The Audacity of it All

This was going to be a rant, but instead.. well.. I suppose this is going to be a rant.. ;o)

I have a good friend who occasionally admires my photographs.  Like everyone else of our generation she has her own point and shoot compact and to her credit she’s noticed a difference in the photographs she takes, and the photographs I take.

She has even asked me to “give me a few pointers so I can make photographs like yours” and “ I just read your Critical Focus piece, can I borrow your camera so I can make photographs like yours.” 

Can you already see the problem?

She’s a popular professor of music at the top university in Thailand and a conductor of choirs and orchestras.  She plays and teaches piano at a very high level.

My response to her was “Can I borrow your piano, and can you give me a few pointers, so I can play like Mozart?”

Of course her response was to think I was joking, she giggled, and returned to her original question “I really want to make better pictures so if you wouldn’t mind me borrowing your camera... “

Sigh..  if a wall was handy I’d have been banging my head against it with extreme force.

Instead, I tried again.  “Do you realize there is just as much theory and practice involved with photography as there is with playing the piano?”

She replies “I’m sure there is, now if I can only borrow your camera... “

She’s not the only one who thinks like this.  After all, anyone truly can take a photograph, and with today’s modern point and shoot compacts they can take really good ones from a technical standpoint.  Basically she was asking me to show her how to ‘turn those knobs” and “push those buttons” so the picture turned out well.  Yes, this is part of what a photographer does, turns knobs and pushes buttons.  And a pianist pushes keys and pedals.

How many people think if they only had a set of tools they could fix their car?  Build a house?  If they had a race car they could race in the Indy 500?  If they looked like George Clooney they could win an Oscar?

Is my piano playing friend totally forgetting the hours every day since she was a young child she sat at the piano practicing?  The childhood spent in choirs?  Her undergrad, grad, and doctorate program in music?  And as a piano teacher the hundreds of lessons she’s given her students just so they could make incremental improvements?

It wasn’t long ago that the same person asked me “could you give me a few pointers on writing so I could write as well as you.. “

Double sigh..

Don’t get me wrong, I truly am grateful for her questions.  Why?  Because I’ve noticed a trend in this line of thought with a number of my workshop students.  They pay a lot of money for an expensive camera and rightfully think a workshop will help them learn to use the camera and take better photographs.  This is true.  The discrepancies come in the form of degrees..

I’ll get students who show up with their gear, dedicate a single day, sometimes 2-3 days, to learning, and we go out to a location and I get the “now teach me everything you know in the next few hours so I have some free time to go get some pictures on my own..”

They really do think I can teach them to capture images at this level, this quickly.

During a workshop I can cover as much information as they desire, and often this is quite a bit.  I can talk non-stop the entire day, all about cameras, composition, post-processing, all of it.  But how much do you think really sinks in?

I’ve been doing this for decades.  I spend many hours every week just reading and keeping up on new technology, and more hours testing new software and hardware.  I’ve always maintained that photography is basically arranging the variables to obtain the best image.  The thing is, the more experience you have the more variables are available to you.

The best I can do in a workshop is to expose the student to as many variables as they can take onboard.  I also look for other things like common errors, lapses in technique I can help correct, and we talk a lot about composition.  I can talk about composition all day, all week, all month.

Not long ago I had a fairly advanced student who understood how his camera worked.  There were a few things I showed him that he didn’t know about his camera, but for the most part he understood and operated it well.  Looking at his images I immediately knew what he really needed was to talk and think about composition.

We went into the field and spent the bulk of the day sitting in one spot talking about all the different things we ‘saw’ from that spot, how to use the camera to capture what we saw, how the light changed during the time we were there, and all the opportunities that appeared in just this tiny area we were covering.  Really, we covered a world of knowledge and I went over things that most would never see sitting in the same location.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was waiting for me to show him how to set the camera and magically capture great images.  It was as if he thought if we set the camera correctly then it could then take images by itself.  Like my piano teaching friend who wanted a few pointers.

Instead, what we did was discuss many scenes/compositions and with some of the better compositions we did indeed go over how to use the mechanics of the camera to capture what we were seeing.  My student thought this was great, see the scene, set the camera, capture the image.  That’s what photographers do.

What I wasn’t sure I was getting through, was that almost all or our talk was about HOW to SEE the scene.  “Seeing” is the hard part.  Sure, there is a lot to camera theory and camera mechanics and you must know these things, but by themselves they only turn out technically good images of whatever the camera happens to be pointing at.  It’s up to the “Photographer” to point the camera at what he/she “sees..”

A camera is nothing more than an instrument, in the same way a Steinway grand piano is an instrument.  An $8000 Canon 1ds Mark III can capture technically better images than a $1000 Canon Rebel XS450.  A $45,000 Steinway grand piano can make technically better sound than a $2000 Samuk 42” upright.  On the other hand, put Ansel Adams (if he were alive) behind the Rebel XS450 and Vladimir Horowitz (if he were alive) in front of the Samuk upright, and both would be producing art at a level most of us can only dream about.

Tools are required.  Good tools are better than bad tools.  But it’s the knowledge of the person wielding the tools that makes music and produces images.  More often than not, this person has had to spend a huge portion of their life pursing and perfecting these skills.

If you come through one of my workshops I can guarantee that I’ll help take you to the next level from where you started.  Perhaps several levels.  I can answer your questions, help you learn features in the camera you didn’t know you had, how to use the software, and basically show you in a day or two what took me years to learn on my own.

What I can’t do is give you all of my experience with the variables, scenes, and compositions.  I’ll give you whatever you’re capable of taking on, but I can’t give you 2-3 decades of experience in 2-3 days.  I’ll do my best though..

Meanwhile I asked my piano playing friend to read the first ten weeklies in this section.  Once she understands the very basics of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, DOF, and so forth.. then we can take a camera into the field and put the pieces together.  I’m looking forward to it!

Until next time..