Posts Tagged ‘skills’

Skill Set

8 September 2010

Dear J-

It feels like it’s been a solid week since I wrote in the mornings, but of course that’s not true; if you’re supposed to practice one thing and do it well, that means getting used to a routine, or, more succinctly, write every day, write something new, write consistently. I dunno; that strikes me as being counterintuitive: as Gurney Halleck, one of Paul Atriedes’s mentors from Dune would have it, there are some skills you can’t turn off (like fighting) just because you’re not in the mood. I like to think that writing is one of them, but you have to have a topic.

Inspiration is serendipity; skills and tools, on the other hand, need regular sharpening. I suppose that’s what I’m doing with homework out of the book for the exam, whether or not it has anything to do with actual test questions. If you’re supposed to be practicing as part of simulating actual exam conditions, well, I’m going to have to drag the cat along to sit on my feet and pipe in recordings of figgy yelling for us to come into her room and find something she dropped under the bed. Oh, and start the exam at 10PM, when my eyes can hardly stay open, let alone reason out a path to the solution. There’s a lot happening now compared to the last time I was preparing for a test, but some things are oddly familiar — the darkness, the hours spent honing skills.

People say you have to develop an eye for photography, which is nothing more than visualizing a scene before you take it. I suppose the equivalent writing skill is knowing where you’ll be by the end (and for as much as I write, I can’t seem to make that click) and removing everything else that doesn’t contribute to the story. Both may be iterative, creative processes, and both definitely demand feedback, which I’ve been demonstrably remiss in sending; I subscribe to several Leica digests* but haven’t been brave enough to submit any pictures for fear of getting ripped to shreds — there’s one guy on there, Dr. Ted Grant, who’s got a keen eye and a teacher’s heart, tempering praise with liberal amounts of suggestions**. It’s the only way to get better, I suppose.


* You’d think that the Leica digests would be full of insecure dentists both proud that they’ve gotten the jewel-like lenses and bodies and worried that their skills aren’t up to the task. Being a recovering Nikon guy, I used to see them that same way, after all. I’m happy to say that I was wrong, as the Leica folks are full of lively discussion and an un-smug certainty that they’ve got the best equipment in the business; from my limited exposure to the magic glass, I have to agree.

** This is the assertion that practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does make perfect. Alternatively, think of it in hockey terms: keep your head up and stop admiring your passes.


Shallow Field

16 August 2008

Dear J-

Saturdays seem to turn into photo days, for whatever reason, so let’s talk about f-stops, you and I.  F-stops follow the progression they do because they express the ratio of diameters; at f/1.0, the effective diameter of the lens matches the focal length.  Thus a 50mm f/1.0 (and they exist, at you-gotta-be-kidding-me prices) has a 50mm effective diameter.  At f/1.4, your diameter is 1/1.4-th of the focal length.  It makes more sense when you consider it this way:  since the area of the opening determines the gross amount of light transmitted through the lens (ideal lenses, here, and with modern multi-coatings, transmission ratios are pretty high); thus since area varies with the square of the diameter, it’s actually the square of the f-stop you’re interested in.

Hence, a f/1.0 lens transmits twice as much light as a f/1.4 lens, and thus you can derive the f-stop full stop scale (f/1.0, f/1.4, f/2.0, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32, f/64, f/128, etc.) by taking the square root of the 2^n sequence (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.).  Consider it for a moment and it starts to make sense.  If you close down the aperture one full stop (f/1.4 to f/2.0, say), you have to double the shutter speed (1/30th at f/1.4 to 1/15th at f/2.0) to make an equivalent exposure — you show the film (or sensor) half the light, for twice as long.  All else being equal, why wouldn’t you keep the aperture as wide as possible?  Well, for one thing, lenses aren’t necessarily designed to be run wide-open, and often hit their optimum performance one or two stops down.  For another, aperture controls depth of field; low f-stops (big apertures) give shallow depth of field, which is useful for the Martha Stewart style of product photography, or if you’re trying to draw attention to one thing over another.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that in real life, opening yourself up to new experiences actually widens your depth of knowledge?  I’ve been reading about some guy out there who has some kind of beef with Democrats; he coauthored a book for the Swift Boat Veterans, blamed by some for torpedoing Kerry’s campaign in 2004 (someone please explain to me again how two draft dodgers came out looking more virtuous than a veteran, especially representing a party that prides itself on supporting the military), and he’s at it again with Obama fear-mongering.  Sadly, it’s not about the accuracy of the message, simple as it is in photography — if you’re using shallow depth of field techniques, make sure you focus on the right thing — but how repeatable the lie.

I remember from debate there were two sources you wanted to use for definitions, each useful to the affirmative (making a case for change) or negative (keeping the status quo) side.  And, depending on the side you had to argue, the standard reasons went like this:  affirmatives wanted to use a “common” dictionary like Merriam-Webster because it was the most reasonable to the greatest amount of people; negatives chose Black’s Law Dictionary because it was the most precisely focussed definition.  Neither was the best answer all the time, and you needed to carry around both, because you didn’t know what side you’d be asked to argue.  So it goes in life, so too in photography; develop your skills and make sure you use the right tools when needed.