Monday, February 23, 2009

When Learning was easier

I was reading a forum for beginning photographers on and got to thinking about when I started in photography. It was 1969. Photography was just getting the the latest technology in cameras, built-in light meters on Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras. I had just bought a Minolta SRT-101 with a 58mm f1.2 lens (both still working). And to learn I went to a local community college photography class.

While my memory of the class is distant and faint - and actually remember more I girl I dated who was also in the class, I remember it had some very basic ideas for the students to learn. Photography of to that point was in transistion from the older pre-WW II large format cameras and the rangerfinder cameras coming onto the market in the 50 and 60's to the newer SLR's being developed and marketed. Every company had one and more in the design stage.

Cameras back then were mechnical, the only electronics was the light meter. Many of them would work if the battery quit or light meter failed. You simply resorted to your learning and guessed the exposure. And there weren't any automatic modes. All of them were what was called "needle matching", meaning you matched the exposure adjustment (shutter speed and aperture), usually a circle, with the light meter needle. You knew the top half was an half f-stop under exposure and the bottom a half f-stop over exposure.

That's all there was. The trick was to know how the light meter work and judge the scene accordingly. Some camera had full-frame averaging, some spot metering and some, like the Minolta, center-weighted averaging. Minolta's worked very well for 90% of the lighting and scene conditions, and you adjusted for the other ones, usually those with extreme shadows and highlights or an abundance of ground or sky.

In the class we learned about light, exposure and composition, pretty much the same you can learn today. Nothing basic in photography changes. Certainly light and exposure don't. Composition is personal and your personal expression, and that has changed a little maybe, mostly with the sheer numbers of photographers doing "their thing" as it were or is now.

After that, we learned film development and printing. The old photo lab. Later I worked for the base photo lab. We got paid in film and free access to materials and rooms. At the end of the two years I was glad to walk away from labs, although I later did develop my own b&w and color slide film at home. I like labs to develop my film, saves on the work and the anxiety if anything goes wrong.

That's was it for the class. One quatert to learn with field exercises (bring back developed slides) about photography, photographic techniques, the camera and producing the results. I used my Minolta SRT-101 for the next 20 years while adding other Minolta cameras (now number about 14) along with about 30 lenses now (a dozen or so sold or donated over the years).

Minolta made a excellent line of manual focus cameras with basic the same light meter system. They just updated the cells, electronics and software, but the logic to the center-weighted averaging system stayed with only minor changes in the coverage patterns newer cells and electronics allowed. You can take the same photo with a SRT-101 and a X-700 and they'll read the same exposure and take the same image and quality.

Since retiring I've added a Canon digital and film system (EOS-5D and EOS-1N) and a 4x5 camera. So the learning started all over again, almost 40 years later. One to learn a digital camera and one to relearn photography and the LF camera. It's not been without its mistakes, but it's the real-world classroom again. And the same field exercises, to bring back the digital images and film photos.

What I did learn about digital photography is that, despite the complexity of the cameras, it still boils down to understanding how it works to do what you want. But I will add, though, learning digital is easier if you come from a film background, the longer the better. Because then you can translate your experiences and knowledge to the camera. You already know what is can do, you only need to learn how to set it up for you and your work.

And what I've learned and relearned about large format photography is much the same, a long background in film helps, but you still need to learn the camera and the schmeipflug rule. That's not something you can learn elsewhere, it's the heart and soul of LF photography and what makes the camera work to produce the results you want.

The on/off knob in LF photography is your mind. It's all mechanical (ok, there are digital versions, but beyond the price of most LF photographers). It's all about how you think, how you work, how you see, how you judge, how you practice. Nothing happens on its own, only when you do something. And it always shows in the result, the negative or slide.

And that's the neat thing about it. Photography is like many other things in life. You never stop learning, because if you do stop, you mentally die. Learning starts when you pick up the camera bag and doesn't stop until you see the prints. That hasn't changed.

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