Photography without formula

I got an e-mail from a reader asking me to share some tips about photo-taking. The way I get it, what she really wants are tutorials. It’s flattering. I don’t even consider myself a great photographer. I’m competent, yes, but hardly skilled and talented enough to actually think I can make a living out of it.

See, I’m pretty much a wing it kind of person. Back in grade school when I was learning to play the guitar, I learned the chords and that was that. You can imagine my surprise when I met someone later on who gave me the “scientific lowdown” on guitar chords. You know, that to make a major a minor, you move one finger one fret to the left because you’re actually going one step lower. Or something like that. You can’t make me learn anything that way. I have to feel what I’m doing.

If you’ve seen the film The Turning Point (yes, the ballet movie with Mikhail Baryshnikov in it), there was a scene where Leslie Browne was accused by the ballet teacher of not counting her steps. Browne countered by saying, “I don’t count; I feel.” That pretty much sums up my way of seeing things.

It’s the same with photography. I know what the aperture setting is for, I know the importance of the shutter speed, I know how to balance them to achieve the effect I want… But I can’t talk along the lines of vignetting and all that stuff. I had a domain for photography tips and I gave it up (all its contents had been integrated with this blog months ago and that’s why in the tag cloud on the sidebar, “photography” is the tag with the largest font size) because I have never acquired the photography lingo that will enable me to discuss the technical side of picture taking. There are some very good photos in those entries but the discussions are duh! Double duh even. What do I mean?

Look at the image below. I got that from Wikipedia. That is the formula that explains aperture.

I got that from Wikipedia. That is the formula that explains aperture. It means “the amount of light captured by a lens is proportional to the area of the aperture” where “f is focal length and N is the f-number.” Duh, that’s enough for me to conclude that I will never ever learn photography.

The question, of course, is whether it is necessary to know and understand that formula to be able to take good photos.

Look at the three photos below. Tiny white flowers with yellow centers I think this is the kind with sharp little needle-like objects that get stuck to your clothes if you get in contact with them.

The backgrounds are only slightly washed out. Why?

Now, compare them with the next photo. I don't know what these things are called but they cook like the tails of cats. The first is a short bushy tail that might belong to a Persian cat and the second is a tail of the common pusakal.

Above, the background has been almost totally washed out. Why?

It’s a combination of three things: the depth of field, the aperture setting and the shutter speed. To be more precise, all photos were taken with the same aperture setting (f/8) and shutter speed. But photo #4 has a more washed out background because the distance between subject and the blades of grass behind it was longer than the distance between the flowers and the grass in the first three photos.

When I took those photos, I knew that had I used a f/4 or a f/2 aperture setting in photos 1, 2 and 3, I could have achieved the same washed out background as in photo #4. How do I know? Because I have assimilated the knowledge rather than memorized the formula. I have been taking photos long enough to know the cause and effect of changing aperture settings and shutter speeds on the depth of field. I don’t stop and think in terms of pi and square roots. Shucks, if you ask me what depth-of-field means, I’m sure I won’t even be able to explain. My best explanation is that with one look, I can approximate the distance between a subject and its background and know the best combination of aperture setting and shutter speed for the effect that I want.

But depth-of-field is central to the trick of changing the aperture setting to get the exact amount of blurriness you want for the background. It’s insane not to be able to define it. Well, sorry, I can deal with it but I sure as hell can’t explain it.

So… me writing photography tutorials? ‘Wag na. Baka maging comedy pa. :mrgreen: But I have one very important tip though — learn the philosophy behind miksang photography. No, I’m not saying attend one of the training sessions. Just understand the concept and it’s the best philosophy for anyone interested in photography.