On Simplicity

There is a problem out there in photography land.

I’ve been doing this teaching thing for awhile now and I’ve found that while most people have a desire to know what all the buttons and dials do on their cameras, very few ever really “learn” their camera. Let me explain.

If the camera is just a tool to create our images, and we wish to treat it like an extension of our arms and hearts, then what our ultimate goal should be is simplicity of the device. “Simplicity of the device” as I call it, allows the photographer to be sensitive to the world. It gives us the ability to react quickly to situations that transpire before our eyes.

Although there is probably no better group of photographers than street photographers or photojournalists that know this too well, it doesn’t just apply to them. I try to incorporate this way of thinking in all the photography I do including wildlife photography, landscape, and studio photography. You see, when you combine simplicity of the device with the basic principles of photography things become much easier and photography is a delight instead of a struggle.

The basics of photography are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Everything else is just gravy.

There. I said it. And I’ll say this too – there is a disease that is running rampant in consumerland and with camera manufacturers. The disease I’m talking about is “photocomplexia”. Why must we as consumers always want to make things more complicated? It seems that the more crap we can pack into the camera’s menu systems and the deeper we can hide it, the happier we are. And the more crap we pack into our camera bags the happier we are. Yes, a camera that has a fireworks shooting mode and can go all the way up to 125000 ISO must be better. A zoom lens that goes from 18mm to 250 must be better than a fixed lens. After all we’re getting more bang for our buck. But are we really?

You still don’t understand what I mean do you?

Let me ask you this. Can you predict what your camera is going to do before you take the shot or do you need to take 5 or 6 test shots first before you zero it in? Shoot, chimp, tweak. Shoot, chimp, tweak. Shoot, chimp, tweak. Where the hell is that setting for my autofocus points? Why are my pictures all so yellow? And what’s with that flashing on the back of my screen? Hmmm….this is gonna take awhile.

Photography is all about learning to see and being sensitive to the world. Anything that takes that away from us is the enemy. And being a good photographer means that you’re ready. You can consistently solve problems quickly and easily. You’re part of the world. You’re observant. You’re not preoccupied with gadgetry. You’re not confused or lost in the menu system spending most of your time fucking with your camera.

So what then do we need to do to fix this and learn photography at the same time?

Shooting on Auto isn’t going to help you understand your mistakes. So without giving you any answers, here are a few things to try:

1.) Shoot with one camera and one lens until you begin to understand the way they work. You will find that you’ll take more pictures and have more opportunities if you travel light.

2.) Learn to see the way your lens sees the world.

3.) Have a good understanding of the basic principles of photography. That is, get to know how depth of field works with that lens at specific apertures and distances to your subject. Try to predict your exposure settings before you start shooting based on what you want to do and the light available. Do whatever you can do to have your camera ready before you start shooting.

4.) Ask yourself questions like these:

If it’s a really dark dark day and raining, what ISO, and shutter speed would I require to do street photography shooting at f8 if I intend to freeze the motion of people walking?

If it’s a really bright sunny day, what ISO and shutter speed would I require to do street photography shooting at f8 if I intend to freeze the motion of people walking?

What shutter speed would I use to produce a slight motion blur on people walking at a normal pace?

What shutter speed would I use to produce a noticeable motion blur on cars going through a parking lot?

What shutter speed would I require to freeze the motion of traffic and people if I’m shooting from a moving vehicle?

How dark does it have to get before my ISO requirements are too high to make acceptable wildlife prints free of motion blur and still clean?

5.) Try pre-focusing or zone focusing using a suitable aperture to give you some depth of field breathing room. Not having to worry about focusing gives you the edge to catch a decisive moment if you’re doing that kind of photography.

6.) Try shooting on aperture priority, manual, and shutter priority modes to help you understand the basic camera principles of depth of field and shutter speed and exposure.

It’s so important in photography to bring things back to basics and learn to keep things as simple as possible. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting portraits with available light, studio shots with one, two, three, four lights, landscape photography, street photography, wildlife photography, still life, your kids, your pets, or whatever.

I read a quote one time about being a slave to your camera. Don’t let that happen. Most camera manufacturers out there with a few exceptions are doing their best to pile more stuff into your cameras on the pretext that you’re more likely to buy it if it has more features, even if 95% of those features are rather useless. Instead, let your camera be a slave to your eyes. Let it be a slave to your heart and what you feel in your gut.

That’s the way photography was always meant to be.

Happy Shooting,



2 thoughts on “On Simplicity

  1. Many years ago I recall taking apart a kids toy expecting a complicated internal structure. What I found instead was an ingeniously simple way of making the toy work. I have never forgotten that lesson. The real geniuses make it simple.

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