Point And Shoot

Posted on April 30, 2007 by psu

This week I found the first photographic web site to pique my interest in a long time. For a while now I had been ignoring most of the photographic web because there just wasn’t any content at an appropriate level of maturity. What I mean by that is that most sites are either just a big shopping catalog or a collection of articles providing shallow tutorials on various subjects like how best to put the $5000 digital camera you just bought on a tripod.

So I am happy to share a link to The Strobist, a site that does not suffer from either of these problems. Yes, there is technical dorkitude. Yes, there is advice about things to buy. But by and large the site is dominated by photographic content and content about photography that is actually interesting to read because they cover an area of photographic work that is generally mysterious to we who only dabble. The site is about lighting.

My usual position about lighting is that I try to use the light that is there because I’m too lazy to learn how to create my own. I came to this conclusion after reading an excellent book about how to bring your light with you and deciding that it was just too much work.

The Strobist is written with the point of view that you can’t count on the light that’s there to get you a usable picture, so you better know how to create your own. The site is the creation of one David Hobby, a pro photojournalist based in Baltimore. The job of the photojournalist is to take good pictures very quickly under conditions that you cannot easily control. A large number of the articles fall into this “On Assignment” bucket where he shows you the techniques and tricks he uses to pull pictures out of these situations. These are the pieces I like, and not only because they are about clever things that you can do with a couple of small flashes. I like these articles because they illustrate a truth about photography that the general public doesn’t really understand:

You don’t get good pictures by just pointing the camera at the thing and hitting the button.

If I were to write a book that could only contain one sentence about photography, and so I had to write down the most important fact that you, the aspiring shooter had to know in order to become successful, it would be: You don’t get good pictures by just pointing the camera at the thing and hitting the button. Every excellent book that I have ever read about photography has this fact as its core message.

I bring up this point because of this guy who works in my office. Every once in a while, I’ll buy a big photo book from Amazon.com. In recent memory, I have picked up the excellent Linda Butler collection on the Yangtze River in China and more recently the phenomenal Galen Rowell retrospective. I would show these books to the guy, and he’d flip through them and say something like, “What’s the big deal, anyone with a camera who was in those places could get those pictures, what’s so great about these pictures.”

The frustrating thing is that it is hard to explain what the big deal is. You can’t tell from a reproduction in a book that Butler spent four or five years carrying a 4×5 camera around the rural river valleys of China, often evading government officials, in order to document the villages that would be flooded by the damming of the river. It is impossible to convey to someone who hasn’t had the experience how hard it is to capture a nice portait of someone in good light even when you are carrying a modern 5fps bazooka camera, much less a camera that can take one frame every two or three minutes. Finally, it’s hard to express a photographer’s appreciation of a perfectly composed frame of some out of the way detail that a regular person never would have seen, in light that a regular person never would have noticed. So instead of an impassioned defense of the integrity of my photographic heroes, I just look stupid and grunt.

Luckily, I have Galen Rowell to do my work for me. His classic Mountain Light eloquently explains the difference between a literal snapshot of what is in front of you and a real photograph. Many of Rowell’s pictures are such stunning juxtstapositions of landscape forms and once-in-a-lifetime light that even the layman can’t help but be impressed. Others appear to the untrained eye to be fairly literal snapshots of exotic far away lands. But do not be fooled. You might think that if you just happened to be standing in his shoes on top of that mountain, or in that valley at sunrise, that you’d be able to capture the pictures that he did. You won’t (unless, of course, you are a genius photographer). You won’t because you won’t know where to point the camera, how to take advantage of the light, how to tame the contrast, how to juxtapose warm colors against cool, and how to arrange the randomness of the natural world into a neat pattern that is pleasing to the eye. In other words, you won’t because you don’t know what you are doing.

You shouldn’t feel bad or insulted to find this out. After all, Galen worked on his craft and vision for decades to get as good as he was. How many awesome landscapes have you taken recently? You should not be surprised that if you stood there at the tip of some ice flow near Everest and pointed your camera at it and pushed the button that you’d get a bad snapshot. That’s why he’s a photographer and you are not.

Which brings me full circle to The Strobist. I was impressed with this site for a few reasons. First, it was apparent from the content that this guy knows what he is doing with lights, and this makes me even more aware of how little I know about taking advantage of artificial light in difficult situations. Second, this was one of the few photographic web sites that I’ve been to lately that wasn’t designed by a mental cripple who loves Flash and hates usability. You would think that photographers, who are presumably people with a keen visual sense, would know better than this, but they don’t. Every site you go to is filled with ugly and unusable Flash galleries that wrap what I would think are excellent photographs if only I could actually navigate to one before having a seizure. Third, the site has an associated photo group on flickr where readers post their strobist experiments. The amazing thing about these pictures is the extent to which they do not suck. I didn’t think it was possible to put five people in an Internet photo group without generating dozens of miscomposed out of focus disasters that lack any redeeming value whatsoever as photographs. Here is proof that I’m wrong.

Finally, the best parts of the site are a fabulous illustration of my fundamental principle of photography: You don’t get good pictures by just pointing the camera at the thing and hitting the button. I love how he tells us how much knowledge goes into getting a decent shot of some guy standing next to his computer, or a simple portrait of an athlete. Here are great examples of how it takes work to make the picture look to the untrained eye like you just pointed the camera and pushed the button. It makes me happy to read and learn. Maybe some day I’ll get good at using my flash.

Comments (cribbed from tleaves)

David Hobby says:

Thanks for the kind words! And, regarding the lack of Flash (the Macromedia kind) on my site, if I knew how to code it, I would probably be irking you just as much as the next guy.

As for the “some day you may learn this” thought, you absolutely can learn how to do this if you want. It’s not rocket science. I know some very good lighting photogs who are otherwise dumb as a sack of hammers.