How we see

Hat, coat, scarf © Steven Willard

The first camera I ever owned, not the first camera I ever used, was a Yashica 124 twin lens; a poor man’s Rolliflex. I bought it with the money I earned mowing lawns for our neighbors one summer. It was, to my way of thinking, the perfect camera for a beginner. Simple, manual controls, 12 exposures on 120 roll film. Not the sharpest lens, but the medium format meant that prints enlarged to 8X10 looked sharp enough. I learned about exposure, and later, film development using that camera. I also learned to “see” with it. With a square format and a fixed lens it became second nature to have a pretty good idea what a photograph was going to look like even before looking through the waist level finder.

Todays cameras, even our smart phones, are so sophisticated with auto-focus, auto-exposure, zoom lenses, and even changeable aspect ratios, it makes learning how the camera will render an image very difficult. Yes we can be reasonably confident that we will be able to make a recognizable image, but that isn’t the same as visualizing how an image will look, in advance, when photographed with a particular camera/lens combination, and that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the muscle memory it takes to operate our cameras in an efficient manner. The result, not surprisingly, are missed shots, and photographs that either don’t look like what we imagined, or are the result of dumb luck.

I recently spent a weekend at a workshop with Dan Burkholder digging into the menus of my Olympus OMD EM1, and one of the take always was learning how to set up the camera’s presets so that with a turn of a dial I can switch from shooting RAW, auto-iso, single, exposure, muted color in 4:3 aspect, to in-camera black and white jpeg square. Now, whenever I want I can switch to black and white square and what I’m seeing in the EVF is a square black and white image by just turning one dial! It’s like composing in the old Yachica, but instead of a color finder I’m seeing the image in black and white. Is this feature necessary for me to imagine my shot? No, but it helps move me one step closer to the final image.

Part of the art of photography is being able to take note of what is in front of the camera and to then be able to imagine how it will look as a photograph, and then have the skills necessary for making that happen. But first you have to see it, and modern cameras can help with that; you just have to put forth the effort to learn how these new tools work.

Olympus OMD EM1 with legacy manual focus 50mm f1.4 lens, processed in PhotoCopier, Stackables, and Snapseed on my iPad Air.

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