So, the story goes that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours to become excellent at it. The counterpoint says that if you are rubbish at something and keep being rubbish, then at the end of 10,000 hours you will still be rubbish, but older. The improvement comes not from practice, but from reflective practice.
How does one reflect as a photographer? Not with a catadioptric lens. One reflects by comparing one’s results with one’s intentions and trying to bring them together.
Have you ever looked at your negatives or the histogram of your digital files? Do you, like me, tend to underexpose? If you are shooting digital, do you push the exposure as far to the right of the histogram as you can get it?
What do you struggle with most? Movement? Exposure? Focus? How could you try one small thing to improve, so that you can see if it makes a difference? The good news is that, using digital, practice is effectively free. The results can also be immediate, so it’s easier to iterate the learning loop of try, see, think, try. The very gods of decision making, Kahneman and Tversky, say that rapid feedback of results is fundamental to making good decisions and learning. Or perhaps better stated that slow feedback leads to more errors – see people fighting with a central heating thermostat, for example.
Do you think about photography when you are not taking pictures? Not the bit where you wish you had shinier kit, but the imagining of what you would do right now with a camera in your hand. When you look at a thing, think about how you would frame it and what you would do with tones, textures and colours. What would it look like with a slow or fast shutter, or a deep or shallow depth of field? Try guessing what the exposure would be outside the window or across the street. It’s all very well talking about sunny 16, but do you know how sunny it has to be? And what happens if you are under trees or near a building? Knowing what the correct exposure would be is useful, but perhaps more useful is knowing the difference between light and shade. It means knowing that you can blow a background to white by shooting in the shade, or dropping it to black by shooting in sunlight.
This is all about readiness. It used to be knowing which way the aperture scale turns on your lens, or which way to turn it to focus closer. It meant knowing which way the shutter speed dial turned and if you could set it without looking. I suppose with digital it means knowing which of the control wheels or buttons does what, without having to search or even look. My own digital SLR has the usual smattering of controls, arranged mostly in a logical order (unlike a Ricoh Mirai), but I have still labelled two of them with white marker to make it obvious which controls the metering area and which the autofocus point.
Alongside the ready ability to use the camera is a familiarity with how to obtain certain results. What’s the best shutter speed for panning a moving object? How much fill-flash do you need in direct sunlight or in the shade? What’s the best way to capture flames or smoke or the wriggly air you get with heat? How far out of focus can a face be if the eyes are still sharp? What about fireworks or light trails?
I guess the military parallel is that we would all like to be snipers, but we learn by firing tracer so that we can see where our bullets are really going. With the advantage that tracer can be corrected even while you are doing it. So we look at our pictures and think about what we would do differently, or we imagine ourselves to be taking a picture so that our heads get the practice even if our hands are carrying the shopping.
So I guess this is the biggest argument for using digital cameras to learn photography. I know there is this big movement to ‘really learn the ropes’ with a film camera (which has driven up the prices of ‘training cameras’ like the Pentax K1000) but I think most would be better off using a digital camera that allows manual control.
Will we be better photographers? Yes, better than we were. Will we be great photographers? Only other people can decide that. Don’t worry about it, see yourself improving and take pleasure in that.