Photography, as art, as a job, as a passion

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, May 24, 2011, 9:06 PM | comments: 0

It's true that I've been getting a kick out of You Are Not A Photographer. It's extraordinary how people get their hands on a camera and Photoshop and truly believe that they've mastered photography to the point where people will pay them money to shoot. And sadly, people do. People who do make a living from photography, and don't suck at it, are I think well within their right to be annoyed.

There are two sides to the same problem. The first is that people buy an expensive camera and they think they're instantly better photographers. Some people even think that the gear makes them special, in the way they think an expensive car does. The reality is that the gear is not a substitute for developed composition skills, and understanding of exposure theory, light, etc. The skills don't come with the camera.

The other problem is that if you do happen to be capable of capturing excellent photos, people make comments like, "You must have a nice camera!" That annoys the piss out of me. Do you tell a chef after a good meal, "You must have a nice stove?" Of course not.

Then there is the weird fascination with degrading photos, and the odd assumptions that go with it. I read an article recently about teen hipsters who think that film cameras are quaint and not so perfect like digital cameras. Really? Have you seen Facebook? If anything, digital cameras have enabled more crappy photos, not less. The "risk" of film, namely the cost, made you more careful about what you were shooting, but it wasn't inferior in terms of the quality of the images it could capture. But just because, it's also trendy to mess up your phone photos to look like they're victims to processing defects, much in the way that people used to add fake film scratches and jitter to video.

What's my deal? I think I'm frustrated that it doesn't seem like anyone wants to understand photography on a deep level. Shot composition is completely disregarded. Exposure details are left to full-auto on the cameras. Understanding the dynamic range you can capture and what to do with it is overlooked. Above all, practice is shunned despite the ability to essentially shoot an infinite number of shots for free.

I'm not suggesting that everyone has to be a photographer. I just don't care for people who believe money and gear is a shortcut to great photography. I've literally been at it for more than 20 years, and it took a lot of practice. I'm still often not satisfied with what I shoot, which is itself an important trait to building your skills.

On the flip side, I don't care for people who are actually talented who are in a constant ego war to make sure everyone knows they're better than you. I've seen countless photographers, clearly good at what they do, talk about others who "don't have a voice" or some such nonsense. Please.

Ultimately, I suppose my biggest issue is that there is little respect for the craft of photography. I want people to be better photographers. I want them to understand it, to experiment, to love it. So if you're not dicking around with the shortcuts you think will make you better, I do have some advice. Like I said, I want people to love this hobby, which might even turn into an occupation.

First, learn to compose. This is a skill you can practice with any camera, including the one in your phone. Understand where things in the frame are, relative to each other. Is there too much head room? Are you cutting off some vital detail? Does your eye go the place you'd like the viewer to go? Study photos that you like, see how they're composed.

Second, understand what light does. Before it gets to your rods and cones, it's bouncing off of everything. Light isn't just the things that are bright, it's the shadows too, the absence of light. It can create the appearance of depth in a flat medium. Light can have dramatic effects on mood and feeling. It's the reason I was so drawn to it as the aspect of theater that I wanted to study.

When you do buy that first SLR, or any camera with manual settings, learn about exposure theory. Learn the impact of changing aperture, shutter speed and "film speed" (ISO, that is). Understand that the more you open that aperture, the shorter the depth of field. Notice that slower shutters lead to more blur in moving things. Observe the trade-offs for noise at higher ISO's. These are all tools that augment your understanding of composition and light.

And just one editorial point: Portrait photography sucks. Posed wedding crap, senior pictures, etc. And even worse, gratuitous color grading and/or selective coloring. It's awful. Learn to capture candid stuff. All of the stuff above doesn't make up for the fact that you need to find things that are interesting. The subject is important too, and the hard truth is that you won't always have it.

Above all, you need to be passionate about it to get better at it. I was lucky enough in high school and college to borrow my dad's ancient Nikon F, a camera 14 years older than me. Then I had virtually unlimited access to T-max 400 film in high school for yearbook. All the while, I worked in video professionally, with a great many of the skills transferrable. The point is that I got to my skill level by being into it, and always looking for ways to get better at it. I continue to do that. You have to love it.


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