Knowing how your camera works is an essential part of photography. The ability to meter and set exposure, and to understand the interrelationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO is a requirement. Now forget all of that and start looking and seeing!
Sometimes we get so caught up in our equipment and technology that we literally and figuratively lose sight of what will turn you from a snapshooter into a great photographer: Seeing. We attend workshops, watch videos, read how-to articles, gear guides and product reviews (a good thing!) but what are we doing to develop the skill of seeing and thinking like a photographer? Can you go into any situation, no matter how mundane it seems to the casual viewer, and capture at least one amazing photo?
While waiting for my 15 year-old daughter in the mall (I'm such a suburban dad!) I saw this scene, with each person isolated in their own public space, and thought dang, wish I had a camera. Then I remembered the iPhone 4Gs that I was using to check my email, turned on the camera, and—sorry, mall security—grabbed this colorful/interesting shot, made a bit more colorful with a few simple modifications Photoshop Express.
Think back to your first camera—the one that got you hooked on photography. Mine was a mid-'60s vintage Ansco Cadet (right), a plastic 120 rollfilm camera with two settings: “Color” and “Black & White” and a big red shutter release. The lack of exposure or focus control meant I had to shoot daylight and at least five feet from my subject. But this was my first camera, I was ten years old, and since I didn't know any better, I was excited by every photo I shot. I had a creative outlet that had nothing to do with crayons! Eventually, I graduated to a Bolsey B3 (manual everything, but hard to use) and eventually to SLRs starting with a Canon Ftb (luxury!). I learned the technology of course, but at first, without any technical background, I was free of preconceptions and the distractions of technology and concentrated on seeing.
The file was JPEG, the fish was raw: Yes, that's sushi, artistically rendered at a local sushi eatery. I showed the photo to the owner, and now I'm his official photographer and am preparing images for his web site. My camera? Doesn't matter—I was aware of the lighting, shot on auto, made a few color and contrast changes afterwards, and got myself a client.
Sometimes, ya gotta go back to the basics
Everyone falls into the trap of complacency at one time or another, relies on technology (oh, I'll fix it later in Photoshop) and tend to forget the basics. Lately, my way to dig out of that trap has been my iPhone—which, in some ways, offers a bare-bones shooting experience similar to that of my dusty old Ansco. An that's fine. There have been times when I've been caught without a camera (I try to keep such situations to a minimum), but I always have my iPhone with me, and often when that happens, I see something I feel I must photograph, so I use the only camera at hand.
The iPhone lacks focus and exposure controls (yes I know, there's an app for that), and so instead of worrying that I am forced to rely on its ability to get it sort-of right, I concentrate all of my efforts on getting the shot. I've shown my best ones to friends without telling them which camera I used, and inevitably they're surprised that I took that picture with a cell phone. Imagine their surprise!
Can you guess? Spring cleaning, and it was time to wash Winter off my vehicle, so off to the car wash I went. As moved through the wash, I grabbed my camera and shot a bunch of semi-abstract images through my windshield as the car was automatically sprayed, waxed and buffed. A 3-minute car wash turned into a thrilling visual journey! My camera was in auto, and I just concentrated on being “in the moment.”
This has nothing to do with the technical quality of the image; I've also taken some great photos with my Canon 7D on Auto. With a much larger sensor, the 7D will inevitably produce a technically superior to any cell phone photo. But that's not important now. This has to do with perception. If your mind is filled with fapertures, shutter speeds, and whether to set your camera to HDR or Miniature filter mode, and so on, how do you leave room in your brain for organizing the world in front of you into a compelling photograph?
I was intrigued by the shadows, shapes, lighting and lines in this photo of my daughter on the beach in Delray Beach, Florida. I used a compact camera here, again set on auto-everything. As I shot this, I knew I wanted the final image to be in black and white. I'm not a big fan of pre-visualization, but in this case, it made sense. I shot this with my cell phone because I didn't want to bring my sand-sensitive camera with me. Another case of "any camera you have with you is better than the one you left at home."
My challenge to you
So I have a challenge for you: Go against the common wisdom and set your camera, whatever camera you use, on auto everything. Turn off special effects filters and custom settings. Now, go forth into the world, look around, take pictures. Fill the frame with interesting stuff, and leave out the stuff that doesn't add to the image. Look at line, shape, texture, form. Get the decisive moment. Study the masters of modern and classical art, look at other photographers' work.
Study your results, and learn from them. Show them to true friends—ones who will honestly critique rather than shower you with empty praise because they think that's what you want to hear. Be your own harshest judge. Use post processing to make the images you care about fantastic. Use the lessons learned when you go back to manual settings and special effects.
And then: Master your camera's manual settings until your technique becomes second nature and doesn't distract you from getting the shot but makes the shot even better. This is the first step towards developing your own personal vision.
Leave 'em laughing. Yes, I know: It's not a great composition, but I wanted to capture this inadvertently humorous juxtaposition in the back of a frozen yogurt store in Boca Raton, Florida. In this case, I let content rule the image.
There is no deadline, and I'm not giving away prizes. Developing your ability to see photographs is a lifetime pursuit, and the reward is that you'll grow as a photographer.
Now, get going! (And don't forget to share your results on our Facebook or Pinterest pages!)