Some advice for newer/younger photographers. I'm going to tell you a little secret here.
The huge corpus of shifting knowledge known as "photographic technique" is usually understood to encompass all the mechanical, technical, nuts-and-bolts aspects of making pictures with cameras. Allow me to name just a very few of the many things you might think you need to know: exposure; focus accuracy and depth-of-field; camera handling; camera performance (everything from data throughput to focus tracking, from EVF refresh rate to weather resistance); what a hair light is and what a gobo is; color space; printer profiles; how to predict the phase and direction of the moon...in case you want to do evening or dawn landscapes including the natural moon within a limited time window; and how focal length relates to angle of view. This is but a tiny sampling. The commenters on this site and myself, given a day and the requisite gusto for the task, could come up with a list ten pages long...and even that would not include nearly everything there is.
But here's the big secret that people won't tell you often enough: You don't need to know all of it. In fact, you don't even need to know much of it.
All my life I've met, listened to, read interviews with, and talked to real photographers. And when in comes to mastering photographic technique, the lesson they collectively impart is this: you only need to know what you need to know.
Within that narrow band, though—however wide it is for you—you need to work hard at technique and keep working hard. I've seldom met a photographer who wasn't driven to master technique. But the catch is, they only bothered to master the technique that was required to do the work they were driven to do. One of my favorite photographers, Mark Klett, was a virtuoso of Polaroid Type 55 P/N film; no doubt he knew more about that film than some of the people who manufactured it. Bruce Barnbaum was a deep master of print bleaching, a process I'll bet 75% of active photographers today couldn't even describe. How does Nicholas Nixon photograph so astonishingly with large view cameras and extreme wide-angle lenses? It's a mystery to me. Charlie Pratt used to spend a week on a single print—now, some name photographers not only never make prints themselves, but never even have prints made.
And don't think this excludes "anti-technique" photographers, either. If you think someone like, say, Robert Frank didn't work very hard to cultivate accident and offhandedness—the casual glance at the telling indecisive moment—all you need to do is go try to do what he did. You'll soon find out that he only makes it look easy. And consider the cases in which "bad" technique actually is the only technique that fits the subject matter and its presentation.
When I was youngish, the model of what constituted the "pinnacle" of photographic accomplishment gradually shifted from the photojournalist to the professional. And of all the kinds of photographers, professionals are probably the ones who need the broadest, most inclusive level of technical knowledge, because professional photography requires two things above all others: entrepreneurial business skills and ability, and problem-solving. To solve a wide range of technical problems, you need a wide range of technical knowledge.
This has encouraged photographers to believe they need a base level of technical knowledge and competence that is much broader than they actually do need.
And the Internet has great expanded the illusion that there is a whole lot you need to know. People discuss and dispute such things as sensor fabrication, parts sourcing, the business health and marketing plans of camera companies, how fast a lens focuses in low light, on and on...I'm sure you could contribute to greatly expanding this list, too.
One thing people almost never discuss are visual techniques. In this era of rampant camera-pointing, there is a crying need out there for editing skills and training—more so than ever before by a large margin. Editing has become very conspicuous by its absence, yet is seldom discussed. And I could come up with a whole long list, a learning program if you will, of very specific exercises to help people to see better with a camera. I'm actually helped in this by not being an effortless talent myself—I've had to work at what I've learned. It has helped me be more conscious of how you learn, and made me much more aware of the practicalities and essentials of how to look and how to see.
But back to my point. The point here is that you only need to know what you need to know. If you want to make prints at home, you have to pick a printer and then master it. Thoroughly, probably. Inside and out. If your work depends on subtle color, you might need to learn a lot about color theory and system calibration. If your work always involves people, then you need to work on how to interact with people. If you want to photograph architecture, it will help to become very familiar with the Lens Corrections > Manual > Transform tab in ACR or its equivalent in your editor, and the effects of the various controls on image geometry.
At this point you might be thinking, "but I need to do lots of things. I don't want to be limited." Hmmph. Maybe, and, as ever, your photography is entirely up to you. But generally I'm not buying that. The days are long gone when the jacks-of-all-trades impressed people much. For real photographers, subject-matter passions and their obsessions with the end results they're after move them in particular directions and away from others.
When Peter Turnley visited me here in the Finger Lakes on a gorgeous day, for example, what do you suppose was his reaction to being surrounded by gorgeous sparkling lake vistas and fall-out-of-the-camera landscapes? "If I were you, Mike," he told me, "I'd do a project on the Mennonites. Make friends with them, get to know them, find out who would tolerate being photographed...." That's because Peter's passion, photographically speaking, is people, and you aren't going to ever make him into a pure landscape photographer or tempt him into shooting a book of empty interiors.
For each of us, we are who we are, and we need to know everything about the techniques we need to do the work we're passionate about. And that's enough. Learn more if it amuses or interests you, but take comfort in knowing that it is not crucial to your success.
(Thanks to Peter Turnley)
Original contents copyright 2015 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Richard Goodrich: "Mike: I'm sure you could come up with a long list of specific exercises to help us see better with a camera. The obvious question is when are you going to publish this list? You are preaching to the choir: I would be very interested in learning how to edit and see more effectively with a camera. If you feel that this is what photographers need in order to develop (and I agree), wouldn't it be more useful to actually write the exercises rather than simply telling us you could do it?"
Mike replies: The problem is that such a project would take a lot of work and a lot of time—it would be book-length, or half that—and that's not the business I'm in.
Blogging is a short-form format, and extremely insistent—this post was about two hours and fifteen minutes from conception to publication, for example, and I'll need to do that again tomorrow. Blogging and private correspondence soak up the lion's share of my "writing energy" and there's not much left over. Not a tragedy, and I am truly NOT complaining, believe me. But it's the situation.
Mike Plews: "There are two frustrating experiences most of us encounter which drive home the need to master our craft. The first comes when you are looking a something you really want to photograph, have an exact idea of that you want to achieve but lack to chops to pull it off and know it.
"The second comes when you are holding a print that you just pulled (from a tray or a printer, no matter) that is absolutely perfect. It represents a mighty leap forward in your work. It's the best thing you ever did. The problem is you don't have a clue how you actually did it so the chances of repeat are going to be problematic."
Kenneth Tanaka: "'If you can't say what you mean, you certainly won't mean what you say!' Does that conjure memories of admonishments from a wagging-fingered high school English teacher?
"It took me many years to understand that most formal education was actually meant to broaden one’s awareness of subjects and tools rather than to build mastery in them. I could, for example, learn to identify and apply a participial phrase from that English teacher, but she could not teach me what to say with it.
"And so it is with your simple but clear message here, Mike. One does not need to master every aspect of photography to create imagery that captures and expresses one’s ideas. William Eggleston’s work, referenced in a recent post, is a good example at-hand.
"But, as Darlene keenly noted in the Comments, 'you do, at the very least need to learn to see to use a camera most effectively.' And, in my observation, it is at this root level where the haves and have-nots get most keenly separated.
"The haves might simply have innate visual talent. But it’s far more likely that they’ve had some dedicated visual education such as in a collegiate art practice program. They have skills at organizing the elements of even the simplest of frames to express their mind’s eye. Such skill becomes like riding a bicycle for them. Using our host, Mike, as an example look at how he organizes the elements and proportions of the elements in even his casual images. Look at how he often waits for a good moment (oh, please, there is no 'decisive moment') to click.
"Meanwhile the advent (is a tsunami an advent?) of digital photography has ignited an enormous stampede of new photo enthusiasts who have not had the benefits of such visual grounding. Many (most?) come from (computer) technology backgrounds. They’ve financially pushed the entire technology of photography forward at at breakneck pace (compared to the glacial pace of its film era) but they’re generally not very skilled at basic visual organization (i.e. bike riding). They create frames that are planar and symmetric, their subjects are bulls-eyed, their scenes lack any tension, and they rely on post-capture manipulation to create synthetic emotion.
"So Mike, if you’re thinking about establishing the Michael Johnston Finger Lakes Institute for Photography may I make a small vote for the early part of your syllabus? Help folks learn to ride that bike that you learned to ride so long ago. Get them past all the silly 'rules of thirds' and 'golden triangles' and 'inverse square law' crap and help them to learn to organize their frames the way you, and countless millions of others have learned to do it. Train them to see their image as a finished product, corner to corner, while it’s still in the viewfinder. You will produce some very happy students! If anyone can do it I believe you can do it."
Ernest J. Zarate: "I totally agree with your basic premise: you only need to know what you need to know. When I teach beginning digital photography, that is exactly what I tell my students. Then it is a joint discovery that semester to help them find that which they need to know.
"I also agree that learning to edit, to 'see,' to use the camera as a tool of discovery is essential. The raw material any one photographer, be it you or Peter Turnley or anyone else, must come from that individual.
"But I must confess that your response to Richard Goodrich (a terrific name, by the way) is deflating. While it may be a ton of work to create such a course work, all at once, the tease you offer, '...I could come up with a whole long list, a learning program if you will, of very specific exercises to help people to see better with a camera,' then deny having the time/energy/whatever to actually share such a list seems, at best, dismissive of your readership. Why offer that you have all this knowledge and skill, just to say, 'Well, I possess this knowledge, but, no, I refuse to share it with you'? It boils down to: you could, but you deign not to. What? Are the very people who support TOP via the mechanisms you've set up for that purpose not worthy?
"Mike, I like your writing, I like your approach, I like your philosophical approach to photography and much more about your blog. I like all that very much. This entry, in the end, was disappointing."
Mike replies: Ernest, I have no shortage of enthusiasm or generosity. The problem is that I can only do what I can do. If I had a better track record of finishing what I start, I might start on such a project. But I'm disorganized and distractable, unsystematic, unprogrammatic, divertible. I don't think I can do what you're asking. I'm all too familiar with my limitations. If I were a book writer I would have written books by now. We all come up short in one way or another....