Two Counterintuitive Assertions about Photography
You don’t have to believe ‘em if you don’t want to. But try them on for size:
“Manual” is easier than “automatic.” I’m not knocking automation — of exposure, of focusing, of white balance, whatever — in situations where you don’t know what’s coming and don’t have time to react.
But “fast” isn’t really the same as “easy.” When you do know what you need, isn’t it easier if you can just set it rather than having to mess around with mode selectors and locks and overrides?
The little picture shown here is a case in point. This rehearsal studio can produce an almost infinite variety of light: big windows in the back, a shiny floor, mirrors in the front , all scrambling light together into patches of wildly different brightness, color, and quality. An AE system trying to sort it all out yields likewise wildly different exposures wherever it looks. Swinging the camera five degrees can easily produce a five-stop change in the metered exposure.
But I know from experience that the overall light levels on people’s faces stay almost completely uniform — the crazy bouncing light creates different patterns of highlight and rimlight, but it doesn’t really affect the basic exposure. Knowing this, the easiest way to manage the situation is just to set shutter speed X and aperture Y, and leave them there.
The same happens with focusing: the room is full of high-contrast geometric edges that would lure even the smartest AF system off-target. Sure, I could move zones or lock locks… but it’s just so much easier simply to twist a manual focusing ring to put the focus where I want it, and then leave it there.
The next one may be a bit more controversial:
“Amateur” is harder than “professional.” I’m not saying that being a professional photographer is easy. Never having been one, I wouldn’t know. But I have been on the customer side of the equation, and I’ve been in other creative businesses. Based on that, I suspect that the really difficult things about the photography business are the same things that are difficult about any other business: finding customers, keeping them happy, and making sure the bills get paid.
The actual photography part, by contrast, can’t be all that hard: all you have to do is live up to the customer’s expectations. And in most things in life, our expectations aren’t all that high: I mean, look at the stuff we eat, the junk we watch on TV, some of the people we elect to public office. Sure, some photography customers are very demanding in what they want… or, worse yet, don’t know exactly what they want. Either way, though, you have a clear-cut goal. And you have a clear-cut way of knowing you’ve achieved it: when the check comes in the mail.
As an amateur, though, you have to live up to a higher standard. Amateur is a Latin word that means one who loves. And Love is the ultimate demanding client. When you’re working for love, you have to do everything you can think of to make your photography do justice to the thing you love — whether it’s the grandeur of wild places, the mysterious precision of flowers, the endless flux of life of the street, or the patient dedication of a ballet teacher. Nothing you do is ever quite enough, but there’s never any excuse for quitting. When love calls with another demand, you can’t just let it go to voicemail. Even if you nearly succeed in meeting today’s demand… well, now that’s the new standard, and tomorrow you’ll need to get up and start figuring out how to surpass it.
And unlike the professional, the true amateur’s job is never a “wrap.” You never get to that moment of closure when you can stamp the bill “paid,” move the files to the archive folder, put the whole thing behind you, and forget about it.
But the great thing is: You never want to.