It’s about the picture, not the camera

Tulips

One of the first photos I ever took – before I knew anything at all about how to use a camera – on a Nikon, 2-megapixel, point-and-shoot

When I first started running photography workshops, I set up two different workshops that I thought would complement each other.  One was a creative one, aimed at helping people see a good picture, and the other was a technical one that showed them how to use their cameras.  In my naivety I put the creative one on first, which caused some consternation among people who phoned to book.  “Well I’d like to do the creative one”, said one woman, “but I don’t see how I can do that until I’ve learned how the camera works”.  This view turned out to be shared by just about everyone.

But I had a reason for putting the creative one first – well, two reasons really.  The first is that if you have a good eye, you can take fantastic shots without ever moving off the Auto setting, but no amount of technical expertise in the world will make up for not being able to ‘see’ photographically.  I’ve seen this played out time and again; I’ve had several students (on the technical course) who’ve already been taking amazing photos without being able to do anything with their camera other than press the shutter button.

The second reason is that this is how I learned myself.  I came to photography from a fine art perspective and started out taking photos to use as the basis for drawings and paintings.  Pretty soon that changed into falling in love with photography for its own sake, and before long I became frustrated that I couldn’t achieve the look I wanted without knowing more about how my camera worked.  So I learned.  I’m someone who just isn’t interested in learning technical stuff unless I have a purpose in mind, and the need to be able to put my creative ideas into effect was what motivated me to get to grips with it.  I thought running a creative class first might inspire people and give them the motivation, too, to persevere with something that can be difficult at first.

This all came back to me when I came across a post by Ken Rockwell, called How to Learn Photography. He says:

Most people start by buying a camera, and learning how to use that camera and all its lenses and accessories……..Far fewer people start in photography by taking pictures, which is the correct way.

He goes on to explain how easy it is to get snarled up in trying to learn all the technical ins and outs, without actually spending much time just taking pictures.  And more controversially he states:

Women are better photographers than men as a whole because women worry about their pictures, and not about their cameras. Men spend lifetimes researching and talking about cameras, which does nothing to advance their photography.

Women and children take pictures because they like them, not because they like playing with cameras. Their natural curiosity leads them to better pictures.

This is a bit of a sweeping generalisation, and I certainly don’t want to offend any men who might be reading, but in my own experience it contains at least a nugget of truth.  Women usually come to photography primarily because they want to create pictures, and are often quite put off by having to tackle the technical side of things.  Men seem – on the whole – much more interested in the equipment you take the photos with, and can even get a little obsessed about what settings have been used where, and how to get things technically perfect.

I once went on a workshop where one of the students (male) had a Hasselblad camera and every piece of photographic equipment you could want in a lifetime.  He spent the whole workshop zooming in on his images on his laptop, saying “Look how sharp that is!  Just look at the sharpness there!!” His pictures were at best conventional, at worst, dull.  (Perfectly sharp shots of tractors, anyone?….)  I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t much interested in photography, only cameras.

I’d better say very quickly here that I’m not claiming there’s no need to learn technical stuff; you can do so much more, and realise your creative vision so much better, once you know a bit about technique.  I wouldn’t be teaching classes in it if I didn’t think that.  And I have come across the other point of view at times, where learning the basics has been discouraged as unnecessary and even undesirable, and I disagree strongly with that.  My point is that we need both, but that if you had to choose one over the other, then the pictures are more important than the camera.

Which is why it really surprises me that it’s so difficult to get people to sign up for creative photo workshops (at least in the off-line world). I’ve worked with Corinna, from Hairy Goat Photo Tours in London over the last year to help set up a range of photography workshops.  The technical ones usually fill up quite easily, but attempts to run creative workshops have been a dismal failure – it seems no-one wants these or even sees the importance of them.  When I’ve tried doing this in my own neighbourhood, it’s been exactly the same.  I’m confused as to why this is, since I see lots of people online who’re exploring the creative side of things.  I can’t believe there aren’t at least some people in the south-east of England who realise that learning about the camera is only one half of the equation, and the slightly less important half, at that.  The whole thing leaves me very puzzled……..

“I’m always and forever looking for the image that has spirit! I don’t give a damn how it got made.”

Minor White