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Technical aptitude

Or, Zen and the art of manual adjustment.

Which might be puzzling, but there is a link (trust me). There seem to be a lot of people who take pictures but have little or no idea how the camera works. They just want the outcome. There are also a lot (but probably fewer) of people who want to know exactly how their camera or the method works. They enjoy the process. Robert Pirsig argued for a happy medium (that you can strike with a spanner). The question is how much you need to know about how something works to be able to use it well?

Pirsig’s view is that some people are aesthetes (in his words, romantics). They don’t want to know the details or workings. They see and value the outcome, not the process. He said that other people were technicians (classical). They study and learn how things work. They may actually be less interested in the outcome than the process. Part of his argument, apart from the real meaning of quality, was that the ideal is to combine the two. It meant having an outcome in mind but also knowing how to achieve it technically. Automation is a great assistant, but I wonder if there is value in knowing how the manual process or machine works, and where the point of best value lies?

The other aspect to this is your level of competence. When you set out to learn something, say photography or driving a car, everything is strange and nothing makes sense. Some of the basic controls have to be mastered before you can operate the machine well enough to get the result you want. To drive, for example, you may have no idea why you change gear, but you need to learn to do it to get the car to move. In photography you may have no idea why there are aperture numbers, but you need to learn that big numbers mean a small hole and what effect that small hole has. Or in both cases you can use an automatic. You’ll get results, but you will never learn the relationship between the settings and those results. The basics will get you started, but perhaps you should progress beyond them?

This ties into how we learn, or rather how we are taught. It was quite explicit in the subject I followed, which was chemistry. We first learned how things worked. Then we moved up to the next level of study and were told that everything previous was a simplification and this was how it really worked. Then we moved up a level… etc. But that is a path I chose to follow: I chose to become a technician or classical. The other extreme is the view that chemistry is akin to magic in that nobody understands it and it has no real place in our everyday lives. And then you mix chlorine and ammonia based cleaners and wonder why your eyes sting.

While the extreme of romantic might be to use a thing with no idea how it works, the extreme of technician might be to concentrate entirely on making it work without having a real use for it. If I may be so bold as to give some examples (knowing what would happen if I did this on a more social medium)… look at the number of pictures you see taken by people who have a new camera or lens. They say they are testing it. But basically, if it works, just use it. Taking straight uninterpreted record shots may be part of your testing, but I don’t need to see them. Perhaps if the picture showed something unique to that lens or camera it would be interesting, but “hurrah, it works” brings me no joy. The counterpart is the pictures people show that contain an effect or result that is interesting or expressive but can’t be repeated as the maker doesn’t know how they got it. These are just puzzles. I also think that while it’s great to get an effect by accident, you should then put some study into understanding how you got it. Otherwise it’s not art, it’s chance. (Or Dadaist poetry)

I’m also reminded, when I see plain record shots taken with a new camera or lens, of the people I see at tractor shows. I’ve seen whole fields full of people sat next to their restored and working pumping engine or circular saw. While it’s interesting to see what sort of stuff farmers had to cope with, it’s not being used for anything useful. Their whole point and joy seems to be that it works and they own it. The photographic equivalent is probably GAS.

I’m being unfair. Straight record shots taken with a particular lens will give the viewer an idea of the effects it provides, particularly if it’s compared with an alternative. I’ve done it myself. Better still is if you can compare lenses or results under similar realistic conditions. The Canny Cameras site, for example, shows what you can expect from various old compacts using the same subjects each time. Here it makes sense to use straight record pictures to show blurring, fringing or distortion and get a sense of what a charity-shop find is capable of. What I don’t want though are pictures of resolution charts. If you want to go down that rabbit hole I’ll get my technician mode on and ask what the variation is between items and what the sample size should be for meaningful testing. Testing a sample of one is not as useful as understanding variation. </nerd>.

I really don’t need the camera settings provided with a photograph, either. Show me something interesting and I will work out how it was done (or have fun trying). By all means tell me that you got the effect by tilting the lens or something else, but I don’t need to know your shutter speed or worse, what camera you used. The photograph – the outcome – should stand alone. The settings you used to get it are useful to you, so that you can recreate or improve your method, but not to me.

A lack of settings meant I had to take multiple exposures, hence the overlapping pattern.

So where am I going with this? I err on the side of technician, as I am deeply curious about how things work. But for me the purpose of photography is not to use a camera, it’s to take pictures. I just want to know how my camera works so that I can make it do what I want (or find the menu option I want). Although, in the case of some of the Russian cameras, it’s useful to know how to avoid breaking them too. I like to be able to use a camera well, just as I like to be able to drive competently. But the aim is not how well I can change a film or a gear, but to try and get the best out of the machine in support of its purpose.

To be fair though, digital cameras are complicated and laden with features while mechanical cameras rely on you knowing how to use them. Automation is a wonderful thing, but I can see how multiple options or complexity leads to anxiety. And if you are learning something new, it’s much more encouraging to get an early result even if you are not sure how it happened. In chemistry I was able to distill our home-brewed wine long before I was able to make my own incendiaries, oops – firelighters. Speaking of which, I accidentally triggered the speed limiter on my car and was stuck at 20mph for a couple of hundred yards until I could pull-in and find the off switch. Like all good design fails, it was controlled by a lever that is normally hidden to the driver but can be hit and triggered if you run your hand around the steering wheel. Perhaps the photo equivalent is the pin on some Ricoh lenses that fouls the autofocus drive on Pentax cameras and locks the lens onto the camera body. I bought a nice 20mm lens that had the bad pin, but knew enough to spot it and sort it out. This is where a little technical savvy is useful.

So I think what I’m arguing for is a balance. It’s useful to have some level of understanding of the process or the machine so that you know how to get the result you want, or why you got the results you did. I don’t need to understand how a carburetor works to be able to drive an old car, but knowing that the car has one and some idea of what it does can be useful (when the car wouldn’t start, or when the cable froze). I’m also not arguing that I stand at the point of perfect balance. I love to find out how things work, well past the stage where I know enough to use it. When I had my old motorbike it was quite rare in the UK. So I started an internet owner’s club and uploaded the manual and parts list. For a while I was the Oracle for technical information. The underlying reason though was to build a network of people and resources who could help keep me on the road. And on the road it was – I commuted to work on it, did the National Rally and wore out tyres, brakes and chains just like a regular bike. I even fitted indicators, as I’d rather be alive than historically accurate. Along the way I learned a lot about how some components of the bike worked, but I didn’t set out to be an expert mechanic, just mechanically mobile.

Speedo about to roll over to zeros. It’s in KM, hence the MPH stickers. The 170 is the reading at which to next fill the tank. Nerdy, or what?

So yes, I’m arguing to strike a balance between the romantic and classical approach, recognising that we will move from one to the other as we learn. But being at the extreme position of ‘I don’t care to know how it works’ or ‘I don’t care what I could do with it’ might be missing-out on getting the best results.

What do you think?


Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

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