The reason I took a photography course in 1997 is that earlier that year, I went on a whale-watching cruise in Canada–armed, as usual, with a disposable camera. The whales we saw were pretty far away, but we came reasonably near a rock that was covered in seals. It’s the one and only time I’ve ever seen seals in the wild, and it was just spectacular. As we drew closer, we could see there were also seals in the water. It appeared that the ones in the water were juveniles; every now and then one of them would flop onto the rock and they were smaller. It was like the parents were indulgently watching the toddlers play in the pool. Click, click, click went the disposable camera.
Now then. A disposable camera thinks its job is to make everything in its viewfinder perfectly focused. In other words, it focuses to infinity. So the further away the object is you’re trying to take a picture of, the smaller everything in the picture gets. It’s like you said ,”Camera, go out and take a picture of Space, the Final Frontier. Go where no man has ever ventured before.” In the case of the seals, I’m pretty sure that if I had tilted the camera a little further up toward the sky, I’d have a picture of Alpha Centauri. Of course, you wouldn’t have been able to recognize it. I would have had to say, see that white dot in that black stuff?
As it was, I had to say, see that brown blob with those black specks on it? Well that blob is a rock, and those specks are seals! Isn’t that cool? I was beyond disappointed. When you have to explain a picture, it totally misses the point, doesn’t it? So I vowed I would never again take a picture like that. When my teacher said, if you can’t take a good picture of it, don’t take the picture, I was way ahead of him.
One of his other favorite sayings–which you hoped he would never say to you–was “This was a good idea for a picture”. Translation: This is a bad picture. He really didn’t care about your subject matter and never suggested anything. You could have taken a picture of a slug with its slime trail, as long as it was a good picture of a slug. Which reminded me of another story from the class.
A woman in class arrived the very first evening with an old Canon SLR she’d inherited from her father, but she didn’t know how to use it. The teacher was very impressed…he said it was the best Canon ever made. Of course the problem was, there was no user manual that came with the camera. The further problem was that the teacher was not about telling you how to use your camera. That was your problem. He explained many, many technical points (like F-Stop!) but it was up to you to figure out how to do it on your particular camera, and this poor woman could never get it. Which was a shame…because she had a good eye and picked great subject matter. I remember she took pictures of an Amish family in a wagon, and of horses in an indoor rodeo. At least I think so, because everything she ever took was overexposed and washed out. She never got the part about how the lower the F-stop number, the more light you were letting into the camera. It just seemed counterintuitive to her. So there she is in a blazingly bright arena at a rodeo, setting the camera to its lowest F-stop. The teacher was actually more patient with her than most, because he could see she had potential, but eventually he said, Look. Before you take your next picture, put the camera settings where you think they’re right. Then before you actually take the picture, change all the settings to the exact opposite. I mean, what can you do?
When I went to my first class, I didn’t even have a camera. Everyone else did. The next day, I went to the camera store and said, sell me your cheapest SLR. Then I read the manual.
Since then, I’ve taken some very bad pictures. But I’ve taken a lot of good ones too. And I’ll never again have to explain that the black specks on the brown blob are seals, or that the gray stuff in the background is the Atlantic Ocean.