Marginal Gains in Photography

“The doctrine of marginal gains is all about small incremental improvements in any process adding up to a significant improvement when they are all added together” BBC

I’m of the belief that whilst areas of major gains are where most of our fundamental improvements are made, marginal gains are what pushes your level that bit further and will be the difference between being a good photographer and an exceptional one. We go out and we spend time behind the camera photographing, that is our bread and butter and that is where we really learn how to see and shoot, that is the area of major gains for your photography. You cannot replace that time with something else and achieve the same level of success, it’s vital to becoming a good photographer. Everybody who wants good images needs to put the time in, not just the “feeling it” times. Shooting plenty of crap along the way is fine. However, if this is all you do you will never reach your potential as a photographer. To really reach your full potential as a photographer, you also need to spend time working on marginal gains, whilst they might not impact directly as much as time spent photographing they contribute to your overall photography.

What are the Marginal/Major Gains in photography

Marginal gains within photography are things like upgrading lenses and gear. Reading photography books and learning from them. Joining discussions and photography groups in which you can talk and share ideas about photography. Planning how you’re going to spend your time photographing is a marginal gain also. Marginal gains in photography can be very important to your development and by calling them marginal shouldn't take away from their overall impact and influence on your major areas for improvement. A clear example of this is that you can’t work on the major area improvement, going out and shooting, if you don’t have a camera/lens. Another less obvious example is completing a whole project on close up faces only to find out a guy named Bruce Gilden already covered that ground. You gotta know your history to be original and to bring original ideas and photographs to the table. But nonetheless these are still Marginal gains because they don’t actively improve your photography in the same way major gains on the street do. But paired with that major gain time photographing and you’re onto a winner. Practical hands on working, solving problems behind the lens, working through potential shots in your head whilst looking at the scene in front of your eyes, learning how to anticipate moments, and how to adapt to them quickly and on the fly are just a few of the many practical reasons why your time spent working with the camera photographing is absolutely the area of Major Gains in Photography (or assisting in the right circumstances, i.e carrying bags might fall into the Marginal gains category). Buying nonsense goods like fancy and needless camera straps and hotshoe covers are nothing but vanity purchases and dare I say take away more than they give to your “photography brain”. Instead of buying a fancy hotshoe cover you might be better served as a photographer if you put that money towards a photography book for example.

So why is knowing all of this worth it to you? For me it’s to illuminate and bring balance to my photography. It’s easy to get wrapped up in certain aspects of photography whilst neglecting other parts, or maybe wasting too much of your precious “photography” time on things that really don’t need much attention at that particular time. By understanding how you grow and in what areas we need to improve, then we can make gains and go further with our photography.

The Beginners Mind in Photography

Shoshin - The Beginners Mind

is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning "beginner's mind." It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

Do you notice the difference when photographing in a new location compared to a location you know well? How much more aware you're in the new surroundings and how much that affects your productivity behind the lens. You’re experiencing the effects of the beginner's mind and it’s a wonderful thing, especially as a photographer as you can really capitalize on your hyper-awareness and eagerness to explore new streets. Naturally, though this feeling fades the more you visit the same location, your eyes wander less and your mind wanders elsewhere. You’ve gained too much knowledge of the area and the more knowledge you gain the less new knowledge you tend to take in. Our approach to the location becomes the same old routine, very static. Productivity goes down as we search for information that only goes to validate what we already know.

But you can work towards getting some of that beginner's minds back and approach these regular locations with the same type of enthusiasm as a beginner. Being actively aware of your state of mind is a big first step. Be a beginner and challenge your knowledge with your instinct. Here are some things you can do to start with, but I highly recommend assessing your own mind space and combating it in a tailored way.

Change your routine

If you notice that you walk in the same direction and down the same streets, then change it. Walk on the opposite side of the street or the next street down, anything to break your routine. Do you always visit in the golden hours? then visit outside of golden hour. Coffee breaks, lunch locations, and starting points change them all.

Challenge your focus

Do you tend to hunt for the same kinds of images? Consistency is important and you can still achieve it when you change your focus. Looking for smaller details if you’re usually shooting more topographical wider view images. Get closer and experience a different viewpoint

Know nothing about the place

Ask for directions, ask for a recommendation because you just never know what somebody else knows that you don't and what path that might send you on.

Embrace new

Who wants to photograph the brand spanking new buildings when you have those old places with character around the corner. You! Everything ages and whilst you might not want to photograph the new, being aware and challenging yourself to look for shots is a good way to gather new information.

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For me, it’s about getting the most from my time photographing. Getting more from documenting locations and shooting street photography in these locations. I want to get as close to feeling like a beginner in a place as possible because I know just how much it impacts my images.

Knowledge is a great thing, but it can also be a bit debilitating. Being able to draw from your knowledge whilst viewing the world as a beginner is a recipe for success.

Zone Focusing - Street Photography Techniques

Street Photography offers so much in the way of images, all kinds of environments and lighting situations are seen so no one camera setting is going to be good for all of the situations you face on the street. The streets are far to diverse to expect just one camera setting to work for all. Although some settings cover more situations than others you shouldn’t settle for just those settings. It’s about having an arsenal of skills to tackle any situation that comes your way. Here we delve into Zone Focusing and talk about what situations you might want to use it for, how it helps, and how to do it right.

Zone focus is basically manual focus, only pre-thought out. It’s setting your focus to be a certain distance in front of you at all times. Imagine you’re on a busy street, with lots of foot traffic walking towards you. The subjects are moving so fast towards you that AF focus (or manual focus) is just not fast enough, since by the time you see the composition and grab focus the subject has moved forward and is now out of focus, or the composition has changed entirely. These situations call for zone focusing. Turning off AF and setting your focus to a certain distance in front of you allows you to get that shot, without the focus lag that comes with autofocus or your slow manual focus skills (you can pretend all you want).

You will need a basic understanding of depth of field (DOF) and its relation to your aperture of choice to get the most from this technique. Zone focusing on the street with your aperture set to f/1.4 is not going to help you much because your DOF would be shallow and you’d end up with missed shots entirely. This is because your subjects would be in and out of the in-focus depth of field in a split second. Having your aperture set to something like f/8-f11 gives you a larger depth of field.

Now imagine being on that busy street again, with those people walking towards your frame and this time the space from 5ft - 20 ft in front is in focus already, all you have to do is get the exposure correct. The freedom to enjoy the streets is much greater working this way. You’re able to feel the streets and get to know them better and understand them, thats getting in the zone! If you have time to think about the shot you’re going to take, like composition, aperture, you can move a little for a better shot, then you have time to change to a more suitable setting anyway. So anytime you’re walking in busy areas where you might expect reactionary images, you should set up for zone focus. Preset zone focus, all other settings are secondary but not any less valuable or used. It’s just picking the right tool for the job essentially.

I always shoot zone focus at night when using a flash on my camera. I have a 28mm lens on my camera and have it set to f/8. I switch to manual focus and set the focus 5ft in front of me. Having it set at 5ft gives me an area of focus that is roughly 14ft long. From 4 ft to 18 ft, I can get good acceptable focus. Generally, I’m trying to frame the subject 5-8 ft away from me. All I’m doing is waiting for the subject/s to fall into that area.

Dress for Success - Street Photography Techniques

You’ve heard of the saying - dress for success. It seems to be used most commonly in reference to impressing at interviews and successfully getting the job, in part by dressing for success. First impressions matter, generally people look at you before hearing from you. It’s natural to look at somebody and form a basic opinion of that person by looking at them. You can argue the rights and wrongs of this all you want, but at the end of the day it’s human nature to do so. Maybe this is even more true as a street photographer, since we are all keen observers of people. Before we take a photograph of any particular person we are looking at them, judging them and wondering if they would make an interesting subject in a photograph. Is the person open to having their photograph taken if asked, or if it would be better to take a photograph candidly? These are some considerations we take into account before taking a photograph. But what about being behind the camera, how do the clothes we wear affect those around us?

We have a few things to consider but usually the first thing we are trying to do as a street photographer is blend in with the crowd, not so much become invisible as we all know thats a thing left for the super heroes. Fitting in would keep eyes off us for a little longer and allow us the opportunity to get closer to the subject without being easily noticed. Eventually, you will get noticed, no doubt, and perhaps for other reasons beyond how you dress but it does help to fit in especially if you want those closer to the scene images.

The next thing to consider is your safety, and avoiding wandering eyes spotting you as a potential target. Having a camera around your neck doesn’t help matters when you're trying to dress for safety, but wearing your finest Supreme gear and hitting the streets of Tijuana isn’t going help your street photography at all and will draw negative attention. If you dress like those around you, chances are the camera will be pretty unnoticeable when hanging around your neck. What might look normal where you live can make you look very much out of place in a different part of town/country. So, the next time you’re shooting in an affluent part of town you might want to get in your best casuals on before some affluent neighbor calls the cops on the suspicious individual taking pictures of flash cars in driveways. The same can be said for the less affluent streets, that flash Louis Vuitton bag you got on sure looks good to the man in despair with nothing to lose, it tells him you got money! something he might desperately need.

Lastly, shooting for comfort and practicality should be considered. Towards the end of a long street photography session, your body might start to tell you where you screwed up when getting dressed. Nothing like having to walk/hobble across the border after a 5-hour slog on the streets of Tijuana, all due to picking converse as the shoe of choice for the day. Another good one is checking the 85* weather at 3pm, slapping on a t-shirt only to have the t-shirt drenched due to the extreme humidity that you didn’t check. Then surviving the after-dark journey home, in that lovely wet and now freezing cold t-shirt, brilliant.

Those are our tips for dressing for success whilst out doing street photography. Take into consideration those three points and find the most suitable clothing for the job.