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?

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10 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…

    1. I’ve often thought about what it would have been like had my phase of greatest learning been with a film camera, if I’d started years before digital was even an option. I would have spend hundreds, probably thousands of pounds before I really got anywhere. Maybe this is a reason everyone’s a photographer these days, the entry is very easy and cheap with a phone camera, and you can take hundreds of shots a day to accelerate your learning purely by trial and error, without the need to study manuals etc. Plus of course that instant feedback with digital is such a powerful learning tool. Taking a shot then waiting days of weeks to see how it came out (with shooting film) must have meant very slow progress, unless you made very detailed notes of your settings and approach for each shot. But then that would completely ruin any kind of flow and momentum anyway. We’re very fortunate with these digital tools at our disposal!

  2. I agree with Joël Léonard. While technical competency was essential in helping me learn the limitations and capabilities of my tools, attention to composition, lightinglightinglighting and storytelling made the difference between creating a snapshot to creating a photograph.

    1. Absolute agree that the art of making a photograph goes beyond the raw science of what to do. And people with that eye and vision can make wonderful phones on any camera, from the most basic point and shoot. Reminds me of a cheap camera pro photographer series I used to watch on YouTube a few years back.

  3. Interesting post… after years of using a point and shoot, I threw myself into the deep end with a Pentax K20D back in 2013. It took me at least a month to know the minimum to get some good pictures. But when I did, I was hooked.
    I’m still a Shutter Speed/ISO/Aperture kind of photographer. That’s all I need from a camera – a good viewfinder and these 3 settings. I could have enjoyed the film days (cost notwithstanding). Everything else I am still learning about, has to do with subjects, light and composition.

    1. I wonder how much you learned about the subject, light and composition from those years with point and shoots though Chris. A huge amount no doubt. I think the seven months I had with my Nikon Coolpix where I shoot over 7000 images were massively educational in finding what i liked to shoot, and how to best shoot it, even though I was on Program mode nearly all the time.

      1. I’m not sure, maybe not all that much… I mean, I did learn about composition a bit, but I don’t think I learned all that much about light… but who knows. I think I learned most of what I know in my first year owning a DSLR, starting back in mid-2013.

      2. Yes arguably you need a camera of a certain capability and sensor size to be able to see what kind of creative input you can have by varying aperture and shutter speed, even if initially you’re shooting Program or Auto mode and coming across much of it by chance. (I’m not saying you did this Chris!) This is what I did really with my Coolpix, made loads of photos, found the images I liked best and dug down into why that was, looked at the settings used for those photos and so on, and learned from there.

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