This is the first of a four-part series discussing the technical side of photography.
“Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see… People think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.” — Cartier Bresson
“The photographer matters, not the camera…” — All sorts of photographers
I believe the above quotes (I can’t call the second a quote, but I hear it said all the time) are true. However, I don’t believe they are true all the time. More accurately, I should say that we photographers commonly take these truisms and corrupt them to mean something they don’t.
I have heard (mostly professional and accomplished amateur) photographers interpret Bresson’s words to mean that only artistic talent matters, not technical skill. Anyone can attain a certain level of technical skill though study, but artistic talent is much more elusive. Certainly there needs to be something that justifies the craft and the profession, particularly as such advanced cameras are so easily available to anyone these days. But I have seen this track on numerous occasions — usually involving unhappy critiques of current photography trends — lead some to use Bresson’s statement in a way that is not true all the time, and to forget a fundamental point that they once knew very well.
It is to be expected that renowned, master artists will cite artistic talent as more important than technical skill. If I were to ask Michelangelo what made him such a great painter, he would likely say something about his inspiration or the like (I know nothing about Michelangelo, but you get the point). He very likely would not say his right hand (I’m assuming he was right-handed). He mastered his brush strokes and steadiness and control so long ago he never had to think about it again. But were I to point it out to him, he would certainly have to agree that his hand was absolutely critical. In the same way, the photographer must master the camera until it is like his/her own hand.
Bresson as well was asserting that technique must be mastered. It was just that when he made the statement, his skill was long passed the point where he had to think about his camera or his form, so he could focus on seeing — the height of his profession. Nevertheless, to transfer what he saw to film without having to even stop for a moment required technical mastery. While artistic talent will almost always separate the greats from the good, technical competency must always be in action behind the scenes (as will occasionally dumb luck, but we’ll put that aside). I don’t particularly want to try defining what art is to me, nor do I think much of composition rules (guidelines, yes, but rules, no). I think those things can vary too much from situation to situation, and sometimes the best art is when those so-called “rules” are broken. But I will assert that photography is a very technical art, and we have to start with technical foundation.
Beginners, don’t be fooled when someone says the technical side of photography — knowing your gear and how to use it to its maximum potential — is less important to taking good pictures than artistic talent. Don’t buy your camera and go online to find a list of the “best settings” (there is no such thing) so you can forget about them and rush into shooting. Read the manual and/or a book. Take a class or two. Know what the camera (or other gear) can do and how to make it happen. I have even seen skilled photographers switching from DSLR to mirrorless making this mistake, and they take a step backwards because of it. Technical skills come first, until the camera and technique become like your own hand; only then focus on mastering the artistry side. That sounds like common sense, but beginners not realizing it or veterans forgetting it is a very common problem in photography.
The saying “the photographer matters, not the camera,” used correctly, means that the most effective way to improve one’s photography is by developing one’s skill rather than automatically buying more expensive equipment. For a beginning or developing photographer, that is almost always true. If the skill is lacking, a better camera won’t improve the pictures. Unfortunately, the vast majority of novices in photography make this mistake. While there are times where upgrading may be desirable, it is rarer than one might think. As the statement is also pointing out, the artistic talent and technical skill of the photographer can oftentimes compensate for inferior gear. Composition as well as knowing when and where to shoot have almost nothing to do with the camera. Exposure, focus and depth of field can be squeezed out of inferior equipment given the right level of skill. I should point out though that there are limits to how far technique can compensate for inadequate gear — given very high standards and/or extreme shooting styles or conditions that require more specialized or higher-end gear. But even then, the exercise of trying to overcome obstacles with technique, even if it fails, is highly valuable for development. I went through this for a year, when I first started aiming for birds in flight with gear that was not up to the task.
Unfortunately, the above explanation is not the way the statement is always used. Instead, I oftentimes hear it made in a defensive manner whilst comparing one’s gear choice to a newer or superior model — the buyer’s remorse/gear envy syndrome. Other times, it is used to make distinctions between “true Artistes” and gearheads who just want the latest gadgets, as if the two have to be mutually exclusive. In some cases these arguments may have some truth in them, in others they do not. In any case, while gear-buying choice would be an interesting topic to discuss in another post, the problem I want to focus on for these instances is that they usually result in dismissing any camera features other than core settings as gimmicks for the ignorant and incompatible with artistic pursuit. I don’t want to tell anybody what to think, but that’s just close-minded.
While the principals of photography are the same and all cameras are doing pretty much the same thing, the details of the menus and buttonology, the quirks, strengths and weaknesses of the kit, and so on, can all be quite unique to the manufacturer and model. If you don’t know these characteristics, you don’t know your gear. I am harkening back to my Marine Corps grunt days, where we trained with the weapons we would use in combat. It was drilled into our heads to know our weapons and gear like the back of our hand. The same applies to photography. You can be skilled in the artistic side of the process, and take that skill to every camera, but you must also be skilled with the camera itself.
That knowledge can be the difference of getting a great shot, or if the window of opportunity is fleeting — even getting a shot at all. I don’t know how many times I’ve missed a shot because I was fumbling with my camera. When I first bought my Canon 7D Mk II, the controls were so alien to me (compared to the Olympus bodies I had been using for years) that I spent more time puzzling at the camera than I did looking around me. What I should be instead is so familiar with the camera that I can hit the right buttons without looking away from the viewfinder. Furthermore, a photographer can’t do what he doesn’t know his camera can do, and that limits the photographer’s artistic vision. In this way, technique can enhance art by opening up new possibilities for the artistic eye to recognize. As I will demonstrate in the next post of this series, delving deeply into a camera’s menu systems and trying everything out can reveal capabilities that could prove important later on. Trust me when I say there are some gems in Olympus bodies that most photographers either don’t know about or dismissed out of hand.
Lack of technical knowledge can ruin shots, even if you thought you were doing everything right. Over a year ago, I rented an Olympus Zuiko 300mm F/2.8 SWD super telephoto lens, one of the best lenses Olympus has ever made (certainly the most expensive I am aware of). I put it on a rented gimbal head and took it to the field, anticipating some excellent bird photographs. I was hoping that it would be enough of a significant upgrade over the M.Zuiko 75-300mm Mk I zoom lens I was using that I could utilize continuous autofocus to capture birds in flight. I was quickly disappointed to find that not only was the autofocus not fast enough, it wasn’t very accurate, either. It wasn’t until days later (after I had already returned the lens) that I learned about front/back focusing issues with PDAF lenses, and that these quirks can be corrected in the camera. Who knows how much better my tests would have been had I known about that beforehand? My most recent gaff was just yesterday, when I was shooting butterflies for my Learning Macro blog series. Using the 40-150mm Pro at F/2.8, I was able to get very close to the butterflies (as the Pro lenses are able to focus at very close ranges). Shooting wide open, my shutter speeds were 1250 and higher, so I was getting no motion blur even with the flittering-est of critters. With occasional checks on the LCD, I thought I was getting great shots. The problem was that shooting wide open and so close to the subject left me with too shallow a depth of field, even for subjects as small as butterflies. (Don’t believe it if someone tries to tell you that µ4/3 can’t get serious bokeh.) I couldn’t actually tell until I saw the images on my computer at home, but most of my shots had portions of the wings out of focus. I should have reduced the aperture a stop or two. I made the mistake because I haven’t shot butterflies with this lens before, and I wasn’t thinking the depth of field would be so shallow. Next time, I’ll remember. Some day, I’ll be like Bresson was saying, and make the adjustments without even having to think about it, so I can just focus on the butterflies.
I don’t want to get to caught up in gear for this post, because every piece of kit has its pros and cons. and buying the right equipment is a largely dependent on personal preferences and shooting needs. That said, I touched upon the point earlier that buying higher quality gear can in some specific incidences help an already strong photographer get better shots, but that I advise resorting to this only after identifying a technical deficiency that can’t be overcome by technique. After trying for all of 2013 and part of 2014 to use technique with the E-M1 and 75-300mm F/4.8-6.7 Mk I to shoot birds in flight (BIF), I found myself too frustrated with my low success rate. I wasn’t without some progress, but I was seeing a definite technical limit, and it just wasn’t fun. So, I bought the Canon 7D Mk II and EF 100-400mm F/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, and suddenly started having fun with BIF. Since then, Olympus has taken strides to close that gap (with firmware upgrade 3.0 and the introduction of the 40-150mm F/2.8 Pro and x1.4 teleconverter), and the upcoming 300mm F/4 Pro lens will close it even further. The point is that there may come a time in a photographer’s career when technology can make a qualitative difference, particularly in extremely challenging genres of photography like BIF.
A more common aspect to gear-buying is choosing specialized equipment that are needed for, or can enhance the scope of, specific types of photography. Sometimes this is about choosing the right gear for the job. I love my Olympus cameras for reasons I have expounded upon in other posts, but they are not the best in all situations, which means they are not going to be the best choice for everyone. If I was doing more portraiture and wanted a shallower depth of field than what µ4/3 is capable of, I would have gone with a full frame camera (although as I have mentioned before, this is not the case for me, as I find µ4/3 more than sufficient in this regard). More true to my experience, BIF requires a fast and accurate autofocus (which can sometimes be compensated by technique, although not completely) and super-telephoto focal lengths (which simply cannot be substituted by technique, although the new 40+ megapixel cameras may be offering a different kind of alternative). To give another example, most camera-lens combinations will get by for general landscape photography, but a tripod and filters can allow at times better quality and more artistic options in landscape photos. I have found that opening myself up to new capabilities brought about by new gear can broaden the vision of my artistic eye. My most recent gear acquisition was the Olympus 8mm F/1.8Pro Fisheye lens, the first fisheye lens I have ever owned. I have been shooting it quite a bit for the last couple of weeks, learning what it can do and how to use it effectively and artistically. The images I get are completely different than those from any other lens I shoot, and I will discuss in a later post in this series what sort of impact that has had.
While some steps and habits in photography are going to be the same no matter what gear and attention to technique is being used, some gear and some shooting situations necessitate adjustments in workflow, and it is important that this is taken into account. I have, at times, forgotten to check my ISO settings (a veritable disaster; see Ireland: Part Seven — Dublin), and struggled with not having enough hands for both long exposure (see Technical Side of Art: Part Three — Waterfalls and Fireworks) and macro photography (see Learning Macro: Part Two — Flowers and Flash). Learning from these mistakes, I have found that working these issues out is a part of the attention to foundational technique that I am espousing. These may all seem like common sense, but oftentimes only in hindsight. How and what one packs for a trip: how much one is willing to be encumbered by gear, or what carrying bags or harnesses one chooses to bring – these are all important considerations that can make or break a photography outing, and have to be considered beforehand. For example, I will best avoid repeating yesterday’s mistake with the butterflies by going over my settings before I leave the house, going through in my head all of the setting considerations I am likely going to need.
To sum up, you may not hear this from most circles no matter how simple it sounds: Your photography skills are inextricably linked to the gear you are using, and technical foundation and familiarity is instrumental in helping you realize your artistic vision. For the next two posts in this series, I will discuss features found in (but not all exclusive to) Olympus cameras, many of which are generally (and in my opinion mistakenly) eschewed by most photographers. I will show how I use them and how they can complement artistic vision, rather than hinder it.