You Don’t Have to Be a Great Photographer

“You Don’t Have to be a Great Photographer to Take Great Photos”

A marketing slogan used in a commercial promoting one of Panasonic’s latest cameras. The commercial shows a man presenting some beautiful images he took at some sort of exhibition. People start asking him questions like “what was your aperture?” or “what shutter speed did you use?”, to which he responds “uh, really big” and “uh, like really fast,”  betraying his ignorance when it comes to photographic technique. Seems that the camera did all the work for him. I imagine many photographers might take one look at this slogan and get really offended, as if the commercial is somehow dismissing the importance of the skill, discipline, and artistic ability that so many photographers today work so hard at developing.

The reality? This is just a commercial targeting a specific audience. Is there absolute truth in marketing? Does that Big Mac you bought for lunch today look anything remotely like it does in the McDonald’s commercials? Of course not. McDonald’s knows it and so do their consumers, no one’s getting fooled. If you’re an artist with a passion for photography, you already know what it really takes to make a great picture, and Panasonic does to. They know they’re not selling an idea here, they’re selling a camera, and they’re using an exaggerated idea to do it.

While more serious photographers would be better off just getting a good laugh from the commercial, aspiring photographers should also be careful not to take such marketing too seriously. I love how legendary photographer Joe McNally puts it in his latest book:

“Good pictures demand care, and truly good pictures are hard to make. The manufacturers are out there selling us the digital dream, telling us that the camera does it all. And some of these machines almost do; they are marvelous contraptions. But no matter how fancy the gear, photography itself, at the end of the day, rules. Just like Mother Nature, the photo gods are mercurial indeed and smile upon us only occasionally and reluctantly.”

Truth is, today’s cameras are more sophisticated than ever before. They automate processes that were once completely cumbersome and manual, allowing you to focus more on things like composition and aesthetics while thinking less about what exact settings you need for the exposure you want. This does not mean that you don’t need to know how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO relate to exposure. It does mean, however, that you can approach a scene with today’s cameras without your very first thought being “I wonder what my shutter speed or ISO should be,” because your camera could very well make that decision for you, and in many cases, make a better decision than you would. Besides, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed are not the only factors involved in making a good photo.

In itself, does the knowledge of how a camera works and how to juggle aperture, shutter speed, and ISO with ease make you a great photographer? Of course not. There are so many other factors to consider in making a compelling image, like how you see and interpret a scene, how you compose, what you decide to include or exclude from the frame, using texture, using color, understanding how light behaves, deciding what to put in front of your camera, and hey, just being in the right place at the right time. As Joe says, at the end of the day, photography, and all it entails, rules.

So, getting back to this Panasonic ad. To me, the fact that people are asking about the man’s camera settings in a situation like this seems, in itself, unrealistic and absurd in the first place. Personally, if I showed someone a photo I took and the first thing they say is, “so what was your shutter speed?”, I’m pretty sure my response would be, “uh…I don’t know, can’t remember.” Why? It’s not important enough to remember! I got the shot, period. Knowing what my shutter speed is won’t tell you anything about what conditions were like on-location when I hit the shutter release, what I was thinking at the time, or what look I was trying to convey in the final image, including any post processing decisions I made. To me, the people in the audience asking questions in this commercial appear just as ignorant as the photographer. Who cares what exact shutter speed he used?!

The key to using today’s cameras is not to believe that the camera will do it all for you, but to understand how your camera thinks and nudge it in the right direction in order to accomplish your vision. The camera can’t do it all. It’s smart, fast, and sophisticated, but needs input from you in order to create art. The amount of input from you varies from one scene to the next. In the image above of San Francisco’s China Basin during sunset, I started by letting the camera do its thing. I saw a beautiful scene, and knew the lighting wasn’t too crazy for my camera to sort out exposure wise. So I walked over, found my composition, and with my camera on Aperture Priority Auto, took the shot. The result looked a little dark for my taste, so I went +1EV on my exposure compensation dial. The camera automatically chose the corresponding shutter speed to get me a stop of over-exposure, and the next image was exactly what I wanted.  The camera gave me its best guess, and I simply gave it a little input based on that guess.  What was my shutter speed? Beats me. Couldn’t tell you without revisiting the image’s EXIF.

So, do you need to be a great photographer to take great images? I suppose that depends on how you define a “great photographer” and a “great image”. New camera technologies have made photography much more accessible than ever before, and today’s cameras are truly amazing. Panasonic seems to have taken that fact and stretched it into a funny ad, but any camera, no matter how advanced, is just a tool. It helps you get the job done. How well the job is done will always depend on a whole lot more.


Image: Nikon D700 + Nikkor AFS 24mm f/1.4G

7 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Be a Great Photographer

  1. I really like your post. I’m showing some of my photos at a gallery soon and was a bit worried that people might ask me these questions about what settings I used for particular photos. (People like that do exist, after all.) And I know that I won’t be able to remember.

  2. i couldn’t agree with you more… very well said!!
    i believe the targeted audience in this ad, like the photographer (in the commercial), will look at our images and say ‘nice camera’.

  3. whilst i couldn’t agree with you more I was totally captivated by the china basin shot. Was that 1 frame? Now that’s skill by both user and camera!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s