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Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Photography: your camera can make you wiser

Photo credit: Sara Denise 
For my birthday this year I indulged and bought myself a present I had long been lusting after: a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I learned photography some 20 years ago with an all-manual film camera, a Nikon FM2, a beauty to hold and to behold, but who takes pictures with film these days? It was time for an upgrade.

Of course the new camera wasn't cheap but since my "nirvana" moment on the dentist chair the other day (you can read about it here), I stopped being so paranoid about death by poverty and bailiffs knocking on my door and decided to liberally invest time and money on things and activities that are in sync with my dreams and goals in life. 

This week I started carrying my new Nikon D5300 in my bag wherever I go – work, shopping, taichi lessons in the park – in hope that I will come across some serendipitous photo opportunities on the way.

The beauty of digital is that you need not fear making mistakes, wasting rolls and rolls of expensive film and development fees. The sky is the limit for digital cameras; you can shoot away to your heart's content, then retouch, crop, edit or delete.

But more possibilities also mean more decisions to be made per shot. 

Choices
With my film camera, there was a combination of three things I needed to get right: the ISO sensitivity of the film, the aperture of the lens and shutter speed for the correct exposure. Of course I could attach filters to it, or a flash, but mastering the three key functions was all you needed for starters. The rest was down to your eye as a photographer, legwork (how close to the subject you want to be), your choice of lens and depth of field, a steady grip to prevent blur (or the use of a tripod), framing and composition. Some knowledge about light – types and strengths – also helped.

DSLRs are a totally different ball game. Learning to photograph with one of those is like going into a new relationship: it is all about discovering, by trial and error, which buttons to push and when. 

Whereas on going out with your new boyfriend, the only decision you may need to make is whether you want to eat Italian, French or Thai, a date with a new DSLR is equivalent to making additional decisions on: a choice of what to wear from 20 dresses and 20 pairs of shoes, going with or without lipstick, which could be one of 15 colours, gloss or matt, and would you like to reach the restaurant by private car, taxi, bus, train, tram, on foot or on horseback? 

I am dreadful at decision making at the best of times. When asking me what drink I'd like with my dinner, offer me red or white wine but please don't even mention rosé or the possibility of having champagne or Prosecco instead, or I will go into a meltdown with"over-choice". 

Faking it 
The abundance of choices and technical combinations on a DSLR camera may excite geeks and pros, but to me it feels overwhelming and unnecessary. My camera comes with a wide variety of settings I can use for the best photographic results in every imaginable situation, location, time of day or night, but how spontaneous can you possibly be if you need to adjust a dozen settings before you even point the camera at the subject?

I love the idea of using the saturated colours' setting when taking photos of autumn leaves, for example, but it seems more important to me that a photograph is saturated with sentiment, imbued with life, that it tells a story and fires up the imagination of the viewers. This is where the capabilities of a camera's mechanics end and the creativity of the photographer begins.

Browsing through Flickr I often see photographs that communicate nothing more than "here's a nice shot", one-dimensional, aesthetically pleasing, curious, even clever, but utterly soulless. Everyone can "see" what you and I can see, but the great masters of photography have the ability to move us with their images because they see through an inner eye of wisdom, which can delve beneath the apparent, understand beyond the obvious. 

Focussing
The way you look at the world changes when you take up photography as a hobby. In your head, you start framing everything you see through your camera's viewfinder. Would this landscape make a good composition? How do I apply the rule of thirds here? How do I crop off an interesting micro-scene from the macro-scene it belongs to? You also start paying attention to the small things that enter your field of vision, which you may have missed if you weren't looking for things to photograph: the bee that just landed on a flower, a dewdrop on the fence, the dimple in the corner of someone's cheek.

When observing people, strangers, reading a book on a park bench, lying on the grass, walking a dog, kissing in a dark corner, you start to mentally angle your vision from high and low, right and left points of view, looking for the most dramatic shot; you start playing with possibilities. Suddenly every inanimate object, every colourful wall, every tree and flower, every distracted stranger becomes an object of camera desire and a potential work of art. 

Life lessons 
Similarly we go through life seeking friends, partners, jobs, hobbies, etc that fit the theme of our projects but how often do we break down each situation into its component parts and recognise value in them? How often do we notice the beauty of a given routine moment or life pulsating inside a leaf? How often do we look at someone's eyes and see past their irises, into a much deeper place where you might meet and connect?

It occurred to me that looking at life with the eyes, or should I say lens, of a photographer, would make me live more attentively and more wisely. The expression "look at the big picture" takes a literal meaning – the question to ask yourself is how it [whatever decision you may be contemplating] fits into the picture of what you want to create.

But if it can open my eyes to so much more, can it also make me into a better person? Can photography change anyone into a better person? Of course it is not an automatic correlation. I hear you say some photographers you know are cocky and arrogant SOBs... I've come across those too. I guess it all depends on whether your "seeing lens" is located in your head or in your heart. And on how open your "aperture" is, how much light you let in. 

Inner photographer
Whereas owning a camera may not automatically turn you into a Dalai Lama, it can teach you a thing or two about relationships. When we say we "clicked"with someone else, it is probably because our inner lenses found each other interesting enough to want to mutually record the moment in a mental photograph. 

With others, the photoshooting may be less instantaneous, require longer exposure and slower (shutter) speeds, but it still is a good exercise in experimenting with and learning about focus points, focal lengths, right distances, angles and framing – the foundation of all human connections – discovering if something or someone is worth that "click" or not.

As in digital photography, we sometimes edit the truth, enhance it, blur it, make it artificially sharp or vivid in order to create what we want to see. You can live life like an Instagram picture gallery, full of glam-up filters that make everything look good all the time. Or you can go back to basics and let your inner photographer guide you to an unadulterated masterpiece. 

At any rate it cannot be a bad thing having an extra eye to view life from, whether the world is smiling on you or not. On rainy days you can find inspiration in the rain drops on your window. You may even see a rainbow beyond. 

Time to get that camera out: be greedy with your seeking, generous with your seeing, focussed with your clicking.

Photo credit: Alison Tutton 




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