Kodak Z650 Picture #4

18 Aug 2006
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.
~ Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut

Sometime during my later years in college, ages before anyone (save maybe Isaac Asimov) had imagined 10-megapixel cameras in stock at Wal-Marts around the world (except forGermany, of course), I took a B&W photography course. This was one of those deals where you're about 21 years old, hanging out in the dank corner basement of some huge campus building with a 50-something, bearded, corduroy pant-wearing, pervy photographic artiste who's really only there to assist the female undergrads with their apertures. He doesn't want to teach you the basics -- how to retrieve the film from the camera and roll it onto the metal spool in absolute darkness, which chemicals to add, exposure times, etc. He mainly likes to sit on a stool in front of the bulletin board and offer his opinions (stated as facts, of course) about the photographs posted there.

It was essentially an easy GPA-booster -- one of those classes just perfect for the dim-witted athlete riding out a football scholarship (even though, ironically, those types were too stupid to realize this and thus avoided the class completely). (Well, either that, or they were too macho to ever consider taking an arts class.)I recall seeing the instructor only three or four times during the semester, and probably for no more than five minutes at a time. The only easier class I can remember was Music 101 during a summer session (for which I purposely neglected to tell the instructor that I'd studied piano since grade school). BTW, I took a couple of these GPA-boosters mainly to counteract the flagrant irresponsibility demonstrated during my first two semesters spent largely at kegside.

Anyway, my wife (then girlfriend), who had graduated before me and had taken a job at the local paper, suggested that I approach the paper's photo editor about doing an internship in photography. We were both kind of into it at the time.She had a pretty nice Nikon, with a decent zoom, and she'd bought me a Minolta 35mm. So, the idea sounded reasonable to me and I made an appointment to see the guy. Obviously, he'd never had an intern before.

"Let me get this straight," he said. "You want to come here and work for me, and I don't have to pay you?"

"Yep.Just fill out some papers, and I'm free labor!"

"This is fucking great!" he said with a chuckle. "Where do I sign?!" (And, that's a direct quote, by the way. I thought it was immensely cool to hear some older guy with an actual job say "fuck" in front of me so casually like that.)

So, I became the paper's first and only photo intern.Funny how you can sometimes land cool gigs just by thinking them up and asking for them. I'm still surprised no one else had ever approached that guy with a similar proposal. It was a pretty big paper, after all -- 60,000 daily subscribers or something like that.

On my first day, I had to unlearn everything that the guy at the college didn't teach me. Some staff photographer was assigned to show me the ropes on Day 1. (And, these staffers weren't entry-level 20-somethings, either. These guys were lifetime pros in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.) The guy said, "Okay, so, you *do* know how to develop film, right?"

"Uh ... sure," I said. After all, I'd developed, what?, five or six rolls during that college course? I could manage it, I figured, if I had my notes with me.

Sensing this, he (patiently) walked me through the process.I remember him asking me at each step, "Okay, and now what do you do?"

And, I'd reply with what always seemed like the wrong answer."Well, in class, we would then use this chemical for X minutes."

"Yeah, well, forget about the classroom stuff. We don't do that here."

Funny, I thought, how there was such a difference between what the textbook says you "have" to do and what the professionals actually do. (Recall the quote at the top of the page.) Now that I'm the old fart with 15 years on the job, I suppose I have my own ways as well -- ways that aren't explained in whatever textbook the kids are using these days. Every now and then, an intern or entry-level staffer (having somehow gotten hold of some letter I'm about to send out) will boldly enter my office and assert, for example, that one is not supposed to use contractions in business writing or start sentences with "and." And then I get to be that "forget about the classroom" guy -- always enjoyable.

Being a press photographer was kind of a kick and, who knows, might have been a decent career choice. You drive around all day and take pictures of business owners, golf outings, graduations, press conferences, fires, ball games, robberies, and storm damage. Police and firefighters seemed to give you much more access to these newsworthy events than "regular" people. You got as much free film as you could possibly want, 24-hour access to the darkroom, free paper and supplies. And sometimes people gave you free food, which I always liked. Scratch that; I *loved* that part. Truth be told, though, I knew relatively little about photography. I kept the camera on the automatic setting and just clicked away. Anytime I'd come in with anything extra that was deemed "good" (i.e., publishable), the guy would give me $15 (even though he didn't have to). So, it kept me in beer money as well.

Like most cities, we had two main papers.The news and photo guys over at the rival tabloid would monitor our internal radio communications (as we did theirs) in an attempt to steal scoops, so we usually had to speak in code. I remember the reporters and photo guys occasionally sending the competition on wild goose chases by reporting fake news over the radio.

Photographically speaking, these guys were pros. Sure, they appreciated truly excellent composition, contrast, subject matter, etc. Mostly, though, they only drooled over "awesome" sports shots -- action shots taken with gigantic lenses and high-speed exposures. The guys shooting color film seemed to spend most of their time getting the color prints right. I doubt anyone does that manually anymore. (I wasn't allowed to go near the color equipment; that was the one thing they'd get a little nervous about. Must have been rather delicate stuff ... )

So, is photography still an art form?Does one need a crappy college course or a photo internship to develop his or her artistic eye? Must one be a "pro" to take great shots?

These are all touchy questions, believe it or not.Mostly, though, it's touchy for professional photographers desperately clinging to the largely false notion that they're still needed for as many things as they used to be. In my professional life as a marketer, I've never been flamed so much as when I've made that statement.I once advised a marketing director to purchase a digital camera instead of hiring a pro. "Take the shots yourself," I advised. "If you have a decent camera, it'll do most of the work for you. You can also touch it up in Photoshop, you can easily take 10 times as many shots as you'll need (and surely one will be good), and you won't have to deal with all the pesky copyright issues that crop up." Ever take a "pro" photo to a Kinko's (sorry, a "FedExKinkos"), for example? They won't copy it.

Don't get me wrong:There'll always be a place for pro photographers. Weddings would be a prime example. As a rule, the pro is always better than your cousin Becky or whatever. And someone has to be the pro for model shoots, newspaper reporting, magazine covers, etc. And some of those people will become famous for their striking images. Sure, I love Annie Leibovitz' stuff. Who doesn't?

But, then again, am I kind of an ignorant asshole for asking whether almost * anyone * could've taken a decent photo of John & Yoko had they simply had *access * to John & Yoko?Is it always the photographer who brings value to a shot, or is it sometimes simply the subject matter itself? Admittedly, back in, say, 1980, photography was more of a technical/artistic trade. You had to know how to work the equipment -- set the f-stop and whatnot. But, today, with ever-improving technology, it's becoming increasingly easier to point and shoot and get astounding results. A friend recently switched to a $700 SLR digital. The quality blew me away. But, does that make her a "pro"? What about all of those amateur photographers posting amazing Flickr sets as hobbies? Are they "professionals" now?

It's all a matter of opinion, of course -- how one defines "professional," how one distinguishes quality, etc. I"ll have a few more brief but relevant points at the end of this.

What I'm building up to *should * be a whole order of magnitude more exciting -- but it's not. You see, we've been saving up for a vacation next month toNova Scotia.Until now, we've had the crappiest digital camera known to man -- a double hand-me-down that barely works.I literally have a rubber band holding the battery compartment closed, and the images aren't exactly vivid. Since we're blowing a fortune on thisCanadatrip, we agreed that we'd better invest in a decent camera to properly capture the beauty of the Great White North. After quite a lot of research, we found the best deal (based on our desires) in our price range (<$300) -- the 6-megapixel Kodak Z650. It's got a 10x optical zoom, a 5x digital zoom, and all sorts of features.

When it arrived the other day, I took a couple of test shots indoors, and then stepped out onto my front porch and zoomed in all the way at the moon, which was strikingly full at the time. (According to this Wikipedia article, the recent full moon was known as the Grain Moon, the Sturgeon Moon, the Red Moon, and/or the Green Corn Moon.)I stepped inside and reviewed the picture -- not bad. Then I stepped out to take another a little while later. This was my second attempt at photographing the moon -- holding the camera by hand for a night shot, no less.

Well, I suppose for many, I've just unproven my point. That's not an award-winning photograph by any stretch of the imagination. However, I would at least mention that night shots are inherently complex, when you think about it.The exposures are normally longer, which can easily translate into blurry results if you don't have a tripod. On the other hand, a bright moon captured in a zoom like that might require a shorter exposure.Imagine the technology that must be at work here! My second night shot right out of the box (the first similar, but more red, as the moon was lower in the sky) and already I'm presented with a fairly crisp image (thoguh you can tell it's well into the digital zoom range here) -- even a little crater-action on the top right.

In short, I'm looking for good things from this camera. If it can take a half-way decent picture of the moon (hand-held, zoomed in 50x, on an automatic setting), imagine how good the daytime shots should be. I'll post the best ones next month after the trip.

A probably-unnecessary soap-box paragraph: If I sound like I have no respect for photographers, that's not exactly true. Actually, I just have no respect for people who try to belittle others or keep them down. I'm not of the mind that people need to be pigeon-holed into being either "creative" or "technical" (or talented in a single discipine). I may have written about this before because it's an enormous pet peeve of mine. Discouraging anyone from discovering their capabilities is simply wrong, and I've run into that on several occasions -- more than once in relation to photographers who insist that no one else but a pro can take quality shots.


A quick postscript: Speaking of the moon,I thought it worth noting that, at the college I attended, there was also a reverse phenomenon in relation to GPA-boosting classes and dumb athletes. All the jocks tended to sign up for Astronomy 101 under the mistaken notion that it was just going to be hanging out on the river levee at night doing a little star-gazing while you flirt with the cheerleaders (their heads, coincidently, exactly as vacuous as outer space) who've signed up for the same reason. Each year, I understand there was a mass exodus after the first exam, which asked numerous football-player-unfriendly questions like, "You awaken in a boat somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean on February 9 and the Dog Star is at so-and-so coordinates. How many miles is it to equator?" Now, according to my own rule set forth above, I should admit that there may well be football players out there who aren't compelte idiots. But I haven't met many -- and, anyway, as the author, I reserve the right to gratuitous double standards.

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