Took me a while to write this. I’d lost my muse, but found it once more when light dawned on the inside of the beer fridge. And once I’d started, I couldn’t stop which is the kind of sticky scenario that every boy who has passed through puberty can probably relate to.
So snuggle deeper into your comfortable office chair*, feast on a biscuit if that is your want and come hither to learn the dark secrets in the art of light.**
Firstly myths, debunking for the use of. Santa Claus was invented by Coca Cola, the tooth fairy is your mum and automatic is for the people.*** If you don’t believe me, Google for the first two and/or get some therapy, but hold fast to the last one because we’ll be giving it an extensive prodding with the sword of truth later on. But first this.
If you take a top specification racing bike from 2007 and superpose the silhouette of its’ engineeringly downstream Edwardian brethren, the two will barely touch. And the lazy conclusion one may draw is that technology, culture and usage have honed the design from crude guesswork to computer simulated perfection.
I think you’ll find you missed out the power of marketing there. There are few mechanical contrivances that span a century, yet still can be operated in almost the same manner and certainly without instructions. Cycles are one, cameras are another – the humble camera obscura has been around since the time of Archimedes, and while the current crop of Digital SLR’s are unrecognisable even from their film predecessors, the principals remain reasonably constant.
But progress – and the capitalist urge to make a fast buck – never sleeps so in lieu of evolutionary engineering, we get PR hype, a million features we’ll never need and the subliminal message that all this technology will buffer your mistakes.
Digital represents a step change of sorts, but it’s social not technical. A hundred photo sharing sites, and a hundred thousand snapped images find a placeholder in a broad horizontal of forums, e-mail, blogs and other barely clothed emperors’ prostrating themselves as the future of social networks. Future of DateLine more like but that’s one digression too far for today.
And while I grudgingly accept – and have contributed too - this electronic sea of mediocrity, it is clear that somewhere along the way we forgot how to take decent photographs. Or maybe we didn’t; sure we were more careful with film, we shot fewer images, but those few passing muster for immortalisation languished in treasured albums within the reach of only family and friends. So nobody really noticed, unless you were unlucky enough to be cornered by a humourless middle aged man armed with a slide projector and a presentation marked “tomato propagation – the inter-war years”
And while you could reasonably argue that as volumes have increased, quality has fallen off, that’s missing the point entirely. In the digital age, we’ve gained immediacy, editorial gimmickry and vanity through a global audience, but we’re poorer for it; because we’ve lost control.
With microchips and marketing, digital cameras apparently have a setting for every occasions; twist the dial, line up the subject, jab the damped shutter release and wait while complex electronics weigh up light, focus and context before arbitrarily resolving correct exposure, shutter speed and white balance.
And therein lies the problem. As clever as an auto focus system is, it will never know you want the nose sharp not the elbow. Exposure calculations based on a embedded templates are merely weighing averages at a thousandths of a second. Automatic white balance doesn’t know that grass is green and people are not.
Insanely clever as they are, digital cameras are guessing in binary, based on a million analogue parameters none of which you really control. Everything is a compromise or a template; Sports Mode, ratchet up the shutter speed, bung up the ISO and fire off the AF servo. Which will stop the action dead but maybe I want a slow tracking shot. Night Mode; wind out the aperture, kick in image stabilisation and hunt for a point of light. Guess what, there’s a shooting star up there, so don’t you dare flip the mirror just yet.
Sure it’s easy and sometimes the resulting images are fantastic. I’ve had a few myself yet – and this is the kicker – never have I been able to shoot wheat again, instead deleting through never ending chaff. Compact cameras encourage this chaff to the max with their shutter lag (remember how much work the camera is doing on auto), puny flash, low light mediocrity and tiny or non existent viewfinders.
Great if things are well lit and not moving. Lacking certain efficacy when screened by a dark wood and chasing a 20 mph mountain biker . So, on buying a digital SLR, I expected all this to change. It didn’t really, but at least my rubbish shots were now at a higher megapixel rating. Time for Plan B.
Seb Rogers runs an irregular course which encourages you to re-engage your brain. And while Seb is a fantastic photographer, he is – more importantly in this context – a patient and enthusiastic teacher. In two and a half days, I learned more than ten books, a hundred hours of practice or a thousand pounds worth of kit could ever distil. And this is how he does it.
Firstly the basics; how to hold a camera, how to track a subject, how to time a shot. Sounds obvious? Not really; how much steadier is your camera when you make like a human tripod? How much closer is your tracking when you use the AF points as a gun-sight? How much more chance of getting the shot you’re aiming for when you understand “if you can see it, it’s gone”.
Our first trip out from a fantastic B&B in Bicknoller was under sunny skies and slightly nervous tension. Lesson one was in tracking and I was bloody useless. Aside from a pointless and camp post shutter swish, the only redeeming feature of my first twenty exposures was that it couldn’t possibly get any worse. Bikemagic Mike Davis was guiding and tirelessly gimped on thirty yards of sun dappled trail until, finally, tuition and focus came into, er, focus.
Not auto focus though. Nope, think about it and pre-focus where you want the shot so freeing the camera from factory educated guesswork. Now hold that focus and lock it, pick up the rider, fix a bar end or nose in the AF zone, smoothly track that nose until it hits your pre-focussed point, and only then caress the shutter release while still following the track of the bike. Match the camera speed to the rider and you have a lot of sharp and a little bit of blur. Movement or implied movement is the cornerstone of dynamic photos, static is fine for buildings – they are hardly expected to move.
Re-bagging cameras after half an hour, we inclined upwards to a watersplash where for ten fantastic minutes, splash motes were illuminated by a setting sun, as Mike attempted to single-handedly empty the Quantocks of water. Trying to capture vignettes that the eye cannot- water in mid splash, a tyre kicking up a spray, a bike and rider in mid flight.
Later back at base, tea and cake were welcome, peer review slightly less so. And while it was evident that I was somewhat under-skilled in terms of technical ability, it was equally obvious that Seb and my fellow students were already well schooled in supportive criticism. Tomorrow, I promised myself I’d get my shit together.
Another sunny morning, a bit more classroom instruction and a plea from Seb to glue the camera setting to manual. In this way, your expensive D-SLR is converted into a very expensive light meter and freed from any random decision making. The mystery of the in-camera histogram finally revealed its’ secrets to me, and, with it, the naissance of misty understanding that the skill is to join the art of composition with the science of technical shot making.
This is about as far from point and shoot as you can get. Being able to experiment, while Mike rides the same trail again and again, allows you to learn from many mistakes. It gives you an idea of what works and what doesn’t, and provides a safe platform to jump into risk taking with silly shutter speeds, odd angles and lying ace down in front of two inches of rubber.
A day of this – even with only fifteen miles or actual riding – is bloody hard work. But the riding is a relief, it’s like a comfort blanket of stuff you understand and nailing Quantock’s singletrack is always a mind cleansing experience. But most of the day was quickly lost to hours of location based shooting and in line instruction as we “chirped” on constant image replay, before a fast ride home to engage with more cake.
My images were noticeably better, but so were everyone else’s. It was never really competitive, but I did still have an inkling to steal the odd memory card. There’s much to be said for self improvement, but it is mitigated somewhat when the guy sat next to you is clearly 20% better.
Final day, final shots. We were thinking more and shooting less. Trying different things, firing up fill in flash, hiding in deep bracken, asking Mike to pick certain lines, soaking expensive cameras in stream crossings because “it’d be worth it for this shot“. Total bloody madness of course, but mountain bikers are of an obsessive genus anyway and this is merely a single degree of separation.
And chirping, chirping, chirping after every shot, hit review and curse if it’s not sharp, yell if it is. Seb was constantly on to us about the different between “h’mm close“ and “oh fuck yes“ which physically manifested itself by reasonably sane individuals cackling like witches on a blasted heath, and performing a jig I can only describe as “Riverdance - The Parkinson’s Disease Mix“.
The last review was great. Everyone has killer shots even one lass who’d never picked up a digital SLR in her life. It’s a testament to her application and Seb’ talent as a teacher. The rivalry was friendly but it never rankled, and I was sad to leave five people who, within a short weekend, had come something quite close to friends.
There are downsides. All my favourite pre-course pictures are now lying electronically broken by brutal criticism on composition and technical deficiency. My riding buddies will despair with my constant refrain of “just once more fellas“, but not as much despair as being nearly but not quite is going to visit upon me.
But I’m on a mission; no more half thought out images, no more powertool-lust on the motordrive, no more lazy automatic settings, and absolutely no more keeping crap pictures just in case they magically sharpen up on the hard-drive. Time to shape up, work hard and don’t confuse technology with prowess. A bit like riding bikes really.
There are lots of MTB analogies here even for hard of understanding. Expensive equipment does not guarantee fantastic results. There is no substitute for practice. Bravery is underrated, bravado is not. And however hard you try, you’re not going to be Steve Peat. One day I’ll find a hobby that’ not so bloody difficult.
So I’ll finish with this; I’m not being snooty about spray and pray or point and hope photography. But with a little more thought and a smidge more effort, you can turn a disappointed “h’mm nearly” into an air punching “oh fuck yes”, and if I offered you that in any other walk of life, you’d be running up to snatch my arm off****
Take your camera for a walk without the safely blanket of automatic. Flaws to manual, you know it makes sense.
* I’m pretty damn sure none of you waste any of your own time reading this stuff. What with “The Alt-Tab browser sleight of mouse” being pretty well enshrined in the unofficial IT usage policy.
** You’re all too old for this to be branded Internet Grooming, right?
*** Anybody gets the obscure musical reference is in line for gift of random widgets. That was my original post title but clearly Flaws to Manual was even better. Its a constant trial being this average.
**** There are so many mixed metaphors in there, any attempts at editing are too scary to contemplate.