Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fate Has a Sense of Humor

(Click on the thumbnail for the bigger, better version)

It’s a rather cruel twist of fate that I got interested in photography. I hadn’t realized that it is a field ideally suited, in many ways, for engineers, computer programmers, and other folks with minds that work in what I find to be wondrous and mysterious ways—ways that I can’t begin to fathom. I remember well what a dreadful shock it was when I discovered that using a camera involves constant encounters with (shudder) mathematics.

Like many others, I’m guessing, who became interested in photography after the digital age was in full swing, I began shooting almost exclusively in Auto mode. Soon, I became dissatisfied with the photographs I got when I left all the decisions to the Canon A70. I developed a keen curiosity about all those other modes that promised better pictures. Talk about naïve. I had no idea that my curiosity would plunge me into a world of swarming with numbers.

Fortunately, or unfortunately (the latter would be in terms of eventual damage to the family budget), The Husband’s youthful years spent in photography school encouraged my belief that I could move beyond Auto and explore the wonderful world of manual mode. After all, I was fortunate enough to have an in-house instructor. But, as soon as I began quizzing the teacher for help, I was stopped in my tracks. When The Husband began to explain terms, my head started to spin and my ears began to ring, He wouldn’t stop spouting numbers—numbers, and more numbers. Every question I asked set him off with the numbers. Numbers everywhere I turned. Aperture? Numbers. And the numbers are upside down, for crying out loud. To get more light you dial in a lower number. Now, that is perverse. Early on, that one put a real kink in my learning curve. Shutter speed and ISO? Stop the numbers, please. You get into flash and all anyone talks about is those infernal numbers. There seem to be no numbers-free zones when comes to operating the camera.

I should tell you that I have never been fond of numbers. Don’t know why. Can’t explain it. Never flunked a math class. Never was humiliated by a math teacher. Makes no sense. I remember clearly coming home from school one day, soon after starting second grade, and announcing to my mother that I wasn’t any good at math. She stared at me with disbelief and said, “How do you know? You haven’t even taken a math class.” I don’t recall knowing how I knew, but I was certain of my facts. Depending upon your philosophy about these things, you may think that because I believed that I wouldn’t be good at math, I created the problem for myself. Or, you may believe that I was precocious for my age and could see the future. Naturally, I prefer the latter interpretation.

Now, I add, subtract, divide and multiply just fine. But, that’s where it stops, thank you. I made A’s in the math classes that I had to take to go to college—but it was only because I was good at memorizing facts. I never had a clue when it came to the actual practical uses of math beyond balancing a checkbook—one of the truly odious tasks in life. I dutifully memorized the material, and then the day after the tests everything I had memorized drained out of my brain leaving behind a fully restored numbers-free zone.

All that math presented a rigorous test of my newly discovered passion and, more than once, I was tempted to abandon the entire venture. I wanted to make pictures; I didn’t want to go back to memorizing math formulas. To this day, anytime I read an article, or a section of a book, wherein the author veers off into helpful rules for shutter speed proportional to lens length, formulas to memorize that will serve as a starting point for exposure in specific types of circumstances, or flash speed sync my brain threatens to lock. I still have to fight the impulse to simply skip over those paragraphs.

And it’s a good thing that I have fought that desire to bail out, because I can tell that a little of the information has seeped into some remote portion of my consciousness. I still couldn’t quote the formulas, and if you quizzed me on any of the “rules”, I would humiliate myself. However, I can see that gradually I have learned to work a little faster and a little more efficiently, even it is all about those icky little numbers. I suppose that exposure (no pun intended) to all those formulas has made a difference—even if they do strike fear in my heart.


  1. Fortunately, those little numbers, etc. don't matter so much on a camera. You can fiddle with them until you get the picture the way that you want. :-) Fiddling is fun, no? ;-)

  2. And, I do my share of fiddling because yes, it's fun.

    Are you just saying these things to make me feel better? Hmmm.

  3. You betcha! You know I'm one of the computer-techno-geek kinda guys that you mentioned. So, the numbers don't bother me. Actually, I never really think about them. I use Aperture priority 99% of the time.

    Rarely will I go to manual unless I just have to. I usually shoot wide open (lowest aperture number, f1.4, 2.8, etc). Most of the bells and whistles on my camera go to waste once I set the beast up the way that I want it.

    Hmmmm, thinking of a case where I might shoot manual ... If I'm shooting in pretty consistent lighting, like a cloudy day, but am switching between predominantly dark/light backgrounds, I'll use manual so the meter doesn't keep trying to over/underexpose things. That's about it.

    The downside to manual is that I use it so rarely that I get all excited, think I'm still shooting on A, and then botch a few shots before I go back to the right mode. :-)

    I like things simple!

  4. Yeah, the numbers don't bother you Because. You. Understand. Them. And, they don't haunt you in your dreams.

    Seriously, I don't do well at aperture value. That's when I get excited, rush ahead, and discover too late that I was shooting at a shutter speed too slow for the occasion. When I am shooting action (horses especially) I occasionally shoot at Time Value, so I can lock in the minimum shutter speed and trust the camera to set the aperture.

    Ironically, the mode that inimidated me the most in the beginning, manual mode, has become my comfort zone. Go figure—oh, but not with numbers, please.

  5. So, you're one of those people we statisticians like to refer to as "Numerically Illiterate", huh? Don't worry - you're not alone. Most of America is in the same category, up to and including corporate CEO's and (some) U.S. presidents.

    When someone compares a company's performance this quarter or month with the same period last year, have you ever wondered what that meant? The short answer is it doesn't mean a damn thing because the data is most likely taken out of context. But everyone does it exactly the same way because "that's the way it's always been done". And don't underestimate the effects of this widespread illiteracy. It actually has quite a bit to do with our current economic mess. Hard decisions are made based on those two point comparisons.

    The really bad news is that when I help my grandsons with their math homework, I don't get a lot of warm fuzzy feelings that the situation is improving. They tell me (just as their Mom did when she was their age) - "What do I need to learn this for? I'll never use it when I grow up". But I'll keep trying.....

    At least photography has given you a little insight into the universal utility of numbers, Anita! Numbers turn into information, information becomes insight and, with a little luck, insight becomes wisdom. And who doesn't want to be a "wise" photographer?

  6. Paul - Hi. Great to hear from you.

    Well, I suppose I can be cheered by the theory that "misery loves company", but it's little comfort. And, you are so right that photography has increased my awareness of the utility of numbers. If only there were a quick cure for my illiteracy.

    While solving that problem, there is another issue. I am "geographically challenged". Oh, well, I can dream, can't I?

  7. Do we ever think alike. To me what is the point of having a computer in the camera unless it makes the camera work in a way that is intuitive and easy (And I don't mean automatic mode). e.g. At some point in camera use we begin to understand the effect of depth of field and want some way to control it. We should have a depth of field dial and let the computer figure out how to make it happen.

  8. Bob - I think that's out there coming very soon to a camera store near you.


You can leave your comments here. Because all comments are held pending review, yours will not immediately appear on the site. I eagerly read all of them and sincerely appreciate your taking the time to record your impressions and views. Thanks for visiting.