Nothing makes a photographer cringe in quite the same way as the remark, “Boy, that camera takes good pictures!” There is no such thing as a camera that “takes good pictures.” Some produce higher technical quality than others, but in photography — as with computers — it’s “garbage in, garbage out.” A skilled photographer can produce acceptable results with a cheap camera, but even a $40,000 Hasselblad will not help the person with a weak understanding of the basics.
Every poor photograph that I’ve ever taken was my fault. Composition errors are obvious sloppy planning, with other problems less obvious. However, in all cases, either I didn’t understand the conditions or I exceeded the ability of the camera, flash, film, software or sensor.
Sometimes we can do these things and get away with it, but a firm understanding of the principles is essential for breaking the rules successfully. Otherwise, good results are mostly luck. There’s a lot to be said for luck but, as my departed friend Elmer was fond of noting, “the more I know, and the more I practice, the luckier I get.” People who claim that their ignorance produces original work, or “frees them” to “express” themselves are simply making excuses.
There is a statement attributed to Michaelangelo who, when asked how he was able to sculpt such a glorious angel, supposedly answered, “I just removed all the stone that did not resemble an angel.” That’s the secret to good photography: knowing how to remove everything that doesn’t belong in the picture. And that, just as with Michaelangelo, means you have to know how to handle the tools. There are enough variations injected into the process from outside. In order to allow for that, the basics have to be as solid as possible.
One of the blessings of digital cameras is the ability to make technically accurate images most of the time. That being the case, there is little to distract the operator from attending to details like lighting, composition, depth of field and the other things that combine to make a picture art, rather than a snapshot.
But hey…there’s absolutely nothing wrong with snapshots. They make up the vast majority of exposures on any given day, and provide far more memories and pleasure than Annie Liebowitz’s best efforts. On the other hand, though, wouldn’t you like your snapshots to really have snap? Maybe it’s worth a little effort.
Here are links to some great tutorials on the basics: