Technique for Its Own Sake

Just before the weekend, I bought myself a new camera. Nothing much to write a blog post about, really. But then I thought about how little excitement I felt about the acquisition—and how good that actually is. Which, then, is why I now write about my new camera.

My point, of course, is that a camera is only a tool, something we need in order to be able to take photos. The camera, whatever kind it is, or however expensive it is, doesn’t matter much. It goes back to the old saying; it’s not the camera but the man or woman behind the camera that matters.

When I got my new camera, I set it up and customized it so it works the same way as my other cameras for easy transition between the cameras I work with. Then I took a few test shot, was happy with the result, and put it in my camera bag. Yesterday I used it for an assignment—and all is back to normal by now.

I have not always been this laidback about my cameras. In fact, I think that goes for a lot of people who photograph—and certainly photographers. There is always something special about a new camera and camera technique in general—at least for many photographers. You don’t need to be a camera geek or a technical wizard to be able to take pleasure in the technical aspect of photography. When I started with photography, I certainly was in that place. Not that I wasn’t interested in the final result, the photographs, but I enjoyed handling the cameras and the equipment as well, and I was definitely excited whenever I acquired a new piece of equipment. Today I know that technique is okay, but also that it’s very easy to get stuck in it.

Technique for its own sake is meaningless, at least if you are out there photographing and intending to create personal and moving photos.

When I first picked up a camera with a more serious intention, I got caught up with the technical aspect of photography. I learned as much as I could about the craft, I quickly found out about all settings my camera had to offer, I read about optics, camera functionalities, composition and so on, and I took sharp, well-exposed and well-composed photos—mostly at least. But the pictures all lacked soul, although at the time I didn’t think so. This was in my late teens and into the beginning of my twenties. Back then, I would not even consider a photograph that was not technically perfect or at least of good quality. These days I have come around 180 degrees. Today, if I had to choose between the two—a meaningful picture that is technically poor and a meaningless picture that is photo-technically unassailable—I unhesitatingly would choose the first.

Of course, back in those days we needed to understand the craftsmanship more than we do today. We shot with unforgivable film, the cameras where manual, without autofocus and mostly without automatic exposure modes. We had to know how to set the shutter speed, the aperture and we had to focus manually, with films that had little latitude and was expensive, at least for a young man still not making tons of money. Although all this craftsmanship I needed to learn did not help me create photos with any soul and heart at the time, it became a backbone when I finally was able to let loose and started to adapting towards a more creative approach (so don’t get me wrong; the technical aspect of photography is an important part of it all).

The turnaround came when I studied photography at the International Center of Photography in New York. I came with the idea that I was already a proliferate photographer, and got completely frustrated when my fellow students and my teachers clearly did not think the same. However, instead of closing myself down inside a shell, I pushed on and pushed through and finally started to listened to my heart more than the craftsmanship I had so believed in before. So, yes, it is all too easy to get stuck in the technique.

The morale is simple: Cameras are not important. You behind it are.

Facts about the photo: The photo was taken a Canon EOS-5D and a 28-135 mm lens set at 93 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 s. Aperture: f/13. The camera (the one I photographed) was placed on a light table and lit with a flash from the front. The photo was processed in Lightroom.

79 thoughts on “Technique for Its Own Sake

  1. I absolutely agre, Otto! I would take photographs and be extremely disappointed when the images failed to convey the mood or the mystique I had felt at the time…. Years later, I know why, and hope that I am getting better at creating images with more soul.

  2. even knowing that cameras are not important, isn’t it exciting to hear that little shutter noise? lol i used to take pictures just for that noise 🙂 loving a camera can be just a PART of loving photography for me…

  3. Yes, the tool kit is simple a vehicle for the evolution of one’s interpretation of the visual universe, which takes continual practice, experimentation, patience and more of the same.

  4. As ever Otto, some very wise words. I’m currently in a position where I’m working towards a Fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society. It’s the reason I’ve been a little absent here and there. My first panel, although containing photographs that, according to my advisors, were moving, evocative and had soul, I was marked down because technique, at least in the view of the assessors, was lacking in certain areas. Presenting pictures taken in the blue hour and in the golden hour suggested a lack of control of colour balance apparently. :-/
    The photographs had to be technically perfect, as they saw it, the feeling behind the pictures was not important. This to me seems to be a real shame. I agree with you Otto, technically perfect photographs do often lack soul. I have been told that this was not always the approach the Royal Photographic Society took. It was much more about the photograph than the technique. I can see the issue. They’re trying to objectify something that is basically subjective. Art is subjective so it seems the only way they can assess different panels to standardise the assessment process is to focus purely on technique. I think this is a shame. I’ve been invited to resubmit. The issues raised were minor so a modicum of reprocessing should produce what the assessors are looking for. I just hope that I can do this without losing the essence of the photographs I presented. Photographs that came from the heart more than the head and have been very well received in so many other quarters including being some of the highest rated photographs reviewed in a Lensculture competition that attracted thousands of photographs from around the world last year.

    1. It sounds like a frustrating process, but hopefully it will work out for you. I find it strange that a renown photographic organisation like Royal Photographic Society put so emphasis on technique. Nevertheless, thank you for sharing what you have been working on lately. I was wondering where you have “gone”. All the best for the application, Adrian.

  5. Would you say that the freedom of digital photography, as in we mostly have endless film, has enabled photographers to capture those wonderful moments more easily? The camera does more of the work on the technical end, leaving the person behind the camera free to be more creative. Good photographic moments can be so fleeting, especially for me in wildlife shots. I am glad I have the freedom to set my camera for the current conditions, and then mostly just concentrate on what is going on around me.

    1. Does digital cameras make it easier to captured captivating images? I think it’s a double edged sword. On one hand, yes, the digital technology makes everything easier. But that is also its pitfall. It’s so easy to become lazy because you start to think that the camera does everything for you.

    1. We should always feel good about our way of shooting. And I know that’s easier said than done. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep develop ourselves and we shouldn’t keep pushing ourselves outside of that box we all talk about. 🙂

  6. I also view cameras with a certain amount of dispassion (because they *are* just a tool) — but purchasing a new body is always a creative booster, if only because I’m excited to try out the new features that each new generation inevitably offers. The interesting thing is that I usually soon abandon these “improvements” (like HDR and post-capture focusing) and revert to the techniques that I learned back when I was eight years old. As you’ve said so well, the important thing is capturing a meaningful image; HOW you get there is less relevant. Great post, Otto! And PS: Congratulations on your new camera.

    1. Thanks, Heide. I am pretty much at the same place. New features have a certain interest in the beginning and then fades out in the background. However, I do still appreciate whatever better quality a new camera generation brings out. 🙂

  7. Otto, camera does matter a little bit, doesn’t it? I mean it’s better to have a camera that you like. Before I retired, my husband bought 2 or 3 excellent cameras for me. I wasn’t ready back then – I was busy with my job. I kept telling him I prefer my little coolpix, which is small and light-weight. When I finally became more serious on photographing, I bought a Nikon D7000 because I didn’t want to carry a heavy camera. I liked D7000, but I didn’t fall in love with it (I thought I would). Two years ago, I bought a D750. Now the camera and I are inseparable 😉 I learn more when I love my camera. 😉 The only little complain I have is that the shutter button could be much quieter, but I can live with that.
    Creating personal and moving photos is my new goal. Maybe I should say I want to take some meaningful photos. Is there any book you would recommend?
    Thanks for a wonderful post. Have a great day.

    1. Of course, you are right. You should indeed like to work with the camera you are using. But then it doesn’t matter if you like the cell phone or a heavy DSLR best. Mostly at least. Recommending a book about photography is almost as difficult as recommending a camera. Taste and needs are different. But one book that guides you to take meaningful images is The Passionate Photographer by Steve Simon. Another one is Within in the Frame by David duChemin.

  8. You will be well aware that I am fully in agreement with the views you express here. There is much to be said for acquiring technical knowledge on a need to know basis.

  9. A large percentage of WordPress email notifications are not reaching the inbox. This one and several of yours written before this one – must be swirling in cyberspace with others! It’s like trying to lasso chickens – rounding up random posts via reader and hit and miss checks!

    As with typewriters vs keyboard/computers, I am glad to have learned the basics of photography via the 35mm before using a digital camera. It taught one to be selective with taking photos, being aware of light, etc… and now one can appreciate the ease of taking photos not only to capture and image but also to discard. The camera becomes an extension of the eye and also the soul – yes?

    At least half of the images I take are for reference photos for my art. It”s not important if conditions are not right – but it helps, especially when there’s a chance to take an exceptional photo that captures a moment.

    Today the photo session was for reference – oropendula nests for a painting of a ceibo tree. I’d best resume painting!

    1. The camera is indeed an extension of the photographer’s eye and soul. That is well expressed. Like with most skills, learning the basic the hard way often makes it easier later on, doesn’t it. Thanks for sharing your experience, Lisa.

  10. Certainly true remarks about the difference between being perfectly technically correct, or photographing an image for its worth and soul, first. I’ve found that my digital “auto” cameras can be the best option for my amateur purposes. Using the settings they offer can, at times, add to an image’s result, but “auto” alone on my Canon PowerShot and my small power Nikon CoolPix L830 both produce wonderful results on the spot when I find my subject! And digital delete is a fine tool, as well!
    Yes, a camera is an extension of the eye, and the need-to-know techniques will do nicely to help any photographer achieve lovely images! Pros, who snap for a living, can take it all further, technically speaking, if they wish!
    An interesting note: keeping the camera shutter noise unmuted helps me locate birds for photos. They look and listen for the “beep” and even make their way closer to it, thinking its another bird calling!
    Well expressed blog, Otto!!

    1. I find that the auto mode is often look down upon by “serious” photographers. But I think it’s a great helping device that works perfect in most situations. If necessary it’s always easy to switch to manual. In my workshops I always recommend participants to use auto mode. As for camera noise; one of the first things I do with all new cameras (and cell phones) is to turn off any extra noise and sound. 🙂

      1. Right, Otto, agreed — “auto” is easily switched to manual, and “serious” photographers look down on “auto”, but I’ve had pros view my auto photos on National Geographic’s website and rave about them!
        And, really, I truly have attracted birds to my camera beep and gotten terrific photos!
        Great to converse with you!

  11. Congratulations to your new camera! I am not sure I could be as calm or have little excitement as you did here. Nevertheless, I completely agreed with your last statement..

  12. Excellent post (as always) Otto.

    I was always amazed when people asked me what kind of camera I was using (in the Botanic Gardens or Zoo) as if it really mattered. Back in the first couple of years of my Photography hobby (not so much today), I used to get a thrill whenever I bought a new lens (not much when it was a camera body) and couldn’t wait to try it out.

    The camera body meant little as I don’t have much technical knowledge at all. And to this day, 7 years after I started, I still don’t have much technical knowledge 🙂 You’d think I’d learned a thing or two, but no.

    But I have learned a lot about light.

  13. I recently got a new lens, so am busy getting use to it. This post is very timely for me, a bit of a reminder that knowing all the technical stuff is fine but what are you really trying to say with your photographs, it’s important to know that too.

  14. The camera is merely a tool but we can get very attached to that ‘tool’. My Canon G10 recently ‘died’ and I have had to replace it. I felt a real sense of loss – that Canon had been a part of my life for several years, a companion on long days out in the Alps in summer and in the chest pocket of my Goretex jacket in winter on many ski trips – especially the Vallee Blanche. I felt I had lost something special and replacing it has been difficult. Partly because I have to learn my way round a new camera, its menus and settings (which distracts from creative thinking). I was comfortable with that old camera, with a new one I am still a little outside my comfort zone but I’m pleased with the results. But it has been a hiatus. I recall when I bought a second Nikon body – and that was so much easier. The controls, menus etc were much the same, and I did exactly what you did with your new Canon – set the camera up the way I liked it and carried on as per usual.

    1. Of course, you have a good point here, Andy. We do get attached to equipment that has followed us for a long time. And when having to replace, particularly point-and-shoot cameras, there will always be a ton of different settings and levers and what not compared to what you were used to. At least that’s one of the advantages of professional cameras; the manufacturers try to keep things the same way from one model to the next—at least to some extent. This does make the transition easier.

  15. The pleasure of a new tool to use in helping create can’t be underestimated though. It helps keep things fun, and that excitement can lead to good images. But yes, it’s all in the person behind the tool, and I agree, technically perfect is less important than the expressing. It’s something I still struggle with in my own medium. Good post 🙂

  16. Congratulations! Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to be excited about the things we are used to. I guess that can even serve as a great motivation boost, since you are re-living the feeling of why you started a hobby/interest/profession in the first place (if that makes sense).

  17. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Otto. A basic good quality is important and so is technical knowledge, but that doesn’t create photographs that speak to people. When I last bought a new camera, I was eyeing on the 5D, but decided I did not yet deserve it…so I bought the new 80D. That has plenty of camera and functionality for me to grow as a photographer – the person behind the camera 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend!

    1. I don’t think there is any who doesn’t deserve a certain camera, but I do we often tend to acquire a “better” camera than we really need. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Tiny.

  18. I still have a preference for film. It just comes across as warmer and earthly so to speak. Nonetheless, digital does have certain advantages.

  19. When I began sailing, one of the things I learned over time is that my boat wasn’t “just a boat.” It almost seemed to be a living creature. Eventually, I learned its quirks; its sounds; the way it liked to lean to starboard or port, and under what conditions. I’ve found myself thinking in the same way about my camera. It’s far more than “just a tool.” When I come home from an average day’s shooting and find something truly remarkable, it’s as though my lovely, sensitive camera is saying, “You missed this, but I didn’t.”

    I don’t mean that to sound mystical or weird. In one sense, a camera is only a tool. But I think we can develop relationships with the tools we use in a way that increases our creativity. Woodcarvers have knives that fit their hand just right, and painters have brushes that they baby for years, because they know they’re special. If I ever figure out exactly how this applies to our cameras, I’ll let you know — but I think it does!

    1. I think you are right in this dual view of our tools. Yes, they are “only” tools, but they do become our next of kin, if I can use such an expression. We do develop a relationship to our tools, don’t we.

  20. Maybe the “proof” of your statement that the person behind the camera is more important than the camera itself would be seen in photos taken with the same kind of camera, by different people. That might be fun to see, but I’m not sure how easy it would be to arrange it.

  21. Grattis till nya kameran Otto. Intressant och tål att repeteras.
    Önskar dig en fortsatt fin sommar. 🙂

  22. This reminds me of my first entry to a magazine competition when I received the feedback “Technically perfect, lacks impact” ….. I knew I had to do something different but it took me a while. Funnily enough, one of the things was to stop buying the magazine that told me how to do things! 😀

  23. I always appreciate your forgiveness in the technical aspects. But when I look at my images, I always wish I were more technically skilled…even the good shots leave me feeling that way. (Maybe that means I have no truly ‘good’ shots!)

    1. I have seen you photos, and the latter is definitely not true. And I think we all can learn to be more technically skilled. I always feel like I have way to many photos I have to disregard.

      1. Thank you Otto…that’s very sweet.
        I took it out for its first photo shoot today… let’s say there is a lot of work to do… but it was totally thrilling 😍🙂🙂

  24. I totally get this. It’s also very difficult for me to write or talk tech gear with others because I concerns are so much about technique, composition and voice; emotively putting all of my life experiences into every shot — if I can.

    The tech is important but still a very minor consideration to me.

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