Facebook Page
Untitled Document
The Zen of Photography by andy anderson

A stop to pick up passengers in Glenwood Springs: January 2009

Navigation: Home

A Little History

Photography has always been one of those labor-of-love kind of things with me. Actually, I started out at a rather young age. My father was a sculpture; however, I could never figure out how to make things out of blocks of stone.

Before I hit double digits, he would give me a hammer, a piece of stone, and say: Go for it. Well, I did... I would smash that piece of marble with my hammer until it turned into a pile of dust. I guess you could say that my dad was losing his marble(s).

One day, I'm playing in the yard, and my dad calls me into the house. There, on the kitchen table is a Pentax H3 film camera. Then I went down into the basement, and he had built me a darkroom (in case you're wondering, this is before the advent of digital cameras).

Suffice to say, dad hit the mark. I took to photography like a frog to a fly-eating contest. And I have been at it ever since. I've evolved through the industry; moving from celluloid film, to digital film. My darkroom moved from a dark room, to my computer. The processing chemicals changed from Developers like Dektol, to applications such as Photoshop. As a matter of fact, I've authored over 15 books on applications like Adobe Photoshop, and am considered one of the top forty designer/trainers in the United States... Thanks dad for getting me started.


The Zen of Photography

Anyone can take a photograph... anyone. However, not anyone can take a photograph that speaks to you... That draws you out. It might make you cry, or it might make you laugh. Some images just make you stop and think. In a world where time moves inexorably forward, second by second, think of photography as an attempt to freeze time.

To that end, there is a Zen to photography: A process, if you will, of becoming one with your camera. If you want me to couch my words with less spiritual meaning, you could also call it: Having the eye of a photographer.


Left Brain/Right Brain

The Zen of photography involves two major areas: Left and Right Brain skills. For example, you might have a great eye for photography; however, if you don't know how to operate your camera, that skill will not serve you very well. On the other hand, you might know your camera backwards and forwards; however, if you don't have that creative eye, you're dead in the water.

Andy's Thought: Buying a big expensive camera does not make you a photographer any more than buying MS Word will make you John Grisham... Get the point.

The Zen of Photography requires both skills to be successful.

Wipe on... Wipe off... excerpt, The Karate Kid.


The Devil is in the Details

Okay, lets get started. The first thing is to lay down some rules. When I teach photography classes, I need to know the experience level of my students, and what type of equipment they have. That's essentially impossible here; however that doesn't' hurt this discussion.

Tell you what; let's divide camera equipment into three levels

  1. Basic: That's a camera with no features; what you might call a point-and-click job. This type of camera is typically very small (fit into purse or pocket), and basically you grab them, point... and click... that's about it. I'll make a few recommendations, later on.
  2. Intermediate: That would be a camera with a minimum of shutter, f-stop, and ISO control. Examples and recommendations to come later.
  3. Advanced: Oh yeah baby. You've got the best of the best... Total control of all photographic aspects; huge mega-byte images, and several good lenses. In addition, you've probably got good lighting equipment.

Now, let's divide photographers into three levels:

  1. Basic: Okay, I've got a camera (whatever level). I turn that bad boy on, point it and click. I really don't know an f-stop from my dog's hind leg. But I want to learn more.
  2. Intermediate: Got the camera, and know a bit about f-stop and shutter speed, but I have a tendency to fumble about when I need to change something; like f-stop. By the time I've figured it out, the shot is long gone.
  3. Advanced: HEY, I know this camera backwards and forwards, and I can change an f-stop blindfolded. However, I feel that I might be missing the creative side of the equation. I have the how down pretty good; what I need is to better understand is the why of photography.


Taking the Test

The next step is to find out where you fall. You could very well be Advanced when it comes to equipment, but Basic when it comes to being a photographer. As a matter of fact, I know many people, with lots of money, who purchase the best of the best; however, because they don't understand the technology, they're using the camera like a point-and-click model.

The people that I want to talk to are the people that want to grow beyond where they presently are in photography.


Where Do We Go From Here

The best place to begin is with left brain, or the logic of photography. Cameras are built from glass optics, housed in a tube, that direct the light to a capture point (the film). Many photographers have switched to digital cameras; although this current discussion does not make that distinction. In this photographer's mind there are four mechanical elements of photography that can make the difference between good photos and great photos:

  1. Shutter Speed:
  2. f-stop:
  3. ISO (formerly ASA):
  4. Format (digital) or Film Type: (celluloid):


Shutter Speed (Exposure)

Shutter speed is the amount of time the film (digital or otherwise) is open to the light (called: exposure). While there are many types of shutters; for the purpose of this discussion a shutter is like a curtain that opens, and then closes. The slower the shutter speed, the more light is absorbed by the film. More exposure means photographs can be taken with less light. Unfortunately, it also increases the chance for the image to blur. This can be due to the movement of the camera (shaky hand), or the movement of the object (the train or people). Slow shutter speeds can be used to create very dramatic effects of movement within an image... or they can just mess up the shot.

What do I need to know: For now, understand that the longer the exposure, the more light is captured by the film. Therefore, photos can be taken; even in low-light conditions.

andy anderson photography  exposure example
The longer the shutter speed (exposure) the more light is captured by the film, and the darker the image.


f-stop (Aperture)

The f-stop regulates how much light is allowed through the lens by varying the area of the hole the light comes through. A standard sequence of numbers for f-stop might go as follows: 1.4, 2.0, 2.8, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22. The control for the f-stop is typically located on a ring on the barrel of the lens. Actually, the f-stop is a ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the lens. However, before you click your browser's back button, let's leave the math behind us. For the purpose of this lesson, the higher the f-stop number, the less light gets to the film. The results of this are that more image information comes into focus. In combination with shutter speed, f-stop can be used to create dramatic effects.

What do I need to know: The higher the aperture number (f-stop) the smaller the opening. That means more stuff will be in focus, but less light gets to the film... the higher the aperture number, the bigger the opening, and less stuff will be in focus... it's a tradeoff.

andy anderson photography lens f-stop diagram
When talking f-stop, the larger the number the smaller the opening.


andy anderson aperture diagram
Aperture controls the amount of light coming through your lens; in addition, it controls how much of the image is in focus.


andy anderson flowers in focus image
This image of flowers was taken with an f-stop of 16. Notice how all the flowers are in focus.


andy anderson photography flowers in focus
In this image the flowers were photographed with an f-stop of 2.0. Notice how quickly they go out of focus.


ISO (International Standards Organization)

What ISO denotes is how sensitive film is to the amount of light present. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film, and therefore the possibility to take pictures in low-light situations. For example, a low ISO of 32 would require you to have a lot of light to take your photos. However, if your ISO were 400, you could take photos in lower light with faster shutter speeds. So, what's the catch? As you raise the ISO, to take those really cool train photos in low light, you reduce the quality of the photo... bummer.
If you're using celluloid film, the ISO is set by the film itself. So you would go to the photo store and purchase the film with a specific ISO. If you're shooting with a digital camera, the film is part of the camera; in most medium to high-end cameras you can adjust the ISO of the film higher or lower.

What do I need to know: Higher ISO's let you take photos with less light; however, you will sacrifice image quality. In traditional film it's defined as the "grain" of the film, and in digital it's defined as the noise-to-image ratio.


Format (Digital Camera)

The formats used by digital cameras varies with the manufacturer. With few exceptions, most digital cameras will shoot and save image files in the JPG/JPEG format. and a proprietary format know as the Raw format.

JPG/JPEG: Joint Photographers's Expert Group is a format that allows the camera to save the image on your storage device (memory card), in a small, efficient package. It accomplishes this by removing some of the color information from the image. Most professional photographers don't like the camera doing this to their precious images. In addition, when you shoot in this format, the camera will do some adjusting to the image, such as: white balance and dynamic range. Again, most professional photographers don't want the camera messing with their images... we would rather mess with them ourselves.

Raw Format: Not all cameras have a Raw format (check in your user's manual, go to the index, and lookup up the word Raw); however, if they do, it's the format of choice in almost every situation where you're willing to sacrifice a little storage space for quality and control. Without getting too technical, let's just say that saving digital images in the Raw format saves more photo information, more color depth, etc. In addition, the camera does not mess with the image: It doesn't assume white point, and it doesn't mess with dynamic range. It simply takes the light from the lens, and captures all of it to your digital film... that's it.
So, in a sense, shooting Raw is almost going like going back to the control we had when shooting with a traditional film camera.

What do I need to Know: The Raw format is the best for quality and control; however, the price you will have to pay is more work for processing the photos. For example, most Raw images, are not just printed; they're massaged in an editing application, such as: Adobe Photoshop. If you're not there yet, then don't worry. You can still use the techniques we're discussing. Just stick to the JPG/JPEG format. As you grow, you might eventually get into apps like Adobe Photoshop, and then you can switch to Raw.


Traditional Film

If you're shooting with a traditional film camera, then you don't need to worry about formats; what you need is film types. There are outdoor films, indoor films, color films, B&W films; even slide films. The one thing to keep in mind is that unless you've got a professional camera, with multiple film backs. Once you load your camera with a certain type of film, you're stuck with it until you shoot the whole roll. I'll make some recommendations on film types later.


Photography School is in Session

Okay, we've got a lot of information, and we need to start putting this all together. It's school time. Some of the things that I'm going to ask you to do, are requirements in my classroom. In other words, if you can't demonstrate to me that you've completed the assignment, you're not moving forward... I know, I'm a hard teacher.


Know Your Equipment

Okay, here we go... I want you to get the user's manual to your camera. If you no longer have it, just go out to the Internet, and download one from the manufacturer.
Now, I want you to read that dang book, and find out what your camera is capable of doing. If you have a medium to high-range camera, I want you to concentrate on how to change the camera's f-stop, shutter speed, ISO, and (if it's digital), how to change the image format.
Have you read it... don't worry, I've got all the time in the world...


Practice Makes Perfect

Now, I want to take your camera, and begin practicing. I want you to be so comfortable with that camera, that you can change the f-stop, and shutter speed without looking... you heard me, without looking.
Also, get familiar with the auto settings on your camera. Some cameras will automatically set the shutter speed, and allow you to manually adjust the f-stop, or vise/versa (that's a good thing). Or they can take total control over both f-stop and shutter speed. Most models have an auto-focus feature. Understand how it works, and how you can change to manual (when needed).
There is a method to my madness. Most of the really cool photo opportunities happen quickly. Once, on the Coast Starlight, I observed a double rainbow over a lake near Donner Pass, I had literally 10 seconds to grab my camera and take the shot. I was in a Superliner bedroom, shooting through glass, on a cloudy day. It was one-in-a-thousand photo, and I got it. Why? Because I know my camera; it's an extension of my arm.
Practice... Practice... Practice...


More to come...

If you haven't noticed, this page is under construction...

Navigation: Home

Have any of your own photography tips or tricks... let me know
you can contact me at:

Andy Anderson