Photography should be a journey towards simplicity

Give me two flashes with modifiers and I'm a happy man

The more you get into photography, the more tempting it is to let all sorts camera stuff get in the way of taking a great picture. Everything from exposure modes to different lenses, flashguns, tripods, depth of field, selective focus, filters, second curtain sync and much more are all there to help us capture the image we really want. Except all that stuff whizzing around your brain often clouds the issue of taking a good picture.

The journey to buying the right kit, getting it set up and narrowing in on the right exposure and lighting is often seen as the “photography” bit. While in fact, it’s the bit that happens next is the real photography bit – when you squeeze the shutter. Unless you really are in the joyful position of being a rank beginner right now, then cast your mind back to when you first started real photography.

Chances are you had a simple camera with one lens and no other sundry stuff to get in the way. Blissfully unaware of sensor crops, ISO, long exposure NR, the vignetting of your lens, chromatic aberration, the rule of thirds and the like, you were free to focus on what mattered – getting the subject in the frame to look as good as possible.

Chances are you scored some shots that you really like. Maybe some weren’t as sharp or exposed correctly as you’d want, but overall you were quite happy. And many of your friends are often keen to tell you so.

That's more like it. More lights, more kit, more is more!
That’s more like it. More lights, more kit, more is more!

But the minute you venture deeper in – when the camera comes off the little green rectangle mode – then things start to change. After a bit of research and fiddling around, your knowledge starts to rise – at roughly the same rate that your confidence starts to tumble. Where once you liked all your pictures, now all you start to see are their shortcomings. Sharpness, contrast, composition and the like are suddenly starting to become a factor in how good you think your photo is.

So you invest time and money. Photoshop, obviously, swiftly followed by a tripod and then a brief dip into the “Harry Potter Hiatus” of HDR. If you come out of the other side – and haven’t been put off by the doomsayers on Flickr pointing out every little fault with every one of your photos – then you’re on the path to righteousness. Better camera and glass, sturdy tripod, proper filters, off-camera flash then even studio lighting. The list is as long as you wallet is deep. You’ll be getting more proficient at choosing and using the right kit from your armoury of photo gadgetry.

You can't possibly manage with fewer lights... In fact, I need more
You can’t possibly manage with fewer lights… In fact, I need more. And yes, the softboxes aren’t pointed at the car Sherlock

Or so you’d think. The problem is that you often have too much choice of kit, techniques or styles that making a choice and sticking with it can become a real issue. Natural light and a reflector? Off-camera flash and a ringflash fill? Long lens wide open to show off its creamy bokeh? Apart from never seeming to have the right bit of kit actually with you, there’s often too many distractions to getting on with the job. And when you’re faced with a nervous subject looking at you for a glimmer of tranquil confidence, the last thing you want to be doing is fannying around with kit.

Video too? More and different lights now needed! Must buy more!
Video too? More and different lights now needed! Must buy more!

As I seem to be the ultimate hoarder of gear, I’ve worked out some simple systems to call on in certain situations. Then if I have time to experiment, I will. As I’m a big off-camera flash user, I’ve worked hard at getting my default setting for a quick portrait that I know is going to give a decent result quickly.

I get the subject outdoors, usually against the sky, then underexpose the clouds for a bit of mood. I use nice soft light from around 45 degrees to the model at the front – as it’s flattering to anyone. Usually a simple speedlight fired through a white umbrella. Then if there’s time, I’ll put another harder light at the rear – usually a second flash fired through a honeycomb grid like a Lastolite Strobo. Two lights, up in less than a minute, and I’m on the way to a predictably acceptable result, I hope you agree. Sometimes the sun acts as a nice and free backlight. I’ll take than, thank you!

One flash and some sun backlight. My go-to setting that works for me and lets me focus on my subject. Such as making him look hipster and cool
One flash and some sun backlight. My go-to setting that works for me and lets me focus on my subject. Such as making him look hipster and cool

With no technique or lighting complications to fuss over, I’m left free to concentrate on getting the best out of the subject and onto a reasonably successful picture. It still doesn’t make me want to stop buying the next great bit of kit though!