Fakesister once gave me a book on photography from National Geographic. In it there was a quote by some photographer who said that the secret to taking a good picture was “F-8 and be there”. And truer words were never spoken. Especially the be there part.
For the camera-challenged among you, the F-stop is a ratio of the focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture. Got that? Yeah, me neither. In practical terms, however, the diameter of the aperture is possibly the most important factor in taking a decent picture. Not counting lens speed and focus, but we won’t go into that. Let’s just say that F-8 is right in the middle of the scale, and if you set your camera there, you’ll be lucky more often than not if you’re at the right place at the right time.
One of the most fun things I ever did was take a photography class, and I absolutely poured myself into the subject. It has forever changed the way I see things. At the time, I became so obsessed that I started seeing things in terms of whether or not it would make a good picture.
My photography teacher was not an especially nice guy, to put it mildly, but he gave everyone fair warning about that. His philosophy was, I’m going to teach you some things, and your job is to use them. If you ignore me, I will smush you like a bug. To be fair to him, he didn’t expect you to become an expert. He just expected you to try, and to get better. Needless to say, by the end of the class, which started with maybe 30 people, there were two left, including me.
I was still there because he loved me, or more accurately, my pictures. He could see that I was working at it, and he actually told me that I had a talent for taking pictures of, of all things, buildings, even though my main interest was taking pictures of wildlife. Hint: it’s a lot easier to take pictures of dead things. But seriously, I discovered that I have a knack for composition, as long as the things I’m taking pictures of stand still long enough.
So many things he said are etched in my brain now. One of them is, if it won’t be a good picture, don’t take the picture. You may come upon the most amazing sight you’ve ever witnessed, say you’re seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa for the first time. That’s all well and good, but if the light is wrong or your camera has the wrong film in it, just don’t bother. The other thing he preached religiously was, Guard against taking a picture where something other than your intended target becomes the subject of the picture. To that end, he said, never take a picture of anything where the background is a chain link fence! The eye works in such a way that it will be drawn to the fence.
I will never forget the class where one of the students turned in a photo of a train winding around a mountain, but she took it through the window of a car. You could see the window frame and the rear-view mirror. I was inwardly groaning just looking at it. The teacher was brutal. He said, “What is the subject of this picture?” (The rear-view mirror.) “Why”, he said, “didn’t you get out of the car?” She said, “It was raining.” And he replied…as you can guess…”Then you should not have taken the picture”. She proceeded to melt into a puddle.
The occasion for this post is the amazing photograph in today’s NY Times of a Syracuse player dunking the ball. I didn’t so much admire the player, I admired the photographer. The wonderful thing about photography is that it always captures a single moment in time. You could take a picture of the same object over and over, but it would never be the same picture. And this photographer captured a moment that will never be repeated. The player looks like he is flying. There is F-8 and be there.