Think and shoot

Video from "The Great Courses"

Video from “The Great Courses”

I progress slowly through photography.  By my desk, to the left, is a cardboard container labeled, “Photo Archive.”  I take it off the shelf and wipe a layer of dust from the top with a tea towel.  Uncertain what is inside, I open it with interest.  I remember now.  There are 18 little bins of slides in neat rows of four.  The index tells me the photos were taken from October 2001, a few weeks after 9/11, to November 2003, on a trip to Paris.  I’m quite sure if I looked hard I would find a box or two of film negatives.

A lot has happened since then.   Namely, film’s replacement by digital cameras with memory cards.  If there is one thing that has increased my interest in photography, it is the digital camera.  I can now shoot as many photos as I want at a modicum of the expense I doled out for film.  Bad photos?  Just hit the “delete” button.  Digital made it possible to experiment without cost.

I have owned several digital cameras over the years.  My latest is a Canon EOS 600D, Rebel T3i.  If you don’t know your cameras just say it has all the bells and whistles and is relatively expensive.  Not top drawer, but getting there.

My most recent venture into photography took place last January when I went online to order a video set from “The Great Courses.”   It is streamed on my laptop.  The course of 24 lectures, “Fundamentals of Photography” was on sale for $39.90 and included at no extra cost, “The Art of Travel Photography.”

The instructor, Joel Sartore, is a regular photographer for National Geographic magazine, which publishes some of the best photos in the world.  He lives in Nebraska but of course travels the world.  Some of his photos he displays during the course border on unreal.  They are so good. And maybe that is one of the course’s drawbacks.  You know in all likelihood you’ll never produce anything as nice.

After a lecture or two, Sartore convince me that I needed a new lens.  “The camera is just a box,” he says.  “Spend your money on glass.”

And that’s what I did.  I bought an expensive Canon 24-70 mm lens.  Sartore said that is what he uses 90 percent of the time.  I know it is a good lens for, although it is stubby, it is also quite heavy.  Heavy equals expensive in my shallow view of things right now.

I will point out this course is not for the impatient photographer with a point-and-shoot.

“This course is about thinking,” Sartore says early on.  Think and shoot.

In his world, Sartore, says he sometimes spends hours if not days, thinking about how to shoot a single photo.  Soft light, appropriate background blurred if necessary and a subject that is interesting.  What makes photos interesting to him is not so much landscape itself but placing people and animals in it.  For instance, a photo of the stark beauty of the Antarctic landscape has penguins in the foreground.  What I don’t like about some of his photography is that it is posed.  Family, friends or paid models do his bidding.

Also, Sartore is big on avoiding harsh mid-day sunlight.

“If you’re serious about photography,” he says, “You work early, you work late, at the edge of day.”  He advises it is worth it to miss a breakfast or supper.  He may have lost me there.

Anyway, I have tried to absorb the 12 hours of instruction.  Each lecture runs about 30 minutes.  I take notes, which is maybe a bad thing.  Breaking the continuity, you know, giving yourself time to think stupid, unrelated thoughts.  But with video you can always stop it, go back over a point or, if uninterested, jump to the end.

By accident, the course has turned me into a bit of a tech freak.  I want to learn more about my camera, about lenses, flashes, low-light, Live View, even battery life.  Sartore does not delve deeply enough into them in my opinion.   Once I can master finding the so-called “sweet spot” of aperture, shutter and ISO, then I can think, really think, about the photo.

Consequently I’m shooting a lot of photos now on “manual.”  I pre-determine the settings, avoiding much of the camera’s automatic settings.  I do still lean heavily on AutoFocus.  And in doing so, my photos are, ahem, below par, I think.  The price of experimentation and learning, I hope.  Or a harbinger of perpetual ignorance.

As for the archived slides of yore, they will go back to their place.  More dust will gather.  I’m not yet ready to polish up my old Yashica-D and go back to film and slides.  And the darkroom.