Putting Things in Context

One thing that has always surprised me about photography is the number of professionals who describe themselves as “self-taught”, never having taken a course or even read a book about photography.

I’ve seen naturally-talented photographers many times, who with some minimal help understanding buttons and dials on their cameras, can create amazing works of art, all in-camera. They develop formulas for success and are able to apply them without ever formally learning either the technology or the practice of photography.

I’ve seen others not so talented who failed repeatedly before figuring things out and then going on to have successful careers. They too eventually lock down their formulas for success through simple hard work.

The other day, in my very fun job at the local camera store, a gentleman came in, not much younger than me, with a camera bag in hand. He said his daughter had given him a camera for a gift and he wanted to learn how to use it. We talked over the training options he could pursue, but all he wanted was some basic information. How to turn the camera on, how to insert the battery, how to charge the battery, what the memory card was for and how to get images off of it later. He also asked about the mode dial, with settings ranging from fully automatic to fully manual. And what do the numbers on his zoom lens mean? With all that in hand, he felt ready to go take pictures. I wished him well.

Photography attracted me for many reasons. As much as it was a way to explore my world and either faithfully record it or artistically interpret it, it can also be a highly technical subject. It is one of the ironies of the profession that something so creative also has this “dark side”.

Many photographers have no interest in the technical at all. Yes, they all eventually can converse about aperture, shutter speed and ISO and yes, they understand how each can affect the others. Beyond that though, they might trip over any question about their processes. And that extends to the rest of the digital universe too, namely computers and software. Post-processing, if done at all, often consists of the exposure slider, cropping and maybe some white balance adjustments. I’ve listened to several interviews lately in which, when asked about their process, the answer was “I don’t have one.”

My journey has been so very different. At least lately. Initially, I was just like those who just did it, buying a camera without knowing anything about how it worked and learning by trial and error. I can honestly say that I had one of the best snapshot collections around – it didn’t matter that exposure was usually wrong, composition was a game of chance and there were more missing body parts in my portraits because of poor framing than in any horror movie.

How things have changed. I decided after retirement that I would go back to school for photography. But I attended a college program where the emphasis was on “how-to”, not “why”. Every time I learned how to do something, I wondered why it worked that way. I found I needed context – an explanation. Strange that most of my instructors didn’t want to take the time to explain it. So I finished school, and I’ve spent the last 8 years photographing and finding out why.

How does natural light behave? What features allow it to be shaped?

What’s the difference between contrast detect and phase detect autofocus?

What does the word focus actually mean?

Why is it better to shoot RAW?

How does a speedlite work?

Why do I need a tripod?

I know people learn in different ways – I get that. But I’m also reminded of little kids forever asking why – and seeing it as a wonderful game. For me, the technical context always helps to cement the practical into place. And, at least for photography, it’s a bit of a comfort cushion too, since my natural inclination and all my previous careers have been technical. I can lean on it while I wrestle with the artistic. And for me, it’s just so much fun investigating the answer – just like those little kids. Eventually the two halves of my brain do connect though. I have to say that when they do, that moment is momentous.

Best of all, I’m at the point now where I have enough context to be able to help others. Hence the camera store role. Also, in a few weeks, our camera club seasons all start up again. I’m looking forward to continuing to show others how to find the same delight in “why” as I do.

2 thoughts on “Putting Things in Context

  1. Indeed, we all want something different from the world around us. I myself, am not technically inclined, and just want to know enough to get me out and put my hands on to learn. Maybe there would be value for this gentleman to join a seniors camera club in his area.


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