The Blog of Patrick C. Cook

The photography blog of Patrick C. Cook.

It's About the Photo, Not the Camera

You meet the most interesting people at camera clubs. Camera club attendees are interested in photography, but range in knowledge levels from "where's the shutter button?" to "what is the crop factor of the APS-C sensor?" What this variety of knowledge levels does is create a mix of in-the-know and would-like-to-know photography enthusiasts.

Now, if you are one of those in-the-know people, or you look like one of those people, you'll often get would-like-to-know people approach you with questions that stem from their knowledge voids of photography. At the end of one camera club meeting a woman came up to me and asked which mode she should use; P, Tv, Av or manual. She exclaimed that they should have made cameras much simpler to use than that. I replied that they had done just that with the Auto mode. But I then made the classic mistake of offering advice that would require explanation that the student wasn't ready for, which happened when I then stated that the auto mode should be avoided. Of course, the next question was "why?".

Well, my story here is not about which mode. Rather to tell you what came out of this in unscheduled classroom exercise.

After explaining that the auto mode removes control from the camera user, I went on to explain that the modes are made available to give the camera user the degree of control they need for a given photography situation. After citing simple examples for the P, Tv, Av and manual modes, she confided that is was still too difficult to figure out and that maybe she'll stay with auto mode. It dawned on me that what we had here was a classic cart-before-horse situation where she was trying to learn (and I was trying to teach) the camera, yet she had not yet grasped basic photography concepts. So, I then simply said, "focus on composition and let that tell you what mode you should use". I followed this up with assurance that she needn't get every photo right, but to learn from each photo. I advised her to focus on the photo as her first priority, not the camera.

Now, I'm here to tell you that she came alive with excitement as she realized that it's not about the camera, it's about the photo.

I went on to explain that concerning herself with the composition of her photos as a priority will greatly aid her in learning how to control the camera to accomplish her photography objectives, if not give her an incentive to do so. After all, I explained, what point is there learning to drive an automobile if there is no where you want to drive to? The camera, I explained, is a tool that has been designed, over a hundred plus years of development, to be flexible in a variety of photography-related situations, thus the modes and other controls. If you have a situation where you want to control the aperture, I explained, but want to let the camera control the shutter, you would use the Av mode. I went on to say that if you focus on your photo, you'll have a much better appreciation for the camera modes available to you and when to use them.

There came a point where she'd had enough. She thanked me for her new-found insight, spun around and headed for the exit. But as she strolled toward the door I could hear her saying to herself, "it's about the photo, not the camera". As she disappeared into the night, I suspected that she was on the threshold of a much better relationship with her camera because she was released from the trap of learning camera technology as a higher priority than learning photography. And that's a common trap that many struggle with, and from which some never escape. I've known people who understood every function of their camera to great detail, who could not take good photos. I've also known people who couldn't explain a camera feature to get a free pass to Disney World who consistently made good photos. The first category of photographer, the instrument guru, learns the camera and then looks for ways to apply their technical knowledge. The second category of photography is inspired to make photographs and learns the tools to achieve that goal as a matter of course, not as the sole objective.