What Is Photography?
Photographs are amazing. Through photographs, we preserve history - our child's first steps, a decaying landscape, or rare and endangered animals. We use photographs to recall the first steps on the moon, the inauguration of a new president, the lifting of a flag on a far-away hill during war. Mothers laboriously decorate large scrapbooks just to protect their precious memories. Photographs evoke the essence of places we have not been, we perhaps will not return to, and should never forget.
With a photograph, I can bring someone from his or her spot on the globe to mine. They can stand with me in the midst of a pine forest or walk in hushed silence through the musky light of a swamp. In reverse, through the images of others, I have walked across hot, sandy deserts; I have stood on immense mountaintops, and pushed my way through steamy rainforests. Photographs have introduced me to families, mothers and fathers I have never met, and told the story of lives intertwined forever. In short, photographs are very important.
Photographs "become" through making choices, and great photographs become through making right choices. Right choices are the direct result of the knowledge of the photographer. Great photographs are NOT, however, strictly the result of owning fancy equipment. Anyone using most any camera can take an incredible photograph.
Superior photographs come from photographers who know how his or her camera functions. A skilled photographer takes the time to read the manual and familiarize themselves with everything that camera will do. After all, if you don't know what your camera will do, then how can you do it? Taking this statement even one-step further, a truly skilled photographer will "one up" the camera and get it to do things it is not supposed to do.
In the first photo contest I won, I used a Polaroid PDC-640 digital camera I purchased from a family member. The maximum pixel size for this camera was 640 x 480; its given macro distance was six to twelve inches. Through the advice of a kind man I met on the web, I learned how to shorten my macro distance by holding a magnifying glass in front of the lens. The results were startling, and the win a few months later in an online monthly contest extremely gratifying. My little handheld point-and-shoot beat out all the more expensive digital cameras in that contest.
I won because I knew how to extract the best product from that particular camera. I knew what it would and would not do.
I won that contest with my camera set on Auto. I allowed the camera to choose the settings it needed to make the image, and I gave it no further thought. Truth be told, I use Auto a lot even today. However, something must be said about knowing how a camera captures images.
Eventually, every photographer runs into a scene they really would like to photograph, but their camera seems to be doing the wrong thing. Perhaps you are in a dark room and are handholding your camera. Unless you know how to adapt your camera to the situation, your images will probably come out blurry. Having the knowledge within oneself on what to change, on how to correct your settings will prevent you from losing that moment.
We are all of us insufficient in learning somewhere. At no point in time do I ever feel I know enough or have learned it all. Even the highest-paid most professional of photographers, even those with thousands of dollars in lenses and software, have to further educate themselves at some point. To put it poetically, expensive equipment does not a good photographer make.
Photographs are visual artwork. They take something ordinary and elevate it to a position of honor. A strand of barbed wire fencing becomes romantic; the seed of a common weed fires the imagination.
Famed landscape artist, Ansel Adams, once said, "A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed." I also like a quote I once read by photographer David Hum. "Photography is only a tool, a vehicle, for expressing or transmitting a passion in something else." What images I capture should express the passion I feel for that scene, that object, or that moment in time. When other people view my work, they should know in part who I am as a person.
It seems simple to say it, but photography should always be fun. It is great to have ones work published in the marketplace and it is nice to make money from it, but at the same time, I should always enjoy the process. My passion for photography, my passion for the photograph itself and thus for the subject matter, must communicate itself to the viewer. An image of a spider spinning her web should fascinate others as much as it did me when I took it.
Photography connects people - through interests, locations, and cultures. It spans time and distance as a bridge between worlds. I have learned much about life, nature, and people by connecting myself with photography groups and viewing online galleries. At the same time, the people I have met come from all levels of photography. There is nothing as heartwarming as meeting someone who has traveled further than I and photographed things I will never see in person, yet they are still humble, willing to share their experiences, and teach others what they have learned.
None of us are ever above the other in photographic society. Owning a DSLR does not make a photographer greater than the father with a point-and-shoot who just wants to remember his son's ballgame. It will create more opportunities for taking better photos with less effort, but in the end, it doesn't make you any greater.
My attitude in public, my willingness to share what I have learned, will have a direct reflection on of what others think of my work. Kindness goes a long way to create a persona other people like enough to spend their time looking at what I have done. In the end, our behavior furthers our photographic goals, no matter how large or small they may be.
Without a good foundation of the principle elements of photography, both in its physical and mental processes, the resulting photograph will fall far short of its goal. To make a superior photograph, to take that one shot that for your lifetime you are so proud of, is possible for anyone who picks up a camera. It does not come from the equipment alone, though that will have an effect on the result. Someone with an expensive camera can still take a bad photograph. Instead, it is that this photographer had a willingness to learn, a passion for his craft, and an ability to connect with his viewers.
This photographer will make the biggest impression, and his photographs are those that will be the most remembered.
* I created all the images used in this article with my first digital camera, a Polaroid PDC 640, back in the year 2000.