Learning the Language
Lessons from a year of taking pictures.
I started effectively using my camera at the the beginning of August (Late night July 31, technically), and I bought it because I really wanted to get into making short films and doing jobs at weddings and event and the such.
I didn’t really see the a6000 as a stills Camera. I did all my research on it, and it was the cheapest camera I could get that did 1080p at 60 fps — so I was able to get some decent slomo footage.
But then three days later, late at night I got bored and thought, “what the hell? I’ll go for a bike ride and see what I’ll get.”
I was strangely enchanted by what I could do. I was surprised by how empowered I felt that night. I had gotten this camera thinking I wouldn’t get very good stills, I was gonna focus on my filming craft and get good at it and get jobs and maybe I’ll grab some stills on the side, on some down time.
Oh the irony.
I can still count on my two hands the amount of clients I managed to get — both for film and photo gigs — over the next year. From a financial stand point I hadn’t made back the money it cost to buy the camera they way I thought I would. Instead I had the prideful crap beaten out of me, as I began what, I would realize much later on, would be a long learning process.
Wait. It looked nice just then.
My first six months with the camera was learning how bad I was with it. Every good photographer knows that, and every beginner is about to find that out.
Despite never uttering the words “I’m a great photographer,” I wanted my photos to be good. Opening my SD card, and sorting through my pictures for instagram, I realised how many of the ideas I had just didn’t work out.
Maybe the light was off, the composition was wonky, or subject was duller than previously thought. I was constantly reminded that I just wasn’t there yet. And herein lies the moral. My photography greats, my idols; worked hard and long to get to where they were. Their blogs and instagram feeds were not snapped at a moments notice then immediately posted. Theirs was probably also a process of taking many pictures, going through the multitude of failures, finding the one that worked, and then touching it up. Their repetition of, and perseverance through this process was what made them the experts they were today.
If I wanted to get there, I too, must go through this process. There was no short cut.
That one was kinda nice…
It’s hard to pin point at which point was able to look back at my SD card and say I was satisfied with a shoot. But somewhere along the way I began to figure out what worked, and what didn’t. I learned that my obsession with foregrounds didn’t work all the time, I learned what time of day and what light worked for me, I learned how to properly frame my subjects. I learned about leading lines, symmetry, contrast… so many things I hadn’t known before.
One of the most valuable lessons looking back was how ridiculous I was to think that getting this camera — as useful as it was — was going to significantly improve my photography. My camera didn’t get make my pictures better, what it did was push me to go out and take more pictures lest the thing gather dust. If I hadn’t gone out with the frequency that I did, my pictures would not have gotten as good as it did. I now think, if only I had the same motivation to go outside with my phone camera, I probably would have also gained a lot of skill for much less cost.
Being proud of your own work, has a strange way of getting to your head though. Because for a period of time, between the months of March to June, I really started to love certain techniques. So much that I would come back to them, over and over again. I started to stagnate.
“Thanks, I really liked that one.”
In the middle of 2018, my birthday came around and my (best) friends got me a lens. A 45mm Rokkor lens.
It was an old Minolta fixed lens, everything was manual. And it was a full frame lens, so on my crop sensor it was around 63mm focal length.
I had spoken to my friends about getting this lens, so it wasn’t a complete surprise, I knew what I was getting and a couple of weeks into using it I was starting to become remorseful, did I get the wrong focal length? Where the hell was I going with this lens.
63mm is difficult made it hard for me to compose. My previous pictures were taken with the Sony kit 16–50mm, I was used to a wide field view (between 28–40mm for street) and struggled. For a time I ended up not using the camera, because I didn’t want to put up with the remorse.
A couple of days later something happened.
I went back to my high school — I had graduated a couple of years before — I met up with one of my teachers and mentors whose contract had ended and was returning to the States (9000 miles away) for good. We had a good, long conversation, and as we were walking down the stairs to part ways I paused.
I noticed the sun turning golden in the sky, and I asked if he’d mind if I took some pictures of him. For keepsake I told him. I snapped away, my mind preoccupied more with sadness than with my camera settings. And knowing my focal length was really constrained, I cranked the aperture wide and decided to close up on his face.
Later on, while I was editing these pictures, my mom caught a glimpse of my phone and said wow. I realised at that moment she was right, these picture weren’t just pretty. The pictures said something about him, it said something about me, and the relationship felt realized in the picture.
Some months after this I brought my camera to my friends birthday party — without being asked — to document the party. I snapped away. Afterwards she saw the picture and thanked me. It seemed like the first time someone thanked me just for taking a picture of them.
So what’s my point?
This closer focal length pushed me to focus more on people than streets and buildings. This changed something in me.
Anyone who’s ever brought camera to a party will know that it becomes magnet. It pulls people in. For that pose, the contorted raspberry face, that model smile. In the exact same way, the camera can push people away, they put a hand up and sneak behind somebody else.
They are rarely themselves in front of the camera, and I hated that. I wanted something closer to candid and honest emotions. Not a facade. But it took me a while to realise that that facade was natural reaction. I couldn’t pull out a camera point it at them and expect no response.
Until this point, photography was about me. Placing what I want in the frame, with no regard for how the image spoke for itself. It just didn’t communicate to anyone but me. I am all for the Uncompromising artist stereotype, but there is a line between an artist who doesn’t compromise and one who doesn’t listen. I get that now. I can see why I can look at a picture of the same subject, but one impresses me while the other doesn’t.
I learned that if frame doesn’t speak for anyone else but me, then I shouldn’t expect it to impress a lot of people.
A small note.
Before I end, I realise that a lot of these lessons are prefaced by me getting a new piece of gear or equipment. I hope that this, won’t be your take away. Don’t put this reading down then think, “Time to get that **mm lens that I’ve been pining over, maybe it’ll teach me something new.” You’ll be missing the point, because I’m writing this to all of you wishing that someone had just told me these things. As opposed to me find out after a lot of time and money wasted.
So as I am pushing a fifteen hundred words let me just close with this.
When you pick up that camera for the first time, you will have many preconceived notions about your own photography. Prepare to have them broken down. Prepare for a ride that’s going to last from the first frame you snap to your very last — and it’s not a smooth one. Because every frame you capture should not just be a chance for you to say something about the world. It should also be a chance for the world to say something to you.