The Merits of Photography 101, Part 1

Because I have been slowly educating myself over the last several years on how to use a camera well, I feel I can safely say that I am no slouch photographically. I long ago learned the major technical terms, learned how to control exposure, learned about depth of field and aperture, and focal length, ISO sensitivity, and so on. I know I can handle a camera reasonably well, and consistently produce good results. So what did I decide to do this fall?

Enroll in Photography 101.

In this case, Photo 101 is black and white film photography, including developing film and printing. Yes, I said film. 35mm, black and white film, printed on actual photo paper in a dark room.Other than being a prerequisite for the 200-level courses that I really want to take, why would I do that?

Many of my fellow students asked themselves the same question after the first class period, and arrived at a different answer than I did. They are gone. And that’s really a shame, because there is a lot to learn in Photo 101, even for an experienced although self-trained photographer.

One of the biggest benefits has been in learning how to look at my own photographs more critically, and see potential beyond how the first couple of test prints look. That has been, at times, a difficult process; I guess I am too eager to say, “Hey, that looks pretty good,” and be happy with myself. And in general, those prints do look pretty good. But pretty good is simply not good enough, and better photographers will push themselves and their prints to the point where they stop looking pretty good and start looking very good.

Of course, a great image starts with the exposure, so the first several weeks of smarmily and self-satisfiedly handing my contact sheets over to the professor, only to have him say, “Meh,” have taught me to begin not even with the exposure, but with an image of the final print in my head. Then, start working the lighting or the scene to get to that final image, or something close to it, on the negative. Once that is there, then the real work of actualizing the final image in print form from the negative can be undertaken.

Since I have started doing this, I have produced three rolls of film where my problem was not finding the one that was good enough to print, but rather finding which frame was going to be the best to print. This is a lovely dilemma to have, and having multiple shots to play around with really affords me the opportunity to approach similar prints in different ways, and thus learn much more about the subtleties of making fine prints. And that, I think, is where better insight into photography can be found: in making those subtle decisions between similar prints.

I am working on a series of cross-lit, textural shots of leaves, and they are, if I may say so, beautiful. They will hang on my walls. While they share similar elements, each one is focused somehow differently on texture, shape, and negative space. They are all lit similarly, but are being printed differently, although in the end a viewer probably wouldn’t be able to tell…and in fact, shouldn’t be able to tell (you don’t want someone saying “Nice print manipulation.”). They are being made by looking at similar images and deciding on subtle amounts of dodging, burning, base exposure, contrast, and cropping that will make each one the most it can be.

Work in a darkroom is slow. It is methodical. Putting the requisite amount of time into each print slows me waaaaaay down from the immediacy and speed of digital processing, and even digital photography. I can’t simply look at the back of the camera to see that my exposure is off; I have to know it when I press the shutter release. I end up taking fewer pictures, and they are better pictures. In the darkroom, I carefully consider manipulations, because they are expensive–it’s not just a matter of moving sliders around.

Slowing down has made me much more critical in how I view both through the viewfinder and on the paper. Since photography is all about vision, this is a good thing, and one of the strongest benefits of taking a basic photography course. Knowing how to use a camera has made the course easier, but learning how to use my eyes better has made the course deeper.

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