Saturday, August 19, 2006

Shutter Speed

When I was 16, I got a job at the local paper for the summer. I got a title (General Assignment Reporter and Photographer), which seemed like a very big deal at the time, and a desk and a phone and a computer that seemed aged for the time and now wouldn’t register as a computer at all.

The camera I used to take pictures was large and heavy, requiring both hands to hold it steady. It had a million and one controls and I only got decent pictures about 1/16th of the time. I was assured my eye was good, but that my technical skills pretty well sucked. (I’m sure that isn’t the word my editor used, but it translated to “sucked” pretty clearly. Newsrooms are not known as places of tact and diplomacy.) When the summer was over, I had to give the camera back, though I was still allowed to use the darkroom after school if I felt so inspired. I happily went back to my point and shoot camera and if the good photos weren’t quite as good, there were many more of them.

I’ve been more or less obsessive about taking pictures ever since, though I much prefer the kind of picture taking that finds me standing alone on a bluff and taking pictures of trees and rocks than pushing around a crowded group of people, making everyone uncomfortable by snapping pictures of their stilted smiles. But it’s only recently that I started trying to take pictures using manual settings instead of letting the camera make all the choices for me.

I can’t tell you how frustrating this is. Because my pictures have gotten much worse. It's to be expected, I suppose. After 15 years of taking hundreds of pictures each year, suddenly I’m starting over. I’m learning aperture and shutter speed and how to focus the damn camera and getting pictures that are, frankly, crap. Every once in a while, I get everything exactly right, and it’s very, very exciting.

But I lust for the combination of eye and technical skill that makes the pictures in the photo blogs I love so entrancing. Now I know just how many tiny building blocks of understanding go into making an image so complete it's capable of calling your heart to beat hard under the cover of thin skin. It’s good, I suppose, to go back to the beginning and build understanding and knowledge so the picture is deep. I’ve always been very good at delayed gratification, and I can wait, I think, for the perfect picture to leap through my camera lens and be translated perfectly, pixel for pixel on the screen. But, like any endeavor that requires that kind of skill and patience, in the meantime I’m questioning whether it will ever come together. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not meant to take those kinds of pictures.

My life right now seems to be about asking questions about what, organically, I’m capable of doing. I'm pushing into new territory. There are no immediate answers, though. I just have to keep building, block by block, skill by skill. In the end, I'll look around and decide whether these blocks are building what I've set out to build. In the meantime, I'll remain a beginner and try not to hurry right back to point and shoot.


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