Using That New Christmas Camera

San Diego — So you or someone in your family got a new camera over the holidays and has been shooting like blazes with it, really getting “into” taking photos?  That is precisely what happened to the young neice of a friend of mine so he dropped me an email asking what they could do to help support and encourage her.  What follows is an expansion of my emailed response to him…


This new world of digital photography demands that good photographers wear more “hats” than was formerly required; computer skills at least in terms of computer editing of image files has replaced the darkroom.  Those on the top of the photographer’s pile have mastered three components, none of which are easy.

The first is the Technical.  This is the underpinning of it all and without which the rest really doesn’t matter.  it involves learning to “play” the camera as a musician plays their instrument and the editing skills.  The camera is simply a tool; in and of itself it creates nothing.  It has no heart nor does it have a soul nor even a good “eye” for what is in front of it.  All of those things come only from the person using it.  But none of them can be used well unless that photographer has mastered how to use camera controls to do more than simply capture some portion of the real world out there in front of them both.

Camera controls are capable of a huge influence on how the resulting photo’s interpretation of the reality before it will be rendered.  Using them in various ways can result in a large variety of renditions, all with various “messages” for the viewer.  It is only through mastery of those controls that one can then really begin to create photographs rather than just take snapshots.  But it doesn’t end here.

The second is the Aesthetic.  Mastering the language of visual communications to instill and control the photographer’s message and in a package attractive or in some way appealing to most viewers is the next element.  Most humans due to both culturally instilled, as well as some nearly intuitive responses, will “get” the visual language of the photograph.  But the question is whether or not that message is what was intended or not, or whether it was simply gibberish as if someone tried to translate Hamlet into Martian without knowing either English or Martian very well.

The third is the Creative.  How does one use the first two elements to produce works (in this case visual) that create for the viewers a new and unique experience to which those viewers will react both viscerally and cerebrally?  That is the role of creativity and it is often given very short shrift by educators under the assumption that one either already has it or not, and in any case, in their opinions it cannot be taught.  I believe strongly that is not true.

I believe we are all born creative creatures but that our education system has tried its dead level best to beat it out of us in order to make of us better workers for the mercantile society surrounding us.  But unless that fire has been completely quenched, then I also believe it can be fanned back into embers and then back into full flame.  And I believe it is this third element, building on the other two, that will make the difference between being lost somewhere in the overall pile of OK shooters and being on the top of the pile.

So I would encourage you all to gift that family member (or yourself) with some of the really good photo text books out there.  Unfortunately none of them cover all elements well but individually the material; is out there.  The biggest thing however, is practice and play at it; explore the world of photography and the world of visual art and artists.  On my web primary site ( is a page, “SDCCD,” that provides a link to some of the better books out there as a starting place.

If the budding photographer is young, say, High School age or less, then always encourage him or her to have their camera with them, support their work and and interest.  Take them to good places to photograph and show them good web sites devoted to serious photography and photographers.  (There is a “Links” page on my website that can get you off and running.)  If his or her school has a photo club encourage joining.  There are also private workshops around the area dealing with some of the technical and aesthetic issues that would be good for her.  She will have a leg up on competition from starting so young.

And then if the interest is still alive after high school, then encourage them to get in a good photo program such as the one we have at City.  The artistic spirit under development is incredibly fragile.  It takes time for it to gain the internal strength needed to be self supporting.  Minimal discouragement can kill it early so it is important for those close to the growing artist to be supportive and to make it clear they are behind this exploration.

Unfortunately, you or they will encounter well meaning people that will be discouraging because they believe that getting into the arts is a sure fire way of going broke quickly.  That is only partially true.

Yes, if you can at best hope to enter the field at the bottom or middle of the pile then it is true.  Perhaps you can eak out a living but because it is already teeming with other want-to-bes it more likely you will be eaten alive.  But there is another side to it.  There is some real money to be made at the top of the pile and there is always room at the top.  But getting there will require dedication and practice that is far more demanding of you than any normal career where you just show up, clock in, do your task, and then go home.  THere is a reason why so few rise to that level, and the reason is that it is desperately hard work and takes a lot out of the person and also out of those around them.

But the rewards, not just monetarily, can be so completely fulfilling to the spirit and soul as to make all other endeavors and successes pale by comparison.  And for the photographer it all often starts with the simple gift of a good camera.  Good luck and perhaps someday I’ll get to meet you in person in one of our classes.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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