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Camera Work:Taking Stock

Nikon D7100

Camera Work: Taking Stock

50 years is a long time. ½ Century. I’ve been at photography even longer than that. It depends on where I would mark the true starting point. So, 50+ years will do.

The first question I ask myself, is “what have you learned? The next, What have you done with what you have learned? Of course neither answer is static, that is, no discrete answer. Rather, it is dynamic and most likely, non-linear.

The vast bulk of my time has been in analog, that is film, developing and printing. No computers in the production chain. About 40 years in an environment with a steady diet of Metol, Hydroquinone and Sodium Thiosulfate (developers and fixer). Comfortable, only marred by a bit of stink, like don’t cut onions then go into the darkroom and start printing. Onion juice and fixer on your hands together is an olfactory insult. You get used to it. Sort of.

The camera perspective is equally informing. Start with Rolleicord, the inexpensive version of the Rolleiflex, one of the great cameras of the 20th Century, right behind Leica. Add a collection of view cameras, (4×5 and 8×10), then trade the ‘chord for the ‘flex, then add a Hasselblad system, a 35mm system, ultimately arriving at my dawning of digital.

That was 1999. 16 years ago. So, what have I learned? Simple: “The camera takes better pictures than you do.”- a quote from one of my teachers, Minor White.

Basically, it comes down to this. If you expect to master your medium, and the medium is photography, you learn what the camera has to offer so that between the camera and the operator comes a synergy where neither reigns supreme but the combination produces results that neither can do alone. The camera can’t point itself, nor snap the button. On the other hand, without the camera all you have are memories and you can’t make a photo out of memories. If one does not master the camera, it master’s you, in that slight and sometimes not so slight, hesitation, because you are unsure of exactly what comes next. Waiting is an option but not because you don’t know what you are doing. It’s an option to allow the elements to come together, in almost every situation. But you also have to be able to see the subject, grasp it’s importance, raise the camera and press the release. One complete, continuous motion. No hesitation.

It would seem that digital is a big step in cutting through the details getting from scene to finished print. Actually, it isn’t. One look at the manual for my current camera of choice, the Nikon D7100, which is the camera pictured above, tells us. It’s 355 pages. I doubt have absorbed 25% of it’s contents. Maybe 90 pages. Probably less.

How does this differ from what I have used before, and what advantages are presented in mastering this tool?

I won’t go into it all, at least now. The key elements are: It fits in my hand and my fingers find the right spots immediately . The next is what has Nikon designed into this tool to allow me to set the defaults to exactly what I need? Find these and master them. Then practice and practice more.

Digital, while presenting the user with an array of options not to be seen in film cameras, yet indispensable, indispensable because, done correctly, what emerges can be a finished product or a raw collection of numbers which can be manipulated into what you want it to be, your choice. No longer is it “Sometimes the Magic Works” as with film, where you don’t know for sure you have it as you want it. Until digital, photographing was a complete act of faith. Think about it. One runs around, pointing a box with a bit of glass at the front, pushing a button and turning crank. Nothing happens! Eh, what?

Digital allows one to peek. With full professional gear, you can glance over your shoulder and see the image appear on a monitor. In any case, there you see it on a tiny screen on the back. Magic is proceeding!

In subsequent posts, I’ll walk you through the structure I follow in determining my defaults, which are not the camera defaults as it comes from the factory. These will be valid for any digital camera that offers the basic controls along with the extras packed in by the manufacturer.

The other big elephant in the room is seeing; composition. Composition has been characterized as “the strongest way of seeing” (Edward Weston). Another way of thinking about it is to reverse this concept and say strong seeing is the source of good composition. Train yourself to see strongly, to move your head, scan with your eyes, find the right position then look through the camera.

Somewhat simplified summary of the whole towering edifice called photography, but in the end, that’s pretty much it. It’s you, your instrument and the scene before you.

I haven’t included any images here, only one link to specific images which underscores these elements. Rather, I would invite you to look into the various galleries available on the website, looking at them in the context of this post. For instance, Hasselblad and Rolleiflex see square (1×1), 4×5 and 8×10 see that proportion and 35mm see 2×3 proportion. Some clues: The Hudechrome gallery is mostly square because The majority of them were done with the Hasselblad, but not all. The B&W gallery has all the formats while the Mt. Hood Gallery is back to mostly square.

One conclusion you can take is that the squares are 99% film. So are the 8×10’s and 4×5’s. Now there are many images throughout the galleries that are cropped to these proportions. Cropped images have a different look, a different feel than uncropped. You might try to isolate any you think are cropped form those that aren’t. There are some squares that are cropped from non-squares and some non-squares cropped from squares etc.

Photo from Wikipedia

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Lawrence Hudetz

Lawrence Hudetz