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Painting by the Numbers
I am asked the following question far too often:
"What were your camera settings
when you took that picture? It would really help me to know that, because
I'm a beginner."
This reminds me of the story where Ansel Adams was teaching a photo workshop
in Yosemite National Park, and a student raised his hand. "What was the
aperture setting and shutter speed on that photo?", asked the student as
he pointed to a classic black and white print of Half Dome. Ansel replied
without batting an eyelash, "f64 at 2 seconds." This prompted another
student to do the same, "And what about that photo?" Again, he quickly
replied, "f32 at 1 second." This goes on and on, while the students
scribble in their notebooks the technical information they were told,
as if the magician were giving away secrets. Finally, someone
asked, "How do you remember all that information?" This time, the answer
was more direct, "I don't. I'm making it up." The pencils stopped. He
continued, "beginners always wonder about this information, but it's
meaningless. When we get to learning how to shoot, it won't even occur
to you to ask such questions."
A lot of beginners mistakenly believe that knowing what the camera settings
were for any given picture will help them learn something, or give them some
guidelines or insights on how the photographic process works. The problem is
photography is not a paint-by-numbers game, where you memorize
aperture/exposure values, and apply them under what appear to be similar
conditions. Amateurs all too often feel they will get a "sense" for
how pictures are taken, which may sink in over time, and there are plenty
of pro photographers that write books to give these people such quick
and easy answers to these questions. But one cannot possibly learn
anything using this method. In fact, it does more harm than good by
perpetuating the illusion of knowledge, thereby delaying when the real
learning process begins.
Learning by the Book
I had two experiences with this that helped me figure out what's wrong
with how-to photo books. The first helped me see the problems with such
books (and from learning from most pros), and the second experience
taught me why (and how) I can help myself learn, which is really when
I finally started getting good technically.
To begin, I found a book called, Techniques of Natural Light
Photography, by Jim Zuckerman. It's a great looking book with great
images, and I was particularly excited to see that all the technical
information for each photo was given in detail: he had a great picture
of an elephant silhouette underneath a sunset sky in Africa, and his
camera settings were f5.6, a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, and was
using Fuji Velvia film. You can imagine how emboldened I felt when I
went out to shoot a beautiful sunset where I live, feeling like I was
going to capture an amazing postcard photo. But when I got there, it
dawned on me: I still had no idea what I was doing. Just because Jim
Zuckerman took a shot at f5.6 at 1/125 of a second, doesn't mean the
same settings will work for my shot. I was lost. It occurred to me
that I've been asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking what his
camera settings were for any given shot, what I really wanted to know
was: How did he know to set them that way?! That's the stuff I needed
to learn, and this book hardly approaches that subject.
Learning How to Learn
At that point, I knew that I couldn't learn from knowing by being told
specific data about shots where I can't control the conditions, like the
outside. But, inside, under controlled lighting conditions, I could
actually learn something. To put this new approach to use, I applied
it to learning how to shoot with "studio lights." That is, the special
photography lights you use to shoot portraits, furniture, products,
and general interior scenes.
I rented a basic studio lighting output (worth about $1000), and bought
a book on how to photograph using studio lighting. It was great:
it had all sorts of pictures and diagrams and technical settings on
light values and camera settings, all showing exactly how each and every
spectacular photograph was shot. Inspired, I went home and set up a scene,
and then tried to look for a similar setup in the book so I could try
it as well. But, then the epiphany hit me again: I had no similar scenes in
my house that I could copy as a test. All of his examples involved quite a
bit more stuff, not to mention location access, than what most people have
access to. I'd have to go to the Plaza Hotel in New York City during
dinner hour, bring $20,000 worth of lighting equipment with me, bribe
the Maitre D' to let me bother the guests, and then pay everyone in the
room a modelling fee so I could photograph them. A little unrealistic,
to say the least.
Again, the point dawned on me: I can't be given specific information;
I need to learn how to determine camera and lighting settings.
But this time, I was already too far down the road: I already had all
my equipment, photo lights, and plenty of time. I was ready to go. So,
I went into trial-and-error mode and chose an arbtirary subject in my
living room (a grandfather clock) and started shooting from nothing.
I didn't know what to set the light's power settings to, so I started
at the lowest setting and moved them up, writing down each value for
each shot. I used an incident light meter to determined what the stated
aperture/speed settings were for each given power setting, and when I
got the film back, I saw a direct correlation between lighting ratios
between artificial and natural light, and how dramatically shadows appear
or disappear as brightness values increase on the sides.
In those days, when all I had was film, this was very difficult and
time-consuming. Today, I could to the same thing instantly with a digital
camera and be done with it.
My own experimentation eventually allowed me to figure out everything
I needed to know. And better yet, I learned how to do it on my own,
which is pivotal here: because what you learn on your own you never
forget. I can now look at a photo and determine, from experience,
where the lighting was positioned, where it was deficient, where it's
too strong, and even estimates on aperture settings based on the visible
depth of field. Ironically, all these books had to do was explain how to
go about figuring it out. But, instructing and teaching are two different
things, and most "instructors" don't see the difference. They just instruct,
which is not going to impart concepts that help you learn.
And therein lies a weird moral of the story: introductory how-to photo
books are a dime a dozen, and it's really hard to find the gems from the
coal. Use them for basic technical facts, but realize that experience
through trial and error (despite your best attempts at copying what the
book tells you to do) will be your best teacher. As Woody Allen said,
"If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative."
The Art of Experimentation
While experimentation is good, you can't just go off wildly
experimenting without a sense of direction. This is where the process
of "learning" comes in (as opposed to simply being told what to do).
Learning photography is like learning to drive. It's pointless to have
discussions about automechanics or to explain how all the parts work
together. You have to get behind the wheel and drive to get the sense
of what you're doing.
The process of learning good technique requires three steps, each of
which is equally important, similar to that of a three-legged stool:
all legs are necessary for the stool to stand, for without any one of
them, it will fall.
Understand Basic Technical Principles
"Understanding Technical Principles" is just a matter of collecting as much
information as you can about technology (characteristics of film, how
cameras meter, what depth-of-field is and how it varies with distance, etc.).
There's no magic here, and you don't need to flood your brain with every
single fact there is to know. Believe it or not, you pick up what you
need to know slowly, as you go, more than you'll think. Don't rush down
this path thinking it's critical before you can move on.
While experimentation is key to improvement, it's critique that enables
this improvement to take hold. It also takes the longest to develop and
fine-tune. I've known many people who are excellent technicians and
shoot a lot, but their pictures aren't that inspiring because they just
don't have a vision for what they want to shoot. This vision is necessary
in order to know how to critique your work: it's knowing what to look for.
Now, don't confuse "vision" and "critique" with taste. They have nothing
to do with one another. There is no right or wrong in taste; it is
what differentiates us from each other. What appeals to you and why is what
makes you you. If you like minimalist, out-of-focus black and white
abstracts of globs of light on paper, that's perfectly fine. It still takes
time to develop that into something that has consistency and other aspects
that appeal to the human eye. Not everyone may share your taste or style,
but don't fall into the trap of thinking that you're "good, but people just
don't understand you."
We're all influenced by others' works, and
we mimic it to some degree or another. Another famous quote:
"Creativity is learning to hide your sources."
The way people begin to develop their photographic eye is by embracing
the camera in the form of shooting constantly. This often happens on
vacation, where people tour a foreign city, look up, and say "wow!",
as they quickly pull out the camera and snap away. When I got started,
this is exactly what I did. When I returned from a trip, I
enthusiastically emailed a photographer for his opinion about my
pictures from the Yucatan Peninsula.
He reamed me. I didn't see it. I sent him pictures from my trip
to Niagara Falls, and he didn't reply anymore. I then sent
him pictures of my first trip to New Zealand. His lawyer
sent me a cease and desist letter.
I got the point.
In short, all my pictures gave that same sense: I looked around and just
took pictures of stuff I saw. This is what I later called "inventory
shots." That is, I took an inventory of everything I saw so I can show
them to people and say, "see this beautiful church I saw in England!" And
they can respond with, "Wow! And look at the interesting detail!" And you
can say, "Why don't we build those things here!?" And you can go on and
on, but you're not really looking ator appreciatingphotography. You're
looking at pictures. There's nothing necessarily wrong with this, but
if you want to get entrenched in taking better pictures, you need to
develop an awareness for other aspects beyond just the record of what
you saw. Here are some ways to get started:
Follow the compositional rules for photography (and other mediums).
A fantastic resource is http://www.photozone.de/Technique.
I should write up a similar list of rules, but this page is so good,
I don't need to bother.
Explore Your Subject
After seeing something that interests you and you finished with your
initial inventory shots (I still do itwe all do), explore the subject
further and start taking different perspectives. You should probably
shoot about 5-10x more picures than you usually would... or more than
a tourist would. Edit away those similar-but-not-identical pictures to
find the best ones.
Find different and unique perspectives and angles.
Get really low (shoot from the floor if you can). Horizontal, or
looking up, etc... Similarly, find a higher place (a mezzanine if
possible, a second floor, the top of a building, etc.). Sometimes,
just holding your camera as high as you can and pointing down yields
fun results. Experiment.
Shoot the entire subject with one lens, then do it again with another. Use
the wide angles. (My favorite fun lens is the fisheye.) Also, zoom in
close and get the intimate details. If you don't have a range of lenses,
use the extremes in your point-n-shoot's zoom lens to try the same thing.
At the end of the day, you really need to develop an eye for the kinds of
things that appeal to you, and then turn up the intent to "11." Push your
own limits. You know you're improving when other people no longer want to
travel with you because you spend too much time shooting.
For more discussion like this, see Photographing Native Peoples in Foreign Countries.
Schools vs. Workshops
I don't have any suggestions or recommendations for photo schools.
However, I do have a lot to say about whether it's wise to choose
photography as a "first" career in your life, especially when it's
your main (or only) skillset. But that's beyond the topic of this
article. For a more complete set of discussions on the business of
photography, see Photography Business Topics.
If you're looking to improve your photography skills in a more regimented,
disciplined and focused environment, taking classes or photo workshops
are tons of fun, and quite valuable to anyone, including pros. I even
like going to workshops now and then, although I'm now teaching more of
them than I am attending them. Workshops are fun, you're around other
photographers, your time and attention are focused on the task and the
subject. You don't wander. This is the best environment for learning.
Photo workshops are a dime a dozen. Choose one based on the location
or subject matter. I've never chosen a workshop because of the teacher,
because while someone may be a good photographer, they may be an awful
teacher. One doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the other.
A final story:
I once had a teacher that I thought was an excellent photographer, and I
took several workshops from him.
I learned an incredible amount of technical information from him, including
lighting, film types, use of filters, and even basic composition rules.
Over time, as I got better and discovered new techniques and facts about
photography, I realized that he was wrong about several things, including,
oddly enough, basic technical facts. But, even this type of misinformation
didn't really have a long-term negative impact on my skills or the quality
of my photos, because you can only learn so much in the beginning. When you're
ready to move on, you can discern the "right from wrong" in the past.
I finally realized I'd outgrown my teacher when it dawned on me that he
was shooting the same thing he always shoots, which also was identical
to his entire portfolio. Sure, his photos are great looking, but he could
do nothing else. Someone had undoubtedly taught him the mechanics of
shooting certain pictures (where to stand, what film to use, how to set
the camera settings) and he's been doing it ever since. He never evolved,
which also explains why some of his technical information is incorrect.
He never really understood it himself; he never questioned it, and just
parrots it to the next student in the line.
All that said, I still learned a lot from him in the beginning, and
while I now regard him as mediocre, not to mention a rather annoying
individual (thus, I'm not mentioning his name), I still attribute my
time with him as being the most formative in my photographic growth. I
now look back at most of my photography teachers and other influences,
and realize that they all had "something" to contribute, but no one was
on a pedestal for me; everyone had limitations of one sort or another
that I only discovered over time. Of course, I have mine as well too
your job is to improve so you can see them.
"When you can grab the pebbles from my hand, Grasshopper, you may leave."
There's still something to be learned from anyone.
Like many people in life, you don't learn from only positive
influences; some people can be perfectly good role models when used as
counter-examples to how you don't want to be. Whether those are
your enemies, teachers, parents, or school friends, you learn through
all sorts of experiences. My goal is to help people understand at
least my approach, so you can say to someone one day: "Yeah,
I learned photography from this guy on the web. Talks a lot. Now I
realize he's an idiot, but that's how I got started!"
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