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The Heart of Photography

Whether you're new to photography or have been at it for some time now, it's worth looking into the basics of this pursuit. There's more to all of this than just exposure and composition. Something much more basic than that.

If you read most introductory books on photography, you'll find extensive coverage of how to operate a camera, with a clear emphasis on achieving proper exposure. Since this is where they begin, it seems like a great place for us to begin our quest for the basics of photography. Images that are grossly over or under exposed may technically qualify as photographs, but they generally aren't very pleasing examples of the artform. A whole series of black rectangles wouldn't really do much to help you relive that glorious vacation trip you took last summer. I suppose I'm making an assumption about your vacation preferences here, but I think most of us had the lights on at some point and would want their photographic memories to reflect that. But let's move on. For photographs to work as such in general, they have to be at least reasonably well in focus, and reasonably well exposed.

Exposure theory is typically explained in terms of the photographic triangle, with shutter speed, aperture and ISO as the three vertices. Changes to any one variable pulling or pushing on the other two, forcing you to compensate. Close down the aperture by one stop and you need to lengthen the exposure time or lower the ISO by an equivalent amount to restore the same exposure as before. As an aside, I've always thought that "shutter speed" was an odd choice to describe one of the three exposure variables. In normal operation, the shutter always travels the same speed as it moves to get out of the way at the beginning of an exposure and then as it returns to it's default closed position. What is really at issue is not the speed, but the duration of the exposure. In other words, what matters is the interval between the shutter opening and closing, not how quickly it moves to get there. If slower shutter speeds actually meant the shutter moved more slowly, one side of the frame would get more exposure than the other as the darned thing leisurely got out of the way. Clearly that's not the case, but perhaps I digress.

There once was a time when understanding exposure was of paramount importance for being a photographer as it was hard to create a useful photograph without this knowledge. It was up to you to measure and set, adjust and compensate, so you had to know how exposure worked. But regardless of whether this is for the best or not, the vast majority of photos today are taken on automatic exposure, with the camera dealing with all those technical details, and the majority of the results look reasonably fine in terms of exposure. We may be able to debate the artistic merits of many such photos, but that's another matter. I would argue that understanding the photographic triangle sufficiently to take control of exposure yourself can indeed potentially lead to better results than leaving things completely up to your camera. But clearly, modern electronic digital cameras have diminished the need to understand exposure as an entry gate for being a photographer at all. Yet as we have shifted this burden onto our cameras, there is something about being a photographer that remains completely ours and ours alone. Despite the predominance of exposure theory in introductory photography books (and arguably the benefit of taking control yourself), the heart of photography lies deeper than just operating all those knobs and dials on your camera.

Turning from the technical aspects of photography to the artistic side of things, we find the vast topic of composition sitting center stage. Photography is indeed about more than just pressing the button on fully automatic mode. If you want good images, it can help to learn about composition. And the importance of composition to good photography can be easily confirmed if we return to our earlier consideration of books that teach photography. The vast majority will have at least a chapter on composition after they cover the exposure triangle. And there's no shortage of even more photography books dedicated to the topic. Even photographers who steer clear of such esoteric topics as the rule of thirds and leading lines can't avoid the subject of composition completely. Most even try to follow the "rules" as best they can (sometimes), even if they don't fully subscribe to their benefit. Yet for at least some of those photographers who shoot on automatic, composition is just too much trouble to bother with. They've never taken the time to learn all those supposed rules of composition, and they still have fun taking pictures. The results look pretty darned good, too, if you ask their family and friends. Heck, they're happy.

Granted, some of this is likely attributable to not having anything better to compare things to. If you go on a hike with a friend, both of you carrying cameras, the one who gets the better images will be thought of as the better photographer. Never mind if someone more experienced could have created images of the same things, on the same occasion, that look far better still. If your images work to document your trip and provide a way for you to share your experiences with others, you're allowed to call yourself a photographer. Composition may make for better photography, but it isn't yet the core or heart of photography.

So, what is the core? What is the heart of photography? It's really quite simple. It's your heart. It's your enjoyment of taking photographs that is the basis of being a photographer. If you didn't enjoy it, you wouldn't do it. For most of us, we do this because we want to. Because we like doing it. Let that be your guide, and all the rest will fall into place as it should. If you allow it, this can become your motivation to master all the rest, or at least try. And at the same time, it will mean you'll be having a heck of a lot of fun along the way.

Date posted: June 2, 2019


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