Friday, November 14, 2008

Do You Know What You're Doing?

by Miserere


I'm referring to what you're doing with your camera, of course. Over the last few months of wandering around internet forums looking for inspiration (much like an insomniac roams the streets at night waiting for sleep to come) I occasionally run across very nice photographs that make me stop and pay closer attention. Often they are taken by skilled photographers who have honed their art through years of study and practice. But sometimes, they are taken by people who have a camera and no idea what they are doing with it. I'm going to be elitist here and dub them people-with-cameras.

If you don't know buy yourself a piano but have no idea how to play it, would you call yourself a pianist? Why then when somebody buys a camera do they automatically consider themselves a photographer?

Maybe I'm more obsessed with my hobbies and interests than the average person, which leads me to read as much as possible about a subject when I become interested in it, simply because I want to learn all about it. I understand not everyone is like this, and modern digital cameras are so automated that you don't need to understand any of the most basic principles of photography in order to take pictures. But if you don't know what you're doing, how can you become better at it?

These are some true stories I have read on the internet that span across countries and camera brands:
  • A person who takes pretty pictures of sunsets and flowers is hired by their friends to photograph their wedding after they see these great pictures. After the wedding the person-with-camera asks why all her pictures inside the church are so noisy and blurry and if maybe the kit lens she used is broken.
  • A person who photographs models and is looking to make a living from photography who asks exactly what those numbers (500, 250, 125...) in the viewfinder actually mean.
  • A person who is charging people to take their portraits and asks what camera or software program can be used to make the eyes be in focus but blur out the rest of the face.
  • A person who posts a high-key photograph taken by somebody else and asks what lens to buy in order to take pictures like that.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It's not that these aren't legitimate questions, it's that they're being asked at the wrong time in these people's photographic "career". It's like a pilot who calls the control tower while in mid-air and asks what those long things sticking out on either side of the plane are for. Would you want to be in that plane?

Taking pictures is easy. Taking good pictures isn't. Taking pictures that people will be happy to pay money for is even more difficult. If you've taken up photography as a hobby, please do a reality check before charging people for your work. You may take great photos of flowers or landscapes, but if somebody wants you to take a portrait of them or photograph their wedding, do you know how to light them correctly? Do you even have lighting equipment? Do you know how to best use your camera and lens(es) to achieve the result your client wants? Will your current gear even be able to produce the results your client wants?

So how can we remedy a lack of preparation? Easy! If you are reading this blog, then you have access to the internet and the World is at your fingertips. On this blog's sidebar you'll find links under "Links to: Digital Photography tutorials" that take you to a number of sites that offer instruction in all things photographic. I particularly recommend Cambridge in Colour and Ron Bigelow's tutorials. Another great resource are the tutorials on The Luminous Landscape website. To learn how to use flash to your advantage, nothing better than The Strobist.

For those that like reading books, there are many out there, but few I would actually recommend. My #1 choice by far for the beginning photographer is Bryan Peterson's Understanding Exposure. It was written in the days of film SLRs and has been slightly updated to the digital age. The fact that so little was actually changed stresses the point that the principles of good photography have not changed with the advent of CCD cameras. Everything you ever wanted to know about how to use aperture, shutter speeds and ISO to obtain the picture you want is explained clearly, and with a wealth of photographic examples, by Mr Peterson.

Lastly, I'll point out that even if you know everything there is to know about proper lighting and exposure, you will not be able to get the photos you want unless you know how to operate your camera correctly! Again, help is in front of your eyes, as Yvon Bourque has dedicated a lot of time to writing manuals for the major Pentax DSLRs. These are much more than instruction manuals, they are working manuals, how-to books. They don't just say "this button engages auto-focus", they actually explain what auto-focus does, how it affects your camera usage, and why you would want to use it, or not. Given that Yvon has decided to make them available for $5 if you download them, there really is no excuse for you to look at your new fancy Pentax DSLR and wonder "how the hell do I take a picture with this thing...?"

Learn. Practice. Then learn some more. Taking a good picture should not be a lucky occurrence. Don't just own a camera, be a photographer!

Thank you for reading.

Miserere


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