10 Easy Steps To Advanced Photography Skills

1. Think About The Brain

I’ve always thought about photography differently. I grew up seeing out of only one eye, thanks to several botched surgeries in the 1970s using refurbished archaeological tools of the Australopithecus medicine men.
When you see out of one eye your whole life and then start using a camera in your mid-30s, something happens to you! You come to realize that a camera works nothing like the eye. Forget 3D; I’m talking about the way the brain stores images and scenes.

Upon birth, you have legs, but it takes a few years for your legs to get along with your brain well enough to actually walk you around the savanna a bit. The eyes are the same. They get wired faster than the legs, but the neural pathways from the optic nerve to the parts of the brain that matter take a while to find their chemical trails. You start to sense light levels, then shapes, then edges, then relative positions and the like. And then, around the age 2 or 3, you finally come up with a tagging system that allows you to know generally what a “barn” looks like. Your brain has been working nonstop over that time to give you the visual and memory infrastructure to enable this watershed event.

ourth of July on Lake Austin: the first HDR photograph to hang in the Smithsonian.

ourth of July on Lake Austin: the first HDR photograph to hang in the Smithsonian.

Now, let’s fast forward to today. You’re older, your brain is more or less fully formed, and you happen upon a barn in a field. But it’s not just any barn: it’s the barn you’ve been wanting to see your entire life. And in the distance, a storm is brewing as a gentle sun sets. It’s beautiful; you lock it into memory. The way you lock it into memory is nothing like the way a camera records the image on film (or a CCD). This is what I quickly came to realize as I sat there, looking at a photo I took with a fabulously expensive Nikon and showing it to a friend. “Well, you really had to be there.” I’m sure you’ve all said that!

Now, this first step is a big step: it’s a philosophical re-assessment of how the camera works in contrast to how the memory maps a scene, the latter being a process of layering visual reality with the emotions and memories linked to that scene. You see, you are not just remembering that barn but are remembering every barn; you are not just remembering that storm but are remembering every storm. A beautiful photo must tell the epic tale of the memory, linked with the other emotions that fold into a whole.

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