by Craig McCord
While driving to town a couple of days ago, I noticed a large maple tree in what appeared to be a slight fall transition. It’s a little early yet for any fall color but for some reason its color made it stand out. Catching a glimpse of this tree brought back an old memory of a large red maple I photographed years ago in south central Ohio. The memory of the tree was not important other than it made me reminisce of past times when our photography was so much simpler in many ways.
Without a doubt, modern day cameras are technical marvels. Large LCDs to provide immediate feedback on our shot, exposure meters and histogram readings make it almost impossible to get a bad exposure. Auto bracketing, 4k video, and high frame rate per second shutter capabilities are all common place. Issues or concerns of film reciprocity failure and narrow dynamic range are both overcome by the ever increasing advances in sensor technology. Even resolution of high end DSLRs is approaching that of medium format digital cameras. So why then would one long for the old days.
Years ago, I would often grab my camera and tripod, jump in my car, and just go. No photographic objective in mind, no destination, just a mindless search for something that catches my eye. Admittedly not the most efficient thing to do. In fact, there were times after hours of driving I would fail to find anything that moved me. But the hunt was always an adventure. And when I did happen upon something that had promise, my mind really began to explore the compositional possibilities and I could work that subject for what seemed like hours. So what is different today?
I would suggest that the wonderful technological marvels that our cameras are today can actually interfere with our creativity. Back in the day, all one had to concern themselves with was turning the aperture ring on the lens to the desired f-stop, setting the dial to a corresponding shutter-speed for proper exposure and/or effect, focus for hyper focal distance (for landscapes) using the markings on the lens barrel, take the shot. Today’s digital wonders have multi-layered menu systems, histograms, white balance settings, blinkies, exposure compensation setting, auto bracketing setting, delayed shutter releases, continuous shutter, HDR in camera, internal intervalometers, 4k video, large LCD playback and too many more features to mention. Don’t get me wrong. The modern day advancements in camera technology have revolutionized how we take pictures and have overcome challenges or obstacles of the past, or further allowed us to do things that were impossible in the film era. The exploding genre of night sky photography is a good example.
While it might have taken 15 minutes to become familiar with my old clunker Pentax 67, it more likely takes hours or longer to set up and familiarize oneself with the functions and features of todays DSLRs. And with the increased complexities comes another dynamic—proficiency!
It’s not enough to be familiar with your camera but you must be proficient and maintain this proficiency. This is the area or the point at which I posit a lack of this familiarity and/or proficiency is a sure roadblock to creativity while in the field.
All too often, while conducting a workshop, it becomes quite apparent that one or two students have no idea of the features of their camera or how to access them. Let’s take a look at your histogram for this exposure, I might ask. I’ve heard of that but I don’t know where it is, might be a typical reply. This may simply be an example of someone not familiar with their camera. But equally, it may be someone who has not used their camera often enough to be “proficient” in its use. In the old days proficiency was not much of a factor. Today, if you don’t use it—you lose it.
When this happens your brain cannot truly shift into the creative right-brain state. You are too concerned about the technical challenges of finding and setting camera features or other details that you cannot really relax and focus on being creative. My Creative Light Photography Workshops partner, Jane Palmer, recalls the first time she realized that she had been working a photographic subject and camera seemed like it was just a part of her. “How liberating a feeling” she recounted. She was totally in a right-brain state and her camera was just an extension. She did not have to search for buttons, settings, or search menus. She not only knew her camera inside and out, she was proficient in its operation.
We often hear suggestions on how to improve your photography. Well…here’s another one. Become familiar with your camera’s operation to the point you can operate it with your eyes closed. Then use it often enough that you maintain that same level of proficiency. Doing so will allow you to totally focus on being creative, using a camera simply as a tool to communicate your vision without it being an obstacle.