As I went into in the first blog post I made here, photography is all about stories. Everyone has one, and in much the same way so does every place. A photograph is a fly trapped in prehistoric amber; a moment frozen in time for people to look at and analyse. We did it first with written word, then with drawings and paintings. How much do we know of ancient civilisations thanks to the art that they have left for us to see? Art is the window into the culture and society of a time, whether it’s intentional or not. When chemical photography arrived with the camera obscura and plate photography, it was simply another step in the progress of archiving moments.
The earliest surviving photograph was a view from a window in 1826 in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France. Back then, the process etched onto chemically active plates from which prints could later be made The process took somewhere between eight hours and several days to complete all in all, and if anything in the image or the camera itself moved, the process would be ruined completely. I don’t know about you, but I’d be hard pressed to find someone willing to stay completely still for several days while I got a good shot of their new hairdo. Selfies would be a domain for the hardcore!
The process was refined over the years, moving from wet plates and dry plates to metal and glass plates and then to film. Some of the first types of film (most specifically nitrocellulose film) were actually quite dangerous to use; nitrate film was highly flammable, could burn without the need for oxygen and had a habit of taking out buildings if large amounts of it went up. There’s a few cinemas out there that had high casualty rates in the twenties due to nitrate film deciding it was a little too cold and things needed heating up a tad. Heck, you couldn’t even transport the stuff on the London Underground; it was a banned item in large amounts until the advent of “safety film”. Fun fact: an inventor tried to create a replacement for ivory billiard balls using “camphored nitrocellulose”, only to find that not only were the balls highly flammable, but they had the unnerving side effect of occasionally exploding upon impact with other balls. That’s one way to liven up the game!
Once safety film was invented by Kodak and you didn’t have the chance of accidentally burning your house down if you were an amateur filmographer, film photography remained the dominant form until the advent of the 21st century. That was when digital came bursting onto the scene and starting scaring old people with it’s new fangled technology. Once again Kodak were leading the scene with the first fully digital camera in 1991 with the DCS 100. Of course, it was so eye wateringly expensive that nobody really used it outside of photojournalism. Nowadays you’ll find digital cameras everywhere; from phones to GoPros to webcams to your more traditional SLRs (single lens reflex cameras, the big professional looking ones).
You still get a few vintage diehards that refuse to leave film behind, though that’s more out of an artistic vision than anything else. It's not like they completely reject digital like some sort of new-age Luddite. Much like vinyl and cassette tapes in music, there’s a love for the retro going on at the moment, and it all comes down to personal choice. It's not something I have tried, but the people I know who do still process by hand say there's an element to it that brings far more satisfaction. In much the same way creating a table from scratch with actual wood would feel far better than just ordering one from the internet.
So you’re probably asking “who cares about all this old guff?” Well, you never really know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve come from. A lot of the terminology in photography nowadays refers to methods and systems traditionally used in the outset of the artform. Post processing techniques now may be a far cry from the days of sitting in a dark room sniffing silver halide until you went loopy, but we still use terms such as “burn” and “dodge” when it comes to nudging the brightness of certain parts of the image. ISO is a setting on modern digital cameras that has it’s roots in the sensitivity of film. Little historical throwbacks like this are common in a lot of other areas too; soon we will have children using computers who will have no idea why the “save” icon on most programs is a tiny blue box with a silver bit in it.
Plus I just like history. So sue me.
So why should we be interested in taking photos? Well like I mentioned earlier, it’s all about preserving moments. Go ask your parents if they’ve got an album of pictures from when you were a baby. When you’ve finished being mortified by them promptly showing that one embarrassing shot of you sat in the bathtub with naught but a flannel to everyone on the street, have a think about how amazing it is that someone can just open a book and there’s a taste of your life at it’s beginning. That’s something that chances are you can’t even remember yourself, yet it’s there to show you what it was like back at that moment.
Look at Facebook and crawl through some of the first pictures you posted on there and you’ll get a similar feeling. There’ll be that picture of an ex and you’ll remember how much of a total swine they were, or a picture of you and an old friend at a beach six years ago. It won’t have been on your mind but now it is and it’s giving you the warm fuzzies (totally scientific term there). When you have a camera in your hand, that’s your superpower. Decades from now you’ll be thankful that you can show your grandkids that Grandpa was quite the party animal in his youth. Or maybe you won’t. Look, we’re not going to tell anyone about that jaegermeister and peanut butter incident if you don’t. But the point is that it gives you the option.
I took up photography after being diagnosed with depression. I’d always liked fiddling with cameras before but it wasn’t until that point that I realised how much happiness it brought me. Let me tell you something: the next time you feel rubbish, grab your cameraphone or compact camera or whatever and go for a walk. Go take pictures of anything that catches your eye. Relaxing isn’t it? Even if the pictures come out looking like a three year old’s finger painting, it takes your mind off things. When you look through the lens, you see the world differently; it takes you out of it and turns you into an observer.
I go out and shoot pictures because it makes me happy when I’m sad. The look on people’s faces when they see my art makes me happy. The laughs you can have when you’re looking at pictures you’ve taken years later make life better. Your results may vary but I can absolutely guarantee you that learning to use a camera properly will change your life. Maybe not in a earthshattering way, but you will be a slightly different person afterwards.
Over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to give you a basic overview on how to use a camera and how to take better pictures. Of course, the term “better” would imply that there’s an overall ranking for how good a photo is. I’m going to blow your mind now and tell you: there isn’t. Photography is an art form and like all forms of art it’s subjective. What one person likes, another ten will hate. Personally I can’t stand selective colour images (you know the ones, where everything is black and white except for certain people, or a flower or something. Blech), but they’re all the rage at the moment it seems.
I can’t teach someone how to take a picture that everyone will like. What I can teach you are the rules and techniques there are available.
After that it’s all on you. No pressure!