My Photography Philosophy

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The internet, much like a Jack Handey novel, is full of one-liner deep thoughts. I often share my own photography deep thoughts (or hot takes, as the case may be) on social media, in discussions with other Disney photographers. In this post, I thought I’d give a little more exposition than 140-characters, and elaborate upon some of my guiding principles and approach to photography, both in the field and at home.

I know what you might be thinking: “this isn’t morality or some thought-provoking topic. Why can’t photography just be fun? Why do you have to overthink everything?” Well, if I didn’t overthink everything, I probably wouldn’t have a blog covering every minutiae of Disney Parks in painstaking detail. I’m obsessive, and I like the suck the fun out of everything I do by over analyzing it. That’s my type of hobby! 😉

In all seriousness, for me, having guiding philosophy that underlies my photography gives a sense of purpose to what I’m doing. It provides a “why” to things…and actually does make photography more fun–for me. Others may have more photographic fun without the analysis, and that’s cool, too. Different strokes and all of that…

So here they are, some of my way-too-deep thoughts on photography…

Art is…

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…any form of creative expression intended to elicit an emotional response from its audience.

That’s my admittedly expansive definition, encompassing more than just fixed forms of art. It includes virtually any purposeful photography.

What art is not is a value judgment. Definitions of art may vary, but I don’t think there’s a way to meaningfully define art that incorporates one’s own qualitative evaluations. Such a definition would be too personal, too fluid, and would not offer any definitive guidance for the label. To be sure, there can be the subjective qualifier of “good” art or “bad” art, but the operative word in both circumstances is art.

I raise this because whether theme park photography can be art is a matter that some have debated for a while now. I find the position that theme park photography is not art to be meritless. To me, such a categorical exclusion of a photography sub-genre requires far too constraining of a definition of art to be plausible. The vast majority of my theme park photography is landscape photography (and that’s just one overarching genre under which theme park photography could fall), just set in a specific location. I see no meaningful distinction between the two types of photography, so to categorically preclude theme park photography as art would be to categorically preclude landscape photography–on the whole–as art.

Even in the world of fine art academia, I doubt there are many individuals who would assert that Ansel Adams’ work is not art. While I would not even dare to compare the quality of my photography to Ansel Adams, I don’t think a workable definition of art can exist that includes Adams’ work while excluding theme park photography. His photos are doubtlessly more significant from a historical perspective and in subjective critiques, but from a definitional vantage, if Adams’ work can be art, so too can any type of landscape photography.

Theme Park Photography Is Challenging

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If the first two of these sound like whining from someone with a chip on their shoulder, that’s because they are. Presumably because of the subject matter, theme park photography is not taken seriously by the photography world. At this point, my photography is pretty evenly split between theme park landscapes and natural landscapes, and I will say–without a doubt–that theme park landscapes are the more creatively challenging of the two for me.

Natural landscapes can be challenging in terms of physical strenuousness, but that’s not an inherent part of photography. That’s usually hiking, and you can hike without taking any photos (in any case, theme park photography in Florida during the summer can be every bit as strenuous). Natural landscape photography can just as frequently involve pulling up to parking lot, walking 20 feet (or even shooting from your car), and shooting.

Irrespective of that, the reason I find theme park photography more challenging is because you are essentially walking into a 360-degree film set with a huge amount of latitude on positioning, angles, and other creative elements. In natural landscapes, you encounter far more constraints: trails, cliffs, etc. These constraints box you in, effectively eliminating some of the creative decisions a photographer could make. Tunnel View at Yosemite National Park is a prime example. Stunning, gorgeous shots are possible there, but the compositional creativity is almost nil.

Yeah, I might get eaten by a bear (what a way to go!) when shooting natural landscapes, but I might get eaten by a bear any day of the week even when I’m not holding a camera. That element of risk does not somehow add greater legitimacy to natural landscape photography.

Settings Are Creative Decisions

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You’d be hard pressed to find a photography textbook that doesn’t discuss the fundamentals in terms of “proper” settings. Knowing how to achieve a technically correct exposure is important, and why I recommend every beginner read Understanding Exposure to learn the basics. But this should only be a baseline.

I view every setting–from obvious things like focal length and aperture to less obvious ones like white balance–as a creative decision. Beyond settings, generally-accepted aesthetic principles can provide useful guidance, but are not unyielding mandates. (Hence there being so many articles on breaking the rule of thirds–it can be good advice.)

Implicit in terms like “over-exposed” is that an exposure deviating from technically correct is wrong. However, it’s only technically wrong. There is no right or wrong in artistic expression–only what others may view as good or poor creative decisions.

I’d hazard a guess that over 90% of my photos are over-exposed from a technical perspective. This is not because the exposure comp is broken on every camera I own. It’s a calculated decision to achieve the result I want. I can’t think of the last time I used the “proper” white balance.

Controlling and consciously dictating settings in-camera is half of achieving my desired result and “look” for my photos. The other half is in post…

Post Processing is a Signature

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I have a lot of thoughts about post-processing, and they are constantly changing (let’s say “evolving” to make it sound better). I’ve developed and tweaked my post-processing and shooting over the years, and I’d like to think that I have a signature style that is the result of my way of shooting and processing. I’ll deviate from that style here or there as I think a scene calls for it, but most of my shots have a certain bright, poppy, and vibrant “look” that presents a distorted view of reality, but doesn’t look wholly unrealistic. At least, I’d like to think this is my signature style.

Since I do not purport to be a photojournalist, I view post-processing as an important key to creating this look. It baffles me when other photographers disparage post-processing as not “real” photography. As if Photoshop and Lightroom are somehow beneath the dark room post-processing techniques of the past. (I don’t take offense–I mostly dismiss them as bitter because they don’t know how to post-process with the computer.) I can understand preferring a more natural look for one’s own style, but why begrudge others for having different aesthetic and stylistic preferences? You think Picasso and Seurat beefed with one another? “Dawg, you gotta drop this awful technique of yours and start using cubes!” “Nah bruh, I’ll have none of this new-fangled cube nonsense–I’m keeping it real with points.”

Photographers don’t start with a totally blank canvas like those painters, so it’s more difficult for us to have a distinct style. I want the “look” I described above to be my signature style, so I don’t do step-by-step editing tutorials on how I achieve that look from start to finish. I’ll happily share different methods I incorporate into my editing and give tips to others, but I stop short of providing a roadmap to replicating my results. I’d like to have an identifiable style, and I think others should likewise establish their own style rather than simply imitating that of others.

Likewise, I don’t share unedited raw files. I see some photographers do before and after comparisons to illustrate what a difference post-processing makes–and it absolutely does. The problems with this, as I see it, are two-fold. First, a raw file is an unedited digital negative that looks pretty dull before editing. This is as opposed to a .JPG file, which is immediately processed by the camera to make it pop. Photographers understand this, but non-photographers don’t. They might be inclined to look at that flat, straight-out-of-camera raw file, compare it to the finished product, and assume the photographer isn’t so much a good “photographer” as a good “Photoshopper.” I’d like to think I’m good at both, but I’d much rather be viewed as a good photographer.

Second, I make conscious decisions when shooting with post-processing in mind. I might intentionally, significantly over or under-expose a shot because I have a vision for what that scene will look like after editing. However, if I shared that raw file, I’d look like a clueless idiot because the raw file shows that I used the “wrong” settings.

I love the canvas of photography. Half-full, half-empty…depending upon your perspective. You can enhance and manipulate what’s there, but there are certain “truths” no matter what (which is why I absolutely never replace skies or fundamentally alter the substance of a scene–just my personal preference).

It’s All About The Thrill of the Chase

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If I lived in some parallel universe in which I could never edit or share another photo, I’d still take photos. For me, the highlight is the excitement of the experience, the thrill of the chase.

Without a doubt my two favorite things to do in the Disney Parks are running around shooting sunset at Tokyo DisneySea and shooting Epcot late at night. Or maybe Epcot at sunset and DisneySea at night. Either way…but you get the idea. Having a camera in my hand while I bounce around “chasing” these scenes just makes me seem a like I have a purpose. If I ran around empty-handed, people might think I’m (more) crazy.

For me, the photos are a nice byproduct of the exilhirating experience. I know a lot of other photographers are more concerned about getting the shot, but I’m more concerned with getting the experience. 

If this doesn’t make sense, let me illustrate with an example. All of the photos in this post (aside from the one of my computer) were shot during a single sunset in Epcot. For a little over an hour, I was running all over the place, and covered several miles of ground while shooting. By the end, I was sweaty and exhausted, but satisfied with all of the scenes I had captured.

As I criss-crossed the park, I repeatedly passed a handful of other photogs set up outside the Imagination pavilion waiting for the peak light and a monorail to pass. Once they got this, I passed them while they were comparing shots on their LCD screens. They got the shot they were after (and if you were one of the photographers shooting this scene on October 1, 2015, I’d love to see your results!), and I have no doubt that their shots are better than my monorail-less shot from about the same location at the top of this heading.

The point is that they had different priorities than me–neither right or wrong–and we both achieved what we were after. I’d rather chase a bunch of mediocre photos (not that I think these are mediocre–this was one of the best sunsets I’ve ever witnessed–I’m just saying I’d take quantity over quality if I had to choose…) than patiently wait for the epic shot.

What a Difference Organization Makes

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That heading was originally the title of this post, as I stumbled upon the raw files in this post with my new set-up. Then I started thinking about the thrill of the chase and that anecdote above (after stumbling upon some raw files from October I had forgotten), and decided you probably don’t want to read 1,000+ words about my new method of organization, anyway.

As long as I’ve been a photographer, I’ve edited photos on my (various) laptops and saved raw files to external hard drives. Over time, this grew unwieldy, especially as I switched from PC to Mac, rendering half of my external hard drives read-only. Since my files were spread out over 6 external hard drives, I never backed up anything to the cloud, either. There was no good way to automate the process with a storage “system” like mine. Finding a particular unedited raw file from prior years was like the quest for Rosebud.

I had thought seriously about getting organized in the past, but hearing news of landslides late last year got me thinking about it again. While I have some redundancy in my hard drives, if there were a landslide or fire at our place, everything would be gone.

Then, I saw people on Twitter discussing workflow, and how nice it was editing photos on a 5K iMac display. This is when it clicked (more like, “this is when I self-justified buying a new toy due to need rather than desire”). The iMac could be the hub of my organization, with an external RAID drive containing all of my files, and constant cloud-based back-up from the RAID drive.

The problem: cost. I just dropped a big chunk of change on a new camera, so I couldn’t exactly go nuts. For the iMac, I landed on this mid-range model (I’ll upgrade the RAM myself). Drobo is what most of my photographer-friends use, and seems to be the industry leader. I must have some rich friends, because the Drobo base unit plus some hard drives would’ve cost me ~$1,000! Pass. Instead, I bought the Western Digital Duo RAID 8TB drive via Amazon Warehouse Deals for ~$275. (I’m sure some will gasp at buying a used hard drive, but Warehouse Deals are inspected, unused returns.) Next, it was time to look at cloud storage. CrashPlan seems to be the industry leader here, and I was all set to drop $60 for the year when fellow Disney fan-photographer Matthew Cooper tipped me off that I could use free unlimited cloud storage for photos (including raw files!) with Amazon Cloud Drive.

I also bought a desk and office chair (and assembled them ALL BY MYSELF!) since I figured Sarah probably wouldn’t be too pleased if I set up the iMac on our coffee table (my previous workstation). What a difference this new set-up makes. I have already found long-forgotten raw files dating back to 2012, and started editing shots that otherwise would’ve been “gone” forever. I’ve also integrated my Wacom Intuos Draw Tablet into my workflow for masking in Photoshop to great results. Suffice to say, my efficiency and productivity have gone through the roof, and I’m now comfortable with my storage and organization should the worst happen.

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Until this week, I didn’t know my photography “philosophy” included any emphasis on organization, but it certainly does now and for me, this is one that is hereafter forever etched in stone. (I literally etch my photographic philosophy into random rocks lying around our house…great for decorating). I have a lot of other random thoughts, principles, and the like when it comes to photography, but my feet are starting to hurt from standing on this soapbox for so long. I feel the need to belabor the point that, as a subjective art form, these are all a matter of personal preference and opinion. Other photographers may totally disagree as to any and all of the points here, and I take no issue with that. These are my personal beliefs and practices, and I’m not attempting to hoist them upon anyone else.

Want to learn more about photography to take great photos in the Disney theme parks and beyond? The best place to start is Tom’s Ultimate Disney Parks Photography Guide, which covers a variety of topics from links to tutorials, tips, and tricks to recommendations for point & shoots, DSLRs, lenses, and more!

If you do want to purchase new photography equipment, we recommend the following trusted & authorized retailers. Buying from these retailers helps support this blog, and doesn’t cost you a thing:
Amazon
B&H Photo
Adorama

For other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:

Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel

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Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with my philosophy towards photography? Have any deep thoughts or hot takes of your own to add? Any additional “issues” you seen me mention on social media about which you’d be interested in hearing more? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!


24 Responses to “My Photography Philosophy”
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