rented a Panasonic f/1.2 lens. Let me tell you, the bokeh was beautiful.

So tell me where I’ve gone wrong here? I’m inviting the trolls to chime in. I’m shooting more, selling more, and enjoying my photography more. How can you still justify the extra cost and size of a full-frame system?

With just two lenses (12-40mm f/f2.8 and 40-150mm f/2.8) I have the full-frame equivalent to 24-300mm at a constant aperture of f/2.8. These lenses combined weigh less than three pounds and total $2,500. Alternatively, a Canon 300mm ff/2.8 runs over $6,000 and weighs in at just over five pounds—and you’d still have to buy other lenses in addition to this monster to cover the entire focal range at f/2.8. This means more cash and weight.

The idea that bigger is better has come and gone. Your new photography philosophy should be “less is more.”

I’ve sold all of my Canon gear—every last bit of it. I would recommend you do the same. Use eBay to get the best return. DSLRs are a dying breed, and full-frame sensors are a sales gimmick for an industry with a shrinking bottom line. Don’t feed into the machine. I just saved you thousands of dollars and a sore back.

Use the savings to take a trip to Iceland or Rome, or New York. Along your travels you will run into haters who are still clinging to their old ways. The same was also true of film, but look how that ended.

If I sound upset, it’s because I am. It’s simply not right for camera manufacturers to take advantage of people. A camera is only as good as the person using it. Give a veteran National Geographic photographer like Jim Brandenburg a basic point and shoot camera, and he will create spectacular art. You can do the same if you get out of the rat race and shift your focus.

The camera that you are going to bring with you all the time is the one you should own. Are you really hiking up that mountain with a six thousand dollar 300mm f/2.8?

For those of you who dream of becoming a professional photographer, now is the perfect time. You can get into the game at a fraction of the price it used to cost. You have to be super careful of who you listen to regarding your gear recommendations; in fact, you’re going to have to go against popular opinion.

This is not easy when you’re just starting out, but remember how this article started: I made more sales with my micro 4/3rds camera than my full-frame.

About the author: Chris Corradino is the CEO and Head Instructor at Photo Mentor NYC, a personal mentoring service for photographers of all skill levels. The opinions in this article are solely those of its author. To see more of Chris’ work, visit his website.

How To Stand Out Among 2.6 Billion Photographers

Do you have the feeling that, nowadays, almost everyone is taking photos? Not even that long ago, photography was much more exclusive.

Despite the wide-spread use of point-and-shoot cameras, very few people were able to properly take photographs. That’s why photography was and still is a profession in demand; however, if you are interested in selling your photographs, how can you convince someone to buy yours or simply “follow” you as a photographer?

It almost seems impossible, given that 2.6 billion people worldwide use a smartphone now. Almost all of them take snapshots of their life, food, hobbies and basically anything that touches their hearts. Some take it for themselves and their family and friends, others share it with the world.

Facebook has 1.86 billion active users, Instagram 600 million, and Flickr 122 million. Just imagine standing among all these people with your photos on a stage. How the hell are you supposed to stand out of that crowd? No matter how motivated you are, it seems almost impossible.

That’s why everyone says only 0.001% of artists can live off their art—and even if you don’t have career ambitions as a photographer, you still want to be unique for yourself, right?

I started taking photos in 2011. Until the end of 2012 it was my favorite hobby ever, but in the end it just frustrated me. I ended up in a rut. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this in your photography journey, but it really sucks. You give it your all, but your photos don’t really improve. Frustration quickly turned into anger and I was about to quit photography.

What’s the point if my own photos don’t at least blow me away?

You can know every “photography rule” in the book, own the best equipment on the planet, but never capture unique photos. Even if you dutifully studied all of the most successful photographers in history, it wouldn’t make you stand out in my opinion.

I tried that approach back then, and it only made things worse. I constantly compared myself to all these glorious masters—boy did that intimidate me. How could I ever become as great and unique as them?

So I tried ignoring the masters and looked to contemporary photographers for inspiration. Maybe I could learn from them how to take my photos to the next level… but guess what? That made it even worse! I already knew that I could never be as unique as the late legends, but the modern ones are just as good.

I was more confused and intimidated than ever.

Fortunately I still loved the idea behind photography, so I thought I’d go out with a bang and tried one last thing. I read somewhere that quality comes from quantity, and so on January 1st 2013, I started a “365 days, 365 photos” project. This was the first photo I ever displayed to the public.

Did the 365 quantity of my photos create the unique quality I was looking for? No. The more photos you take, the more you learn, the better you get at capturing the world around you; but that doesn’t make your photos unique per se. That’s why the most popular photos on Flickr and 500px often look alike. They are all well-produced, don’t get me wrong, but I rarely see a unique signature that pops out.

What truly made a difference for me was realizing that I can’t look left and right anymore for inspiration—I had to look within me.

In almost every interview I get asked “Who’s your biggest inspiration in photography?” and I always say, slightly embarrassed, “This may come over as arrogant, but to be completely honest with you, it’s me.

They usually reply by asking me, “But don’t you have any idols? At least tell me who’s your favorite photography master.

With cold sweat on my forehead, I always reply “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but the only master I look up to is my future self that has accomplished all of my photography dreams.

It sounds so egocentric and wrong to me, but that is honestly what has made all the difference for me, and I believe it will for you, too.

The difference between photos that stand out and those that don’t revolves around one tiny letter: Do you still [t]ake photos or do you already [m]ake them? Do you capture the world around you or the connection between that world and the world within you? That’s what generates unique photos.

Your DNA is the one thing that separates you from all other 7.5 billion people on the planet. No one in the world sees life through your eyes, feels it with your heartbeat, and has access to your conscious and subconscious mind. All of this comes together to form a one-in-7.5 billion creative spirit.

That’s why I always say that your most important gear is your eye, heart & soul.

As soon as I shifted my focus from the world around me to the world within me in 2013, my photography and life changed forever. I went from generic photos at best to winning 21 awards in the following 2 years.

When I made it to the Top 10 in the open competition of the Sony World Photography Awards 2015, I cried my eyes out. I couldn’t believe that “egocentric” approach got me what I always dreamed about. One year later I ended up again in the Top 10 of the 2016 World Photography Awards. They told me that they went through more than 100,000 photo submissions, but they always find my photos like a needle in a haystack.

If I can do this, you can do it, too. I never studied photography, I had no financial means, and I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. It’s not talent that got me here, just creative ambition.

The only way to become 100% unique is actually very simple, it just takes time and effort. However, as soon as you understand the concept behind it, you will make progress every time you shoot.

Don’t take photos, make them. Don’t shoot the world around you, shoot the one within you. Don’t take photos of strangers, make self-portraits of yourself in strangers. You need to ask yourself what really attracts your eyes, what really makes your heart beat faster, and what really stirs your soul.

In order to do this, you have to be insanely honest to yourself. It hurts at first, because most people aren’t used to being 100% honest with themselves. It took me a few years to get there, but the feeling of being aligned with your true self is insanely rewarding. Only if you are 100% honest with yourself as a human being can you create photos that are 100% representative of yourself. Only that way you can love yourself for what and who you are, pour that in your photos, and offer the result to the people around you.

Maybe you’ve been shooting landscapes for many years, but deep down you have a weird fascination with Japanese dolls. As soon as you love something, for whatever reason, your heart is in it. You love it so much that you want to capture all these different aspects that make you love it. Someone that is merely interested in Japanese toys, takes ordinary photos of them. Their heart isn’t in it.

They say if you love someone, you see them with different eyes. That’s why a famous fashion photographer once said: “You have to fall in love with the model in order to shoot it.” When you fall in love with your subject, you see it through new eyes; the other person will look at them like everyone else.

Your camera only captures what you see. What you see (Eye) is determined by how you feel (Heart) about it. How you feel is determined by your your true self, your Soul.

What would you do all day if no one judged you for it? What would you do in a perfect world? What would you do if you could just do it? The answer taps into your soul, your creative gold mine. If you look in the mirror in the morning and tell yourself: “Yes, I love Japanese dolls from the bottom of my heart and it’s fine that the world knows about it!”, then you will capture that love with your camera as a photographer.

If you are dishonest and tell yourself that, as a tough guy, you would rather take pictures of cars, sports, and landscapes so no one can judge you for it, your photos will lack soul.

Allow me to offer a few examples of how I expressed my own Eye, Heart & Soul in a unique way.

Back in 2013 at my old office job, everyone complained about the horrible, ugly winter. As a photographer, I wanted to look for the light in the cold darkness. My heart pushed me to go out and show everyone how gorgeous a dark winter can be. My eyes attracted me to a night full of city lights where I stood for 1.5 hours in a snow storm.

When I asked my soul what I truly wanted to see in my photos, I decided not to capture faces to show emotions. I wanted to capture a moment that was highly emotional for me despite the advise of going closer and showing classic human emotions through facial expressions and gestures.

That’s how I captured “Urban Lights” 2013:

After suffering from my second deep depressive episode due to severe ADHD, I listened to my heart and moved to Amsterdam for a job to get back on my feet. I still felt dead inside, but my heart started beating again when I realized how much I love this city.

Since I consider depression “soul cancer,” I didn’t have access to my inner colors and true self yet. I felt grey inside. Everyone with depression knows what I mean. One night I saw this lonesome guy walking down the streets looking like an outlaw among all the others. I saw myself in him—as the window to my soul, my eyes felt this moment in black and white.

That’s how I created “Midnight Cowboy” 2015:

Half a year later, my heart was on fire again. I finally could think positively again. BOOM! Life wanted to test my values and hit me hard. My brand new $1,600 L-Lens fell out of my backpack. The glass was fine, but the focus was broken. My heart told me to make the most of it, my eyes fell in love with the blurry look of the lens and the lights in the Red Light District in Amsterdam.

My soul allowed me to capture the crazy, destructive part of my personality, which I found in the infamous centre of Amsterdam. “Broken: Amsterdam” was born, a set about a broken personality (ADHD) in a broken City (as crazy as it gets) with a broken lens. I called this photo “The Scarlett Jetsetters” (2015):

Although I rarely ever show faces in my photos, I reached a point in 2015 where I had to. I lived in Bangkok for a while, but as a Northern European I experienced the downside of standing out. My eyes saw a million people around me, but I couldn’t really live out my real soul there. I could feel how my inner child and heart longed more and more for a true connection.

One night, I walked down the streets and I felt completely alienated by the grey mess of people. In front of me was this family of three wandering in the rain.

While the parents didn’t really notice me in the crowd, all of a sudden their kid woke up and stared at me with the curious eyes of a child. It was such a beautiful moment to me, because it reminded me what brought me into this uncomfort zone called Bangkok: my curious, creative inner child.

2017 I went all in and allowed myself to express 100% of my Eye, Heart & Soul. Although, to be honest, I was still scared at first to trade in my name, Marius Vieth, for my childhood nickname and now artist alias “VICE”. Still, I felt that, as Marius Vieth, I couldn’t express myself 100% freely as an artist.

My close friends and family call me Marius as well. However, as an artist I want to liberate myself of all possible judgements that might interfere with my artistic expressions. VICE is a nickname that my neighbor used to call me when I was a young boy. Since I don’t talk to him anymore, it feels 100% free to me.

Ever since I changed it, I have the feeling I finally got rid of anything that keeps my photography limited. That’s why some of my newer photos are very different than what I used to shoot. I can even tell by the number of likes that people like them less than my old photos. But it doesn’t matter somehow, because art is not a catering service to others, it’s an expression of yourself.

That’s why it doesn’t bother me anymore if people love or hate my art, because why would I care about someone that doesn’t take me for who I am? My eye was always attracted to colors, my heart beats for humans around me, and my soul is an explosion of a million colors. That’s why I make photos like these as well, because to me they feel 100% like my photos, my eye, heart and soul:

Art means so much to me that I have a really hard time explaining it in a traditional sense. It’s something I feel so deeply that words constrain it to boxes that my creativity tries to break out of. Apologies if the article sounded a bit abstract instead of giving you a 30-steps plan on how to do it. Please reach out to me via mail or Twitter and I’m more than happy to help you!

I know that a step-by-step article gets more clicks, but I rather be uncomfortably honest and abstract to offer you room for your own interpretation than teach you a comfortably dishonest get-unique-quick scheme that limits your creativity forever.

It’s a long journey to become truly unique and happy. I know that I will unleash more and more of my creative spirit the older I get; however, in order to be happy on that journey as well, I would love to unite our eyes, hearts & souls and unleash our creative spirit together!

About the author: Marius “VICE” Vieth is an award-winning fine-art photographer, entrepreneur, and coach based in Amsterdam. His brand new label Eye, Heart & Soul empowers rising and established photographers worldwide. Connect with EHS on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to level up your photography game! This post was also published here.

I Finally Found the Perfect Camera: The One I Already Own

I finally found the perfect camera. This camera does everything you could ever need or dream of—from capturing the perfect frame and exposure to developing your skill and photographic eye.

I’m not talking about a video or multiple purpose camera that does it all. I’m talking about the perfect stills camera. A camera that helps you composite the frame. It knows the best time to press the shutter button for that perfect image quality. The amazing thing is, and don’t ask me how, but when I use it, it just knows the settings you need automatically. The depth of field, shutter speed, and ISO all sync perfectly.

But the most amazing thing to hear is how affordable it is. Are you ready? Here it is… it’s the camera you already have.

Anticlimactic, I know, but it’s true. The camera you already have is the best tool to capture a moment. Do you really think there is going to be a perfect camera? Do you believe that will ever be obtained? If the perfect camera was ever made, companies would go out of business.

The perfect camera is the one you already have.

Be it cell phone, DSLR, mirrorless, rangefinder, medium, or large format. They all do their job and they all do it well. If you think you need that next whatever to become a better photographer, you will always be running down a never ending rabbit hole.

I’m not here to stop you buying cameras, hell you are the reason the economy is running. But keep this in mind: camera operators care about the gear, artist care about the work.

If you love photographers like Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, etc. do you really think they cared about what gear was coming out next, or is it possible they focused more on the story, the work, the craft? I would put my money on the latter. Sure they had their preferred tools, but that’s just it: a tool. Not a gateway to becoming a better photographer, just a tool.

If we didn’t have the luxury of choice, we would all be better off. We wouldn’t waste our money on gear that later we no longer use, or read reviews that are completely subjective aside from specs.

It took me a few years to come to the realization that gear is secondary. Who’s to say the next whatever is perfect for you? Maybe the best camera is an old Canon AE-1, Kodak brownie, or Leica IIIc. They all do the same thing, and they all do it well: capture a moment. If you still need that extra dynamic range or more pixels to become a better photographer, I’m saddened. We need more artists in this world than technicians.

Perfect photographs do not move the heart, it’s in the imperfections that we see beauty. Using one camera is the starting point to developing your style, vision and artistic voice. Be satisfied with what you already have, because it’s not the camera that makes the photograph great, it’s you.

About the author: A.B Watson is a New Zealand photographer based in Auckland. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. To see more of his work, head over to his website or follow him on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.

I Was Paid to be a Camera Tester… And I Think They Actually Listened

I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one Friday night when a promoted post popped up and caught my eye (and there wasn’t even a bikini, donut or motivational quote involved).

It read:

Photographers wanted by leading camera brand for equipment trial. Selected applicants will be paid in cash.

It was obviously too good to be true; that’s the golden rule of the Internet. But there was one thing that differentiated it from the usual Web spam: a local telephone number. I called the number immediately and left a message, wondering what the scam could possibly be.

The next day my phone rang, with someone from a market research company asking me to do a survey in order to determine if I was “eligible to undertake the trial.”

I was still a little dubious, but the questions were all straightforward: name, age, how long I’d been shooting for, what sort of camera body I mostly used, what sort of things I shoot. When they asked me to name some of my favorite lenses, it became clear that if this was some kind of swindle, at least they’d done their homework!

After a few more questions, it turned out that I was just the kind of person they wanted to put their gear through its paces. All I had to do is go and pick up the equipment and fill in a survey after using the gear.

On the way to collect my loaner camera, I fantasized about what it might be. Could it be some super-secret new prototype? An update of an existing model? Some sort of bizarre hybrid camera I’d never imagined?

It turned out to be none of those things, but picking it up was still like Christmas Day for a camera nerd—a top of the range mirrorless camera, 4 lenses, a flash unit and a battery grip. I own a lot of video and camera equipment, but I’ve never had such an instant hit of gear before, it was almost overwhelming.

So now I had a bunch of new gear, a week to use it, and some homework to fill out. Time to get shooting. I started in the same way everyone does when they get a new camera… I ignored the instruction manual completely and went straight outside to snap some photos.

Things went pretty well for the next few days. I’d basically leave the house each day and concentrate on using one lens, seeing how it compared to what I knew, how inspiring it was to shoot with and how easy it was to navigate my way around a new system in a range of scenarios like landscapes, long exposures and portraits.

While I mostly avoided reading instructions, I did look at guides online when I was truly stumped by something specific (why won’t this particular SD card format? What does this picture profile actually do? How do I do timelapses?).

Once the week was almost up I sat down to do my “homework,” which consisted of completing a large PDF file. It required me me to upload photos I’d taken, rate the usability of the camera and lenses, compare the loan camera to my existing system, and give my thoughts and feelings about using the camera in general.

It wasn’t a grueling bunch of questions by any stretch, although it did take a little time to edit the images in Lightroom, and then insert them and the EXIF data into the PDF. Another slightly tricky element was adequately describing some of my thoughts—is ‘crunchy’ a useful adjective to a camera manufacturer? How do you properly describe being confused about a menu setting?

The next stage of the process involved a focus group with three other photographers who had also undertaken the trial. To sit in a room with other shooters, share some war stories, and learn about their process was great, and the two hours flew by quickly despite the barrage of questions.

The hardest part of the evening came when we were all offered the same hypothetical question; would we be willing to swap all of our current equipment for the equivalent equipment in the brand we’d been testing? A one-for-one swap, with no money being spent to completely swap brands.

For the first time of the night we were all silent as we weighed it up… it was tempting for each of us, for different reasons. Personally I had enjoyed the megapixel bump, and the options it gave when cropping images. In the end, we all agreed that while the offer was extremely tempting, we’d stick to our preferred systems for the time being.

On the way out of the focus group I was asked if I wanted to do one final test—a field test where I would show members of the company how I work with my current equipment. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and by this stage I’d begun to enjoy the process of thinking a little bit deeper about my working methods and what I expect from a camera.

So two days later I met with five staff members from one of the biggest companies in the world, to show them how I do what I do. Despite some awful weather and the slightly awkward situation of leading a ‘tour group’, it was a really beneficial experience.

I often shoot wildlife photos, so I took them to some local parklands that often has some interesting creatures, despite how close it is to the CBD.

After trudging around in drizzling rain, the weather finally cleared and I got to show them some local animals and demonstrate with both my camera and their camera what sort of thing is useful and frustrating in the field.

The best part of it all however, was that they actually took the feedback on board, and weren’t at all defensive about their product.

Think about it—I was a goofy Australian in a raincoat who shoots semi-professionally telling them that the camera they’d spent unimaginable amounts of time and money on could be better.

Instead of getting mad at me for saying that the slight lag in shutter actuation ‘feels funny’ when shooting birds, they took the information on board. They didn’t try to convince me that their superior noise-reduction algorithm was the reason long exposures took so long to process, they just listened to me. And they agreed that diving through menus wasn’t useful when trying to get close to a nervous bird.

By the end of the entire experience, that was the most valuable thing that I took away from it all—that at least one camera company values the input and feedback of people using their equipment to try and capture their vision. They may get it wrong sometimes, but at least they’re trying.

I mightn’t be ready to jump over to a new brand just yet, but I’m closer than I’ve ever been. And at the end of the day, the more awesome cameras there are on the market, the more opportunities photographers have to capture awesome images. I’m more brand agnostic now than I ever have been, and I’d recommend the experience of being a lab rat to anyone who enjoys photography.

Plus, I got paid a little over $1,000 for my trouble… not bad. As for what I did with that money; I bought more camera equipment of course!

About the author: Corey Hague is a digital content creator for ABC, where he has produced photos, video, audio, and writing for over 6 years. His photos have been published in Australian Geographic, Australian Birdlife, Sneaker Freaker, The Age, and ABC. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Instagram.

You Won’t Find the Trump White House on Flickr

In April 2009, the Obama Administration made the historic move of uploading 293 photos to a newly minted White House Flickr feed.

Although White House photographers had been capturing Presidents regularly since Kennedy, this was the first time that the public had access to a larger, regularly updated pool of images captured by Pete Souza and his staff. Prior to Flickr, the public was largely relegated to searching the terse interface of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The images also prompted Flickr to create a new designation of “United States Government Work” to augment the extant copyright and Creative Commons categorizations. By law, governmental works cannot be copyrighted since taxpayer money funds their creation (it’s the same reason NASA images aren’t copyrighted).

“The great thing about children is you just don’t know what they will do in the presence of the President. So when David Axelrod stopped by the Oval Office with one of his sons’ family, Axe’s granddaughter, Maelin, crawled onto the Vice President’s seat while the President continued his conversation with the adults. Then at one point, Maelin glanced over just as the President was looking back at her.” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The Obama images were more than “grip and grin” moments. They sought to humanize a President derided by the right and beloved by the left. Political affiliations aside, they were brilliant photos that illustrated a tremendous amount of trust between photographer and subject. And Souza and his staff made thousands of photos available via Flickr. For photo geeks, the EXIF data also provided some insight into the gear and settings used by the White House staff.

A week after the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, the White House announced the appointment of Shealah Craighead as Souza’s successor. The Obama Flickr feed was promptly moved to a new location to make room for the Trump administration, but two months later, not a single image has been uploaded. Not even the cover image has been changed from the default.

There is, of course, no obligation for any President to use Flickr or any other social media for that matter. Trump famously uses Twitter, but his use of photography so far has been limited.

President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a joint press conference on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Benjamin D. Applebaum)

On the POTUS Facebook feed, a single album entitled “The First 50 Days” with most images credited to Craighead have been available for a few weeks, and on Instagram, the administration has made 25 posts. But the images are standard in their depiction of the presidency.

With the exception of a moment with Ivanka Trump, the images are largely of the “grip and grin” variety.

Holding her youngest son Theodore, Ivanka Trump talks on the phone in the East Colonnade of the White House, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

There’s no conspiracy here, but it is curious that such a media-savvy person as Trump isn’t making more use of photography to enhance his image. It certainly isn’t for a lack of potential feel-good moments either.

As for the Flickr feed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it remains empty for his tenure. It seems Making America Great Again doesn’t require photography.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.

Is Street Photography Killing Itself?

Is the most egalitarian form of photography, ‘street photography’, being destroyed by its own popularity? Is such a thing even possible? I won’t profess to have a clear answer to this question, but I do have some thoughts. Those thoughts may turn into a rant, but I’ll try to contain myself!

Egalitarian = good, right?

This question hits right at the heart of photography and, most specifically, digital photography. If something is easy, more people will do it. The more people doing it, the more ‘cultivated talent’ there will be (which is a good thing). However, there can be a cost: the dross can become overwhelming.

Street photography is easy for everyone to engage in. If you have a camera and are able to access public areas, you can shoot street photography. While this sounds great, I can’t help but feel something of a massacre is taking place. Cameras have become optical machine guns, mowing down everyone and everything with carefree abandon.

The problem, as I see it, is exacerbated by a particular catalyst: for want of a better word, it is ‘cool’. When something is fashionable in this way, the self-image can become the real target, rather than the photograph itself.

So what has ‘coolness’ done for street photography?

It has clouded judgment, that’s what it has done. Some photographers evidently struggle to see past their excitement at indulging in this fountain of cool. Twenty years ago, to pull this off, you had to tote a film camera around and go through all the palava of changing rolls, developing them, faffing with lightboxes, checking contact sheets and making prints. If a person was prepared to go through all of this inglorious hassle, there was a very good chance they were reaching a bit deeper, within and without.

Now, in the digital age, you can buy the right ‘stealth satchel’, blaze away and saturate Instagram and Flickr within hours. At no point in this process will you have to consider the merits of the photographs being taken, because it doesn’t matter. You’re a rock and roll street sniper. At least a landscape photographer has to deal with bad weather, muddy feet and uncooperative light to get his or her shots and that obstacle of effort acts as a filter.

When it’s raining, the street ninja just slides into Starbucks and takes 482 photographs of coffee cups, tables, people’s feet, the window, people walking past the window, people tying their shoe laces… and they’re all painfully boring. Sadly, this garbage is overflowing into the street so to speak. The visible face of popular photography is more and more being defined by street photography, when we’re not being overwhelmed by photos of people’s dinner on social media.

Why could this be bad?

The good street photography is being buried, that’s why. It is more difficult than it should be to find consistently good street photography taken by someone without an already well-known name. The work is out there, I have no doubt of that, but the process of finding it is exhausting and depressing. There also seems to be a bit too much ego in the mix. Far too many of these (often very young) photographers seem unwilling to learn. They’re already amazing, which they know, because that’s what they tell each other continuously on social media. They also have lots of ‘likes’, so that’s that.

On the occasions when I have seen really good photographs on Instagram/Facebook groups, the inspiring work barely gets a mention. Nobody cares. That’s not what social media is about and street photography has become the social media of photography: an avalanche of banal, shallow and unreflective nothing that hasn’t the time to consider its own context. Tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth. In the same way, much of this ‘great street photography’ is, well, the new great.

Editing. What is that?

Too many street photographers don’t edit. They share everything, perhaps because they think the world wants to know what fifty different takes of groups of random people walking down the street looks like at 8:56 in the morning, on their way into work. I applaud the enthusiasm, but photography is like selling your house. You show the best bits, while trying to avoid scrutiny of the bad bits.

You put your junk into the loft, or carefully pack cupboards. You mow the lawn, give a lick of paint to that beautiful front door and make sure your new kitchen is sparkling. The whole point is to draw attention to the good bits and let them define your house as a proposition. You curate the impression you want to leave people with. What you don’t do is give them a guided tour of the junk pile corner of your garden, the rotten window frame you’ve meant to replace and then hand them a map of the broken floor tiles.

When you’re Magnum Photos, you can put out a book full of contact sheets when most of the photographers who took those hugely iconic images are dead! Everyone else is better off editing at least until it hurts.

Endless juxtapositions and their formulaic brethren

Visual juxtapositions are akin to a trick that can be performed according to recipe. They are cookie cutter photographs that deliver all of their impact (if they have any at all) in no more time than it takes to mentally identify the game. A boot on a poster steps on a passing pedestrian’s head. The man standing at a bus stop is being shouted at by a woman on a billboard.

See, you didn’t even need a photo to experience all that such photographs contain: a simple, boring, endlessly repeated ‘jingle’. You could only ever write one short line about such photographs, because they contain nothing beyond the superficial.

Some photographers have built entire series (in fact entire websites) crammed full of variations of the same thing. They’re no more interesting than ‘zonies’ obsessed with Ansel Adams’ Zone System, who 20 years ago produced endless photographs of tree stumps and sticks that showed how wonderfully they’d applied -3 compensation development. My personal hit list goes something like this:

Juxtapositions. If they say nothing and have no appeal beyond their initial visual recognition, they’re boring. Really boring. Even the ‘good ones’.

Juxtapositions are almost ALL the same. This is a quick screen grab after google searching ‘street photography juxtaposition’.

Random photos of nothing, for no reason, with no content, thought, insight or anything. They’re not so casual as to be cool. They’re just boring.

Faux edginess. People being made to look mean, when they aren’t. Intensity that has been added in Photoshop, or with a pithy title that over-eggs the pudding. Their landscape photography equivalents are the ones shot in Yosemite (or similar) during evidently pleasant weather, that have been heavily over-cooked in post, and then titled ‘_____, Clearing Winter Storm’.

Arrows and street signs. OK, so there is always going to be potential here. Never say never and all that, but I wish I could erase memory of every photo like the one below I have seen and wish I could un-see.

So what do you think about these photographs?

Note: These following street photos are being shared under fair use for commentary and critique. The names of the photographers have been omitted to not single any artist out in a negative way. Anyone who wishes to have their photo removed will have their request respected immediately.

What can you say about this photograph? Is there anything to say?
Posting a letter. Am I missing something?
Waiting for a bus. Is the appeal in her age? If so, where is this going?
The hand/scarf over her face does not make this photo any less banal.
The most overused street photography formula of them all: arrow with person going the wrong way. I don’t see anything here to elevate this image beyond formula.
Is this photo truly compelling because of the black and white theme?
Does this work? If so, why? I see an initial ‘edginess’ replaced by nothing (along with the realization that there isn’t actually an edge)
Everyone hates a mop handle in the eye. Is this an aspirational photo? If so, why? The ‘punchline’ is paper thin.
We see many images like this. Is there supposed to be humour in the sleeping man? Is there something else going on that I am just not seeing?

What goes in comes out

Really engaging photographs are never the product of laziness, or formula, but this does not mean it should be hard work either. “Endeavor” is perhaps the best term. If we put in effort (and some thought) we can generally produce photographs worth more than a quick glance. That does not mean waiting for all of two minutes until a man of the right height walks past a poster depicting a large open mouth. Such photos are simply the free version of buying a ticket to Yosemite and placing your tripod in the exact spot ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ was taken 75 years earlier. It’s easy. It requires no real effort, thought or (most importantly) personal investment.

I am not suggesting a hipster coffee approach here. Riding to the Andes on a unicycle to collect the coffee does not make it taste any different. Working your ass off in photography without that effort actually affecting your photographs is no different. However, just engaging in the subject of photography helps. Learning a little more about yourself helps. Learning about the people and environment around you and your thoughts and reactions to it helps. The sad truth is that most of our effort in photography amounts to nothing. We’ve all worked hard and come back with a slew of entirely disappointing images, but this does not mean we stop trying.

Street photography is fantastic and compelling, but it is also incredibly difficult to do well. In part, this is because we have seen so much of it before. Brilliant, obsessive workaholics have been doing it for 70 years, but they aren’t us. They haven’t had our experiences. They haven’t seen everything through the same eyes. Their insights are not ours. Every single person wielding a camera has the potential to say something interesting, or see something engaging. Again, it comes down to relationships and, even on the street, our relationship with what is in front of the camera is key.

Once a photographer has learned a few ‘tricks’, they are presented with a choice: keep chasing gimmicks or formulas, or look deeper. It’s OK to be lost. It’s OK not to know what you’re doing. It’s OK to fail. It’s absolutely fine to feel insecure about your work. In fact, all of these things are very cool because they state very loudly that a person is trying, striving, exploring and searching in a very personal sense…. call it what you will.

It is this highly individual engagement that makes photography interesting. Street photographs needn’t take that away. It isn’t an altar that photographers must worship beneath and it isn’t a sport either. Some years ago I read a passage in a men’s magazine advising young men not to approach their sexual endeavors in the same way as they might improvements to their sporting performance. And here we are back to the supreme importance of relationships, expression and connection. Without these things, both just become repetitive, predictable acts that lose their luster.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

About the author: After studying Biological Sciences at Bristol University, Thomas served in the British Army before spending fifteen years living and photographing in conflict zones as a civilian. His work has won numerous international awards and has been exhibited in the UK, US, Europe. You can find more of his work and writing on his website and The Photo Fundamentalist. This article was also published here.