By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
There’s far more to consistently good photo-graphy than buying the “right camera” and lenses.
High-quality cameras and lenses are merely tools that allow you to more easily overcome technical problems, like dim light, fast action or resolving finely detailed subjects.
As the time-worn saying notes, the “nut holding the steering wheel” is a car’s single most important safety device. That’s also true with any sort of serious photography.
Consistently good photography results from the balanced development of your personal skill, technical knowledge, aesthetic insight and practiced eye.
More than 400 billion digital photographs are taken every year in the U.S. alone. Unlike traditional arts, like painting, drawing or sculpture, digital photography is more tolerant of minimal technical skill, at least under ordinary conditions. In the digital era of Photoshop and automatic-everything cameras, it’s not difficult to produce photographs that are minimally adequate, technically.
There is, thus, a widespread belief among amateur photographers that everyone who buys a decent camera can do just as well as highly knowledgeable and experienced professionals. That’s usually true only for an inexperienced individual’s personal evaluation and appreciation of their own photographs.
We take pictures of what’s meaningful and pleasing to us. That doesn’t mean, though, that what’s personally pleasing to us, in the immediate glow of pressing the shutter button, will resonate with anyone else or elicit any sort of considered artistic appreciation by others.
So, what separates personally pleasing photography from work chosen to hang on a gallery’s wall? I believe there are several factors, and that the distinction ultimately depends on the photographer’s eye and artistic insight.
First, every serious photo-grapher (or woodworker or welder, for that matter) should develop enough technical skill and experience to properly evaluate and deal with unusual situations that may pose technical problems. After all, unusual situations are the most likely to stand out from those hundreds of billions of photographs taken annually. At the same time, unusual conditions often fool the automatic settings of any camera, which are tuned for routine situations.
The single most famous American fine-art photograph, Ansel Adams’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,
1941,” is an excellent example of why every serious photographer should strive to develop strong technical skills. Adams had less than a minute to stop his car, set up a cumbersome tripod and large, 8-by-10 view camera, estimate the correct exposure, compose the photograph and take a single image before the sun dropped below the horizon and the cemetery’s crosses ceased to glow so brilliantly.
An automatic camera would have been fooled by the large expanses of dark sky and the small, but critical, brilliant white crosses and moon.
Rigorous studies of highly accomplished individuals in many fields — sports, science, art, engineering — show a single common denominator. These people spend years mastering the technical demands of their chosen fields. Then, when opportunity suddenly presents itself, they can focus on “what to do” rather than “how to do” something. If you’re interested in exploring this further, read any of the several popular books by famed University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on personal accomplishment and creativity.
How might you achieve enough mastery of photographic technique so your best photographs seem effortless? Lots of practice, experience and patience certainly helps. Really learn how to use your camera and lenses, including their strengths and weaknesses under various circumstances.
Actually reading your camera and lens manuals is important. Also, professional reviews of your equipment can provide a lot of information, particularly discussions and illustrations of the settings that result in the highest image quality for a specific camera or lens.
I believe that meeting face to face with other photographers and discussing your work, and theirs, is particularly helpful. Take some photography and art courses at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus. Meet with other local photographers in an informal setting. You can connect with the local Kenai Peninsula Photographers Guild on the web at http://www.meetup.com/Kenai-Peninsula-Photographers-Guild.
You might also visit the statewide Rarified Light 2010 juried photo exhibit now on display at KPC’s Gary L. Freeburg Gallery through early February. Rarified Light 2010 includes a wide variety of work by 60 Alaska photographers, including nine Kenai Peninsula residents. You’ll likely find work that you like. It’s a good opportunity to broaden your horizons.
Beyond that, do some reading on your own to deepen your understanding of photography and art. Visit a local bookstore and examine their books on digital photography techniques, choosing those best suited to your current level. There are dozens of good technical books about digital photography currently in print. Buy a few and study them, perhaps several times. Improving your technical knowledge is much less expensive than buying a new camera, but likely a more effective way to improve your photographs.
Technically, there’s little difference between digital and film photography when actually taking a photograph. The basic technical concepts, such as depth of field and optimum exposure, are the same. The most important technical difference occurs after the photograph is taken, because digitally correcting and printing an image with a computer is much different, and more flexible and controllable, compared to chemical darkroom work.
Despite that difference when processing and printing, both film and digital photographers aim for much the same visual and aesthetic effects in their final results, again applying the similar artistic concepts. Michael Aaland’s two Adobe Lightroom Adventure books are among the best resources I’ve seen that show how to achieve striking final images using modern digital correction and printing. Although these books reference earlier versions of Adobe Lightroom, the information remains correct and useful for the most current Lightroom Version 3.
Technical mastery is not a substitute for actually seeing and portraying the world around you in an honest and insightful way, without commonplace banality on the one hand, or overly intellectualized pretense on the other.
Avoiding those rocks and shoals of banality and pretense requires something more, and deeper, than the technical mastery that’s simply the prerequisite to producing good photography. Consistently strong photographs are the result of personal insight and humility, a clear mind that sees and presents the world around us with integrity, and an appreciation of high-quality work done by others.
It’s important to expand your horizons beyond the work that you’ve traditionally done and seen in our own rural locale. Among the photography books I’ve found personally rewarding in that regard are:
- Phaidon Press’ comprehensive history of photography, “The Photo Book,”
- Ansel Adams’ last instructional work, “Examples — The Making of Forty Photographs,”
- Aperture monographs on the classic works of Edward Weston, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Paul Strand,
- Kenneth Clark’s renowned popular history of art and Western culture, “Civilisation,”
- Peter Bunnell’s “Inside the Photograph,”
- Robert Adams’ essays, “Why People Photograph” and “Beauty in Photography,” and
- George Barr’s recent “Why Photographs Work.”
A very different, but in my view very useful, book is Dr. D.T. Suzuki’s classic nonreligious book “Zen and Japanese Culture.” Suzuki, a noted Japanese professor and scholar of Zen Buddhism, was educated in both Japan and the U.S., later teaching at a number of noted American universities. In Suzuki’s work, we find perhaps the clearest discussion of how to see, in our daily lives, the world around us as it truly is, with insight rather than pretense.
Alaskans live in a photographer’s paradise. In one of his last published books, Ansel Adams described Alaska as the place on Earth that most moved and inspired him to producing great images, and his regret that he could not return more often.
We owe it to ourselves, and to the world-famous beauty and wildness of our state, to improve our own skills so we’re equal to daily beauty and challenges that most photographers only dream of experiencing. We also owe it to ourselves, our children and our state to prevent the despoliation of the beautiful and wild places that we all enjoy and that some photograph. Isn’t that why most of us moved here?
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.