Educating Yourself

What is the definition of a professional photographer? The only technical one I remember hearing is that a majority of your income comes from doing photography. But that leaves out all of the knowledge it takes to be a great photographer. Photography has become a profession where the consumer doesn’t care about your level of education. An MFA is nice to have, but that doesn’t necessarily show talent behind a camera. So we can call ourselves a professional without any degree, certification, or even training. What if being a teacher, electrician, or even surgeon was the same way? Most great photographers I know spend money on workshops, seminars, conferences, and online videos. None of it is required. It seems anyone can buy the tools, create a product and make some money. I guess that’s being an artist. But how can you be an artist photographer without knowing Cartier-Bresson, Avedon or Leibovitz? 

I have gotten numerous texts from photographer friends (you know who you are) with questions like “Why is my camera doing this…” “How do I fix…” "Where do I find…” Somehow I’ve become a source of techie answers. When I get these texts, I’m often sitting at my computer searching Google only just to forward information. Where do I usually find the answers? The equipment manual. For me, the best education is the free education of reading the equipment manual or the instruction guide on the software companies website. I think it’s the most overlooked piece of education there is. 

I have fallen victim to “This is the next greatest thing” and felt the need to buy it immediately. I've purchased three different programs for album design. I try to justify the purchases by the speed I can design, and the time I can save, using the software vs. paying someone else to do the work. Or I can just use Photoshop to do the designs and save myself money, but cost myself time. It’s often an argument with myself because who wants to spend money when you can do it yourself, or have bills to pay. Sometimes spending the money on the software you think you need is the error, which is why a trial is a good thing. Don’t get me started on purchasing another photographer's Lightroom presets that they sell. I believe they are a waste. I use two that I made myself that are basic adjustments I apply to every one of my photos, and one for a nice black and white mix that I still make changes to. Why nothing else? First, it’s not my style. Second, I know how to make any look I want in Lightroom because I learned the program. I went with free online education via YouTube over dollars spent on presets. There are photographers out there making a good living selling things. Most of them are at conventions selling products to new, uneducated, photographers. Products new photographers most likely don’t need if they just learned their craft. No, you do not need that salad bowl piece of equipment for your flash. Before you purchase anything, ask yourself if your client will recognize the difference in your photos that that piece of equipment will make. Will it generate more business? Most likely not. Do you go to a restaurant and ask the chef what pans he uses to cook your food? No. So the equipment you use doesn’t matter. It's really about how you use it. 

I think the most important style of learning is trial and error. Experimental learning.  

My Experiment

I’ve recently seen a lot of posts about a piece of software (that will remain nameless, but probably obvious to pros) that does one simple thing; It makes your .jpeg files 30-80% smaller in megabytes while apparently maintaining its quality. I think more accurately it’s print quality. And it will only cost you about $20 or $100 depending on your level use. They justify your purchase based on the cost of the number of hard drives you would need if you didn’t shrink your file sizes. 

Me being the skeptic, I downloaded the trial to this software and compared it to what I can do with the export settings in Adobe Lightroom, software that we all have and pay for anyway. I couldn’t help but think, is there more than one way to compress a .jpeg? What does this software do other than set a compression level? Is there some other process to what it does? 

Right now I could do a few things. Read the info on the website about what it does (there wasn’t anything technically detailed), search the internet for what people are saying it does (nothing educational that made it clear), or my favorite, experimental learning. 

So I took a handful of RAW images and brought them into Lightroom. I’ll use just one for the example. After editing them, I exported a JPG at it’s highest level of compression, 100. It’s the cleanest, best quality jpg you can get. This is the image that I would compare to everything else and it is 22.4 mb. 

Then I exported at level 90, 80, 70 and 60. I started to notice a difference in file quality between the images when zoomed in at 200%. 100, 90 and 80 all look all the same. Flipping between the images, I didn’t see any pixels changing. But the file sizes did from 22.4mb, 13.8mb, and 9.7mb respectively. Level 70 is where I started to notice a difference, and 60 was just not ok with me seeing .jpeg compression tiling. 

Then I looked at the file sizes and began to experiment more. 70 - 76 all had the same file size, 7.1mb, and no visual difference. 77 - 80 all had the same file size with no visible difference (I stopped at 80). 

The difference between 70 and 80 was minimal at 200%. 80 was a little sharper. I’m sure if you print the images you won’t notice anything. File sizes change from 7.1 MB at level 70 to 9.7 MB at level 80. 

Now time for the software. There are no options except do it. So I did it. I compared images carefully to the level 70 and 80 images from Lightroom. The quality of the compression was nearly identical to the level 70 with some notice of compression. And oddly enough, a slightly larger file size than level 80. 7.1mb at level 70, 9.7 MB at level 80 and the software at 10.2 MB. Yes, you’re reading that right. The software created level 70 quality images that are larger in MB than level 80 images. The software produced less quality with a larger file size than what Lightroom did. 

Kind of dumbfounded I tried multiple images. I got the same results. Level 70 quality images with about a level 80 file size. 

You can’t tell side by side here or sized down on this blog, but when you look at the layered PSD and turn layers on and off to compare, you’ll see the changes. 

So, in the end, I’ve learned this: First, all the before and after examples from the software that I’ve seen online are all too small to see any detail. So they are deemed useless in my opinion. Level 70-76 exported from Lightroom get’s the same compression that the software did. I like my images at level 80 the best (PS in Photoshop it’s a level 10 JPG). I've now learned that I can export from Lightroom and save the same amount of space, sometimes more, with the same quality, if not better, than the software was able to do for me.

So in about 15 minutes of exploration and experimental learning, I saved myself $100, hard drive space, and one less step in my workflow. 

Even after 14 years I still look back at previous work and think I could have done better. Why? Because I continue to get better. Every year I focus on one or two aspects of photography, or business, that I need to improve on. At the end of that year I pick something else to improve on and keep practicing. I’ve never stopped learning and exploring. I believe in learning everything you can and knowing that you can’t learn everything. I’ve been told many times I’m just talented or that I just have a great eye. That would not be if I didn’t study images and never stopped practicing my craft. We’ve all heard the phrase “The pursuit of perfection.” It’s a pursuit. If you ever think a photograph you’ve created is perfect then what’s left to pursue? Learn from every image you create. The client may not care that you don’t have a college degree, but they will notice if you don’t know what you are doing. So invest in educating yourself and not on software and gadgets that cover up a lack of know how.

Richard EspositoComment