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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ellert


In Part 1 of this series, we mentioned some of the misconceptions regarding the teaching of the arts and regarding photograph as an art rather than mere mechanical reproduction. In this segment, let’s think about the skills, both behind the camera and in bringing the latent photograph to light, whether from a physical negative or the digital sensor.


The first major demarcation between the dilettante and the serious practitioner surely falls over relative skill sets. I’m going to fall back to my background as a performing musician and recall something I was told as a student that has stayed with me ever since. “The amateur practices until they can play the piece correctly. The professional practices until they cannot possibly play it incorrectly.”I find that holds true as a photographer: I practice at my art until camera settings are second nature and I don’t have to think about them much.That leads me to the first misperception: “How much skill does it take to push a button on the camera?”I could state and restate this as a theme and variations, but the point of error is always the same: the camera does all the work. One of those variations is “Photography is easy”, while another is “What’s there to practice in photography?”.

Finally, “with digital photography all you do is point and shoot to get amazing photographs.”Ugh.To address the last variation first, it is true that the modern digital camera is capable of work that I, as a student photographer in 9th grade in my California High School in 1962 could scarcely conceive. However, to expect that a Canon EOS1-Dxm3, a Nikon Z9, or a Sony A7m4 can by itself create a masterpiece is to expect “Don Quixote” to flow out of your word processor the first time you sit down to write. Even in the film days It took years of practice to learn how a camera sees (which most decidedly is not the same as the eyes see and the brain perceives). From my very first serious camera (a Kodak 35) to the last of my film cameras (Nikon F5) there was very little difference in how they operated and what I needed to know in order to set the correct exposure. That allowed the neophyte photographer to really learn the art of photography and how to develop a vision for how one’s images would relate to others. This is decidedly not the case with modern menu-driven electronic cameras, and ever-increasing amounts of time to learn the high-technology in the modern camera in addition to learning the visionary skills needed to become more than a snap-shooting recreational photographer. Of course, we all laud the immediate feedback that digital can provide, but the student still must want to learn from it.

Yes, once in a while an amateur does nail a stunning photograph and we wee it all over social media. The real question, and the measure of complete proficiency, is the ability to be consistent. Faced with the same situation, will they get the shot every time, or at least a majority of the time (even we professionals occasionally miss the shot.)


Several misconceptions concern the work needed to bring an exposure to life, the work that used to be done in the wet darkroom and is now brought to fruition in the digital darkroom. Chief among those notions is that it doesn’t matter what errors one makes when making the exposure, it can be fixed in Photoshop.

Film capture had relatively little margin for error and photographers soon learned to get the exposure correct right from the start. In approaching darkroom work we thought about what we called the latent image, that is the unseen image on the undeveloped roll, or by extension the positive print from the negative.Despite the technological advance, the digital image is, in many ways, no different.

Photoshop (and its many cousins in post-exposure work) is a necessary part of bringing a digital image to life; those who shoot in camera-RAW formats know what I’m talking about. Photoshop most decidedly is not a panacea for poor judgments made when capturing the initial exposure. There are numerous such errors that simply can’t be undone no matter how much photoshopping effort is put into attempts to fix what is irremediable. Another half-truth holds that once first print is made, all the work is done. On the surface this is correct, but in practice, most serious photographers are constantly revisiting already-printed images to achieve the best possible print. Ansel Adams was well known for his constant tweaking of older images. In the digital darkroom, advances in software, as well as in my skill level, means that I can often pull additional detail and vibrancy out of an older image. In practice, every time I make a new print, I revisit the previous processing decisions to see how I can make it better.

I have come across ill-informed exhibitions and competitions that required photographic entries come straight from the camera with no work done in image processing software. The only kind of photograph that could meet this requirement are ones where the camera’s built-in processing software made all the decisions on what the image would look like. A serious photographer could not, in good conscious, submit work to such exhibits, as we insist on making the creative decisions ourselves instead of what was programmed into the camera by a remote software engineer.

I sometimes hear comments along the line of “It’s easy for you, you are so talented”, or “Artistic images just ooze out of you, and you don’t need to work at it.” I have news, welcome or not: it is not easy for me to create fine images and I must constantly work at it, constantly struggling to overcome blockages, strive to increase my abilities to communicate with my work, present new ways of thinking about what photography means in the 21st Century. A correlation to the aphorism that I mentioned earlier about practicing is another that applies to the visual arts: the artist who does not continue to grow and improve soon begins to create works that are merely parodies of earlier work. I’ve seen too many artists (and not just photographers) who believe that because they are entirely self-taught, they have discovered the one true source of artistic expression and need not seek farther. Too often, it is painfully obvious that they are stuck creating the same work over and over again. That said, I certainly recognize that some of the greats have been largely self-taught. Again, Ansel Adams comes to mind, not to mention all the early pioneers in the mid-nineteenth century.

Next time we’ll wrap up our exposition by considering some of the myths surrounding photographic equipment and photography (and by extension, art) as a career.

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