Monday, July 2, 2012

The Basics

Here's a picture of my Mom. Whenever I think of the basics of photography, it is Mom who comes to mind. Mom is 85 years young, and loves taking pictures - she always has. Oh, and by the way, that's my Mother in Law in the background - she is 98 years young, and her and I love looking at her old family photo albums that go back as far as the year 1912!!!

Mom has "the basics" by the bushel. She has a good eye and loves taking pictures. That's all you need. She knows nothing at all about the technical aspects of photography, and up until ten years ago, she was using a 1950's Kodak Brownie with 620 film! The only reason she uses a digital camera today is that seven years ago, she won a little 6 MegaPixel Samsung compact with 3X zoom. She had to learn how to use the camera, but once she did, there was no turning back. She takes consistently good pictures with it, and is the official photographer at her local Lawn Bowling Club. She doesn't have a computer or a printer - she usually gets prints made directly off her memory card at the Supermarket, and if there was a big Bowling event that needs to be put on-line, I handle that for her. Anyway, Mom takes the kind of pictures I like best - simple everyday life pictures of people "just doing their thing", seldom are the people posed (Mom hates people posing, and so do I). Her and I are both "sentimentalists" I would call it. The only difference is, I am technical, she is not. That gives her the advantage, really. All she has to think about is taking pictures. I on the other hand am crippled because I think about cameras too much.

But is this being helpful to somebody who wants to "learn the basics" of photography? Usually, I find that when people want to learn the basics, they have in mind certain technical aspects like f-stops and shutter speeds, as if you can't be a photographer unless you've mastered this stuff. Well, this kind of technical knowledge was at one time very useful, up until maybe the late 1970's, when, if you were serious about photography, you probably owned a Pentax Spotmatic, where you always had to know about a few basic "photographic" settings to make your camera work right:

  • the ASA of the film (now called ISO)
  • the lens focal length
  • the lens aperture f-stop
  • the camera's shutter speed
  • depth of field and the focus of the lens

So, people now get new digital cameras, and when they get to the point when they want to improve, they say "yeah, yeah - I need to take a course so I can learn about all that stuff".

Wrong! In spite of the fact that people who charge you good money to teach such courses will invariably take their students down that road, sometimes insisting that students go out and buy an old Spotmatic so that these basics can be learned well, I don't think it is necessary to learn about these things today. Although somewhat relevant and good to know, these things were essential to know from about 1930 through 1980 as the settings you had to know about to make your camera work right. With today's digital cameras, this is no longer the case. There is instead a new set of basics you need to know about in order to make your camera work right.

I'll give a couple of examples to illustrate my point. Mom's old Samsung compact digital has a terrible shutter lag. Mom kind of intuitively "knows" this, as she often mentions that she's missed a lot of good shots "coz her camera is so slow". But over the years, she has simply adapted to it, and I can tell from some of her pictures that she simply has learned exactly when she needs to press the shutter to get a perfectly timed photograph. Uncanny, really. But this factor adds a new thing to the list that photographers up until 1980 didn't have to worry about - shutter lag. This is a very basic thing that has much greater meaning than anything on the list above when it comes to making your camera work for you these days -

  • how much shutter lag can you tolerate?
  • how much auto-focus lag can you tolerate?

We of course would say, none at all, but Mom has learned how to tolerate probably the worst case of shutter lag I've ever seen, and if she got a new, much faster camera, for the first little while, I'm sure she would ruin all her pictures by shooting too soon!

Another example - I have a sister-in-law who also loves to take pictures, and is in fact at the point of really wanting to learn more. So, yesterday I happened to take this picture and showed it to her:

The first thing she asked me was about the fully blurred background - she asked me how I did that? My answer of course was "use a wide open aperture", which is true, and it's also a "1970's Spotmatic answer". But, in this case I really didn't answer her question. She already knows about wide open apertures and blurred backgrounds - I didn't really need to tell her that. What I didn't tell her is that the camera she owns simply won't blur the background to the extent that mine will. She has an Olympus super-zoom compact with a very small image sensor. Sadly, bird photography is her very favourite - that's why she got the super-zoom. I think she desperately wants nice blurred backgrounds (bokeh), and although she can zoom in on the birds from a great distance, unfortunately a compact camera with a small sensor simply cannot achieve the kind of "bokeh" that a bird photographer would want. The camera salesman should have steered her toward an entry level DSLR with two kit zooms instead of a super-zoom compact. Now, she thought my camera to be "way too heavy", and yes it is quite big and heavy, but Olympus especially makes DSLR's that are only slightly bigger, and no heavier than her super-zoom. And any of the Canon Rebels aren't too bad either when it comes to size and weight. She simply has the wrong camera for what she loves to do most. What can I say, I didn't have the heart to tell her that. So we have a couple of more "basics" to add to our list:

  • how much optical zoom do you want?
  • how important is good "bokeh" to you? (because a lot of camera types simply can't do it)

So, can you see how the list of "the basics of photography" has changed? Remember - the basics has always been about getting the right camera, and knowing how to set it up to do the kinds of pictures you want to do. Modern digital cameras always look after the "old basics" for you - keep this in mind. You really don't need to know about f-stops and shutter speeds any more to make great pictures, because the list has changed.

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