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Saturday, 26 September 2015


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Bravo! I have, literally, nothing to add. So, again, bravo!

Thanks Mike. This is a great rumination on what photographers must deal with all the time: personal focus. More so than ever in these distracting times. Thanks.

Well said.

Mike is Back....
Not that you ever left, but this is a really, really good one.
It works no matter your experience level-- weather you have ferricyanide stained fingers, or wield a digital machine gun.
Your advice brings us closer to the heart of the matter.
I come from a commercial background, Hasselblads & Deardorffs.
We got hired because we could solve photographic problems.
I come at the world from a 'knowing more is better ' point of view.
My daughter, a Princeton Art History major shoots Weddings events & Jewelry and knows all the technique to do Those things and she gets hired because people see her as an Artist. They love her Pictures. I learn from her all the time.
She knows what she needs to know and is better for it.
It is always and only about the pictures.

There is another secret to which you alude , that is, in my experience, people who learn what they need to know in order to produce real work, learn it better and more deeply than those who learn the theory first.
So even those folks who 'don't want to be limited' are better off learning just what they need to know, over and over in different specialties.
I do still believe that Artists should know at least an overview of the artistic and technical history of their medium, but the good ones always 'go deep'.
Please do, give us your follow up on visual technique and editing.
You should charge extra for these ;-)

“Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naive —the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be.”
— Susan Sontag

Mike, that is a terrific portrait of you, a keeper for sure.

Mike, I wish you would publish a list of visual exercises. I think the visual techniques ARE the point. I have reached the point where I can look, find, and see a few good shots and execute some of them slightly better than adequately. I process some of them in a pleasing way that modestly communicates my (limited) vision. But then I look at what others have seen and done in the same places. I am blind to so much more than I see, and my processing is so often inadequate or detrimental. So I tell myself it's not the buttons, "it's the visual, stupid."

"Bruce Barnbaum was a deep master of print bleaching..."

Unless I'm much mistaken, Mr. Barnbaum remains a master of print bleaching and is holding his next workshop in two weeks.

Good One!

Good post. Very true.
"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."
Good idea. why don't you do it?

"If I were you, Mike," he told me, "I'd do a project on the Mennonites."

It may have been more accurate had he said "If you were I, Mike, you'd do a project on Mennonites."

So, more or less, let your passion guide your learning? I like!

I guess if you can judge what's relevant and isn't without learning it first, this might work. I'm too much of a synthesist to do that. Learning things which seem to be irrelevant is how I figure out what it is I'm going to do next.

I wouldn't have thought I would end up specializing in ultra-wide-angle shift lens environmental portraits until I accidentally took one and things took off from there. I certainly wouldn't have thought that learning screenprinting would have significant influence on my animal photography until I actually went and did it; I'm still trying to figure out where that's leading me, but obviously somewhere interesting.

Please do:
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.

Mike, thanks for yet another insightful article. I hear you, and that is a big encouragement. I am in the process of trying to get rid of everything I don't really need to know or have, and that includes optics. You're right, my obsession(s) and compulsion(s) should be about focusing on specific one or more subject matters and what I specifically need for THAT.

I like your "Hmmph"

Is one of the goals of your coming review sessions to help us youngsters and youngsters at heart find out what is that one obsession?

Please, please?

Sometimes, I think I shoot too much vizporn = visually elegant. I need to shoot more with my heart than with my eyes.

City Slickers:

"Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?
Curly: That’s what you’ve got to figure out."

How to see better with a camera starts with:
How to see better without a camera.
Start there. Seriously.

Observing and noticing; tweak your observation skills by continually looking at art, photography, visual exhibits, everyday life (stop thinking and notice your visual environment). It boils down to what you see, what you notice that others do not and being able to capture it with the camera. I agree technique can be deep and can be shallow, it all depends upon what it is you want to capture.

As a hobbyist photographer I'm definitely a "jack of all trades." Over the years I can see my strengths are in a couple divergent areas... event and family photography where I don't feel like I have to ask for a shot, and forest photography (in the woods, under the canopy). If I wanted to become more serious I would definitely have to pick an interest and really run with it, likely the woods stuff in very particular areas. As it is I'm like the guitarist who knows a segment of many songs, but not the whole of anything, and can noodle around well enough but not someone you want playing at your party (which is pretty much how I play guitar).

On the Very Serious Photo Enthusiast level I see a lot of Mastering of Useless Technique as the Holy Grail. Pros hire experts to do what they can't or won't do.

HCB didn't do his own printing. Me, I don't own a copy of PShop (why should I?). I also don't own a printer (why should I?).

Problem solving is what separates the wannabees from the real-ies. But—and it's a BIG but—is that there is more than one way to skin-a-cat. Thousands actually, many of them having little or nothing to do with a mastered technique. When Murphy arrives, you need to be able to come-up with an answer—from the many available—without breaking stride. And the client will never notice that Murphy has come and went.

Unfortunately, too many enthusiasts are just interested in the technical minutiae of photography. It's how they perceive their photographic expertise, mastery and involvement. Sensor size, buffer size, bit depth... it all (d)evolves into an effective substitute that avoids the really hard part- making meaningful images. That's why so many sites cater to such technical particulars, they get the most clicks and attention. Posts on photographic book reviews and essays (unless the subject matter is controversial) get crickets by comparison. Imagine judging a chef not my the meals they create, but by the pots and pans they use.

When I started out in the early 70s, I used an SLR, and smugly proclaimed I'd never use a zoom lens, auto focus, or auto exposure.

By the time I moved to digital cameras at about the turn of the century, I realized that zoom lenses were terrific, autofocus was fast and accurate, and "Program," gave me consistently better exposures than figuring it out myself.

Now I almost never shoot on anything but "P" and spend my time concentrating on the images. That's pretty much, as you said, "...all that I need to know."

To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, "There is the eye, there is the object: the photograph is what happens in between."

You know, I don't think Mike should try to come up with any exercises for other people -- for himself, maybe, but not for others. A lot the time, I think that people who consider themselves "serious photographers" often do their photography by picking up a camera and shooting, when what they really need to do is *think* about it. Put the camera away, sit in a comfortable chair, close their eyes, and think about what they want to do (and that's realistically achievable by them.) I live in Santa Fe, quite literally just down a hill -- maybe five blocks -- from the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. When there's a workshop going on, we see all kinds of people wandering around with expensive equipment, shooting *doors.* Santa Fe has really good doors; there have even been books published on them. But the problem is, these people shooting doors didn't really come here to shoot doors, they just got here and doors was the first thing they saw, so that's what they shoot. They don't have a concept before going outside. So Turnley goes to the Finger Lakes, a really great landscape place, and he sees his own concept -- the Mennonites -- because he has a concept. If he came to Santa Fe, I suspect we'd see a feature on undocumented Mexican workers, or maybe some aspect of Native American culture, but we probably wouldn't see a lot of doors. Having Mike think up an exercise for somebody else might be a bit like his suggesting that Turnley concentrate on landscapes. Turnley's good enough that he could do that, but it's not really what he's about. Before you can become a really good photographer, IMHO, you've got to figure out what you're really about, and Mike can't do that for you.

I concur. People don't need to know all technical variables to photograph. The K. I. S. S. principle - as the foolish people with a love for acronyms would call it - applies to technique.
Leaving development, editing and printing aside, my experience tells me all one needs to know when he or she is in the field is how aperture, exposure time and ISO sensitivity reciprocally relate with each other to determine exposure. Once mastered, this will make things easier. All other considerations will just get in the way.
More important than that, however, is to have some sane composition principles. Being a visual art, photography depends on composition. And, above all, what one really needs is to be able to express himself through photographies. In the end we're back to that famous HC-B quote: "Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see."
That's all there is to it. Know the effects of combining a given aperture and shutter speed - it's not that difficult -, and you're ready to go. The difficult part of photographing is not mastering technique: that's actually quite simple. (If you can't master technique, ask yourself whether you've chosen the right hobby... or buy an iPhone.) Doing what no one has ever done before is the hardest part of photographing.

So much of the photographic zeitgeist is determined by discussions and preferences around the gear, but that is probably because we are supplied with a rich lexicon of jargon with which to frame the discussion.

As someone with a technical background, I find it all fascinating, but the more I know the more I realise how little it matters.

Below a certain print size, we cannot physically see noise, or the smallest details, or more colours and tones. If you don't print any bigger than that, you don't need to worry about upgrading your camera.

Improvements with larger sensors and better lenses do become apparent as print size and ISO increase to the extent that noise and detail extinction become visible, but it is a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. Depending on subject matter it may not matter one iota.

I would hazard a guess that only a fraction of 1% of images these days are ever printed at all. If they were, more would appreciate just how good a low ISO 24X16 print from a 16MP MFT camera can actually look.

That applies even when compared side by side with a 42 megapixel full frame image, because at a 2ft viewing distance we are hovering around the limit of most people's visual acuity.

Print at 36X24, and you will see more of a difference, but only when you stand closer than a comfortable accommodation distance.

In the end, the technical capabilities of a camera only limit useful reproduction size, and very little else. These days, that size is quite generous (compared to 35mm film or even 645).

You could produce a table of sensor size, ISO and print size and be done. End of the entire technical discussion.

The elephant in the room of course is that a perfect image can still be utterly uninteresting, yet this aspect garners far less discussion.

Is it because, by contrast, we have no common vocabulary for actually talking about it? Is this why we are reduced to likes and dislikes on Flickr?

The academic art world majors on obscurity, so no help there. We need a language that is far more approachable.

Peter Turnley's portrait of you is startlingly different and engaging, but why?

I think all of us become better photographers by asking ourselves that question over and over again, we just lack the framework to engage in a useful discussion.

Anything TOP can do will be much appreciated.

I find Peter Turnley's advice more than a little disconcerting (which probably says more about me than about Mr. Turnley). There is already a vast body of photographic work depicting Amish and other Mennonite communities, from George Tice's photobook originally published in 1970 right down to the present. There's evidently still a market for the subject. But I think photos of the Amish are now deep into cliché territory, much like photos of (say) the Maasai of Africa taken by affluent Western tourists. I suspect it would be really difficult to create a body of work that wouldn't 'read' as unbearably trite, or that would say something new and meaningful.

I know a fair number of Amish folk, having delivered babies for some of them. It would strike me as impolite to photograph them to satisfy the urge for novelty among mainstream consumers.

There is a lot of wisdom in John Camp's comment. And I agree with nearly all of it. But since I was one of the ones who encouraged Mike to go a head and write his thoughts on editing-- after all he was an editor, I thought I would respond by saying I do agree that having one's own concept is ideal. And None of us need Mike to tell us how to do that. But we come here because he often has interesting stuf to say, and sometimes saus stuff that helps us to consider things in a new way. So when Mike says he could "Come up with a whole long list"
A bunch of folks respond by saying "That would be interesting"
Not as a prescription, but as food for thought.
And for Mike, I don't think you ned to do a book, but a helpful thought or two on how a professional approaches editing might also be interesting food for thought.
The piece you just wrote is certainly not an exhaustive treatment, but it was interesting and helpful. The same could be done for editing in installments

Mike that photo looks like a badly exposed image rescued in PS. It is also more like a police mugshot than a portrait except it isn't full face,still remarkably sterile. I find it hard to understand why a tiny bit of effort could have given a better MJ portrait of the person we have gradually got to know.
Just an opinion.

You, Ctein and Gordon have been knocking them out of the park. Thanks for the last few – they've been so good. Turnley's portrait of you is the icing on the cake.

One thing that I would add is that once you have the required technique down it is a good foundation for expansion later (don't rush). It's more a form of personal evolution for me, where my photographic interests have expanded greatly over the last thirty years, from landscape and nature initially to being more inclusive of man made elements such as architecture and city based subjects - to such a degree that it has become a preference and nature the exception. As I have matured and changed in outlook my photography has changed with it and I look forward to what lies ahead.

Question: How smart is a duck?
Answer: As smart as it needs to be.

With best regards!


This post fits well with the post last week on "custom modes." The advantage of modern digital cameras is you can customize the camera to your shooting preferences. That limits the number of things you need to fiddle with while you concentrate on making the photograph you want.

Mike -

Re: your idea of a learning program, I wonder if a small series of guest posts on the topics you mention might somewhat fill that need without the big time commitment from you? Surely there are a lot of valuable resources among the readers of this site.

a.) Good head shot of you.
b.) Seems the Ann Rice quote ties into this topic.

That pretty much sums it up and that's all you need to know.
Damn! Good article.
Mi dos pesos.

Nice portrait of you, Mike...or is it? Without knowing you, I couldn't say. Is that the real you, or just an image of you striking a pose? I can only wonder what your son and girlfriend think of it.

One visual exercise per week please Mike.

Another fine article which seems exquisitely timed in sync with my own thoughts. A recent return to photography (after a fair few years) has found me in shoot anything and everything mode. That's my personal visual rehab! It's the relearning to see and to feel the seeing.

I'm starting to get over the visual diarrhea now and wanting to form my own vision and it's here where your article resonates. My main income is not from photography right now, so I have an opportunity to hone my interests, say over a year, which are leaning towards commercial product photography and fine art still life. I also love social documentary and landscape. So that's four areas down from infinity! Maybe I need to do another cut!

I do like to think I'm my own hardest editor! It's such an interesting topic.

I've just started reading "The Zen of Creativity - Cultivating Your Artistic Life" by John Daido Loori (ISBN 978-0-345-46633-4) which I'm finding an excellent read.

Thanks for the article Mike.

I agree with Michael Perini: you're back, finally. This is a great post, although there is a small editing mistake which indicates you are not quite back to your usual fine editing.

Thanks for this interesting post Mike, and to those who've commented in such a rich and varied way; lots to think about all round. One thing I'd take issue with straight away though is Stan B's comment:
"Unfortunately, too many enthusiasts are just interested in the technical minutiae of photography."
Why is this unfortunate? People (men) are fascinated by the technicalities and enjoy the debate provoked by them and if arguing about bit depth is your bag, fill your boots.

Contrasting Peter Turnley's picture of you with your "Try my workshop" selfie of a few days is interesting. I think I know what you were thinking about when you took the selfie, but what were you and Peter talking about that gave you that introspective look? Not Mennonites, I suspect.

I understand creating a course of how to become more vision-aware doesn't fit into the blogger world, but how about breaking it up into two or more layers, dividing the challenges in half each time. At each stage give one example of an eye-opening (sic) exercise, that might help you to understand which half you belong in...


Since I've had a live-view histogram in my EVF I've forgotten how to spot-meter. I don't feel bad about that and I manage fine. I know at least one internet pundit who would castigate me for it but I don't care.

Great post...

"To know what you need to know" can sometimes be most difficult, however. What is it that I need to know?
From that point of view I fully agree with John Camp.
Just the other day I said to myself: you gotta sit down and figure out what you want to shoot, what is it that attracts you, what is it that you come back to again and again - and why?

A good piece, and finally, a good portrait of the TOP master, without the usual smiling mask...

"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."

One of the most important points you have made on this website. Ever. A necessary and important antidote to the myths of photography as technical mastery. I also know and work with some folks who are regarded as masters of the kinds of photography they do. They know a lot. They are masters of the subsets of photographic technique that are directly relevant to their work. But there are huge holes in their knowledge and skills, holes that correspond to the things that they do not need to know to do their work.

I have to agree with what John Camp stated in his response. As Mark Klett stated in one of his workshops...."if you have something to say you will find a way to say it". Guess that takes the idea of becoming a better photographer right down to the nitty gritty....this may sound kind of cruel, but perhaps empty heads produce empty images. So...fill you head with something and see where that leads you....

"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 earlier, 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.

Yes. Real discussion lies in a space in which there is very little defined vocabulary, at least as far as I know. Do you say to yourself, "I think lifting the shadows with an L-channel curve would improve this"? Or "it needs more ambience", that being one of Snapseed's controls? Note the shift, not just away from Adobe-centrism, but toward consideration of the effects on the image and how to get them - signal-processing, in other words.

Relatedly: I've been wondering of late, isn't it time someone came up with an *honest* evaluation of the idea of a response-curve across multiple media including a plethora of digital techniques? There's a little figure in Langford somewhere showing the consequences of taking a photo on film (one response curve) and mapping it onto paper with its own response curve, illustrated with a Zone-style quantized greyscale spectrum with varying width. I'd like to see that explained properly starting with how Adobe create their camera profiles to target a particular response, proceeding to the differences between exposure, brightness and gamma.

Dear Tim,

This vocabulary problem...

I raised it in one of my last weekly columns, "In Search of a Vocabulary for Image Quality":


No, no answers, of course. But I think you'll find the column and, more importantly, the comments and discussion illuminating.

It is not an easy problem. Definitely not as easy as response curves (see my third point in that column).

pax / Ctein

Well said, Michael. And a really good portrait too.

Agree with Mike but the hard part is figuring that out. In helping my wife learn photography we work most on the visual--what interests her, what she sees, and how to make a photograph interesting. She cares not one wit for technology and so far refuse to use anything other than a P&S camera. The result has been a few ribbons at our photo club and novice digital photographer of the year. Not knowing the tecnology hasn't hurt her ability to see interesting things (but she's now starting to see some of the limitations of "P" mode in achieving her vision). She knows what she needs to know...so far...and I'm pushing to expand her skills in visualizing. So, the techniques you know, Mike, might help. Can you reframe the solution for passing on your knowledge from "write a book" to a smaller chunk that fits into this wonderful blog, and include primary references so we have to do the hard work rather than just reading all of what you write? These chunks could/might be the essence of a visual technique, with an exercise we have to do to actually learn the technique? That way you only have to finish a few small projects--blog posts--and not a huge undertaking like a book. Thanks for considering the idea, even if you reject it.

I suppose the major hurdle, for me, is having the courage to take photographs of the things I want to photograph. How many times, I pass on things that I know would be a great image, for fear that the very act of taking the photo would be seen as an intrusion. Exposure, composition, field of view, while not simple matters in all cases, are not that difficult to comprehend on the level necessary to take meaningful images. Becoming comfortable enough to take the time to study what I wish to photograph is that difficult. I look at the images in Here, Far Away, and I realize the magic of the images has very little to do with technical aspect, but rather, with the fact that the photographer was, so obviously, THERE...Completely there; not distracted. They make me want to go find somewhere, almost anywhere, and sit, with my camera, and force myself to wait for something to photograph....Become a part of what I want to photograph, rather than feel like I am an intrusion to it.

I am stunned this was two and a quarter hours from conception to publication. It's probably my favourite TOP post from the last year. Simply: congratulations.

It bothers me just a s wee bitt onot see Mike without a beard; on theo ther hand the photo on this particular edition of Mike John-s-ton seems to be me to be almost severe in its existence.
Mike, a smile would have helped as well as brightening the dull moody atmosphere of the photograph. Oh, and one other question. With all of your geographic shiftings, do you still retain the same Mac dot com address?

Would an exercise posted each week be a possibility? Perhaps after a bit of time, work, and feedback you would have a good start on that book.

We all have the same amount of time in the day, 24 hours. How we manage it is the determining factor of what we get done.

By the way, thank you for the blog. I enjoy reading it, most of the time. ;)

"Peter Turnley's portrait of you is startlingly different and engaging, but why?" My guess? Most of us have seen the "smiling Amish" picture of you on the old opening page, and I for one am enjoying your recent happy pictures, fitting with your new life, centered around a new home, close to a new love. (Indeed I'm a romantic).
So Peter Turnley's rather somber B&W of a sixty five-ish Mike (how did he do that?) caught me by surprise in the midst of such a sunny period.
Peter is admittedly a wonderful and sensitive photographer, but not every picture works as intended, and not every photograph is a portrait. Not implying that a photo needs make the subject appear better than life, nor does it have to be smily-happy ...but unlike the wonderfully arranged Newman shot of the devilish Krupp, it shouldn't make a good guy look far worse than life. To my aging eyes anyway.
Of course, not having met, I may be totally off track, and you may indeed be a most somber fellow at what I imagine to be a happy and energizing time..... I just don't picture you that way. IMHO.

Darlene Almeda is absolutely right - start to look; really look. Most adults, most of the time (& I don't exclude myself) barely get beyond avoiding banging into the furniture or being flattened by traffic.

Intelligent seeing & committment, combined with simple equipment works in most cases - the reverse doesn't, though marketing is set-up to tell otherwise.

I'm sure a few basic visual exercises & other strategies could be usefully suggested, by Mike or others.

The problem is human nature. Most would not try them as apparently; too simple; requiring to much effort; or merely being concerned about appearing foolish.

Thanks for pointing out what a lot of us have taken a long time to realize. I'm still on my journey from an engineering (machine vision, even!) hack to someone that sees, and then can capture that vision.

The instructors that have taken me on that journey can be found at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com

Alain and Natalie are super teachers, and anyone that ventures on to their site will find a wealth of information, essays, and possibly most important, workshops. A large number of Alain's essays are also housed at https://luminous-landscape.com/category/columns/

I've taken so many of Alain's workshops, I've lost count. Suffice it to say that I've learned significant things on each and every one, and my images have improved significantly over time.

I've now had my first multi-artist shows, and am getting ready for the art fair circuit next summer. This is a far cry from where I started just a few short years ago, where I shot "anything that caught my eye" to now doing projects and folios on specific subjects and themes.

I guess what I'm trying to say, is that there is no shortage of excellent teachers if you want to learn to see, and express your style and vision in your images.

Hi Mike,
I've thought about this post every day since you put it up.

The more experience I have, the less I think that I really know. I've spent a few years now with mostly one lens. I'm on my third "real" digital camera, and I've had it long enough to feel pretty comfortable with it. I think I can say that I know a few apertures, a few shutter speeds, I have a limited feel for how much grain I'll pick up from ISO 200-1600. My fingers still don't know for sure which wheel does what, but my camera is responsive enough that I'm doing ok.

A few years ago, I could have turned in a really crackin' essay on depth of field and sensor efficiency, and choosing the right focal length, and comparisons of major and minor model variations. Now, I think I know what I don't know, and I keep my mouth shut. There's a difference between knowing something and knowing about something. I know a few things. I may know a lot about a lot of somethings, but that mainly helps me shop, not take pictures.

Nice one Mike. Instead of a long list or writing a book, a few book recommendations might be helpful. There are so many books out there that it is very difficult to sort out the good from the bad. I have a lot of books in the bad pile and very few in the good pile.

Thanks and keep up the good work.

Casually enthusiastic mediocre photographer.

Mike is right – you don’t need to know much, provided what you know is what you need.

Trouble is how do you determine what you need to know?

Before everything you’ll need to learn to see. We are all terrible at this, using our vision for little more than avoiding the furniture or being flattened by traffic. Even when looking at people, who are generally more emotionally involving than inert stuff, our seeing barely gets much beyond, “Do I know them?” “Are they a threat?” or “Are they cute?”

Of necessity, human vision & perceptual processing is ongoing & extraordinarily provisional, with our eyes & brain registering very little other than what we deem essential, while the mind, generally unbeknownst to ourselves, fills in the gaps. If we were really looking at & analyzing everything we’d just use too much energy. Human vision is partial, while also being culturally, emotionally & personally determined.

In contrast, a camera is completely inclusive & totally without emotion, while sucking in everything. Most also have the ability to record an image in a fraction-of-time beyond that of human vision. This means that many, arguably most, photographs of people and erratic movement, were anticipated by the photographer, because by the time they could be ‘seen’ the moment was gone.

A photograph, whether of things moving or static, is a slice through time that converts the infinite complexity of the 3-dimensional world into a fixed, flat, 2-dimensional, frame bound image. For a photograph to be effective, it has to have visual organization & coherence. The shapes of the things recorded need to be appropriately placed in relationship to each other & the frame. Trouble is, there’s an endless number of possibilities for how this can be done, while describing the process meaningfully in words is pretty much impossible.

There are as, Mike has suggested, various visual exercises that can help develop the ability to organize positive & negative shapes within the frame. Similarly, useful suggestions to make photographic life easier by using what you really need, rather than what you’ve convinced yourself you need. And so on.

My suspicion is that we then bump up against ‘human nature’. “What! You expect me to start cutting up, pushing around & then sticking down bits of paper. Even worse, you expect me to do it sustainedly for a week!” or “I’d feel foolish/nervous/uncomfortable doing that..” or “No, I don’t want to stand in the same place for 4 minutes/hours because there’s certain to be something better round the next corner/rock.” etc., etc., etc. Or, “You want me to look at some photographs / paintings / drawings / by someone who was dead 30/50/70/100/150-500 years ago, when the sun is shining & I want to take my new camera/lens out!”

Because the camera does so much of the heavy lifting, there is frequently a perverse expectation that pushes to much responsibility onto the magic box.

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