Mastering light

Meisje_met_de_parel

 

What makes a photo great is not the camera sensor, the DSLR or mirrorless design, or the so-many points of your magic autofocus system. Photos are made from light.

There always are, and will be, new articles outlining new tech devices with better attributes. They compare the iPhone Xs camera to a pro DSLR, and therefore pose the question: is the good photographer a dying breed ?

With high quality image capture devices steadily becoming more affordable and accessible, who needs a “real” photographer anymore ? Because isn’t the high quality, expensive gear the defining factor between a pro and an amateur ? And is that gap narrowing with the advent of better, cheaper, cameras ? To all of that, the answer is NO, because that’s not where the gap exists. Having the right gear may be a prerequisite in some cases, but it’s not the end of the road. But only the beginning of a narrow, dusty and climbing path.

A picture is made with light. To capture that light, you have to be able to see it, to observe how it moves, see how it reflects and refracts. With no light, there is no image, and, just like us, not all lights are created equal. Hunting the good light is a never-ending endeavor, and that’s where the gap between good and great images. Therefore, you have to study light. Study it in everyday life. Pay attention to its properties and how it behaves. See how it changes after the sun dips below the horizon but it’s still not dark. See what it does when it bounces off a white wall, or wraps around a black sphere, or shines through the hair of someone you love. Then capture it with whatever camera you have.Study and understand composition and balance. Understanding the inverse square law won’t hurt either. Read about specular vs. diffuse reflection and know how to work with both. And color temperature. And have the Itten book on your night table.

Now, one has to do care about the gear. The camera is what let’s us capture the light in the exact way we want to. The reason better gear is desirable is because of the way it can function a tool, but it ultimately doesn’t create a photo on its own. Better sensors and bigger apertures allow photos to be taken with less available light. Sharper lenses mean sharper images, which are generally preferable. Being able to shoot more frames per second means a greater chance of getting the shot at the exact right moment. Faster, more accurate autofocus systems mean more in-focus images.

But you’re not going to get better without deep study and daily practice. This is true in every art, from playing piano, sketching or dancing on ice. 

Like Johannes Vermeer, learn to work with the light. Then your gear will sit in the back seat, and you’ll get a small chance to become, one day, a master in your art.

The Holy Focus

Baiser

 

Back in the old film days, the quality of your image was determined by the glass on the front of your camera, which was essentially a lightproof box with a shutter and lens mount. Of course, shooting films such as Kodachrome 25 (as in ASA/ISO 25) made for even crisper images, but Canon, Nikon and Olympus made outstanding lenses.

With the arrival of autofocus lenses, Nikon stuck with its existing mount and Canon created the EF mount for its EOS cameras, relegating the excellent FD lenses to the drawers and attics of thousands of photographers, for them to later turn up on eBay.

With the advent of digital photography, the camera’s sensor has become almost as vital a part of the image quality as the lens. It makes sense that electronic giants such as Sony and Panasonic should be making cameras, given that they are now imaging computers, and partner with established lens makers, Zeiss and Leica respectively.

All the venerable camera brands, such as Canon, Nikon and Olympus as well as relative newcomers Sony and Panasonic are all major corporations with one primary directive: to make profits. With the today’s development cycle of cameras, the latest big, shiny new device is largely obsolete before it even left the factory, only to be replaced the following year by something even better and shinier.

Their old film cameras worked perfectly well for decades and, due to their mechanical construction, most of them still do and will continue to do so long after that new digital camera is taking up space in landfill. To my mind, all this automation and technology is taking away a lot of the skill usually associated with photography. With the Fresnel burst frame rates, it becomes like taking a frame grab from a movie, rather than using the skills of anticipation to capture the “decisive moment”.
And the primary question is: do we really need such pin-sharp images every time? Focus is overrated. Some of the most iconic and best-known photos throughout history are out of focus and no one rejects them because they are not pin sharp. Going further, what the hell is this new obsession with 4K video in still cameras ? Most people don’t have the computing power to edit 4K video, or are using it to shoot YouTube videos that will, in the majority, be watched on smartphones. So what ?

Camera manufacturers and sales people will happily sell you what you want, but not necessarily what you need. This give another spotted image of the so-called new war between well established DSLR and the newborn mirrorless cameras from Cano-Nikon or from Leica-Panasonic-Sigma pandemonium.

Do we really need them ?

Or maybe a path for wisdom is not to focus or our focus, but keep trying to improve our own skills ?

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