The dangers of gurus

Photography sometimes attracts people with a very high opinion of their own expertise, and a predilection for bossing others about. Listen to some of them, and you will be amazed that silver halide photography ever succeeded at all, given that it is so difficult, complicated, and expensive.

Except that it isn't. This module is mostly about the difficulty and complication: as for expense, there is one free module on how to save money and another called How many cameras do you need?

Of course you will get better with practice, just as you will in any other field of endeavour, and of course, when you look back on some of your early efforts, you will wonder how you could have been so proud of them. The answer to the latter question is usually that they were so enormously better than anything you had done before that you had every right to be proud.

You will also find, with practice, that some techniques work better than others, and that some things are more important than others. For example, it's a lot easier to get top-flight results with good, fresh materials and elderly or primitive equipment than it is to get top-flight results with state-of-the-art cameras and lenses and outdated film and paper.

julie & holly

Julie and Holly

Most people would, we think, be modestly proud of the sharpness and tonality of this picture, and of the way it sums up a mother-daughter relationship. Frances took it in about 1999. The film was Paterson Acupan 200 (the same as Fomapan 200), developed as far as we recall in Paterson FX39, and printed on Ilford Multigrade. The camera was a Pentax SV of about 1963; the lens, a Super-Takumar 85/1.9 of similar vintage. You would have some difficulty in buying a cheap, new zoom for the price of the camera and lens together.

The origins of guru-worship

From time to time, you will find that your work takes a real leap forward. Sometimes this is because you suddenly understand something you didn't understand before. Other times, there may seem to be no reason at all: just an unexpected blessing from the gods of photography.

It is these leaps that can give rise to guru-worship. Either you work something out for yourself, or you try something that someone else has recommended, and it works so well that there is little sense in trying anything else. You therefore decide that you have found the One True Path, and either set yourself up as a guru teaching that path, or sing the praises of the guru who taught you.

But in photography, as in life itself, there are numerous routes to the same end, and just to make life more interesting, we are not all pursuing the same end. Some choose colour; some black and white. Some like silver; some digital. Some prefer big, dramatic prints; some, small, intimate pictures.

Yes, it makes perfect sense to use whatever materials, equipment and techniques work best for you. It is however complete idiocy to believe that everyone else should do the same, and this is the idiocy which gurus and their followers often adopt. There is also a grievous danger that you may refuse to consider techniques that would give you even better results, or give you the same results but more easily: you are blinded by absolutism.

 

Neil and Leslie

 

Every now and then, we do a wedding, whether for an old friend or (increasingly, as we grow older) for their children. This is the former. Roger had known Neil for close on 40 years when the latter finally abandoned bachelorhood. Frances took this picture on Ilford XP2 using a Nikkormat and 75/2.5 Voigtländer Color-Skopar, then printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone RC (Resin-Coated).

It is however easy to find gurus who will tell you that Ilford XP2 is no good (it doesn't allow them to piddle around with silly developers); that Voigtländer lenses made by Cosina are no good (they don't cost enough); and that Multigrade is worthless (graded papers are harder to find and more difficult to use). As for RC papers, there are those who will look at you as if you might as well buy a small bell and walk around ringing it like a mediaeval leper, calling "Unclean! Unclean!" Few of these nay-sayers, however, could begin to equal the technical quality of this picture.

neil & leslie

 

What you need is a nimble combination of an open mind, and a clear idea of what works best for you, at the moment. The important phrase here is 'at the moment'. Always think it possible that something better may come along, but equally, do not try anything new unless you are convinced that it may offer you real advantages: do not try every novelty, just because it is new. And when you are looking at gurus, or considering setting yourself up as one, bear the following in mind:

miracle of the water

 

The Miracle of the Water

'Real' photographers don't use colour; and if they do, they certainly would not stoop so low as to use digital. This may sound like nonsense, largely because it is, but you will find plenty of people who will confidently make either assertion, or both.

But as we say, the main reason -- indeed, often the only reason -- for an amateur to take pictures is because it is enjoyable. If you enjoy purifying your soul through suffering, do not let us discourage you; we don't enjoy it, so we don't do it.

Yes, we prefer black and white for most applications, but we also like colour sometimes, and quite a lot of our colour nowadays is shot with our (digital, 10-megapixel) Leica M8. The lens Roger used for this picture, taken in Arles, was the 50/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar -- and you'll find plenty of people who will knock Cosina-built Zeiss lenses too, out of sheer snobbery.

Counter-guru strategies

 

1   Never trust anyone whose vocabulary does not include the phrase, "I could be wrong."

2   Never trust anyone who tries to tell you that their way is the only way. This is nonsense. If it were, everyone would do things the same way. The fact that they don't is something of a clue.

3   The purpose of photography is to enjoy yourself and make good pictures. It is not to purify the soul through suffering. Too many believe that if something is more difficult or expensive or obscure, it must necessarily be better, which is patent nonsense. A lot of photography is easy as well as enjoyable, and you can make superb pictures without ever venturing into the obscure.

4   Trust your own judgement. If five people tell you five different things, begin by considering the likelihood of which view is best. Then try it. Try the second likeliest, too, if you like.

5   Do not confuse great pictures with deep technical understanding. Many excellent photographers use an extremely limited range of techniques, and don't really understand how or why they work. That's fine -- until they start trying to explain to others how things work, when they may peddle flat nonsense, emphasizing the trivial and ignoring the important, thereby misleading their hapless pupils.

6   Do not confuse deep technical understanding with great pictures. Many of the greatest technical experts are indifferent photographers. This does not mean that technical understanding is inimical to good photography; it merely means that it is no guarantee of good photography. The only time that technical expertise gets in the way of photography is when you spend so much time reading and 'testing' that you never take any real photographs for their own sake.

7   Remember that times change. For example, when variable-contrast (VC) papers first appeared, they were awful. Now, except when you need the highest possible contrast (Grade 5 graded paper), or want a particular surface that is not available in VC, they are equal or superior to graded papers for the vast majority of applications.

8   If a guru's strategies work, it is because they are based on sound scientific work. Many guru-worshippers get this backwards, imagining (for example) that the Zone System (free module) is the basis of sensitometry, rather than a summary and sub-set of it. Read 'hard' books like Haist's Modern Photographic Processing and you can learn the real science behind the popularization -- and reflect that as well as being the author of perhaps the most highly respected work on the subject, Grant Haist is also a much-published photographer.

Remember, we could be wrong...

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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks