I’ve always enjoyed taking pictures, but only in the last few years with the advent of digital have I dared to dabble in what you might call the techie side of the pursuit. And in doing this I have unearthed a strange dichotomy that is evident in fields other than photography, indeed perhaps its roots hint at a universal divide.
But first back to photography.
For me, the camera is the tool by which I take pictures – other than that, it has little value in itself. For years I used cheap crappy film cameras and had no interest in learning the jargon and doing things ‘by the book.’ Way too mathematical for me, and frankly, I’m lazy.
Today, when I finally have a decent camera (although not a professional or even semi-professional model), I still shoot in the ‘Program’ mode with the camera doing all the calculations that I can’t be bothered with or don’t understand.
Some things I do like to set manually, such as ISO (light sensitivity) and White Balance (the ‘temperature‘ of the colours), but this is only because I’m interested in unconventional results.
High ISO settings mean you can shoot in low light, but a certain graininess is introduced. To me this distortion is actually desirable for creating atmospheres, and means you don’t have to use flash, which I find cold, antiseptic and unflattering.
It’s like recording a song with an electric guitar that has a little static or hum in the background – just adds to the flavour, as far as I’m concerned.
The point is, I only discovered what ISO and White Balance were about a year ago – before that I happily snapped away without a clue.
I still have no real idea what the relationship between shutter speed and aperture size is. A purist would know, but I don’t care, since for my purposes it isn’t really necessary to know.
I’ve learned to take pictures intuitively as an artist. I know how to get the results I want without getting mired in the technicalities, which in this complex age of computerisation can easily get in the way of the artist and his art.
When I’m out taking pictures I don’t wear the prescribed nerdy multi-pocket jackets and carry all the paraphernalia. A camera, an extra lens, a few SD cards, that’s it, in a bag that is chosen to specifically not look like a camera bag.
I deliberately exclude background and shoot solid detail. I like textures, lines, patterns and colours more than traditional portraits or landscapes. I create colours which are unnatural, because photography is about creating art, not reproducing reality faithfully.
I’ve never read any books on photography and never will : I am satisfied with what I take, self-taught, unbound by any rules, an aesthetic I apply to other interests such as musical composition.
He is a collector of gear: accoutrements, accessories to the hobby are to be found in abundance in his den: lenses of every possible description, the bigger the better (much the same way as tank enthusiasts are attracted to the ones sporting the biggest guns in rather unsubtle Freudian symbolism), the latest cameras, often professional models, and those multi-pocketed jackets we mentioned earlier.
For these folks, the actual taking of photographs is not the main part of the hobby. What is paramount is the gear, the technical specifications and the collecting instinct. Indeed, some of these people, so well-versed in the scientific and theoretical, may not even actually go out to take photos at all.
As Ken Rockwell, a professional photographer, so rightly points out, there is still a prevailing misconception that the better the equipment, the better the picture. In reality, no amount of expensive gear and enormous lenses will improve your shots if you lack the intuitive eye for a good composition, because it is an art, not a science.
Great photos can be taken on mobile phones.
Likewise, no amount of digital post-production in PhotoShop is going to turn a crappy image into a masterpiece.
That’s not to say that technology doesn’t help: the features on my Nikon D90 that I can be bothered to work out how to use, do provide alternative avenues for creativity. And that is the point – they are aids to creativity, that’s all. Ultimately it is the human that takes the photo, not the camera, and a professional machine with a huge lens pointed at something dull is only ever going to come up with a dull photo.
This divide between the artists and the tech-heads exists in other fields too.
I write and record my own music in a modest home studio. As with the camera, my guitars are simply the means by which I can make my art : they are tools (although I must admit here that some instruments are of such beautiful construction they can be appreciated in their own right as objets d’art).
This is even more true for the software I use to make my music – Apple’s Logic.
This daunting suite of recording tools is so complex that the manual runs to over a thousand pages: one suspects that the gurus who haunt the product’s forums, ready to display their insanely detailed knowledge of the beast and its intricacies, must have little time to do what I actually want the gizmos to help me with – record songs.
Once again we have the split between the artist, who wants to learn just the bare minimum so that he can render his artistic ideas to his satisfaction, and the engineer, who is more at home getting to grips with the underlying system and problem-solving than actually making music.
Which is fine, and it is always nice to have these kind of people around to consult when you can’t get the machines to do what you want.
I noticed the same thing when I used to dabble in the very unhip world of computer wargaming. Whereas I wanted to play these games to find out, say, if Hitler could have got to Moscow before the winter if he’d applied different tactics, another group of even nerdier people would spend hours testing the gaming system and exploring the arcane mathematical algorithms underpinning it, without ever actually playing.
We could, I suppose, put this down to vague, largely mythological, notions of right- and left-brain dominance, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter, since all we have here is different ways of enjoying various leisure activities.
I do, however, reserve the right to laugh at those who still think their lousy pictures are somehow going to be miraculously transformed into gems by the purchase of whatever camera has the highest number of megapixels.
Of course, the divide is never as clear-cut as we’d like to think, and I do confess to being afflicted with the collecting mentality myself at times.
With regard to photography, I freely admit to being fascinated by camera bags and have wasted a fair amount of money recently on finding the perfect one.
In my defence, however, I’d like to point out that I’m only interested in that minority sub-genre of camera carrying devices which resemble cool messenger bags, thereby retaining a modicum of street credibility.