This is what puts many people off photography. What do all those symbols mean? There are little pictures and mysterious acronyms. It’s like the ancient hieroglyphics painted on the walls of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The rest of the camera isn’t any better. Even on my modest camera, I have around 18 different buttons and dials, including the clear-as mud AE-L, LV and Fn.
It gets worse. Pressing some of those buttons leads me to more detailed menus of choices. There is a bewildering array of choices. Do I want to turn Active D-Lighting on or off? That sounds like one of those incomprehensible questions that teachers fire at you when they notice you haven’t been listening and they want you to feel guilty.
“Come on, Once. Amaze the class with your powers of erudition and recall. Do we turn Active D-Lighting on or off?”
Some of the other buttons do different things when you press them in combination. It’s as confusing and scary as when you first make lurve and have to gain a rapid understanding of the plumbing and fastenings of alien biology and unfamiliar underwear. Huh? You want me to press that and rub that? At the same time? And does this one fasten at the front or around the back?
Creative writing is the same. At first, you think it’s going to be easy. Anyone can write a sentence, right? If you can write one sentence you can string a few together to make a paragraph. Collect lots of paragraphs and we’ve got a chapter. A dozen or more chapters and we’ve got a novel. Then the royalty cheques start to roll in, and we get to decide whether we want our Ferrari in red or in blue.
But when you start into writing seriously, they throw in bizarre terms like point of view, adverb, plot, simile, metaphor, split infinitive.
And suddenly we’re staring at the back of the camera again, trying to decide which AF area mode we ought to have. AF area mode??? Split infinitive? What in the name of all that is holy is that?
That royalty cheque seems an awfully long way away if we can’t even understand the basic knobs and dials. It feels like the keys to knowledge is locked in a safe and we don’t know the combination.
It’s time for me to do my usual “good news/ bad news” thing.
The bad news is that we will eventually have to find out what some of these things mean. The good news is that we don’t need to know them yet. We really don’t.
Let’s start from the basics. What makes a good picture or a good story?
Here are two to get us started. This is the great American photographer Ansell Adams taking a very famous picture of the Snake River in the Tetons. Coincidentally, that’s where I am going on holiday (vacation) in August of this year.
This picture works because it captures a dramatic scene. In non-technical language, there are lots of uppy bits and acrossy bits – what the photographer Jared Polin calls “horizonticals”. The river forms a leading line to take our eye on a journey into the picture. There is human-sized interest in the foreground and infinity-sized interest in the mountains and brooding sky.
As this is an Ansell Adams, the whole picture is in precise focus and the horizon is dead level. It’s an honest blue collar photograph, wearing jeans and with its sleeves rolled up.
Now look at this photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson of a boy with a bottle of wine. It’s very different from Ansell Adams. The camera isn’t held straight, the background isn’t in focus and it doesn’t feel so staged and formal. It’s a moment frozen in time.
There are similarities too. For one thing, both pictures have leading lines. For Ansell Adams, it’s the Snake River which almost makes us want to get in a canoe and paddle along it. For Bresson, it’s the line of children behind the boy and the street which curves away behind him.
But here’s the kicker. Both of these pictures were taken on cameras which are far more primitive than the cameras we have today. They had none of the fancy gadgets and menu choices that we have.
You’ve almost certainly got a better camera in your phone. Heck, you may even have a better camera in the old phone that you’ve thrown away.
Ansell Adams was a gear-head and liked to have the best equipment, it’s true. But that was the best equipment back in the day. The Snake River photo was taken in 1942 when electronics and computers were still science fiction.
The biggest skill is the basic stuff of knowing where to point the camera and when to press the shutter.
Any one of us could have taken those photos (or something quite like them) without knowing our f-stops from our shutter speeds. Modern cameras help us to do more clever tricks but the basic skill of composition hasn’t changed.
The story matters far more than the technique used to tell the story.
Writing is no different. We scribblers obsess over the fine details of individual words and sentences, but our readers remember characters and plot. Harry Potter is a story about a boy wizard at a school for magic users, but most people would struggle to remember any famous quotes from it.
Romeo and Juliet is a fantastic story about a family feud which is ended by a tragic love affair. Sure, it is written in some of the finest poetry that the English language has ever produced, but it’s the story that carries it all. Shakespeare’s sonnets are far less popular than his plays.
And how else can we explain the “Filthy Sheds of Grey” phenomenon? The writing is … how can I put this politely? … not of the finest quality. But it sold in huge numbers because people connected with the characters and the … ahem … action.
There is a simple antidote to the “too many buttons” syndrome, whether we’re a writer or a photographer of both. Keep it simple. Ignore the buttons or stylistic techniques that you don’t understand. Focus instead on telling a great story. Read lots (and look at lots of classic photos). And practise, practise, practise.
For budding photographers, that means … stick your camera in “auto” mode, work out how to zoom the lens and take pictures. Look at lots of great photos and no-so great photos. Then take lots and lots of pictures of your own. It doesn’t matter if they’re rubbish or not. You will get better if you stick at it, I promise.
For budding authors, this means … don’t fiddle with “experimental” techniques like multiple points of view or flashbacks. Stick your writing in the equivalent of auto mode. Tell great stories. Read lots of other books – great books and not-so great books. Then write lots of stories of your own. It doesn’t matter if they’re rubbish or not. You will get better if you stick at it, I promise.
Of course, there will be many who will pour scorn on “auto” mode. Peel back the cat photos and the porn, and the internet is full of people saying that “Real photographers only ever use manual mode”. You need a better camera. Hugely expensive lenses. A tripod. Expensive image manipulation software to process pictures in RAW.
Nonsense. Ansell Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t have those things. First and foremost, they developed an eye for a good picture. The fancy stuff can come later, including knowing what all the buttons do.