Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

A better photographer? Verizon’s full-page magazine ads touting the iPhone 5S lead off with “A better photographer built in,” and continue, “Instead of teaching people to take better photos, why not teach the camera?”

Just today, I got a call from someone critical of “all these faux photographers” and wanting serious photography instruction.

For at least 15 years, there has been a button on traditional 35-mm cameras labeled with a P. Some photographers actually believe that button is for the “professional”! As if pushing it will give you pro shots, or pros are meant to use that mode. The P button, which can have many submenu settings, in fact means “program.”

In program mode, the camera makes more decisions for you than in other modes like S or A, which stand for “shutter” and “aperture,” respectively. In S or A mode, you choose one parameter, and the camera adjusts the other based on your selection. In P mode, the camera takes over and does both. All the photographer has to do is compose the shot–decide what he wants to make a photograph of.

Cameras that have controllable lenses often have a zoom feature. And that is a huge bit of additional responsibility for the photographer. Having a zoom lens, the photographer must decide how tight to crop the scene before him. But most find it actually makes the job much easier. It saves a heck of a lot of shoe leather!

With a phone, zooming is usually a digital crop action, so there is no benefit to zooming for the shot when you can crop it later. At least zooming with a physical lens–one that rotates or moves forward and back–means that you get the same large file size when shooting a smaller scene. That’s different from digital cropping, which the computer can do later.

Many today wish they could shoot the world while comfortably leaning against their doorposts! The fact is that shooting from where you are, rather than moving to where you should be, does not alter perspective. Perspective is totally based on your location in relation to the scene. If you are making a photograph of your friend 15 paces away, and the long tired boughs of an old maple tree are hanging down five feet from you on the right, then you could shoot through those boughs, or frame the shot with branches from the tree. Your friend could be shown though those branches. But if you were only ten feet from your friend, and zoomed all the way wide, you would never feel the effect of the tree . . . unless it fell!

The Verizon ad got me laughing, because it was not geared towards professional photographers, yet most professional photographers really do rely on automation. And I know many who would think this was technological progress for photographers, while seriously skilled pros would scoff.

But the real issue here is the public reading the ads. Everything has an effect on how people feel towards photographers and how decisions about selecting a photographer are made. A large percentage of the public is happy to no longer consider photography to require any skill. And they are happy not paying for any!

So many photographers seem to have embraced that notion and merrily take shot after shot, often by automation, until the gig ends or their time is up. Automation involves more than just camera settings. Automation represents the mindset, approach, and attitude of most working pros. I have always looked at a project as unique: a new project on a new day. I have never done this project before; what is right for this family, this moment, this shot? But watching photographers, it is obvious that so many work by habit. And this is now reflected in the client’s thinking.

Ads like Verizon’s further enforce the notion that imagery is all up to the technology. Years ago, I would joke that automatic cameras would decide on what photos to take. So a photographer need only bring them to an event and, once unleashed, the cameras would go into action. Back then, we were looking for new technology and dreaming of the day when we could have more-sensitive films, lenses that transmitted more of the light, and zooms with a greater optical range. Some of us who understood the theory, and were pushing the envelope, just hoped to broaden our physical abilities a bit and ease cold, hard technical limits, such as overcoming minimum film base density in shadow detail to get usable results in low light.

Can you comprehend that cameras need one-sixtieth the amount of light today than they needed 20 years ago? The photographer who thinks P is the professional mode is perfectly in sync with the consumer who thinks the camera is taking the photo. Neither that consumer nor that photographer believes in a photographer who really is doing what he must be doing–that which I have been speaking about for decades. An artist sculpts life with light. The word “photography” means “drawing with light.” So any photographer calling himself an artist (and today so many do) must understand, see, feel, control, and use light in a purposeful way.

Suppose you peered into a dark room, and there stood a small child. You flip the switch, turning on a bright light. Are you now sculpting life with light? Not unless you placed the light specifically in consideration of his features, form, personality, and facial expression, among many other things, and adjusted many settings to get the specific result you envisioned. You would then be an artist, and your camera would be an artist’s tool.

The cellphone ad and many faux photographers have happily reversed the roles, leaving the art up to the machine! With the machine being the artist, the “artist” has become a machine. v

Gary Rabenko can be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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