This post is meant mainly for amateur and artistic photographers. Some of the comments I received on my last post, made me think that it would be worth while talking about my understanding of what this craft is all about. Photography has been a popular pastime since Kodak first advertised, ‘you press the button, and we’ll do the rest’ about a hundred years ago. Modern photography, with a permanent image on paper, or metal or glass, is almost 200 years old. But never has photography been as popular or as accessible as it has been since the invention of digital photography. And since this is a very commercial age, a lot of attention has been given to the different cameras available. In fact, there seems to me, to be too much of an accent on the tools and accessories, and applications which can help one in attaining beautiful or interesting images.
Since I started working in this field long before the digital revolution, and had the pleasure of teaching the craft to students for quite a few years, I thought that some of my blog friends and readers might enjoy hearing a bit about my views and experience.
Cameras have become very sophisticated. They offer automatic exposure, automatic focus, in camera artistic effects, stabilization, automatic recording of the time when the picture was taken, where it was taken, and what the aperture and the speed of the shutter at the time the photo was taken. When I started out as a photographer, all of these functions were part of the photographers work. The way to stabilization was usually with the help of a tripod. And if you wanted to take a flash picture because there wasn’t enough light, you had to use a separate instrument, and then calculate your aperture according to the distance from your subject, and then the bulb was only good for one flash. I had to carry boxes of bulbs when I used the flash. But even when photography meant a lot of work, it was still a lot of fun, filled with adventure and excitement.
Cameras weren’t the most important thing about the craft. There were those of us who made their own cameras. I remember teaching many of my students how to make a camera in the most simple way… from a discarded coffee can, without even a lens. I saw some very beautiful cameras that were hand made, and equipped with fine lenses. Some of these cameras were made of metal, some of wood, and some of carton, and they all worked just fine. Most people had one camera that they used for years and years. And what mattered most, was the size of the negative. some folks liked large negatives, because they could absorb far more information. Others preferred small cameras that they could take everywhere without too much notice. They used smaller negatives. After WWII, the most popular cameras were 35mm, because they were easy to carry, and the films were relatively cheap, since the movie business also used 35mm films. I used to work with a 4×5 inch camera, which meant that the negative was that size or 10×13 cm. These negatives captured a lot of information, and one could blow up the pictures to very large dimensions without getting a lot of grain on the print.
The illustrations in this post were made in the darkroom without the use of a camera at all. These photograms, as they are called, were made while working together with students. Photography does not have to be a mirror image of something we see around us. It can be the product of our imagination… it can be play, or humor or art. What is most important is the vision of the photographer. The tools are of secondary importance.
When I first started with digital photography, I was given a very cheap digital camera by one of my sons who discovered it on the internet. It had a view screen but no monitor, so I had to wait to get back to the computer before I could see the pictures. And it created an image that would be considered very light by today’s standards (low in pixels). The lens was made of plastic. In fact, it distorted the image that passed through the lens. But I was able to make some fine pictures with that camera, which were later exhibited, and are still among my favorites. In the old days, we used to photograph through glass, nylon, and plastic, sometimes smearing the glass with a thin layer of Vaseline in order to distort the images on purpose. And on the other hand, I have had students who used a simple copying machine as a camera. What is most important is the imagination, and the ideas in your head.
No matter what camera you use, it is a great advantage to learn the character of the camera and just what it can do and what sort of results you are going to get from it, before you use it seriously. Because each camera has its own personality, and you get the best results when you work together with your camera and don’t try to force it to do your will. Think of your camera as a happy little donkey, and try to play with it.
A good modern camera has automatic exposure, plus the possibility of choosing an exposure according to your preference, or setting the exposure manually You can set the sensitivity yourself, or choose automatic ISO. The ISO is the sensitivity. Sometimes it is called ASA. If you set the exposure to A, you can determine the aperture you’re going to use, and the camera will automatically set the shutter at a speed that allows you to shoot a properly exposed picture with that aperture. If you want to determine the shutter speed, you can set the exposure at S, and then the camera will set the aperture to meet the demands of that shutter speed. Now if you want a very deep depth of field, you’ll choose the smallest aperture, which is found when using the highest number available on the aperture scale. If you want just a certain something in focus, then you’ll open up to the largest aperture. That’ll be the smallest number on your scale. But sometimes the speed of the capture is what is important. If you’re trying to avoid blur, and freeze motion, you’ll set the shutter to a relatively fast speed, 1/250 of a second. If you want to show movement in your picture, you’ll choose a slow shutter speed. Sometimes I’ve gone as slow as a few seconds for a shot; sometimes minutes.
There’s so much to tell about the use of a camera, that this is just a little taste. But if there are enough interested amateur photographers out there, I will come back to this subject again. And of course, there is a great wealth of information available in countless books on photography, found in every library.