Jonathan Fleming's Blog

A Photography Blog

Posts Tagged ‘opinion

You Don’t Have to Be a Great Photographer

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“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

Written by Jonathan

December 22, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8 AT-X 535 PRO DX

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(Taken with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3)

My wife is keenly aware of my equipment wish list, and came home from work yesterday with several photographic goodies for me, including this fast telephoto from Tokina. My fast zoom kit is now complete, with three constant aperture lenses covering an 11-135mm (16.5-200mm full-frame equivalent) range.

What I love about my three-lens system is how compact the optics are compared to their full-frame counterparts. This 50-135mm f/2.8, for instance, is a lot smaller than I thought it would be at 5.32 inches in length, weighing 1.86 lbs. To get similar focal length coverage with a constant aperture on a full-frame Nikon camera, you’d need a lens like the $2400 Nikkor 70-200mm VRII, which is a whopping 8.1 inches long at a hefty 3.2 lbs. To me, this is a big advantage of the DX system: smaller, lighter optics that make for better mobility and portability. Not to mention affordability: I picked up all three of my third-party constant aperture zooms for less than the price of the new Nikkor 70-200 VRII alone (Tokina 11-16, Tamron 17-50 VC, Tokina 50-135).

I shot a bunch of images last night to make sure I had a good copy of the Tokina 50-135, and am astounded at the results so far. This is one sharp optic! It relies on my camera’s focus motor to drive focus, so it doesn’t focus as fast or as quiet as an AF-S lens. I find the focus motor in my D300s to be pretty fast, however, and had no problems tracking my dog around the house in low light.

(Nikon D300s + Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8 at 85mm f/5 ISO400 1/60 Second)

Like my Tokina 11-16, this lens features very high quality construction, with a rugged all-metal casing and exceptional fit and finish. The zoom and focus rings are well-damped and move with buttery-smooth precision, and the included (but not removable) tripod collar is also a plus for me. What’s missing? VR and AF-S, but at the price I (er…the wife) paid, I think I can live without those features for now. I really hope Nikon releases some DX lenses in this range, but I’m not holding my breath!

There’s relatively little information on this Tokina on the internet incidentally, which I find strange since it’s so excellent. In fact, from the research I did before receiving it as a gift, it appears that Tokina discontinued this lens.


Want to see more images taken with the Tokina 50-135mm? Head on over to my Flickr page. I just got back from a trip to Japan, where I used this lens extensively. You can view my Japan set by clicking here. Enjoy!