It is fall, and photography teachers such as Katherine Zook who teaches at Santiago High School in Corona, CA, have returned to the classroom. We all remember teachers like Katherine, that magic person who helped us master the ISO triangle, see and feel the magic of our first print rising from the developer. They were our North Stars, the guiding lights that lit the fuse that led us to choose photography for our life’s work and our life’s passion.
Katherine is a North Star, a passionate, dedicated teacher who starts her annual class by sharing her personal photographic philosophy. It is a powerful essay and while helpful to her young students, it perhaps is a more important reminder for those of us who long ago left the classroom and the care of our North Star teacher. I encourage you to read her inspirational essay and then read it again. Her goal for her students is the goal we all share.
It has taken me several decades and participating in the evolution from film to digital photography to distill what I believe separates a photographer from a person wantonly let loose with a camera. Boiling it down to its very essence there are four. These apply to any camera, any format, any area of photography, and are always present. They are: 1) understanding and using composition; 2) seeing light as its own entity and separate from subject; 3) being fully present and paying watchful attention; 4) understanding that a camera is only a tool and knowing how to use it.
What is included in the frame and what is excluded, where the subject is placed within that frame and how the viewer’s eye is guided through and around the image is not an accident. Horizontal landscape or vertical portrait formats are also decisions that the photographer makes. At first, this process takes time and conscious thought. However, the more that you shoot and analyze not only your own work but also the work of master photographers, the more those decisions become more inherent and automatic.
Over time, photographers (and other artists) have evolved a set of elements and principles to make it easier to learn how to compose a photo. Like all “rules,” they can be broken—sometimes successfully and with reason, but more frequently with static and boring results. I strongly suggest that you learn the rules well before you try to break them. It is only through understanding composition intimately that your images will be able to stop your viewer(s) and seduce them to come take part in your vision and really look at the story each of your images tell; that is the main goal of every serious photographer.
For most people, this one takes some time. Where is the light coming from? What is the light bouncing off of? Is the light soft or harsh? Is it cold and grey or warm and golden? Are there shadows present and what do they look like? Is the light coming from one source or from multiple sources?
Would a different time of day give better light? What happens to how the subject looks when the light comes from the front; the side; the back? What happens to the outline or silhouette and what happens to the detail in the subject under various lights?
How can I control the light to create the image? How will the light help me to tell the story that I am trying to tell? Where do I need to put the light or lights?
Lots of little light questions are usually running through a photographer’s mind like little loose Tribbles (or Gremlins). After a time, most photographers begin to separate the subject of an image from the light on it or in it and see them as two separate things that have to work together. The more that you consciously think about those questions, the faster seeing light separately will become part of your photographic tool kit.
This one came about with the advent of smart phones, MP3 players, tablets, and all the various and sundry ways that we currently have to disconnect under the guise of being connected. To a certain extent, the need that some people have to constantly review the image that they just shot (thereby losing the next shot) is also part of why I added this as a mandatory part of photography.
When photography was invented, the chemicals used were dangerous and even explosive. Photographers who did not pay attention to what they were doing tended not to live long enough to pass on their bad habits. Gradually, the process became safer and slowly evolved into what it is today, extremely safe and stable for the most part (there’s a few diehards that still like to use the old processes that can suddenly go boom).
Now we have all those wonderful electronic toys to play with. We can take images of ourselves at arm or stick length. We can talk or text to someone on the other side of the world while waiting for a coffee at Starbucks. We can play our own personal soundtrack as we go through the day and shut out the world.
In one word, DON’T. Any and all of these will cause you to lose great shots, will distort what you are trying to communicate, will split your attention from what you are trying to do, and will make learning the art and fun of photography far slower and much harder.
This is the one that many people believe makes a photographer. As soon as your images start to become noteworthy, you will hear something like this. “Wow! That’s a good picture. What kind of camera do you have?” Insulting though that is, it is not the person’s intent, rather blame years of advertising that has fostered their incorrect belief. It is doubtful that anyone looks at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and wonders aloud, “Wow! I wonder what kind of bristles were in Michelangelo’s paintbrush?” Ridiculous as that sounds, the analogy is valid.
Assuming that the camera is mechanically functioning as it should (and here I am including the computer software and electronic components), a photographer knows and understands that the camera is only a tool that records the photographer’s vision. A good photographer can produce an outstanding image from any camera because s/he has mastered the tools and techniques and has practiced enough and shot enough (and failed enough) to have internalized what works and what does not. They have done this to the point that the camera is simply a part of their being and an extension of their psyche. They practice to the point that shooting is like breathing and having a heartbeat—automatic.
This is not to say that every image can be produced with any and every camera—that is not so either. If I am moving across country, I need a truck and not a two seat sports car. Conversely, I don’t want the truck if I am driving a race on a tight mountain track. Although they are rapidly changing with each generation of smart phone and standalone device, the same can be said of cameras. A photographer who understands the craft of photography will adjust what and how they shoot given the camera and all the variables of the situation.
Yes, you do need to know the camera and how to use it and what all the buttons and controls are. But never lose sight of the fact that it is a tool and that the person who is using that tool, the photographer, is the one creating the image be it drab and dull or exciting and breath taking.
As your teacher, it is my goal to help you become a better photographer—not just a person who happens to accidentally have a camera in their hands. Let’s get started!