Along with normal how-to articles and essays, I’ve always liked reading and writing very technical, nitty-gritty articles about photography—sometimes, articles on topics that rarely come up while actually taking pictures.
In fact, I usually don’t even use my own sharpest aperture charts in the field, as useful as they are, since I don’t like carrying around charts. So, then, does all that technical stuff matter? Is it even worth talking about in the first place?
These questions are very important to ask, since most people don’t want waste their time on topics that are unnecessary for their photography—do these articles actually help? There are no easy answers, but a recent trip I took to Death Valley makes a compelling argument for why some of this highly-technical information really does matter.
1. Driving a Car/Using a Camera
If you’ve just passed your driver’s test, and you’ve barely been behind the wheel for a few hours, the scariest thing in the world would be to see someone swerving in front of your car on the highway.
At that point, you have enough driving experience to nail down the basics: using turn signals, staying in your own lane, watching your speed, and so on. From the outside, you certainly look like a competent driver—and, in many ways, you are, since you just passed your test.
Yet, when you just start to drive, it naturally takes a lot of conscious thought to do everything correctly. You’re always glancing at your speedometer, for example, or you’re constantly thinking about staying within your lane. Nothing is habitual or automatic; your brain is hard at work the entire time.
So, when another car does something unexpected, you may not know how to solve the problem instantly. Your automatic reaction system isn’t developed yet, and your brain is still focused on the basics. It’s not that you’re a bad driver—in fact, even when you’re starting out, you probably knew enough to drive flawlessly under typical conditions—but you haven’t internalized everything yet.
That’s how I see the technical side of photography.
Many of us have a solid understanding of camera technique: aperture, shutter speed, focusing, and other technical skills that are part of your basic, creative toolkit. It’s not that you simply know them at a surface level, either; you actually understand them. You could even teach other photographers how many of these concepts work, and you’ve taken plenty of good photos that put your knowledge into practice.
But that isn’t always enough. Sometimes, you’ll be taking pictures under rapidly-changing conditions, and you don’t have time to think about exposure or depth of field—you don’t have time to think about anything. Every step of the process needs to be perfectly ingrained in your head, or you’ll miss the shot.
Simply learning a lot of technical information is not the same as knowing everything backwards and forwards in your sleep. When conditions are changing rapidly, a few seconds can be crucial. How do you maximize your time and truly understand the basics, so that you spend as little time as possible perfecting the basic technical stuff—aperture, exposure, focusing, and so on?
One way is practice. When you start out in photography, the best method to master the basics is to keep taking pictures and reading about the topics you’re trying to master. That’s how most people do it, and it obviously works well.
However, the problem with practice is that some concepts pop up so rarely that it may take months or years before they’re fully ingrained in your head. In other cases—say, setting an aperture that balances diffraction with depth of field—you may have plenty of time to do trial-and-error in the field (assuming typical conditions) without really understanding the topic. It’s only when you’re rushed that you realize your reactions aren’t as quick as they could be.
That brings us to the other method: Learning the really technical stuff.
When you read about high-level, complex photographic topics, or you start to work with them in the field, you’ll force yourself to learn the basics solidly. If you can understand highly-technical information—even at a surface level—it means that you have a rock-solid foundation. For example, by reading about a topic like Airy disks, even if you don’t think about it while you’re out in the field, you’re forcing your brain to understand basic concepts like aperture and diffraction with far more thoroughness.
And that’s the goal.
When you read about crazy topics, the benefit isn’t just to teach something new. Often, it’s to reinforce the old, basic skills in such a way that they become automatic parts of your thought process. Say the words “large aperture” to a professional photographer, and they’ll instantly think of countless things—bokeh, focus mode, depth of field, the necessary shutter speed and ISO values, and countless more—while a beginner is still working to remember that a large aperture is a small number.
It’s one thing to understand how a basic, important topic works if you have a few moments to sit back and think about it, but it’s totally different to recall it automatically while you’re being pelted by sand and 35mph winds, trying to take a photo before the light changes.
2. A Case Study
That brings us back to what I mentioned at the start of this article: Death Valley.
This was only my second trip to the area, so I’m not yet at the point of knowing exactly what to photograph in Death Valley, but I was familiar with the Mesquite Sand Dunes. I also knew that, on a day with 35mph gusts of wind, the sand dunes would be a vicious place to take pictures.
But you know the saying—“Bad weather makes good photos!”—and I know it, too. So, with sunglasses and a scarf to block the sand, I treaded into the desert for sunset photography.
Everything was fine for an hour or so, and the light was starting to get good. The clouds were dark and dramatic, and the sand in the air was creating amazing lighting conditions. After hiking an hour into the dunes, not long before sunset, I noticed a low-hanging cloud in the distance.
As I took more and more photos, it became clear that this cloud was quickly approaching the dunes—and it wasn’t a normal cloud. Out in the middle of the desert, while I took pictures of a spectacular sunset, a massive cloud of sand was rolling in my direction.
As you can imagine, I was rushing to capture the best possible photos before the sand cloud arrived, and I didn’t have much time. To be as efficient as possible, I ended up taking just a couple photos per tripod position, then walking a bit farther and finding something else to capture. This isn’t my normal method, but these were unusual circumstances.
Side note: I strongly caution people against going into the desert, or any other landscape like this, unprepared. Mother Nature is harsh. It’s best if you can bring someone else along, as I did, but that’s not enough. I also had a walkie talkie, a GPS, a separate GPS on my phone, a full battery pack to charge my phone, and even some spotty cell coverage. I also had a bright flashlight and plenty of water, and it wasn’t a hot night in the first place.
Even then—knowing that I was well-prepared, and knowing exactly where my car was—parts of that sandstorm were otherworldly. I very likely could have maneuvered back to my car or the road without a GPS… but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to try.
That said, if you stay safe, crazy weather almost always pays off.
I came back with a handful of photos that I really liked, including the one below:
I only took a single photo from this tripod position. In fact, it was the last shot I captured before the cloud of sand was overhead, and visibility dropped to about ten meters in each direction. (If you look at the left-hand side of the photo, you can actually see the very front edge of the dust cloud approaching.)
To make this single photo a success, several things needed to go right. First, since my focal length was 35mm, and the foreground was quite close to the lens, a small aperture was crucial (and I chose f/16). My focusing distance had to be roughly at the hyperfocal distance, or I risked a blurry background or foreground. Also, dealing with a high-contrast sky, I needed to watch the exposure and make sure not to lose any highlight detail. An error in any one of these steps—or a few extra seconds spent, since the dust cloud was approaching rapidly—would harm the photo significantly, and perhaps beyond repair.
In a situation like this, 100% of your mental energy should be focused on finding the best possible subject and composition. All the technical settings should fly through the back of your mind without wasting time, yet they also need to be as accurate as possible.
In this case, it went well. I credit part of that success to luck (since shots like this certainly don’t always work out), part to practice, and part to reading and writing articles that are vastly more complex than what I actually needed to know in order to capture this photo. That’s why the technical stuff matters.
Learning advanced technical information is one of the best ways to be as efficient as possible in the field, internalizing the basic concepts that you’ll use all the time and making them into long-lasting habits.
Then again, I’m not saying that you should take pictures on autopilot; I actually believe that can take a lot of the fun out of photography. If you’re not thinking while you’re in the field, you’re not challenging yourself—but if you’re spending too much time thinking about technical information and camera settings when you’re in a rush, you probably need to practice and read more.
It’s that goal—internalizing and automating the basics as much as possible—that makes it worthwhile to keep learning the super-technical stuff, even if you don’t see yourself using that specific information very often. When you learn high-level techniques, whether or not you actually use them, you’re still reinforcing the knowledge that you need every day.
I know that not everyone will agree, but I firmly believe that technical information will never harm your photography. It doesn’t bog you down to learn about hyperfocal distance or ISO invariance, even if you never use them in the field, and even if (though I think this is rarely the case) they don’t help reinforce the basics.
At the absolute worst, learning about those topics still expands what you know about the world. If your goal is to stay interested and excited about photography, that sounds good enough to me.
About the author: Spencer Cox is a landscape and travel photographer from Franklin, Tennessee. To contact Spencer directly or view more of his work, visit his website at Spencer Cox Photography or follow him on Facebook. This article was also published here.
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