If you hold a cat by the tail, you learn things that cannot be learned in any other way. – Mark Twain
I start teaching another 6 hour introductory photography course today for Lifelong Learning. It is such a privilege to help people discover how to work these mysterious machines. This class is designed to get the students through basic camera operations as quickly as possible. It’s pretty exciting to go from auto-everything to full manual exposure control in one session. It can be like a drink from the firehose, so I have learned to emphasize some things that can get lost in a confusion of technology.
- It’s normal to start out confused and frustrated: I tell my classes that using a camera is at least as complex as driving a car. It took a while before stepping on the brakes became an automatic response; it will take a similar amount of practice with the camera. At least you can’t kill anyone with it. On the other hand, no one is judging your ability to parallel park in the way we judge our early photographs. Let’s cut ourselves some slack.
- Yes, your camera manual is hard to understand: No one learns to drive by reading the manual that came with your vehicle. Your camera manual will tell you the equivalent of where the emergency flasher is, but not why you’d use it. Once you learn the basics, your manual will make more sense.
- It’s not the gear: I will say tonight that every camera in the room is better than the one I used (a D70 with the kit lens) to make one of my signature photos of Mt. Moran. The gear has gotten so good in the last couple of years that a beginner’s kit is probably better than a pro’s kit of 10 years ago. We are still admiring Galen Rowell’s photos, right? What we need to do is learn to use the gear we’ve got until it becomes as second nature as flipping a turn signal while changing lanes. At some point you will see a picture you really want to make but can’t with your kit. That’s the time to spring for an upgrade. Your purchasing decisions will be based on the style of images you want to make, maximizing future happiness per dollar spent.
- Let your fingers teach you: I can stand in front of the class all night and talk. I can pass out handouts and we can read them together. But that information does not become useful knowledge until the kinesthetic part of the brain learns the patterns of how to push the buttons. No matter how brilliant my explanations, makes more sense once I stop talking, we take camera in hand, twist the dials and figure it out. We are going to swing a few cats tonight.
- Your picture is successful if you learn something making it: I will say flat out, “We aren’t going to make any art shots tonight. But we are going to make a lot of successful pictures.” If a student makes three frames of my Wonderwoman lunch box using the exposure compensation feature for the first time and gets a properly stepped series of brightness, it doesn’t matter if that picture is out of focus, it’s a success. I want to let them off the hook of making “great art” so we can do experiments. By doing lots of experiments, we learn the gear. And as we shoot and evaluate our results, we practice asking, “why am I making this picture?” That habit of holding that question in mind is what turns the camera from a simple machine to a creative tool. Experiment. These machines are really hard to break.
- Photography is about balance and relationships: You don’t have to remember junior high math to understand how doubling the area of the aperture results in those funny f-stop fractions. You do have to learn to balance the relationships between aperture, shutter and ISO. You also will want to have the skill to balance the color of light, the ratio of highlight and shadow, the proportion of subject to background. You express your vision by how you relate the various elements in your composition (we actually won’t get to that last point until our second session). And by balance, I don’t mean neutral. If you felt neutral about a subject, why bother shooting it?
- Photography is supposed to be fun: This is why I bring a bunch of weird junk to serve as subjects for our tests. Maybe someone will remember the DOF preview better if they first see it when focusing on a rubber chicken. It’s far too easy to knock the fun out of the game. Remember that the camera is just a machine, and you are in charge of it. The real fun is discovering the world you see through the viewfinder. Sometimes it’s a heart-breaking privilege, what we see through that window in the machine when we really look. I can’t give my students that experience tonight, but really hope my students find it for themselves.