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Breaking Bad Photographic Habits

We all have them. They come in infinite forms. They’re bad habits, from chewing with your mouth open to biting your nails. But the worst habits of all are the ones that compromise your photographs. If you want to start improving your photography, start working to break these habits.

• Autofocusing all the time.
Sure, it’s convenient, but leaving your camera on autofocus all the time is a recipe for missing focus. Low-light situations where the camera has to search for focus might mean you miss a decisive moment. With the camera on a tripod, photographing a subject that isn’t moving—like a still life or a landscape—there’s no reason to keep autofocusing: set the focus and leave it there. On autofocus, it might refocus and accidentally miss the right spot. To get out of this “AF only” habit, try working with manual focus on your next shot. If nothing else, it will familiarize you with the switches on your lens that convert from auto to manual so they’re familiar when you need them.

• Not using a tripod.
Tripods are most often cited in conjunction with long exposure photographs for which they are absolutely necessary. But there are many more situations beyond long exposures for which a tripod is useful. So rather than relying on IS and a deep breath, don’t cut this corner. Instead, try to use your tripod as often as possible. Rather than defaulting to handholding, make it default to use a tripod unless the situation requires otherwise. You’ll see the effects in sharper pictures, even at fast shutter speeds.

• Using your shirt to clean your lens.
This one requires me to keep lens cloths on hand at all times—in my camera bag, in my desk drawer, in my studio—because I used to be guilty of cleaning my lenses with my shirttails. The idea being that a clean, soft cotton shirt wasn’t going to do any harm. But then I started buying more expensive lenses and using them without protective filters, and I decided that rather than risk ruining an expensive piece of glass, I’d do my best to only clean my lens with approved lens cloths. It really does help to have a lens cloth at the ready everyplace I might reach for one.

• Picking ISO, shutter speed or ƒ/stop at random.
This bad habit is particularly problematic in any situation where you’re providing all the light. Whatever the circumstances may be, automatically defaulting to a high ISO might be the convenient answer, but it’s certainly not going to win you any prizes for quality. If you’re working with an all-strobe exposure, for instance, there’s no need to start at ISO 1600. You’ll want to start with your lowest ISO by default, and only increase it as needed. The same goes for apertures. I’m a big believer in starting with the sharpest aperture in the middle of the dial (the f/8 to f/16 neighborhood, generally) and only opening up or stopping down for depth of field reasons, or to accommodate a faster or slower shutter speed as needed. When it comes to shutter speed, I usually make my default somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/125th of a second. That’s because when I handhold most lenses, it’s sufficient to not induce shake, it’s slow enough to sync with strobes and when I’m working in the studio with strobes, I know it will also be fast enough to block out the majority of the ambient exposure. I adjust my shutter speed only for specific reasons—to accommodate an ISO or aperture needed for a particular effect—because I know I’m starting with a generally safe and useful starting point for a wide variety of circumstances. Remember, I’m not saying every shot should be ISO 100 at ƒ/11 and 1/125th of a second, but I am saying that’s a good place to start for low noise (from the ISO), compatibility with strobes (from the shutter speed), and a sharp scene (from the aperture and the shutter speed).

• Cutting corners and fixing it in post.
Knowing that you’ve got a powerful processing tool waiting at your desk is one thing, but cutting corners and compromising during a shoot is a great way to do a good photograph irreparable harm. You can’t fix blurry pictures (well, at least not as well as you can make them sharp in the camera) and you can’t undo a missed moment. So when push comes to shove, take the extra time during shooting in order to make the best choices for lighting, composition, focus and exposure. While all of these can be improved in post, no amount of digital wizardry will make up for an utter lack of creative vision or the kind of shortcuts that show in pictures. I’m a firm believer that practice and preparation make for better pictures, and that postproduction should be reserved for making those pictures even better. Like anything, being prepared goes a long way toward success.

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