January 21, 2009

Beep. Click. Fume.

EDITOR’S NOTE: I am really very proud to announce that the great Andy Ihnatko- columnist for the Chicago Sun Times and Macworld Magazine is joining us as a contributor here. Andy will be covering photography from the consumer’s point of view like nobody else can. Welcome Andy!

Photo and post by Andy Ihnatko

Douglas Adams once co-authored a book entitled “The Meaning Of Liff.” It was a dictionary of words that didn’t exist, but desperately needed to be invented, pronto. The correctness and importance if this bold endeavor is underscored for me on a daily basis. I’m faced with a familiar situation or frustration and one of those words pops right back into my head.

Saturday, I spent a good portion of the afternoon cogitating on the word “Kent,” defined by Adams as “Politely determined not to help despite a violent urge to the contrary.”

I was in Boston’s Old South Church. I was there for many fine reasons. I was there for the grandeur of its successful melding of multiple architectural and decorative movements, assembled over the past 130 years. I was there for the peace and calm that settles over you as you meditate in its sanctuary.

(And yes, I was also there because it’s open to the public, and it’s heated, and it was 17 degrees outside that day.)

But wandering into Old South underscored all of the reasons why I try not to leave the house without a halfway-decent camera in my pocket. It’s an utterly gorgeous space. It lacks the cold austerity of a stone church. The sanctuary has been sumptuously paneled in rich woods with an understated grace that radiates a heat of an entirely different kind. Even if you were in there for the funeral of a close family member, your eye would be drawn to the way the light was spilling across the tops of the pews. Your somber thoughts of your dead twin brother would be distracted by excited thoughts of the 3-megapixel lens on the phone in your jacket pocket.

I spent a fun fifteen or twenty minutes wandering around looking for shots (after making sure it was OK to shoot in there). When I finally broke out of my Photography Trance, I settled into a pew and simply enjoyed the quiet and the beauty of the place.

But before long…I was to be Tested.

“Oh, isn’t this just lovely!” a voice chirped. An elderly woman built vaguely on the Margaret Dumont blueprint had joined the small gaggle of tourists and fellow heat-seekers there in the sanctuary.

She manifested a conventional consumer-grade pocket camera from somewhere and aimed. I heard the beep of focus lock, followed by a synthetic shutter-click sound.

“Oh, dear,” she said, offering the screen to her husband. “That came out all blurry.”

Beep. Click.

“That one wasn’t any better, was it?”

Beep. Click.

My left eye twitched.

Beep, Click.

“Pardon me, Madam,” I didn’t say, for it would have been rude to intrude. “But I’m certain that your blurry photos are the fault of a long shutter speed. Perhaps if you steadied the camera on this piece of masonry?”

Beep, click.

“Or you could use the manual exposure-adjustment feature to force the camera to use a shorter shutter speed,” I didn’t offer. “It’ll come out dark, but it’s nothing you couldn’t fix back at home.”

Beep, click, scowl.

“Do you have the zoom set all the way at its widest setting?” I failed to ask. “Because you can get sharper handheld photos at the widest setting than you can at any other.”

Beep, click.

“Of course,” I thought, as I bit my lower lip just enough to draw blood, “even fundamental shutter techniques play a big part. You must squeeze the button, and never push or jab it. And it sounds silly, I know, but it’s even good to breathe out just before you squeeze. It stills your body, you see. Or maybe you could remove yourself from the equation entirely, by engaging the self-timer and then simply setting it on top of that railing?”

Beep. Click.

“I guess this just isn’t a very good camera,” she said with a sigh, and re-pursed it.

That poor, innocent woman left Old South without the photo she wanted. Even though it certainly was a good camera. Good enough to take a decent picture in there, at any rate.

It’s a tough, tough dilemma. I’ve certainly been on the other side of that conversation before. There have been times when I was grateful for the unsolicited advice and felt like I’d been made slightly less dumb. But there have also been times when my “savior” greatly overestimated how keen I was to get that particular shot, or was trying to help me take the photo that they wanted me to take, not the one that I wanted to take.

Suffice to say that there are risks involved with sticking your oar in another person’s photo. I had chosen to err on the side of caution.

See, I haven’t been beaten up by a woman thirty years my senior since the time I was 9 and spent an unsupervised hour melting army guys in my Mom’s new oven. I felt that the sanctuary of Old South Church wasn’t the proper place to risk another incident like that.