Saturday, January 26, 2008

Technical knowledge is not that important

Everyone is telling you that you've got to learn the technical aspects of photography. Blogs, websites, books all hammer the message home and if you don't know your f-stops, the difference between a jpeg and raw file and how to use every tool in Photoshop, you're somehow inferior and can't possibly take a good picture.

I suppose in our technology obsessed world it's not surprising that the how you do something takes precedence over the why you do it.

Technique and the technical aspects of photography are vitally important. You have to have enough technical knowledge and craftsmanship to be able to create the image you envisage each and every time. As a photographer you have to have the skills and technical knowledge of a builder, or you house will fall down, but you also need the vision of an architect to create something beautiful and interesting.

Recently on two separate occasions I saw promising new professional photographers at work. They knew their technical stuff, had a good understanding of lighting and composition, were enthusiastic and motivated to deliver good images but as I watched them I realised something vital was missing. During the shoot both photographers appeared to lose focus on the most important thing of all, the reason they were taking the pictures.

These photographers were far to busy with the 'how' questions while taking their images instead of the 'why' questions. They broke the flow of their sessions by constantly chimping (looking at the screen of their digital cameras) instead of keeping their attention on their subjects. Every time they looked at their screens they went off into their own little universe and lost contact with their subjects. They worried about exposure, histograms, lighting ratios, camera settings etc. While they should have worried about whether their images would communicate with the audience.

A few professional photographers I know say how liberated they feel when they go out with a Lomo or Holga 'toy' camera. Just point and shoot. They enjoy taking the images. Neither camera has a sharp lens so you don't have to even worry about that aspect of technique. It becomes all about making an interesting image. The technical burden is lifted from their shoulders.

For me technical knowledge is far less important than communication. You have to know what you want to say and why you're taking a picture. The technique follows from this. In architecture the phrase is often used; 'form follows function'. In photography you could say, 'technique follows expression.'

Lets look at this from another perspective. If you think of the great masters of the craft of photography then Ansel Adams is bound to spring to mind. But why was Ansel so obsessed with the technical aspects of photography? He had to master the technical aspects so that he could to put the vision of the final image he had in his head on paper.

You will see the world in a completely different way to Ansel. You will have your own emotions and thoughts that you want to communicate. For your images to have real authenticity that touches the audience you only need to learn enough technique to be able to produce on paper or screen the vision you have in your head. Of course if you don't know enough then you will fail too.

So to summarise here are dos and don'ts that will help you become a better photographer:
  • Don't be seduced by the craft of photography
  • Don't learn photography theory that you don't need and won't use
  • Don't waste time trying to learn everything there is to know about Photoshop
  • Don't worry about technical stuff when you're taking pictures (it's too late)
  • Don't let technically obsessed people make you feel inferior because you don't have a clue what they're on about
  • Don't make the mistake of thinking that if you have enough technical knowledge you will somehow become a fantastic photographer. Why you take pictures is far more important.
  • Don't chimp constantly
  • Don't let craft and technique get in the way of you getting the shot
  • Don't fiddle with your camera and lights constantly when photographing people

  • Do think about why you are making the image and what you want to communicate
  • Do give your full attention to your subject
  • Do learn the technical knowledge that you need so you can realise your creative vision
  • Do become so familiar with your camera, lighting setup and other aspects that they become routine and automatic
  • Do focus your efforts on your creative vision rather than on learning the technical aspects of photography
Technique and technical knowledge are there to serve you, to help you express yourself. To use a metaphor. If you are making a speech you can have perfect diction and a pleasant voice but if what you are saying is boring, or doesn't make sense, your audience will soon lose interest. If you do not know why you are taking the picture and you don't feel it in your heart, then don't bother pushing the shutter button.

Comments welcome.

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