Sky & Sun
I was talking with a few old friends who are also photographers. Both of them were complaining about younger photographers who don’t know anything, as they would have it. Now neither of the guys teaches or interacts with new photographers in any regular way. One of them explained to me that you couldn’t really learn Photoshop without experience working in a chemical darkroom. I am older than either of these guys and I don’t believe any of this. The reason is that I actually interact with new photographers all the time. Teaching here at BetterPhoto will do that.
Inspired by my old friends, I want to go over the basics. Cameras, regardless of whether they are digital or film share some characteristics, these are like the language of the machine. For instance whenever you use a variable size aperture in a lens, what we refer to as an f-stop, you introduce changes in the distances that are in sharp focus. We call this depth of field, not really a very good name.
Speaking of bad terminology, I will start with the word STOP. Now we all know what that means, but not moving has nothing to do with the term in photography. In photography it means a relative change in exposure: if you have twice as much light in your shot as you did previously you have one stop more light. It doesn’t matter if the change is caused by changing your aperture or shutter speed or because the sun cleared the horizon, if you have twice as much light that is one stop more light. If you have four times as much light that is two stops, well you only doubled the amount of light twice. If you have 1/8th as much light you have three stops less light, maybe the sun just went under the horizon.
I know that a lot of people don’t want to talk about math, but it is the key to controlling the pictures you take. You can take all the pictures you want on automatic, but if you want to MAKE pictures you need to understand the controls on the camera.
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This week I want to talk about making pictures and taking pictures. An incredibly large percentage of the population will take pictures in the next year. They will point the camera at something and press the button. People do this because we have a real need to capture the stuff of memory and keep it with us. This is a very personal communication, from me to me. Like a personal time capsule. If I were to take out my memory photos and show them to you, they wouldn’t mean as much to you. We all take these pictures, written in the language of our own experience.
A photographer is called to do something more, to make a picture. To use the tools of craft and the skills of design to make an image that speaks to many, if not all. So a photographer need to have a command of the language, which is a product of craft, and a sense of how to shape an image, which is design. What separates a photograph that is made from one that is taken? In addition to skill and design, clearly intent is an important aspect. You need to think the image through, how are you going to make that image communicate?
The shot I attached this week works on both personal and on a more universal level. I was working with the hands and the watches and watch faces to make an image that would create a feeling of impermanence and transition. I think I accomplished much of that. The image is also personal, because I remember the experience of making the image. While this is often a part of an image for me, here it is a larger part. I did some things with the camera, and the processing, that I really only did successfully this one time. This shot is made on one piece of film. I actually did a double exposure and did a controlled solarization of the film! So, at least for this photographer, it is possible to make a photograph and still have it be personal.
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Last week I wrote about how we use photography as a language to communicate. Like a language there is an underlying structure that makes communication possible. As an example in English, Bob hit Bill is different from Bill hit Bob, because, in English word order is a critical part of structure. In Latin the word endings define which word is the subject and which is the object so word order isn’t critical. William Crawford wrote a fine essay on this subject in his Book Keepers of Light.
While some of what we might call syntax in photography might be so subtle that we could argue over it, some is pretty clear. There is a great deal of photographic syntax that is based on the technology of photography. So when you look at the work of Carlton Watkins you will see open shadows, hard flat water, and fine detail. These, and other aspects of his images, are characteristic of the large glass plates he used to make his images. The size of the plates captured great detail. The fact that the plates were only sensitive to blue light opened the shadows and the low sensitivity of his plates meant he could only make the very long exposures that flatten detail in water.
Clearly, digital technology has radically changed our photographic syntax. I think that the two most important changes are digital proofing and the zero per unit cost of an image capture. Both of these mean that we can take risks with digital pictures that we might not have taken with film. Since there is instant feedback on the camera back I can work on an image and know how it will appear. I used to spend thousands of dollars on Polaroid materials each year for the same information. And now, each picture has no cost, until I print it. Each image used to have a specific cost, and different types of commercial photography integrated those costs differently. Wedding photographers used to keep the number of shots low in order to improve profitability, while fashion shooters word make a lot of images in order to improve their profitability. I would guess that we will continue to see more and better editing programs as we integrate this new syntax into our photography.
One way to understand photography is as a way of communicating. So I could tell you about a spark plug, but if I show you the spark plug you know more. The plug could be from an engine, and then someone who knows cars could tell you the car is running rich. From just a picture of the plug. I could tell you a story with a picture, or I could give you an image that communicates like a poem. We can use photographs to communicate about facts, things actions, ideas and emotions. What a wonderful medium.
Photography is a universal language, although I can’t communicate equally well with everybody. Certainly it is at least very difficult to communicate with the visually impaired. However, since I teach on line, I have had the opportunity to work with students from Finland to Bangladesh. This experience has helped me to believe that almost everyone can read a photograph. I have even had my dog react to photographs; photographs can communicate across species. I can remember seeing a cover of National Geographic that was shot by a Gorilla.
One of the strange things about photography is how much easier it is to read than to write. Most people take pictures. These images are intensely personal, and often only communicate well to the photographer. So a picture from your vacation, or of your child, may be very evocative to you and meaningless to me. These images are really a personal diary, and like a diary, mean little to anyone else. Modern cameras are very good at creating these personal documents.
Photographers will want to do more, to make images that can communicate easily with other persons. We photographers will want to make documents that do more than just document. We will want to create those images that are more than just beautiful; we will want to tell stories, and to make poems. The key for us is to do more than take photographs; we will want to MAKE photographs