Monday, September 10, 2012

Making pictures with a Digital SLR camera

Ungluing the camera from our faces.

 We see something that interests us, we raise the camera, squint through the viewfinder and snap our photo. That is how most of us took our photographs in the past and perhaps we maintain the habit when there are now other ways available. Learned habits of operation can be so valuable in that tight moment when so many things must jump into line before we trip the shutter, but they can also be narrow channels, like blinders on a horse, that have us taking the same basic images over and over again. We live in the age of the automated digital camera however and many new ways of operating our cameras are available.

The small cameras that have no viewfinder but a screen on the back break the to-the-eye habit and we can now hold the camera high over our heads to see over the crowd. Focus, exposure, shutter speed and ISO take care of themselves. We hold our little cameras at arms length to take our own likeness. What fun and what freedom! What we forget is that our more pricy and bulky DSLR can do the same without reference to the viewfinder. That lovely little flower in the dewy meadow? No need to lie down and get wet. But no need to hand over all decision making to the camera either: On aperture priority for example one can control ISO as usual, decide on depth of field and preferred metering zone. Shutter speed a little slow? We can think again about which combination of settings will serve us best, but one does not have to operate from eye level.

When photographing within a crowd there is a natural tendency to step off to the side and use a telephoto lens to catch our subjects unaware but there are other ways of releasing the shutter; by holding the camera at waist level on its strap and mingling with the crowd for example: a wide angle, smaller aperture for greater depth of field, a finger on the shutter release to unobtrusively focus and snap. Of course we can hold our camera over our heads or down beside our feet, we can pan with our moving subjects, try with or without the vibration reduction on,and deliberately under or over expose. We may also choose to involve our subjects in the photographic process by engaging them in conversation and then taking their photo with their co-operation. The sky is the limit and back in our 'photo-shop' program there are so many adjustments we can make.

  Composition is a tool of communication.

 We do learn one very important skill while doing this kind of off-the-cuff photography: we must be able to visualize what an image will look like from another perspective, to frame in our minds eye rather than using the viewfinder. In fact all photos are taken by our minds with the machine doing the work we ask of it. We learn quickly that our photograph is a construct, a creation, and not simply a record of reality and that we are in control of what it is communicating.

When we are involved in composition, in deciding the form that our image will take, it is easy to become confused and feel helpless. “I am not an artist”, we declare and claim a special category in the visual arts for amateur photography. (All that composition stuff is fine for painting but photography is a new and pure form of communication and simple 'rules' are adequate). The 'rule of thirds' comes to mind. In fact picture making is very old, going back to the dawn of human kind and photography is simply a recent manifestation of an ancient form of expression. The visual artists of past and present have much to teach us if we will look and listen. In fact listening may be one way that we can understand composition because people have always told stories and others have listened. The story teller who can organize his material and present it in a dramatic form will communicate well. Writing, no matter what the form, ( scientific reports, novels, poems etc.) requires organization if it is to successfully say what it means. That idea of organization is what the school system spent years trying to pound into our heads. An essay has a specific form and when a writer strays far from it readers become uneasy. A photograph that is well organized, that is composed in such a way that it does not confuse us with irrelevant information will get its point across. Words, sentence structure, paragraphs, an orderly development of thought, work well in written and verbal communication and there are elements of design that work together to express our thoughts in picture form, in two-dimensional space: colour, line, texture, form rhythm etc.. A musical composer too works in a very abstract form of expression, working in sound and time and using the elements of musical composition to pass his thoughts and feelings on to his audience.

If this seems a lot to swallow for the amateur photographer it far better to keep in mind the parallel with written communication than cripple oneself with a simple set of ' rules for making better pictures'. Sure we think visually and not in words when making a photograph, but we can ask ourselves what is our subject and how best to express that. We can try to simplify and select what will appear on the stage that our photograph encompasses. A cluttered stage with multiple back drops, characters scattered haphazardly and a confused storyline will soon also have an empty set of seats before it and if we wish to communicate we need to attract and retain an audience. Photographic skills, both with camera and in composition technique do not guarantee a great photograph however, just as writing skills do not in themselves produce a good story, there remains the more personal element that can recognize a meaningful subject, be it ever so practical or fanciful. That calls for our engagement with the world at quite a different level.

Finding our way to making photographs that are universal in their ability to reach others and yet express our uniquely personal vision is a long path, but an eternally interesting and rewarding one. It will probably not be a journey that we can take by the busload with others, nor should it be. The images that have instant appeal to a mass audience, that garner us praise from our fellow travellers, may not in the end be those we personally value as we walk down our life’s path. These will be those personal sign posts that indicated where next to turn on our photographic adventure.