Creative Mastery 1: Know Your Tools

The Most Basic Controls

When I stepped onto my path as a photographer it was all very easy. I used film and my camera had only the most basic controls. I could set the aperture and the shutter speed and I could focus the lens. Other than that all I could do was fire the shutter and advance the film between frames.

That’s all there was to it. Even me, as a 9 year old kid could crack it without too much difficulty. What’s more the settings were in easy to understand increments unlike today’s cameras. During my workshops I’m forever meeting photographers who feel bad because they can’t get to grips with the technical aspects of their craft, it’s as if they think there’s something wrong with them. But modern kit is really complicated!

Let me tell you, I’m really glad I cut my teeth on my old Corfield and Zenit! Life was so much easier with film. That’s all very well I bet you're thinking, but we’re now in the digital age and our cameras come dripping with menu options, programmable buttons and with the main exposure settings divorced from what they actually do and in confusing third of a stop steps.

The secret is to know the bits that really matter and to ignore all the rest. And the real secret to mastery is to get to know the bits that matter so well that setting the correct exposure becomes second nature. This doesn’t need to be painful, it just takes practice, and regular practice at that.

An Uphill Struggle

It can feel like an uphill struggle, especially when we don’t see the actual point. After all Fully Auto does a pretty good job doesn’t it. Well yes, it can. But there again, no it really doesn’t. Not when you really get to know the nitty gritty of exposure control.

And get to know it you can. You just need a good reason to knuckle down and master it should you so choose. Of course the choice is entirely yours. You could spend your entire photographic life creating ‘good enough’ shots using fully auto or struggling on with Manual and getting lucky once in a while. But the satisfaction that comes from getting a full handle on the exposure triangle is boundless and will skyrocket your artistic abilities in ways you perhaps can’t yet envisage.

For me it was very much like learning to drive. I could choose not to and rely on lifts and scant public transport or I could grasp the nettle and get over my fears of three pedals, a steering wheel, a gearstick and a whole host of switches and buttons which had to be navigated in one fluid action. Or so it seemed.

Freedom and the Capri

My freedom was worth more than this, as was my desire to drive that old Mark 1 Capri I had my eye on! So I did it. I persevered week after week, lesson after lesson until I’d mastered driving. And it felt so good.

Working with any artistic or creative calling is just the same. Once we learn how to work with our tools we release a huge block that enables us to nurture our creativity and grow into our craft. With practice, and the right approach, the aperture setting can become our friend and the shutter speed and iso control its support team.

We just need the right approach, and the right approach is stepping back into the world of a film shooting mentality. By this I don’t mean buying an old SLR and stocking up on Ilford and Kodak. No, I mean adopting a ‘stop’ based approach to the exposure triangle as a starting point. Ignore those pesky and largely unnecessary one third stops and keep things really simple, especially in the early days.

Speak the Language

By doing this you’ll rediscover a whole new world of depth of field control and image sharpness. Your images will begin to evolve into an accurate representation of your vision and you’ll never be fazed by photographic opportunities ever again. You’ll be ready to speak the language of photography when your Muse calls.

I teach the ‘full stop’ method in my Creativity Beyond the Camera foundation course and find it the best way to get photographers, even those who already have a grasp of the exposure triangle, to fully understand the details and magic of the exposure process. After all, photography is all about drawing with light, so why not put a little time into mastering this fundamental step.

Want to learn with me?

My Creativity Beyond the Camera Club is currently closed for new members.