The Comfort Of Knowledge In Photography

My first intentional photography was with a camera phone around 2005.

By intentional, I mean I specifically went out to make photographs, as opposed to being out anyway, and grabbing some snapshots spontaneously while I was there.

The intentional aspect also meant I was looking for things to make pictures of.

Compositions that I found interesting, beautiful or otherwise intriguing, and wanted to capture.

In terms of photography knowledge, I had next to none.

I knew how to open the camera app on my phone, that the shutter button had a half press to lock focus and a full press to shoot (this was a Sony Ericsson, pretty well designed to be used sideways as a camera).

I knew there was a black and white mode for if/when I wanted to experiment in monochrome, which those days I did very little of.

I also knew there was a close up mode (“macro” by name but not true macro) with a little flower symbol. For taking close shots of, well, flowers and so on.

In time I discovered that if I focused up close in the macro mode it tended to mean the subject was in sharp focus, and the scene behind became blurred.

I liked this kind of look, though initially it was very hit and miss, and I didn’t know anything about why and how it worked sometimes, and didn’t others.

Using a far more capable digital compact about five years later my learning started to really accelerate.

And dipping my toes in the waters of film photograph another seven months on, that growth hit an even steeper ascent.

I started to understand that the aperture of the lens impacted the depth of field.

Those shots I liked with sharply focused objects up close and heavily blurred backgrounds, where when the lens was at a wide aperture.

I began to fathom how shutter speed affected a photo.

To stop motion, say leaves in the breeze, you needed a fast shutter speed, maybe 1/500s or faster. And to avoid camera shake and a blurred photo, avoid anything below about 1/15s, where such slow speeds rapidly increased the risk of this happening.

I learnt that with film, faster film with a higher ISO meant you could shoot when there was less light, but generally the outcome was more grainy.

Slower film meant less grain, but you needed a wider aperture and/or slower shutter speed to compensate, with each of their related impacts on the final image.

This translated similarly to the old digital cameras I used – and still use. To get the best looking image, with least noise, use the cameras at the sensor’s native ISO, usually ISO80 or ISO100.

Put simply, the more I shot and learned from experience in the field, and the more I read and studied about the basics of photography, the more control I had over the camera, and the final image.

With increased knowledge, you evolve towards a more measured and scientific approach and results become more predictable, more reliable.

In some ways this knowledge gives great comfort.

We know then if we want a certain look, in certain conditions, we need to set the camera up in a certain way.

We’re more confident in how our actions will result in images we seek to create, and photography becomes a less frustrating and baffling experience.

This learning of course can’t continue at the same rate indefinitely, and giant leaps eventually become tiny incremental steps.

We’re still, learning, still evolving as photographers, just not as fast.

We reach a point where we’re fine tuning what we already know, rather than the hit and hope approach we adopted when we knew virtually nothing about what we were doing.

But…

For all this comfort we gain from knowledge, I do feel there is a downside.

I kind of miss those occasional photos I made with my phone cameras that wowed me and captured something like I’d never captured it before.

Even though (or especially because) I may not have known exactly how I did it, it felt more magical somehow. These kind of experiences feel far more towards the poetic, artistic end of the spectrum than the methodically scientific.

In fact, I believe one reason I’ve owned and tried so many cameras in the last eight or nine years, is to try to blur or undo some of that knowledge I’d gathered, to make myself more like a beginner again, having to learn from scratch, with all the innocence and serendipity and wonder that can provide.

Where I am now, with all the knowledge I’ve gained, photography is still greatly enjoyable, but perhaps not so magical.

How about you? How has your increase in photography knowledge over the years changed you as a photographer? Do you enjoy the comfort and confidence that comes from greater knowledge? Or do you yearn for the innocence of a bumbling beginner once more?

As always, please let us know below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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3 thoughts on “The Comfort Of Knowledge In Photography”

    1. That was a few years before mine then Marc, well, about four decades. I guess none of us know whether we’ll be around long enough to shoot tens of thousands of shots, or just 10…

  1. I don’t think knowledge means more comfort to me. Quite the reverse. I learnt a lot about technical aspects of photography in the first months or years. But I think it did not help me, and this is simple photography with a phone that helped me to refocus on what was really important : the intention, the composition… But when I learnt, it was difficult to really experiment because of film and the associated cost…

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