The Digital Myth and Driving School for Camera

Digital photography and editing has made creating high quality images easier and cheaper, but learning how to photograph high quality images takes just as much practice and ability as it has always has. It still takes training and a lot of trail and error to master composition and contrast control. It also takes knowing enough about production to make it all happen in front of and behind camera. The advertisements woo us into thinking that buying an XL1 and Final Cut Pro will land us in Hollywood. Well, there is a reason that so many people, each with a special job, are listed in the credits of a movie.

Camcorders, with instant playback do make learning composition and contrast control much easier. We don't have to wait for the film to come back from the lab. Camcorders are amazing in their ability to focus and expose average subject, but they can't compose or control contrast for us. The cameras record exactly what the lens sees. Nothing more, nothing less. Our eyes / brains have been trained to see what we want and need to see but we don't notice everything else that cameras dutifully record. We also get attached to images we create and are reluctant to see faults in them.

So how do we learn good image control? First we have to understand how we see. Next we have to learn how the camera records images. We don't have to learn why a camera does it, only how. Electron flow, digital chip design and Lord Kelvin are for engineers and later on after learning how to record good images.

Shooting good images is not an innate skill. But I believe that we have all learned a sense of composition having looked and millions of images created by highly paid photographers. All we have to do is learn to apply that learned sense of composition to a camera so that we record what we intend to and not a tree growing out of the top of someone's head that we didn't notice. Directors who also shoot are usually too intent upon the content of action in the frame and not the framing itself.

Driving School for Camera

Learning camera control is a lot like learning to drive or riding a bike. If we go to driving school we learn to shift, not drive over the curb, look before changing lanes, signal before turns, watch the rear view and side mirrors and stay in our lane. With practice this all becomes automatic and we don't even think about it when we drive on the freeway eating a Big Mac or talking on a mobile phone.

Learning camera control is similar. If we learn the basics they will forever be there to automatically guide us to place the tripod in a good position to start with, zoom, pan and tilt to well composed images without thinking much about it. This takes a lot of practice and won't happen while trying to shoot a festival-winning epic. It won't happen if we are worried about what an actor is doing, if the sound is usable or when is lunch.

If the camera is hand held, you can't study the frame and you will get home movies that should be embarrassing to show. Notice that in movies and on TV the camera doesn't pan tilt or zoom unless there is a very good reason to do it. Panning, zooming and shaky hand held shots are the hallmark of an amateur.

It does take time to learn to control and to judge your own images, but once you learn you will be amazed at your own sense of composition that you have gained by looking at millions of well framed pictures shot by camera people paid a lot for their skill. That's better than trying to learn to drive by watching car racing movies.

Ignore the bells and whistles on these consumer cameras. They are in there to sell cameras and not make good images. Professional cameras don't have those gimmicks. Pros do their effects in editing, if at all. If you play with the effects it's like mastering the CD stereo, global position system or waxing your car before you learn how to drive it.

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.