A famous anectode floating in photographer's circles goes somewhat like this. Once a photographer was invited to a friend's place for dinner. During the regular chit-chat, the photographer set out to display his prized images to his hosts. The Hostess was quite impressed and quipped: "You take some really good pictures. You must have really good cameras and lenses." The photographer was astounded by the comment, but didn't utter a word. After dinner was served, he grabbed his opportunity, and remarked: "You cook really good food. You must have some really great utensils."
The moral of the story could be extended a little further. You might have the best equipment in the world and could have the best technique, but if you don't see photographically, you don't get good pictures. Seeing photographically involves having artistic taste, and being able to compose aesthetically. For someone like William Eggleston, this probably came naturally. For most of us, we have to train ourselves and cultivate a photographic eye. The best way to do it is to take lots of pictures. With patience. With a lot of thought behind each composition. And then, learn from your mistakes, technically and compositionally. Study the work of some of the greatest photographers to get a feel of how they composed. First imitate, and then innovate.
Taking a lot of pictures is not a cheap process. Especially, since at the beginning stages you are not composing well, so you end up taking more photographs of the same subject than you should. Irrespective of what people may say on the Net, film and development costs are not puny. It takes on average about $20 to get a single set of 4" prints and a PictureCD for a roll of 36 exposures. Coupled with the fact that most photography books ask you to shoot an entire roll of 36 exposures for exploring a subject matter thoroughly, you better have had made a lot of money during the dotcom bubble, since you just presented yourself with $20 worth of photographs of moss on a redwood tree.
One way to improve compositionally (which by far is the most important aspect of photography) is to buy yourself a decent digital point and shoot camera with a good optical zoom. If you are struggling to maintain your sanity through the terabytes of digital photo data on your hard disk, you could visit my Organization Tips and Techniques page. If you must stick to film SLRs, dive into shooting slides. They are relatively cheap to buy ($2.90 for a 36-roll of Sensia), cheap to develop ($5 for the roll), and, if you invest in a decent slide scanner ($250 for the Pacific Image 1800AFL), free to scan and digitize. That sets you back approximately $8 for 36 images, which isn't so bad.
After reading through countless books on the basic (and the so-called advanced) techniques in photography from the incredibly well stocked San Jose public library, I figured that most books were platforms for photographers to publish their work and display it to a larger photography market. Most books have the same information about tips and techniques, repeated ad nauseum. There will be your standard images describing the rule of thirds, a set of images in white snow for pointing out how inadequate your automatic TTL metering is, another set discussing the virtues of slide film versus print, slow films versus fast, a fourth set showcasing the photographer's/author's eye for patterns in Nature, and so on and so forth.
That is not to say that photography books are worthless. Pick works by good photographers and get impressed and influenced. Pick any book from the list provided below, and you will emerge a better photographer. If there is only one book on Phototography that you could possess, get hold of IMAGE: Designing Effective Pictures, by Michael Freeman. Here you won't find a history of photography, nor would you find a multitude of chapters on cameras, lenses, darkroom development, film science, and other assorted Popular-Science-like articles. This book starts and ends with graphic design and how one perceives images. Whether you possess a digital point-and-shoot or a film-based medium format, or a pinhole camera, this book is a must. Unfortunately, the publishers of this book have decided that people are more interested in gizmos than art, and have made this book out of print. Check your local library.
Eventually, I thought of compiling the most basic set of schema that we should follow in photographing Nature. This list would help me maintain my sanity and keep me from reading the same drudgery over and over again. Instead, it would allow me to concentrate on something far more important - taking pictures. It would also serve as a quick check-list of the most important guidelines, especially for situations when we get bowled over by Nature herself, and lose even the basic instincts of photography.
The photography circle is incredibly similar to the high-end audiophile circle. Both cliques obsess over equipment, have an undying faith in older technology, and always claim to want the best and will not settle for anything less. Having seen the audiophile dementia for years (just pick up a Stereophile magazine from you newsstand, and read through the letters to the editor), I compiled this small list of how obsessed these crowds could be. So be prepared for unbelievable rhetorics when you bring up questions about equipment or technique at any of the user forums.
|Compare types and brands of speakers, amps, pre-amps, sources etc. obsessively||Compare types and brands of cameras, lenses, filters, film etc. obsessively|
|Will always claim that Vinyl sounds better than anything on the market today or in the future. The older the pressing (mono anyone?) the better the sound.||Will always claim that film looks better than anything on the market today or in the future.|
|Will always obsess over equipment but claim that it is the enjoyment of listening to music that is most important.||Will always obsess over equipment but claim that it is the enjoyment of taking photographs that is most important.|
|Cost is never an issue. A retailer in the Bay Area once told me - "Listen to the speakers first and decide on them, don't go by the price range first. Take what you like."||Cost is never an issue. Numerous posts/websites on the Net will tell you - "Shoot a lot of film. Go to a pro lab for processing, why bother about processing cost. Just get the best. Don't buy close-up lenses, buy true macros instead." .. and so on.|
|Always listen to 180g vinyl.||Always shoot slides.|
Nonetheless, I myself have fallen deeply into this trap out of my own accord. I myself have this unexplicable urge towards everything analog. Maybe it stems from working in bits and bytes all day long. Maybe the collected dementia is correct. But I have seen myself move from CDs to Vinyl almost 6 years ago, and now find myself moving from digital cameras into film. Even so, I listen to CDs a lot, and, even try out (horror of horrors) MP3s sometimes. I do listen to garage-sale records, though I possess some 180g vinyl too. I prefer to shoot on Fuji Sensia slide film. Why? Because slide film is much more truthful about my skills and technical prowess and my images don't get massacred by the print-lab technician. But most of all, I just love the feeling I get when I view my slides on a light table or project it on a screen.
The doctor's suggestion: have a healthy mix of everything. Go for the
fun of it (yes, I am one of the Borgs) and don't let equipment bother you.
Just remember this even when the Borgs assimilate you.
For myself, I like to use my digital camera to improve my composition and
shoot a lot of "film". I use my Canon EOS 7E wherever I feel that the image
forming in front of me deserves the possibly higher standards of film. In
the end, take everything you read with a mound of salt, experiment yourself,
and pick what you like.