But, amazing as that photo is, there were quite a few I'd rather forget. But I'm not going to forget, but it's the bad ones, rather than the good ones, that taught me valuable lessons about being a photographer. Here are a few of those lessons.
One: I Need a Digital Camera
If you read that earlier post, you know I'm still working with film at the moment. That is more by necessity (a new camera would be expensive) than by choice. Though I am adamantly opposed to the idea that we should just let film go the way of the dinosaur, and would love to be one of those artists out there on the front lines fighting for the survival of the medium, if I ever want to make money taking pictures, I need a digital camera. It's not just that digital photography is more cost-efficient, since there is no need to purchase film or pay for processing. There are other reasons for using digital. A photographer with a digital camera in her hands has complete control over her photo. The sun dips behind a cloud? Just change the camera settings and you're ready to shoot with lower lighting. If that happens with film, you're still obligated to finish the roll, and I found out the hard way this weekend that it can be quite the challenge trying to get that camera to behave. If you're shooting for your own pleasure, that's not an issue, but if you've got someone paying you to make them look good, full control over the final image is a good thing.
Two: Everyone Needs to Spend Time Working With Film
Did I just contradict myself? I don't think so. Just because I covet the versatility of a digital camera, that doesn't mean I can't see the value of doing things the old-fashioned way. And pretty much every serious photographer and filmmaker agrees that the lessons learned from shooting on real film are invaluable. When you're shooting film, you're basically shooting blind. You don't have that nifty little display screen on the back of your camera to tell you if the image is going to be too dark or too washed out. All you have is a view-finder, and, beyond composition and focal length, that doesn't tell you much. So if you're using film, you have to know your camera. You have to have an almost intuitive understanding of lighting and color temperature so you can make the adjustments necessary to getting a great shot, because what you see when you look through the lens isn't going to be the full picture.
Three: Don't Be Afraid to Override Your Camera's Automatic Controls
Cameras come with automated settings because sometimes they know more about taking a great picture than you do. Especially if you don't have an ambient light meter (which I don't) those auto controls can be a great asset. But sometimes your camera will make weird decisions. This weekend I was shooting in lower lighting than I'd anticipated because a dark cloud rolled in just as I was arriving on the scene and did not roll away again for the remainder of the evening. I was also using a different brand of film than I was accustomed to, and my camera was screaming in protest. Its auto controls were telling it that I needed to use a slow shutter speed to let in enough light to capture a decent image. Because of that, the first few pictures I took came out like this:
This one was a big disappointment because, composition-wise, it's probably the best shot I got of my three subjects. But, of course, good photography is about a heck of a lot more than just composition.
The fact is, there was plenty of light. I could have manually set the shutter speed and ended up with an awesome picture, but I trusted my camera instead. Lesson learned. The camera isn't always right.
Four: Always Be Prepared
So, as it turns out there was more than enough light for my photo shoot, and if I had just trusted my instincts instead of letting my camera make decisions for me, I would not have had to suffer the embarrassment of having the blurry image you see above. But what if you're shooting with an old-fashioned film camera and the lighting shifts significantly? You've just loaded a roll of 200 speed film, but suddenly what you need is 800. I could easily have adapted to that situation, if only I'd thought ahead a little better. The truth is, I own two cameras. So why the heck didn't I bring two rolls of film, at two different speeds, load one roll into one camera and one roll into the other? That way I would have been prepared for whatever the sun and the clouds decided to throw at me. I'm sure the experienced photographers reading this are shaking their heads right now and thinking, "Well, duh!" But the truth is you don't know how to anticipate a situation until you've been in the situation, so I didn't do that. Of course, if my camera had been digital, it would have been a moot point anyway.
Five: Part of Me Would Love to Try Traditional Black and White Photography
You saw the picture at the top of the page, right? Well, that wasn't the original image. This is what initially came out of my camera:
Still a nice picture, but there's just something about the high-contrast black and white version that speaks to some deep part of my soul. What I did was load the original color image into my editing software, reduce the light, increase the contrast, and add a vignette. Those are all things that have been done in the black and white darkroom for years. Doing it on my computer somehow felt like cheating.
Six: Part of Me Never Ever Wants to Try Traditional Black and White Photography
In that previous post I linked to at the top, I said that I've never set foot in a darkroom. However, I have read extensively about the process. I know the kinds of things that would be involved in getting an image like the one at the beginning of this post. I can't say I know how time consuming it is, because I really can't fathom it, but I know that it took me all of five minutes to get the picture looking the way I wanted it on my computer. In a darkroom it would take much, much longer. And that doesn't even factor in the time for cleanup afterward. So while I feel somehow cheap and dirty for taking the easy way out and manipulating my photo digitally, I still don't know if I want to actually get down and dirty in a darkroom. My stress level is going up right now just thinking about it.
Seven: Learning From a Book Is Not the Same as Actual Experience
I thought I knew everything I needed to know about lighting and ISO and shutter speed and f-stops because I'd read about them in books. Even experimented to some degree with my camera. But until you have that moment out in the field where your camera decides to go all screwy, you really have no idea what any of it even means. There are some things that can only be learned through trial and error, and I certainly experienced some trials and made a few errors this weekend. But that's okay because next time I'll know the proper way to respond.