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How To Eat An Elephant

For those just starting out, and for some who have been at this a fair while already, the amount one needs to know to be a good photographer can seem overwhelming. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

The details of what one needs to know to be a successful photographer have changed somewhat over the years. As the tools and technology of photography have morphed, the knowledge and understanding needed has shifted along with it. Things that many take for granted today were nearly insurmountable obstacles years ago. There were no such things as automatic exposure and autofocus in the early days of photography. Few even had access to a camera whereas many of us today likely have several cameras including the one built into our cellphone and perhaps another in a tablet or laptop. There once was a time when a photographer was defined as someone who actually owned a camera, and a good photographer was one who knew enough to expose a usable image with that camera.

Today, we can take control over as much or as little of the exposure and focusing problems as we want, and leave the remainder to our cameras. One might think that this must surely have led to the inevitable result of photography getting easier over the years. In one sense, this is indeed true. Cameras are indeed everywhere today, and everyone seems to be taking photos. Sharing sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and others attest to the explosive growth of "photographers" based on that bygone definition of those who own a camera and can take usable images with it. Yet I often here from those trying to learn and improve at the craft of photography. Pictures today are indeed everywhere. On the whole though, truly good pictures still seem to elude us.

Inherently, some things are more difficult to do than others. That much is obvious. But somehow, what some people struggle with seems to come naturally to others. Some people just seem to be better photographers than other people. The common way to rationalize this is to say that they were just "born with it." But I don't think that's so. Anyone who's ever seen a newborn baby can attest that they aren't born with much, let alone an understanding of digital photography concepts.

It is often said that photography is both a science and an art, that there are two sides to this pursuit. If you look back at the history of photography, the "science" aspects are what have changed over the years, but the "art" aspects remain much as they always have been, and as challenging as ever for many aspiring photographers.

Science lends itself to employing procedural solutions and methods towards a goal. If you learn a bit more each day or each week about the technical side of cameras, lenses and computers, slowly but surely you will begin to master what you need to know. The technology of photography relies on an ever-evolving body of knowledge, but luckily new innovations almost always build on prior understandings. As such, it isn't enough to just "tread water" with what you are comfortable with or you risk being left behind by new technology. But so long as you remain interested in improving your skills as a photographer, and continue to allow that interest to guide you in learning more, you should be in good shape. When I look back on how and when I learned what I know, I never sat down with a plan so much as I sat down with a passion. I wanted to know more and improve, and this led to learning more and improving.

But the "art" side of photography is a different beast altogether. Including the famous "rule of thirds," there are any number of "rules" for composition. But none of them are truly rules in any strict sense. They aren't so much "how to" guides for good composition as they are retroactive observations of what various people have found to be common elements in good images. They came to be by looking backward on a body of images that enough people considered good. Attempting to apply them as "formula" for creating good images can help when you need a nudge, but they can also all too easily become crutches that prevent actual seeing of imaging potential.

Rather than some people having an easier time, I think it's more accurate to say that some make it harder for themselves. A United States Army general from the Vietnam era named Creighton Abrams, Jr. coined an expression that "when eating an elephant take one bite at a time." The common understanding of this sage sounding advice has been that when attempting to do something difficult, it's best to take it one step at a time, slowly and methodically. I think this has a certain resonance with my experience of learning the "science" side of photography, but it doesn't fit well with what I understand of the "art" side of this activity we all enjoy.

The best composition comes from seeing the potential of what you have to work with in front of you, and then using your "science" knowledge to figure out how best to capture that vision. Composition doesn't come from the iterative application of rules. Rather than eating the elephant one bite at a time, it's best to forget completely that it's an elephant of anything else for that matter, and taking it in all at once.

So perhaps we are actually trying to eat two elephants, one for the science side of photography, and the other for the artistic side. This first elephant does lend itself to eating one byte at a time, but the second must be seen, and thereby "eaten" all at once.

Bon Appétit.

Date posted: August 30, 2015


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Seeing What's in Front of You
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