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The nontechnical photographer

Help! I’m not technical, I hate math and all those dials, numbers and settings really confuse me. Can I still be a photographer?

Of course you can. You can be anything you want to be. Right?

Now, before people go all crazy on me, let me explain.

Photography is technical at its core. You do need to learn what those dials, numbers and settings are and what they do in order to create the image you want. The same as a painter needs to learn which brushes work to create the look they want, or a sculptor learns the different tools he needs to create a sculpture. By learning what ISO, aperture and shutter speed are and what they do that allows you to create the image you want.

Can’t I just shoot on Auto all the time?

You can. You’ll get decent images, but you won’t have control over them. What if you had in your mind that you wanted to blur out the background? That may not happen if you leave your camera on auto. If you leave it on Auto and you wanted to focus on a particular spot in your scene, the camera will not know where you want to focus, it will choose that for you. There is nothing wrong with using the Auto feature of your camera — many pros use it as well. The difference is in knowing when to use it and when to know that auto will not allow you the creative control you need.

 

Is there a way to make this boring technical stuff fun?

I think so. Make games out of it, create challenges or find challenges online that will help you learn. If you try learning it all at once it will be completely overwhelming. Take one thing — say ISO — and learn that. What is it? What does it do? Why do I need to control it? Once you feel you have the basic knowledge of that move on to the next.

While you’re learning these things use a notebook to record your images. Each and every one. Record what ISO you used if you’re working only on ISO. When you import your images into your computer look at the EXIF data (don’t know what that is? Look that up and learn it too!). Make notes now for each image. At ISO 100 the image looked like this, at ISO 200 like this, etc. Make notes on how changing your ISO affected the image.

Keeping a notebook seems so archaic

Ok, well use a note-taking app if you prefer. The idea is that it forces you to look at what you’re doing. It makes you connect the changes in your settings with the changes in the image. While learning with film, I kept a notebook with me. I wrote down every frame I shot, I noted every ISO, shutter speed and aperture. I recorded what the weather was like if it were sunny, cloudy or just gray out and what time of day and what season it was. Then when I would get my prints back from being printed, I would match up the negative number with my notes in my book. I saw in my prints what happened when I changed settings.

I know with digital it’s easy to take hundreds of shots but while you’re learning, keep that to a minimum as you’re learning a specific piece of the technical puzzle. You only need 10-20 shots to see what changing only the f-stop will do to an image. This also makes it less overwhelming.

Get help

There are thousands upon thousands of online resources, books and other photographers out there to help you learn these things. Here on Photofocus we have a Photography 101 series which can help. In the end, I’m with you — the technical stuff makes my eyes glaze over. But in order to create the images I want, I need to know the technical stuff. Maybe not every single technical thing … but enough of it to allow me to be creative.

Most importantly (to me) is to have fun with it. If it becomes work or feels like you’re back in high school trigonometry class not enjoying it one bit, step back and focus on another piece of photography that is fun for you, color or composition, or just get out and create images for fun.

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