The Practice of Photography
Why Everyone Should do It. Yes, Everyone.
Nowadays, everyone is a photographer. It all started with auto-focus, auto-exposure, and 35mm film. Or, maybe, it all started with medium format roll film and hand-held light meters. After all, before medium format came about, just operating a camera, as in consistently being able to produce an in-focus and properly exposed (whatever that means) image took significant up-front training. Then it all went downhill with the introduction of the comparatively user-friendly Rolleiflexes and Hasselblads, not to mention the Leicas, and the Nikons, and the Canons that soon followed. The Craft was now accessible to the unwashed masses. It would never be the same.
This is the best thing that happened to photography.
Some will place the blame squarely at the feet of cheap and ubiquitous digital cameras that flooded the markets some 10 (or so) years ago and lowered the barrier to entry even further. Now, suddenly, a click of the shutter had no variable cost associated with it. You still have to pay for equipment, sure, but once you own it, you can click away until the cows come home, producing masterpiece after masterpiece and flooding the Internets (which, we all know, are a series of tubes) with countless kittens, flowers, and sunsets. Now we have legitimately capable cameras in our cell-phones, complete with filters and functions that make pictures look “artsy” with a click of a button. Another click of a button, and they’re on the web for all to see and appreciate.
Everyone starts with kittens, even if they don’t know it. Some particularly mindful beginners try to pass go and collect two hundred bucks by graduating immediately to colorful and weathered faces of local homeless people, scenes of urban decay, or blurry nudes. These people look down upon the shooters of flowers and sunsets from their position of great enlightenment. They’re Artists, you see, and don’t want to be associated with the housewives and the Japanese tourists. The thing is that, in essence, they’re still shooting kittens, or whatever equivalent of kittens that happens to float their boat. They’re going after the low-hanging fruit, the subjects that don’t require skill to capture effectively. More importantly, these subjects don’t require any special skill to identify.
It’s worth mentioning that not everyone is like that. Some are talented enough, or skilled enough visually (a background in any other visual artform does wonders here) that they really do produce truly compelling work almost as soon as they pick up a camera. They’re few and far between. They often wind up becoming truly great if they stick with it. I’m definitely not one of those people. I’ve spent years on kittens, both literal and metaphorical.
One thing that’s important to understand is that the technique of photography is relatively simple and easy to learn. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how the amount and quality of light, be it natural or artificial, and things like shutter speed, sensitivity, and aperture size play together to create the final image. Here, once again, there are exceptions; high-speed photography, for example, can get pretty tricky. All in all, though, this is stuff anyone can learn fairly quickly and then, like most complex skills, spend the rest of their lives mastering. This is easiest with digital, but even learning how to operate fully-manual cameras, bellows and sheet-film holders and all, is fairly simple. I’ve done it. So can you. Photography, mostly, is not about technique. It requires technique, but technique is also the easy part and it; alone, won’t get you anywhere.
This brings me back to the beginning. There’s one thing that practicing photography does to you that is immensely valuable and often overlooked. It forces you to see the world around you in a completely different way. It teaches you to find beauty and impact and symbolism in places that most people wouldn’t grace with a second look. Photography teaches you to pay attention and to appreciate. It’s about seeing much more than it is about capturing what you see.
If you’re into taking pictures that are pretty, it makes the world around you prettier. This doesn’t have to be all about beauty, however. It’s about intensity. Practicing photography in a mindful way makes the world around you more visually stimulating and your experiences richer. You may never produce the next Moon over Hernandez, your work may not grace the walls of major museums (though it may - you never know) but you will, if you do this right, get more out of life. Picking up the camera was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Yes, it took me years and years of kittens and sunsets, but, in the end, it transformed me in a very profound way. It really did make me better at living.