Photography is a Language

Posted on: June 10th, 2011 0

I’ve been reading this book by Bruce Barnbaum called “The Art of Photography”. The sub-title is more revealing; “An Approach to Personal Expression.” WOW! How many of you have actually considered the idea that photography can be a form of personal expression? I’m not talking about taking snapshots of things that you think are cool. I’m talking about using the medium of photography to express yourself…..and I mean YOURSELF! The more I thought about this idea, the more I came to realize that in the end, photography is a language. Just like any language, it has its own rules of grammar (exposure, depth of field, motion blur, etc), but those rules are NOT communicating anything by themselves. As photographers, we need to use those rules to actually SAY something. Therein lies the rub.

In The Beginning

Sure, if you are just learning about photography, you need to learn how to speak the language before can actually have anything to say. That’s one of the big problems with the digital revolution. Everyone thinks that if they just get the right camera, they’ll take amazing photos. Worse, it is so easy to produce a mediocre image these days that anyone not conversant in the language of photography can kid themselves into thinking they’ve got something special without making any effort to learn how to “talk”, as it were.

So first of all, you need to learn about exposure, and all that entails. It is vitally important that you know how to take control of your camera in order to use it in such a way that you can influence the scene you are shooting. Yes, that’s right, you can TOTALLY influence how a subject looks. The idea that the camera is an objective recorder of reality is only valid for amateurs who run around taking snapshots with abandon of stuff they think looks cool so they can show their friends and family. As a photographer, you MUST understand that you can use the language of photography to influence how people perceive the subject you’re shooting. Your lens choice, exposure decisions, lighting setup, and a myriad of related issues ALL dramatically alter the way something looks. Consequently, you really need to understand how to use your gear so you can get the kind of images you want.

Learning How to Talk

Once you get a handle on your gear, then you can begin to “talk”. Just like a child who is increasing his vocabulary, you begin forming sentences that form coherent thoughts, in the form of photographs that convey something more than a mere thoughtless snapshot can. As you begin to exert more influence on your subjects with you camera, your vocabulary increases. Now you are able to create more interesting images as your “language” skills grow.

Here is the heart of the matter. You are only going to be able to talk with passion about the subjects you are interested in! For example, if you held a gun to my head and ordered me to talk about golf (which I find to be exceedingly boring…..sorry), I would talk about it……..hell yea I would talk about it! There’s a gun pointed at me that says if I don’t I’m a dead man! However, it would be virtually impossible for me to talk about golf with any sort of passion. It BORES me. Ya couldn’t have ordered me to talk about photography could you? If you had, you’d wind up shooting me just to shut me up!!

So too with photography. Once you learn how to speak it’s language, you must then figure out what you want to say! The notion that Bruce Barnmaum puts forth in his book is that you are only going to make great photos from subjects you are passionate about. A perfect example is my recent blog post about my cat Sweet Pea. If you read that post, you know I went to extraordinary lengths to make that photo. Geez, 5 separate lights? What am I, crazy? Well, yea! I love Sweet Pea. To me she’s the most beautiful cat on the planet. I totally wanted to do whatever it took to shoot her and get a great photo. I didn’t even THINK about the effort….I just did it. No way could I do that kind of thing if I had to say, shoot a GOLF TOURNAMENT! Please, waterboard me, throw acid in my face, shoot me with a gun, but just don’t make me shoot a golf game!!! So the essence of all this is that you have to bring yourself to the table. If you are going to create images that resonate with other people, they first have to resonate with YOU! That means shooting with passion those subjects for which you are passionate. I submit that if you stay true to the kind of photography that you are passionate about, you will become very fluent in that kind of photography.

The Secret

Anyone read that book”The Secret”? I’ll say it straight up… is a complete pile of doggie doodoo. Shame on you for giving the author your hard-earned money. Guess what? You’re a sitting duck for buying a new DSLR! Camera companies aren’t in the business of making you a better photographer, they’re in the business of selling cameras. As such, they out-and-out LIE about what a camera can do, and the biggest lie they tell is that the CAMERA takes great pictures. Just like The Secret’s ridiculous claim that our thoughts create the physical world, somehow buying an expensive DSLR magically confers on you the ability to shoot masterpieces. A camera cannot take great photos. Only the considered effort of a photographer who understands light, exposure, depth-of-field, the “decisive moment”, on and on, can get consistently high-quality images.

Hey. Pssssssst. I got a secret for ya. Only this is a REAL secret the camera companies never tell you. Please send me $30 and I’ll tell you what that secret is. Hey, c’mon, you bought “the Secret” didn’t you? I’m tellin’ you a REAL secret!!!! NO? OK, I forgot, only bullshit sells. I’ll tell you anyway. Here it is: You know all of those fancy “presets” on your shiny new DSLR, like “Portrait”, “Snow”, “Fireworks” (I swear), etc.? They are ALL built on only 3 SETTINGS!!! Those 3 settings are Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO. That’s it! It turns out that your camera has NO OTHER SETTINGS for exposure, and all of those presets are just different combinations of those 3 setting. Get to know how those 3 settings work, and you will never want to go to one of those silly presets again!

The Choice

If you read The Secret, you have a better way. Set your brand new DSLR on a table, and repeat this mantra; “My camera takes great photographs by my merely THINKING that it does.” Repeat that 100 times at least 3 times a day for the next year. Do NOT, under any circumstances, put any effort into actually learning how to use your camera. That’s for all those suckers who think they have to WORK AT something to get better at it. You know better……your thoughts create your reality. Oh, since your creating all these realities and chanting about your camera, try out this one; “Send Gary $30”. Now that’s a reality I can get behind!

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