Making Pancakes, Making Pictures
Long weekends mean taking time to make pancakes for breakfast. I don't do a lot of cooking, but I've developed a knack for pancakes. It occurs to me that there's a lesson for photographers in the fine art of cooking pancakes. Yum.
First, a disclaimer: I'm not the most experienced chef, but I do have a few specialties that get rave reviews. I no doubt could have written this week's article about some other cuisine than breakfast, but we're all at the mercy of our palette, and I found myself wanting pancakes this morning. I think I make great pancakes.
I started out cooking with instant pancake mix, the kind you add water to and cook on a hot griddle. Nothing fancy. But there was still an abundance of variables that affected the quality of the outcome. I learned the basics while working the breakfast shift at a fast-food chain in high school and have been honing my craft ever since. Add too much water, and the batter runs all over the place. Too little water, and the result comes out thick and dry. Even such fundamentals can seem frustratingly difficult to get right if you've never made pancakes before. As I got more comfortable with such matters, I starting taking greater control over the process. Still, there are numerous points of detail that influence matters. And by "matters," I mean breakfast.
Operating a modern camera is pretty simple, too. On fully automatic everything, you point the camera and press the button. Yet, still, many things can go wrong. There are elementary details like holding the camera level to the horizon and holding it still while the shutter fires. And obviously, there are the questions of composition and framing, exposure, and focusing. Numerous choices and decisions impact matters. And by "matters," I mean how your pictures come out looking.
Whether we're talking pancakes or pictures, the best place to start is by following the printed directions. While not comprehensive nor prescriptive enough to give you the best results possible in every situation, they should get you in the ballpark you're first time out. With a dash of luck, things might even come out good or at least palatable. But it will probably take a bit of practice to get consistently tasty results. You'll need to hone your craft some if you want to get truly good.
For both, we have ready-made tools and units for measuring the variables. Whether milliseconds and f/stops or degrees Fahrenheit and ounces, we need a way to understand our choices quantitatively. Only then will you have a yardstick for gauging our results. If your pancakes get burned, you need to know what combination of temperature and time to avoid next time. If your pictures end up overexposed, it's no different when considering what changes may be needed for aperture and shutter speed. I weigh and measure everything when making breakfast, just as I shoot almost everything on full manual exposure. I like being able to take full control of the process.
Not everyone likes their pancakes the same way, nor does everyone have the same taste in photography. Some prefer buttermilk. Some like only pictures of birds. Some like a dash of cinnamon; some prefer telephoto. We all start with the same basic recipe and then embellish it from there.
Along the way, you have to start trusting yourself and make some educated guesses. Ultimately, there's no way to know how something will come out other than to give it a go, but it needn't be completely trial and error. A slight change in the pancake recipe or an intentional blur from a longer shutter speed may not turn out the way you expect, but your chances of success clearly improve with experience. It helps to spend some time practicing. And you get the fun of seeing the result hot off the griddle. Or the CCD sensor.
You can start with the pre-mixed recipe on automatic exposure and branch out as your comfort level and tastes warrants. There's no pressure, but the temptations of mouthwatering success is sure to lure many on, given time. It's our own appetite that drives us to improve.