Since the beginning of my career as a photography teacher, my main goal has been to teach my students to be critical thinkers and go beyond the limits imposed on them by technology and camera manufacturers’ marketing strategies. I strongly believe that, when it comes to buying your equipment, you should make an informed choice and pick the camera that best suits your requirements, rather than buying a camera based on the brand name or the advertising hype; I also think that freedom of expression stems from a simple, relatively easy to use photography gear: the simpler the camera you are shooting with, the easier it is to express your photographic vision.
The pioneers of photography have taught us a valuable lesson: you can take outstanding photos with a very basic camera. Nowadays, however, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements that encourage us to buy the latest camera; indeed, top name brands like Canon and Nikon have led us to believe that we absolutely have to invest our money in a brand new, very expensive, and rather complicated camera kit if we want to achieve the best results. The question is, who is taking the picture? Is it the photographer or the camera?
The word “photography” is a combination of two Greek words: ‘phôs‘ (genitive ‘phòtôs’), meaning “light”, and ‘graphìa’, from the verb ‘gràphô’, which means “I draw, I paint, I represent”. To my thinking, the true essence of the Art of Photography is to become masters of light, to learn the secrets of shaping it to one’s desire and communicating with it. However, in the past few years, photography gear has become extremely complex and seemingly difficult to handle. If we accept this assumption, it may seem impossible to achieve the ultimate goal, that is, to become masters of light.
In this connection, Henri Cartier-Bresson aptly affirmed: ‘Inventions in chemistry and optics [and, I may add, electronics] broaden the field of action, then it is up to us to apply them to our technique to improve it. But a real fetishism has developed around photographic technique, which must be created and adapted solely to achieve a vision […]. It is important to the extent that we possess it to make what we see. It is the result that counts. […]‘ – Photo Italia n. 20 ottobre 1998 – Speciale Henri Cartier-Bresson, page 113 – translation from Italian text by Gemma Louise Collina.
In other words: of the countless buttons on our high-end cameras, how many do we really need? Are we ever going to use all the features available? Most importantly, how can we focus on achieving the ‘result that counts’ when we have to keep track of fifty parameters at the same time?
Since the 1960s to date, photography companies have managed to convince consumers that learning how to use a camera is incredibly difficult; this is the main reason why most people choose to simply rely on their cameras’ automatic features. In this way camera manufacturers make their business more profitable by selling cameras with tons of tricky, useless fillers. A closer look at the history of photography shows us that Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox-Talbot took pictures with cameras less reliable and far simpler than the ones available in today’s world. Other well-known photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Robert Doisneau, Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson have followed in their footsteps and have contributed to the rise of photography as an artistic medium by capturing superb images with simple cameras.
In Henri Cartier-Bresson’s words: ‘[…] It is enough to be comfortable with the equipment best suited for what you want to do. The settings, apertures, shutter speeds, etc …, must become a reflex, like changing gear in the car, and there is not much to comment on these operations, even on the most complicated ones: they are set out with military precision in the instruction manual provided by the various manufacturers with the device and the leather case. […]‘ – Photo Italia n. 20 ottobre 1998 – Speciale Henri Cartier-Bresson, page 113 – translation from Italian text by Gemma Louise Collina.
‘[…] …to be comfortable with the equipment best suited for what you want to do […]‘
Have you ever purchased a camera other than your standard, 35mm eye-level Single Lens Reflex? As a photography teacher, I can confidently state that 95% of the thousands of students I have taught to in my career have shown up on their first day of school with what they had believed until that moment was The Camera par excellence: a 35mm, eye-level SLR camera. The majority of them completely ignored the existence of range-finders, direct vision or waist-level finders. I discovered these systems when I was a teenager, thanks to the photographer who introduced me to photography.
Camera shops seldom present alternatives to 35 mm SLR cameras to prospective buyers. Undeniably, SLRs are by far the most popular cameras; however, the choice is not limited: indeed, there is a wide range of camera types available on the market. Different genres of photography require their own specific equipment. Budding photographers should take these differences into account; they should carefully consider pros and cons and then, and only then, make a final decision on the best possible gear.
‘…The settings, aperture, shutter speeds, etc […] they are set out with military precision in the instruction manual […]‘ – HCB
‘Set out with military precision‘: exposure rules must be learned by heart; they have to become a conditioned reflex (second nature); for this reason you have to practice every day, the same way athletes train. Think of it as learning how to walk or go up and down the stairs: you don’t know how you do it, you just do it. The rule that photographers have to know with military precision is, of course, the Sunny 16 Rule, which allows them to set the correct aperture and shutter speed settings on their camera.
All photographers have relied on the Sunny 16 Rule since the dawn of photography until the 1960s, when Nikon launched onto the European market the Nikon F Photomic, which featured a built-in light meter. From then on, camera manufacturers have invested large amounts of money on advertising campaigns that have persuaded photographers from around the world to rely on built-in light metering systems rather than the old-fashioned, yet trustworthy Sunny 16 Rule. Twenty years after the introduction of the Nikon F Photomic, most people could not take pictures without using their camera’s exposure meter. Light meters had won at last. However, as useful as they can be in specific cases, let’s not forget that they can only discern the quantity of light, not its quality.
By setting aside the F16 rule and over relying on light meters, we have lost the ability to understand the quality of light, its being hard or soft, sideways or frontal, diffused, direct, etc, which is without doubt one of the most relevant aspect that makes a good photograph. The quality of light is at the basis of the sunny 16 rule. I believe that anyone who calls himself or herself a photographer has to master this rule, without having to relying on in-camera or external metering systems to compensate for their poor technical skills.
A camera has to be a simple, easy to understand instrument: it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The rules must be learned ‘with military precision‘ and the technological artifacts ignored.
My suggestion is to forget about your camera features and focus exclusively on what is on the other side of the lens. This takes us back to the original question: how can we be masters of light again like the great photographers of the past? My answer is simple: choose the right camera for you according to your needs and learn the Sunny 16 Rule.
In my next articles under the “Photoschool” category I will present an in-depth analysis of the Sunny 16 Rule, as well as the different camera systems mentioned above; my main aim is to show them in a new light and help those who want to start thinking differently.