I’m just a retired vet who likes to take photos, a hobbyist with some free time. The actual photography business doesn’t appeal because, after 30 years in the military, I know what I like. The idea of having a boss or agent, deadlines, an office, clients, obligations beyond my control, and paying for child care just to have these things I don’t want, is not appealing. When I was a musician I almost always played what people wanted to hear, not necessarily what I wanted to play. That’s what I imagine the photography business to be, taking photos of what other people want or need for business, not necessarily what I like to shoot. I love fitting photography in to my ‘Mr. Mom’ days with my kids and the six Saturdays and a Sunday lifestyle. I also try to see the world as easy to break down when it comes to our abilities, no matter what level we’re at in life. All of us are better than some folks at things, not as good as others, and if we’re smart we know our place. When I was a musician I saw myself as just that, better than some and not as good as many others. The same is true with photography; if you want a jolt of reality just go to Smugmug or 500px, search a subject you’ve shot and think you understand, then get ready to be humbled! If you really want to be brought down a few rungs on the ego ladder, search for your camera model and see photography that has been shot with your camera. This will leave you wondering how other people can get these incredible images, but you can’t.
As I’ve said many times, there are similarities between a music lesson and one in photography. A lesson is just a starting point, what you do with the information taught is what matters. While I’ve had only two photography lessons, I have had many music lessons and have also given them. In both photography and music, there are incredible people who are simply gifted and willing to share their knowledge when asked. These ‘good people’ propel their craft by example and having humble nature about their abilities. There are also the other kind, the people I don’t understand… These types of photographers/musicians seem to see everyone as a potential threat, competition to their livelihood, as if there were no room for others in their line of work. Photographers and musicians with this attitude seem to be out for themselves and are people I see as thin-skinned. The point is that if you run in to these kind of folks as I have, don’t be discouraged because there are plenty ‘good people’ out there to make up for it. Two of photographers I’ve met, the ‘good people’, are Will and Ed; who were both generous to share their talents with me. Here’s a summary of what I learned in the two photo lessons of my life.
We were living in Italy around 2012 and I had recently upgraded to a new DSLR. This was only my second DSLR, a Canon Rebel T3i and a major leap. While it made photography more fun, poking around the camera menu left me wondering if I had bit off more than I could chew. Was I up for this? Honestly, I didn’t know because my photos weren’t any better with the T3i and I was still letting the camera call all the shots. The auto mode was my buddy, the camera did everything and I began to wonder why I didn’t just stay with my old camera if I was just going to shoot in auto mode anyway. I tried shooting in the other modes but had no idea what I was doing. It was apparent that I was in over my head and just taking bad photos. I had heard through friends that a photographer was giving a free lesson on the weekend and it was for people of all levels. Count me in! When I got there, we were all in a room with Will, a very accomplished photographer and someone with a knack for breaking stuff down so people like me can understand. He started off by asking us individually what we hoped to gain from his lesson? What did we want to learn? I said that I needed to get unchained from the auto mode, if I didn’t it would mean more crappy photos. In about 10 minutes Will broke down everything I had misunderstood about shooting modes, f-stops, ISO and everything that goes with it. He put everything in to “ga-ga goo-goo” words which I could wrap my head around, and that was the last day I shot in auto mode. Thanks to Will, I have been shooting in aperture priority mode ever since; however, I also shoot shutter priority and even full-out manual mode for night photography. That one lesson from Will came at the perfect time because I was asking myself if shooting with a DSLR was really for me. I was convinced that I was never going to undertand DSLR’s and shoot anything better than crappy photos.
The long-term take away from Will’s lesson? Will told us that when you want to learn about your camera and your abilities, shoot in your house. Your house is real world, it has no specially lit rooms, no special set ups, nada; if you practice in your house and get decent results you’ll fare much better in the real world! Whenever I’ve purchased a new camera I shoot in my house and see where I stand. THANK YOU WILL!
After Italy we moved to San Diego, one day we were out wine tasting and I had my camera with me, totally by chance we ran in to Ed. He asked if I was a pro or amateur, “amateur” I stated and he began to show me a couple of books he had of his photography. Ed is a pro photographer, he knows his stuff, and also likes music so we sat and talked a lot about Cuban music; one of his loves in addition to photography. Ed is also a musician who plays the congas and understands both music and photography. He agreed to let me come back and see him the following week. When I arrived, just as Will had done, Ed basically asked what was it I wanted to learn from him? This time, five years later, my response was different. I explained to Ed that I wanted to learn how take that creativity I knew with music, process it through my eyes, and ultimately have it show in a photograph. In some ways this didn’t even make sense to me but it was the only way I could explain it. Since he is both a musician and photographer, he understood what I meant. There was no “you need to _____” type answer, he talked about how photographers engage visually and the rest of the day was really the long answer to my short question.
I was also amazed at Ed’s lack of gear, the man literally has one camera and a couple of lenses, that’s it. Here I was, a much newer camera toting a backpack full of lenses, and my photography couldn’t compare. I realized I was a user of many lenses and master of none. The old lightbulb went off, it’s not the gear buddy.. It’s possible to take great photos with an iPhone and crappy photos with top of the line gear! Later, Ed took me to his computer and showed me how to do a few things. It was a lot to take in. He wasn’t giving “this is how you do this” advice, it was “this is what works for me” and take what you can from it. My chance meeting with Ed was almost a year ago and his tips still pop up when I’m working on photos! Ed was in the business for many years, long before Photoshop, he had paid his dues. He showed me many of the photos he had taken over the years and I couldn’t believe what he showed me! I was now amazed at how humble this man was about his abilities. I was looking at some iconic photos of the eighties that were all Ed’s work. He also introduced me to the concept of light painting, something I had never heard of and am now just beginning to grasp. All of the photos on this page were done with light painting, a technique of using a dark room and lights to shine on a subject in the dark. Before I left, we had lunch and talked about how he is constantly looking, even hunting, for things to shoot that are in plain sight. I realized that photography is just that, a hunt. The chances of actually stumbling on to an incredible photo scene are not likely, but if you’re constantly looking for something and have your camera handy, the probability increases.
The long-term take away from day with Ed? Always be on the lookout for things hiding in plain sight. However, the most important tip Ed shared was to always ask, “what am I not seeing here?” Whenever I find something promising to shoot, I always as this and I look from a low angle, high angle, or try something different with the camera itself to find that one thing I’m not seeing. Now when I’m researching a place I want to shoot, I go to Google, 500px, and Smugmug to look at the location and see the popular images; then I look for something different when I get there. With a little luck I’ll see something they didn’t. I also take my camera everywhere and I’ve gotten photos that I would have otherwise missed.
What did these lessons actually cost me? The costs of Will’s lesson was my time, nothing more. The return has been immeasurable because I’ve haven’t shot in auto mode since and his lesson gave me the confidence to learn aperture & shutter priority shooting and manual as well. Not to mention, it came at a time when I considered giving up on DSLR’s in general. At that moment, I could have gone to pocket camera and moved on. Ed’s lesson cost was time, a little gas money, and a couple of bucks for a great catfish lunch where I learned as much as I did back at his computer. Long term, I learned how to better use Photoshop and how to look, actually LOOK for subjects to shoot. I attempt to search for the ‘not so obvious’ when I’m out, hunting. I learned that people like Will and Ed exists, they are educators and masters of their craft, who are willing to share if you ask. But more importantly, the life lesson learned is that don’t be too big to share with others if asked and to remember that it just makes photography better.