Let’s get technical

February 27th, 2007

Untitled 2 Lets get technical

Sorry it has taken me so long to get this written…I should know better than to make promises when I’m traveling. All the things involved with my trip to Florida just made it impossible to find the time to sit and think and write. But I’m home now. I finished editing one magazine shoot today while I was waiting for the makeup artist for a new shoot for the same magazine. So this evening I have a bit of time before Dirt comes on at 10…

Anyway, what I want to write about is the importance, or lack thereof, of technical mastery in photography. Just how important is it for a photographer to really understand the medium and all the tools involved in it?

Now, I want to begin by making it clear that I consider technical knowledge to be a good thing. It can be very helpful. I found the transition from film to digital very easy because it was just an exchange of tools. The basics of photography are the same with either tool and I do understand the basics of photography.

I’ve talked before about the repeated resistance to any change that I’ve seen among photographers throughout the 40+ years that I’ve been calling myself a photographer. I started out with a manual Nikon F and a hand held meter. I still have my Nikon F and my Gossen Luna Pro. I don’t use them anymore, but they are still in the cabinet at the studio. And I learned things with them that I still use today with my D200.

But, the matrix meter in the D200 is much better at finding close to the right exposure than I am with any hand held meter. All that stuff I learned about exposure over 40 years is programmed into the D200 meter. What I know is when to not believe the meter. But that’s easy now too because I can look at the histogram and see actual math for the exposure I’m getting and I can adjust those numbers to get exactly the exposure I want…any exposure reading with a meter, no matter how good, is an estimate. The histogram is exact math. Why would anyone want to essentially guess when they can have precision?

OK…that’s wandering from my stated theme. Sorry.

Anyone can become a master of the technical aspects of photography. It ain’t rocket science. The medium is pretty well understood and has no real secrets. If any person of average intelligence applies him/herself to learning the technical things involved, they will succeed. And they will be able to produce technically excellent negatives and prints…or digital files.

But that is no guarantee that they will produce any photographs of any value. Great photographs, even good photographs, are not created by being technically proficient. Producing good photographs is, in fact, completely independent of technical ability.

I know a number of excellent photographers who have very little understanding of the working of the medium. They let their automatic cameras provide excellent exposures of their very well seen ideas. They make art. They see. They make photos that I want to look at. Sometimes the photos are technically excellent. Sometimes they aren’t. Some of them work with junk cameras like the Holga and make stunningly beautiful photos. I hate Holgas. They are crap cameras and they offend my technical knowledge of photography. I’d much rather hang a soft lens on a good camera and make soft photos…so I do. I don’t have to worry about where and how to apply duct tape to control the light leaks. But, if you master the application of duct tape to a Holga, have you reached some level of mastery of the medium?

So, those of us who do understand photography tend to want to snob it over our less well educated fellow photographers. But it’s false pride. Knowing how the stuff works can make it a bit easier to get the results we are after…and attaining technical mastery can be a fun pursuit…but it doesn’t get you art…or even interesting or useful photographs.

Now, having said all that, I have to say that there is something wonderful about a technically perfect print from a technically perfect negative made by a photographer who is an artist and has something to say. So, I encourage anyone who is making photographs to study and try to master or at least understand the medium of photography. But I’d rather look at an interesting photo made with an automatic camera by someone who doesn’t know an f/stop from hyperfocal setting than a technical masterpiece with nothing to say.

The photo is one of my favorite models, Nemesis, photographed with my “Speed Holga.” That consists of my old Speed Graphic, a polaroid back, and a $3 magnifying glass duct taped to a blank front lens board. The photo was overexposed to create the high key effect. If I didn’t understand photography I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to make that all work to make photos. But if you want to take photos like this you can just go buy a polaroid Holga and have at it…mileage may vary.

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Photos and comments by Dave Levingston. This is the place to see my most recent work which may include nudes, dance, landscape, nature and whatever other kinds of photos I feel like taking.

Since it does contain nude photos, this blog is not intended for viewing by anyone under the age of 18.

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