“I’ve always wanted to get into photography…”

If you do it enough, eventually people start thinking of you as the guy/gal with the camera. Occasionally, people come up to you saying something along the lines of, “I’ve always wanted to get into photography, but…” And then they’ll talk about a wistful desire to progress beyond their phone cameras.

My response? Don’t.

Stick with your phone -for now.

A beginner can learn so, so much from a phone camera; much more than I think most of them know. 

These days, the cameras everyone already owns -cellphone cam, are capable of truly amazing things. Compared to what was available 30 years ago, when I was starting out, (not really that long ago, in the grand scheme of things) these things seem like some kind of voodoo, black magic. Back then, if someone had described what we all take for granted today, I would have thought they were out of their mind, or at the very least, a fanciful dreamer.

Obviously, I would have been wrong.

As I just mentioned, you can learn an incredible amount about taking pictures, just from your phone cam.

-Framing. What’s in the picture? How do the objects look/influence the over-all image? Are you looking at everything (and this was a biggie for me, at first) that’s in the frame when you take the picture?

-Composition. Where is the main subject(s) in your picture? Why? Is the horizon straight? Do you want it to be?

-Light. Where is your light source? How much light is there?

-Exposure, colour balance, contrast, sharpness, etc. How do they look? 

-How’s the depth of field? Is enough of what I want to be in, or out of focus, the way I want it?

-Flash, or no?

And there are probably plenty of others that I’m forgetting right now.

As far as I know, just about every modern smart phone has a manual mode. We’re able to adjust the processing parameters of them, just like the big kids do with their real cameras.’ (Make no mistake about it, phone cameras ARE real cameras. Any time I hear someone with a DSLR, or traditional camera, talking shit about phone cams, I think that they’re either insecure, or they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.)

And that’s the divide.

I think that most people who dream of one day perhaps getting a dedicated camera, and pursuing photography as a hobby, don’t realize that they’re going to have to put in the effort to learn how the camera works, just like the effort you’d have to put into wringing out the full potential from a phone cam.

When I mention this to people who express a mild interest in pursuing photography farther, that’s the point where the conversation usually fades off…

Sure, even the highest of high end cameras can be set up to shoot ‘auto everything’, and to function as a really expensive point-and-shoot, but why would you do that?

Probably because the brand name on the front of your camera is more important to you than the images you are getting with it.

Think of a flat linear graph. At the beginning is a point marked ‘the camera did it.’ At the end, is a point marked ‘I did it.’

Where are you?

I’m not saying that you can’t get good images from shooting with your camera set up fully auto, -occasionally, I do it myself, but putting in the effort to fully understand, and use all of the options that your camera offers, is not only extremely satisfying, but ultimately, broadens your horizons, and increases the amount of shots that you like.

The above shot was taken with my Samsung Galaxy s10e. Perfectly fine. I would have liked a shallower depth of field, and the mid-day light is kinda harsh, but had I waited till later that afternoon, it probably would have been long gone. 

I did a B&W conversion in Silver Efex Pro, which took about 20 seconds. It’s nothing special, I took it just after getting the phone, but at that size, it’s sharp, and crisp, and does everything it’s supposed to do.

Like father…. not quite like son

My father, who quietly shuffled off this mortal coil last August, was a professional photographer his entire life.

I remember when I was a little boy, smelling the lab chemicals on his hands when he came home from work every day, as he’d take the time to play with us kids for a bit before dinner. His hands were textured with a medium fine sandpaper grit from constant immersion in those same chemicals. I recall one time in the late 70s I pointed out an obvious smudge on his glasses, to which he chuckled and replied, ‘Oh that. That’s just some chemical I splashed on myself at work.’

I thought, ‘Holy shit. What kind of chemical that will melt plastic, is a photographer using?’

That was my dad. 

That’s just how he was. 

Gloves, tongs, even safety glasses, to him, were just things that ‘got in the way.’ He wasn’t the only one.

(Where he came from, a small town in New Brunswick, a large percentage of the men made their living working in saw mills. More than a few were missing fingers and thumbs, so I suppose, to my Dad, the slight discomfort of having a layer or two of the skin on your hands burned off, was nothing, compared to losing part of an appendage.  I just remembered how I used to marvel at my great uncle Wilfred, who was able to roll a cigarette with one hand, -he was missing three and a half fingers on the other one! He never tired of extending that hand to shake, upon meeting someone new, and cracking up when they recoiled in horror at feeling the weird stump they were grasping. He got me a couple of times as well.)

I don’t really think photography was really his true passion. Not in the way that it is for a musician, or a writer, who just happens to have a family as well. He was the other way around. A family man first, who was a photographer by trade.

Don’t get me wrong though, he was very good when he wanted to be.

Because of him, my family has tons of photos of every type of family function, and event; probably more than most. 

About twenty-five years ago, a little bit after my mother died, he gave each of us kids a scrap book for Christmas, after painstakingly sorting through reams of photos, that told the chronological story of us growing up.

It’s still the best Christmas gift I’ve ever received -even though I still wince at some of the pictures of my younger self!

The above picture is from that photo book. It’s me, circa 1971.

Think about it: He thought nothing of wading out into the water with his camera; he knew he was going to get splashed because he was reasonably close, (I can imagine his voice, with his plain New Brunswick drawl, saying “Nah, a little water never hurt anything”) and he’d have to set the shutter speed just fast enough to minimize the motion blur on my face, but still capture the explosiveness of the water spray. All with a fully manual, and that includes focus, camera!

Not bad, eh?

Unfortunately, he was a lousy teacher. I still laugh a little when I think about the time I was just starting out, and was asking him about all the functions on his camera. He said something like, ”Well, you just turn this to that, set this like so, and twist this until it looks good.” It was all in his head. After decades of shooting manually, it just seemed obvious to him. He instinctively knew what shutter speed to use, and what aperture that was required to get the best possible results that he wanted, in any given light!

Hmmm. I went out and bought a book, heh…

He was, however, a great wealth of information later, when it came to choosing film, and paper types, composition rules, and techniques, pointing out things that I had never thought of, etc.

Dad worked right up until his seventieth birthday, and probably would have kept on going, but his eyes just weren’t what they once were. His timing was actually somewhat serendipitous though, because within a year or so of his retirement, the entire studio where he was working was switching to digital, and with the new digital equipment that they’d soon be using, you couldn’t just ‘turn this to that, set this like so, and twist this until it looks good.’ Although he had a couple of little digital point and shoot cameras later in life, he never really took to them. His hard drive was nearly full.

The reason I never tried to become a professional, doesn’t really have much to do with him. Well, not that much.

I just like it. A lot.

Being a professional musician for many years pretty much guaranteed that I’d never try to become a pro photographer. Near the end of my playing days, I woke up one morning, and came to the horrible realization that it wasn’t fun anymore. The music was, and still is, a thrill to me, but all the other bullshit relating to being in a working band, as Ignatz Mouse used to say, was ’very un-fun.‘ 

I didn’t want that to happen with photography.

My passion for taking pictures might be higher than my Dad’s, but he did it for every working day of his entire adult life. Something I could never do.

And for that, I’m very grateful. Thanks Dad!

Mistakes will be made

Wherever I travel, I’m sure to check what’s going on in the major galleries where I’m going, before I depart. I’ve been to a few of the worlds greatest galleries several times because occasionally, there’s a special exhibit that I’d like to see, but mostly, it’s because I just want to re-visit a few paintings that I really admire. 

Sometimes, I’ll just stumble upon things, like the time that I was in Barcelona and saw a handbill glued to a pole in the street, advertising a show of American Abstract Expressionism/Pop Art 1940-1970. Thinking that it wouldn’t be much of a show, since they didn’t seem to have much of an advertising budget, and that the organizers probably just gave some drunk a couple of bucks to go out and paste up a couple of posters, I didn’t give it too much thought, but it was along my way, so I thought, ‘why not?’

It was the greatest collection of art in that style, from that era, that I had ever seen! All the ‘names’ were there; Kline, de Kooning, Johns, Pollock, Still, Rothko, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and quite a few others. And many were represented by some of their most famous pieces!

Another time, I was in Fort Worth, of all places, (don’t ask) and found out about The Kimbell Art Museum. It has  paintings by Michelangelo, and Caravaggio! (Going from High Renaissance painting, to cowboy hats, snap front shirts, and ‘HOWDY Y’ALL!’ in a few short steps was an HUGE culture shock!)

Recently, I was in London again, so naturally, I hit up all the big galleries that I had time for. When I’ve been to a gallery more than once or twice, I usually just streamline my time there, and only visit the paintings I’d like to see again, so, one of the paintings I headed over to was a Caravaggio that they have, Supper at Emmaus.

I don’t normally photograph paintings, but I couldn’t help myself this time, because I discovered something quite odd, that I hadn’t noticed before. Oh, and by the way, if you really have to photograph these priceless works of art, as opposed to purchasing a postcard, or poster from the gift shop, -which will look much better than any photo you can take anyways, DON’T USE A FUCKING FLASH! You’ll be helping to kill these paintings. Your quick little flash might not seem to cause any damage, but if lots of people did it, the accumulated bursts of thousands, and thousands of flashes over the years will actually fade the painting.

What I noticed, is that the right hand, of the apostle on the right, was huge, especially when compared to his left hand, in the foreground.

Aren’t things in the distance supposed to look smaller?

Unless he was born with one over-sized hand,  a la Ribera’s Club-Footed Boy, who has one bigger foot for a reason, Caravaggio must have fucked up. (The Club-Footed Boy, or just The Clubfoot is one of my favorite paintings. Here’s a young boy, born with a birth defect -his legs seem stunted as well, who doesn’t seem to give a shit. He’s happy. But don’t fuck with him, or he’ll clobber you with his crutch!)

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m not seeing things the way I’m supposed to. Maybe there’s some rule of perspective that I don’t understand clearly.

Never the less, I’m gonna give him, and those that know about these things better than I do, the benefit of the doubt. 

But it still looks like a giant fucking hand to me.

I like to think that Caravaggio noticed this after he had presented the painting to his patron, but just kept quiet about it, hoping no one would notice. He was, after all, a master, but the times dictated that he was an artist for hire for much of his life, and from what has been written about him, somewhat of an assho…. uh, REBEL, so perhaps once he had been paid for his commission, he thought, ‘Screw it. It’s yours now.’

So, what’s my point here? 

I guess what I’m trying to say, in my long-winded, roundabout way, is that we all make mistakes. Sometimes, glaring, obvious mistakes.

It’s up to us to decide whether we can live with those mistakes, or whether the strive for perfection is worth it. How high do we raise the bar? What flaws, if any, are we willing to accept?

The choice is yours.

Bonus Caravaggio trivia: If you’ve ever studied any of his paintings, you’ve probably noticed that the central figure in many of them looks a lot like the same person. That’s because he used himself as a model. Was he just being cheeky, or did he have some serious psychological issues? Who knows? My guess is, it was probably both.

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