Practical Photography

We have all heard the famous saying by Robert Capa: If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.

Very true. However, if you get too close to the lion you might get your head chewed off. That is also true.

All the time we hear tips and tricks on how to improve photography, we read books on certain photography techniques, we do our research online on that cool DIY flash diffuser setup, and we are eager to implement all the knowledge and theories into our photography workflow. Sometimes, we just have to sit down and think a little bit, and distinguish which is practical, and which is not. Being a practical photographer can save us a lot of time, effort, and of course, prevent our heads from being chewed off by the lion.

A huge part of the artistic and technical process of making photography happen involves being practical all the time. This requires the photographer to prepare, adhere and troubleshoot with practical mentality when it comes to a shooting session, whether it is a paid assignment or simply for leisure. Being practical means being sensible, knowing whats best, deciding what is important, and practicing what works and avoiding what does not. Practical photography encompasses the gear setup, shooting process/techniques, expectations.

All images were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Zuiko Digital 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 mk1.

Practical Photography Setup

About a year ago a friend asked if he would tag me along for a street shooting session. I rarely refuse such requests, so we did have a short street shutter therapy sessions together. I brought along my Olympus E-520 and the 50mm F2 macro. That friend decided to shoot with an Olympus E-3, and he brought along a backpack (those gigantic Think Tank ones) that housed at least three different huge lenses, including the bazooka 35-100mm F2 and 50-200mm lens. I sighed silently, because that whole setup was going to be a burden and it was not very wise to carry so much weight walking on the streets. True enough, we did not walk very far, and the walk was so painfully slow. Furthermore, those lenses that he had were not cheap, the risk of being mugged was always present. Whats worse, the lenses were so huge, and they were inside a huge backpack, should he need to change lens, he would have to lay everything down on the ground to open up the bag. Not a very wise thing to do.

I think the trouble with many photographers (especially newcomers) is that they want to bring EVERYTHING to shoot. You need to identify what you are shooting, and choose your equipments based on your shooting needs. If you shoot macro, you obviously do not need lenses such as ultra wide angle. If you are shooting birds, obviously you wont be using the fisheye lens. Similarly goes to macro photography, if you shoot macro, you use only macro lens. Yes, you may bring an extra lens or other necessary accessories to complement your shooting style, but you have to make sure that the things you bring do not weigh you down. You only have to use what you have to use. Knowing what works actually will help in getting the right photography setup. Use the right tool for the right job. Proper planning and preparation before the shoot is important, and many people are actually scared of “what if I need this lens” or “what if I can do better shots with that lens”. To be honest, while shooting, you wont have time to consider the usage of so many different set of equipments anyway, you shoot with what you have, and you optimize your shooting with your tools at hand.

Practical Shooting and Techniques

I am all in when it comes to experimentation and to explore further in photography. Nonetheless, I have seen too many people trying to do too many things at one time.

I have seen a friend doing street shooting, but instead decided to hunt for macro insect subjects while he was on the streets. I have seen another fellow shooting with manual lenses, being ambitious on getting all the shots done in manual focus, but to return with almost zero usable shots. I have seen people shooting models in a crowded space (exhibition halls during PC Fair, for example) with an extremely long lens. I have seen some so called professional photographer who proclaimed their advanced “zone-focusing” method to capture “the moment” on the streets but all his photographs come out crappy. I have seen photographers sticking to their “natural available lighting” rule only, and refusing to use the flash, even when they already pushed to the maximum usable ISO sensitivity on their cameras, and come home with blurry photographs due to hand shake. I have also seen a photographer who would just flash at every single thing that he photographs.

I understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, shooting style and execution preferences. If your method works for you, go ahead and do it. However, if that method does not work, it wont work no matter how you try to argue about “being artistic” or “how many other photographers have done it before”. Identifying your mistakes and errors is one of the fastest way to learn, and improve. It is ok to make mistakes, only through mistakes we know what works and what does not. I guess some people are just too proud to admit their own mistakes, and learn from others. Some photographers are claiming to be “selfish photographers” who listens to no one, and claims that they know best in whatever they do, where everyone else clearly things that their photography work still need a lot of patching up to do (same photographer who sees every other photographers shots as crappy, except their own). Worse, some newcomers to photographer thought that they have read everything that there ever was on print and on the internet, that they will cry foul if you tried to share your knowledge and experience with them. Being selfish, being ignorant, and being the Mr.Know-It-All are common attitudes and characteristics we find everywhere (I am sure if you have been in any photography forums, you can relate to this).

It is very important to keep yourself practical while shooting. If you know that you cannot nail your shots effectively while using a manual focus lens to shoot, then it is either you need to spend lots and lots and lots of time to practice to get your focusing techniques right, or well, simply, just get an Autofocus lens !! No, no matter what excuse you want to come up with, an out of focus photograph is still an out of focus photograph.

If you know that the available light is bad, and your photographs will not make it, stop being so ignorant and attach that external flash. Your photographs may not have that “natural” feel but seriously, there is nothing “natural” or comfortable to look at when almost everything you show are blurry and wrongly exposed.

Learn to be practical. Know the roots of the problem, and troubleshoot with practical solutions.

Waterfall in a park

Practical Expectations

Often I have been asked the questions on “which camera is better”, or “which lens is a better choice”, and just as often, the people who asked me those questions expected me to give them an easy answer. When someone asked me which lens to get, Panasonic 20mm F1.7 or the Olympus 45mm F1.8, I cannot just simply answer the question like that. You have to take into considerations on what you will be shooting most of the time, what will you be using the lens for, and what kind of photography outcome will you want to accomplish with your gear setup. People just expect to get that one best lens and one best camera to cover EVERYTHING. Lets be sensible here, there is NO magic camera and NO magic lens that can do everything. Like I have mentioned earlier, you need the right tool to get the right job done. You do not use a screwdriver to hammer some nails through the wall.

A lot of new-comers to photography these days have ridiculously high expectations on their camera. I have this encounter with a guy in a local photography forum who cried until the cows climbed the trees, just because be noticed traces of chromatic aberration problems in the E-P3’s standard kit lens M.Zuiko 14-42mm. In my kind response I noted that it was after all, just a standard kit lens. For some forbidden reasons that answer was not acceptable to him, and he expected the kit lens to be completely free of any flaws, meaning zero distortion or chromatic aberration. That was when I realized his expectation from the innocent kit lens was unreasonably impractical. He expected perfection out of a budget, cheapest lens there ever was for the micro 4/3 line up.

Same thing goes with those who would have their eyes bleed when they notice even the tiniest traces of noise in their photographs shot in high ISO. They expected clean images, and the presence of any noise would be the end of the world. Seriously, what digital camera does not have noise when you go high ISO? Even film has noise and grain !!

It is important to know your equipments well. Know what it can do, and what it cannot do. I am not expecting the Olympus E-5 to outperform a full frame camera when it comes to high ISO shooting, and I have come to live with that limitation. When I shoot with the kit lens, I have to admit to certain weaknesses that came along with it: the slower focusing, the imperfections that came along with it, and the less-robust plastic construction.

Shooting partner for the day: Jack with his Alpha 77.

I have always prioritized practical shooting. Same thing applies for today’s shooting session at the KL’s Bird Park. I only brought two lenses: the 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 which I shot primarily with, and the 25mm pancake lens in case I needed a wider angle coverage. I did not intend to do macro, and I did not find the need for a wide angle lens, hence I left the other lenses at home. It was an outdoor shooting, with plenty of sunlight, hence I left the flash at home. I only brought what I needed to use, and I moved around comfortably with minimal weight. I kept my shooting simple, and composition easy. One subject, one background, and I trusted the camera’s focusing which has proven to be very reliable all this time. I did not have high expectations in this shooting session, because it was a fun and stress-free session which I enjoyed on a fine, Saturday morning with a friend.

Do share some thoughts, how practical are you when it comes to shooting?


  1. love the birds! :P
    i want some..

  2. Very well written comment on owning and using camera gear. Indeed, I have a friend who owned many lens from fisheye to tele-zoom, and carry it in a big bag all the time. I am having the same thought as you, many cameraman (not photographer) out there can't really survive when they find single noise on their photo. I have a friend who wanted only those lenses provide sharpness from edge to edge. At the end, he spent a lot of time in researching lens more than actual outing. I always use the term "cameraman", not photographer, to classified them.

  3. Hello Kelvin,
    Thanks for the compliments.
    Those two issues are very common, arent they? I guess it is the kiasu syndrome that affected them somehow, need all lenses, dont want to miss out anything.
    I guess it is ok to research more and know more, but we should also shoot more as well.
    Cameraman? that sounds like a videographer ahaha

  4. I always use the term "Cameraman" for those people who like to "play" camera, instead of going out and shoot more photo. "photographer" is the one who always going out and shoot photo.

  5. Kelvin, indeed !!
    I use a commonly used word which is "measurebator" ahaha.

  6. wow! super sharp! went there last month, was overcast, slipped and fell. dented the filter rim on my zuiko 40-150 telephoto, my favourite lens too! phew, it was alright. zuiko lenses are tough and well made!

  7. Richard,
    oh dear, good thing it was protected with the UV filter !! Did you not attach the hood on? It would have provided extra protection to the lens.

  8. Nice read, and nice pics as usual. Did you play again with the 20/1.7 on your E-PL1? Late this afternoon I did it and it was great fun.

  9. Thanks Alf,
    This weekend its all the E-5. Perhaps next week I will do E-PL1 again.

  10. Great post and awesome photos as well. I know all too well about those photographers having met quite a few of them myself.

    I remember once when I got stick for using photo shop while they proudly exhibit their 'unedited' photos claiming that editing is cheating. It's funny because their photos are not even good to begin with.

    Getting the photo right in camera is one thing, and editing properly is another but shouldn't it be the choice of the photographer of what they want to do with it? Instead of forcing others to choose the same?

  11. Jeremiah,
    Thanks for the compliments.
    Indeed, the photographers vision is VERY important. I strongly believe that post-processing is a part of digital photography workflow, and should not be taken apart. It should be taken into consideration, even as we shoot with the camera, so to ease the whole process.
    there is nothing wrong in editing, it should help to achieve your vision, and produce what you had in mind.
    Those purists are just living in denial, this is the digital era now, and if they decide to ignore the possibility and power that editing can do, let them be. It is their loss.

  12. Cool photos Robin - and a timely blog for me, as I'm going to KL this weekend and will be visiting the bird park with my family! Also, I'm going to the Batu Caves next week, so I'll revisit that blog of yours from a few weeks back when you took some nice shots there.

    It'll be shooting the birds with the M. Zuiko 40-150 and the caves with the 45mm f1.8 (low light), although I might also take the kit lens to the caves.

    Thanks for the inspiration, Robin.

  13. helo newzild,
    Wow, you are going to those fantastic places, I am sure you will come home with tonnes and tonnes of great images !!
    If it is not too much of trouble, do bring a light tripod with you when you go to the batu caves, its very dark inside, using slow shutter would be helpful. Nonetheless, if it was a burden, just forget it and go high ISO.

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