I bought a DSLR camera some time ago, a Canon T5i Digital Rebel. It came with a stock lens, plus I bundled it with a 55mm to 250mm zoom lens, and it works pretty well for me. I’ve taken some amazing shots of our cousins waterskiing, some nice group photos, a few sunsets, and even some astrophotography. But I have a big challenge. And it isn’t the equipment.
I don’t really know what I’m doing. Sure, I’ve read the manual, but I don’t know much about the difference between aperture, f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO settings, let alone white balance, metering modes, bounce flashes or any of that stuff. I kind of naively thought if I looked at settings of photos I like (often the magazines include the specs for the shot), I could learn to recreate some of them. Not impossible, but not very illuminating either. I have wanted to take a course, but timing and expense and area of emphasis were hard to coordinate. In the meantime, I’ve been playing with my camera and reading magazines.
Fast forward to a photography course with The Great Courses company. Note that TGC has an approach to these learning courses that basically relies on identifying excellent teachers from around the world, getting them to teach a specific course they’re passionate about, and then selling the audio or video series. Think of it is as more organized TED talks, or alternatively, downloadable MOOCs without the other students, interactions online, or the paper certificate at the end. They have a couple of photography courses, and I lucked into Joel Sartore’s “Fundamentals of Photography”. Broken into 24 video lectures of about 30-35 minutes each, the course basically talks about various subject matters in photography from a non-technical perspective. Which is about where my level of expertise is at the present.
Class 1, entitled “Making Great Pictures”, is a general introduction to the course, with an overview of the “approach”. Mostly Sartore talks about teaching would-be photographers to “see well”, combining subject, light, background and space to create iconic or interesting photos, something different from everybody else.
While the lecture is more of a general intro, there were some tips I liked:
- Sartore noted that lots of people subscribe to the classic myth that the best photos outside require you to have the sun at your back. Except he said that this means that whoever your subject is (person, dog, etc.), they are looking directly into the sun. Which means they are likely squinting, a form of torture for your subject, and it is even less important with modern cameras which can work with a lot softer light.
- For him, Sartore noted that the true basis for a great picture was great light + great composition + something interesting to see.
- Last but not least, he advised that you should stop to “pet the whale”, an anecdote about a specific whale watching excursion where the whales will let you pet them but many photographers are so focused on the photo, they forget to enjoy the experience. Combined with the need to think about what you are photographing, he advises putting the camera down to enjoy the experience as well as seeing it clearly, considering what you want to include or exclude, and only then consider picking up the camera.
There was one sour note in the opening lecture, and I confess it almost turned me completely off the series. Sartore was talking about how some photos require a bit of staging, although those aren’t the words he used, and he showed a photo of his wife and son, with his wife holding his son up while he was wearing a bright shirt/short set, less than 2 years old, in front of a sweeping Arizona vista. He was noting that the shot was “unique” because it showed his son in full on crying mode — beautiful image, but not your typical pose. The image itself was a bit iconic, perhaps, but Sartore noted that his son had been crying most of the time, and wasn’t very happy. And he wanted a photo, so he asked his wife to hold his son up for about 20 seconds, essentially to make him uncomfortable and give him real time to get into the cry. Did it hurt his son? Of course not. Would I do it with my son? No, cuz I don’t want to be an a**hole to him.
It really turned me off the host, and I basically took it as my “warning shot”. I stuck with the series though and it hasn’t repeated. Maybe he was being funny, maybe he was adlibbing, maybe he was careless with his words, but it didn’t sound very nice to the kid. However, I’m in it for the photography tips, not parenting tips, and I’ve stuck with it.
I liked his “homework” assignment at the end, where he suggested you find an interesting room in your house, i.e. your favorite room, and think of what you could photograph. He chose his living room, with two assistants playing with dogs. What I found interesting was to see the composition, and how much of a difference it made when he decluttered the background to remove a mirror and some pictures. It isn’t much, very subtle, but it drastically altered the composition. Quite well done.
In short, I loved it. On to Chapter 2.