Ricercare

I’m puzzled. I worked in IT (that’s reason enough, right there). Not the brainy side where they do development, but the messy side where we fix stuff. So we do a lot of systematic problem-solving, very often under pressure. If you can’t run the payroll on time, people get excited.

Now, I know that nobody ever came to work to use a computer. Well, maybe the code developers did, but they’re special. The rest of us have a job to do. A computer is one of the tools and, like a tool, I don’t have to understand how it works. As a colleague used to say – people don’t want drills, they want holes. But you can’t buy a bag of holes, so you have to use a drill.

This is where the puzzlement comes in. Why do so few people learn how to use the tools? I used to think I knew the answer, but I swapped sides and now I’m not so sure. Let me explain. And I promise I will get around to photography.

First, a small aside. The people in IT who provide support may often know less about what a computer can do than the people asking for help. The reason is that the IT people don’t use their computer to do your job. They know the basics and can fix most problems, but asking the IT guys how to set up running headers that repeat the section title or how to best-fit a curve to data, and they will do exactly what you could: read the Help file.

So this is what I did. Every time I wanted to do something difficult, I copied and adapted examples from Help until it worked. The (previous) scientist in me would use test data so I could check that the results worked. The geek in me wondered why nobody else did this. I also wondered why our organisation would throw people at technology with no training. Or rather they did train, but sporadically and with precise focus on how to do specific tasks.

What broadened my view was changing places. In my (early) retirement I took a part time call-centre job. We have multiple systems in use – many more than when I was a techie. I can use them, but I have no spare time to learn anything more about them. I also have no reason or incentive to do anything more than my assigned task. When something doesn’t work I don’t have the time to dawdle through the (non-existent) help facility. I want it fixed, right now. I also don’t want it changed. The systems are a minor component of what I do, but a major obstacle if they don’t work the way I expect. So now I understand why people hated IT when we rolled-out a change.

So what has this got to do with photography? So how well do you understand your camera? What about your editing software? Or your scanner? Just as we used to get people telling the IT help desk that they wished they knew more about computers (by which they meant how to use computer applications), so I hear people saying they wished they knew how to use their camera/ Lightroom/ scanner etc.

A while back I wrote an article about some aspects of learning. This was about the stages of moving from novice to expert and the false reassurance of feeling competent. While it set out what I had learned from the experts on the shape of the path, it didn’t explain how to make progress along it.

Hence the title of this post.

I have found that reading a manual or delving through menu options are not good ways for me to learn. Like I said, I could learn everything about the drill but what I want is the hole.

What I have found works for me is to try to do one thing, often imitating something I have seen or heard of. So with PhotoShop, for example, I started by removing hairs and scratches from scanned film images. I tried using cloning, but the results were horrible. Then I read about using layers. Then a bit more investigation led me to the healing brush tool. Combining that with a layer gave me a reversible and controllable spotting technique. Hurrah!

Comic
Trying a comic-book effect

I did the same with other effects that took my interest: toning; split toning; dodging and burning and so on. In each case the focus was on learning how to obtain a specific effect rather than memorising the entire manual. Each time I was happy with a process I made notes of the settings and layers I had used in a cookbook of techniques. This way I didn’t need to remember everything – I could look at the contents list for things like smoothing skin or sharpening to find the starting position. And each time I had a go at achieving an effect I could add it to the cookbook. A recent example is the use of texture layers. I went to a talk by the talented EJ Lazenby and saw how she uses texture layers and blending modes to achieve effects. Not a technique I will use every day, but useful to know and handy when needed. Very useful for dropping bad backgrounds in portraits (better would be to see and change the background at the time, but hey…). So I had a go, and fiddled until I got a result I liked. Then added it to the cookbook as a useful tool. I’m basically building myself the mythical bag of holes.

Texture
Trying the use of a texture overlay

What I am also doing (I realised, eventually) is breaking down the learning of a large area of knowledge into small steps that I am motivated to investigate and that reward me with results at each stage. To mangle another metaphor, I’m not trying to eat the whole elephant in one go. Instead I am serving an elephant-based buffet comprising elephant three ways, joues d’éléphant and a surprise pudding (of elephant). I still have no idea what PhotoShop is fully capable of, but if I see an interesting result I will learn how to obtain it. It also reduces stress. I am not fretting that I don’t know the whole of PhotoShop as I have a set of things I can do and a method for adding to the set based on interest or need.

It’s the same information-bloat with cameras. They are now so capable and feature-rich that I don’t imagine anyone knows or uses their full functionality. There is an example here of the full set of menu options on a modern camera. You can’t memorise this stuff. What you have to do is try one thing, say HDR, and see what works and what you like. Most digital cameras have one or more user or custom settings that remember a set of options. My Canon has one user mode saved that lets me shoot in mono (like a real camera) and a second mode for underwater. And I can always flick it back to program or manual if needed.

So rather than try to map the entire territory, I have explored paths that looked interesting and then left breadcrumbs so that I can find them again. Perhaps you have seen the film Jumper? The cool kids can travel instantly, but only to places they have seen in real life. I too have found my way to some useful results so I can jump to them any time I need them. The gaps between the end points remain undiscovered, unless I need something new.

Scott Redding, Marc VDS Team, Silverstone, June 2011
This was a more subtle use of several methods to improve the shadow detail

So, my sincere apologies to anyone trying to just get a job done. I am now in the same position at work and I just want stuff to work without effort. But for things that are optional, done for fun or to get a specific outcome, may I recommend trying small steps, with each one focused on getting a specific result? Don’t try to learn PhotoShop, learn how to darken a sky or level a horizon and then go from there.

And, as they used to say on Blue Peter, here’s one I made earlier:

Learning like this works for me. I hope you find it useful.

PS – why Ricercare? Because GEB.

Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

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