Like Learning to Ride a Bike?
It's a common expression said about so many things: that they are in some way like learning to ride a bike. I recently heard this about photography, and it got me thinking…
As many of us did, I grew up riding a bike. I rode it everywhere, or at least everywhere I kid my age was permitted to ride. I honestly don't remember much of learning to ride a bike, but I definitely remember riding it. Yes, I know I started out riding around a school parking lot, round and round in circles. But I don't have any memories of not being able to ride a bike to at least some degree of skill. Perhaps I've wiped all those memories out of my mind of falling over and getting back up on that bike so it didn't get the best of me. As a very young kid, I know I started out with training wheels and somehow graduated to removing them, so I definitely did learn to ride a bike somehow.
So what does any of this have to do with learning photography? I suppose most everyone starting out as an aspiring photographer started out with training wheels of a sort in the form of automatic exposure, automatic focus, and reasonably close to automatic everything else. I'd say that all that automation qualifies as training wheels. You just have to point the camera somewhere and press the shutter release button. The camera will then do everything else on its own to create the best image it can of what's thereby in front of it.
But the likelihood is that you can create a better image than it can if you take off at least some of those training wheels and learn to use your camera without them. Your camera may be technically very good at calculating exposure and focus, but it has no idea what it's actually taking a picture of. Only you do. Your camera has to rely on preprogrammed assumptions and guesses. A camera meter assumes the entire scene averages out to a "medium toned" exposure since, after all, the world as a whole does. "Medium toned" got to be designated "medium" since it's in the middle, right where the average is. But the scene you chose to point your camera at is only a small section of the world at large and may not be representative of the whole. Without the ability to understand what the subject matter is, a camera can't be expected to know what it's supposed to look like, so it has to guess that it's probably about average. It may well be, but not always. Snow is a lot brighter than average and will come out dirty gray if exposed as "medium toned."
And speaking of the subject matter, you probably have at least a reasonable idea why you pointed your camera in that particular direction. Your camera again has to guess. Most auto focus mechanisms do so by assuming the focus point should be whatever is closest. Some are a bit more sophisticated and will discount small areas that happen to be close but are probably inconsequential, thereby avoiding focusing on a stray tree branch and the like. Even if you begin by letting the camera's autofocus to its thing, you have the ability to take matters into your own hand if your camera missed focusing on what you wanted it to.
Yup, at some point, you have to learn to really understand and use your camera. Those computerized training wheels can often make decisions faster than you can, but they can't make better decisions than you can. You need to know when and how to override what it does.
Of course, the unspoken subtext of "it's like learning to ride a bike" is that once you've learned to do so you'll never forget. As I grew older, I got rid of my old bike. I had learned to drive a car which got me around a lot more quickly, and many streets that were designed for cars really weren't as bike friendly as those in my immediate neighborhood. So my bike sat unused and I eventually let it go. These days, it's more common to design streets that are bicycle and pedestrian friendly, so it's much more practical to ride a bike these days than it was for many years. Bike riding is indeed quite common these days, for people of all ages. Alas, I no longer have my trusty bike, but even if I did, bikes have changed a lot over the years. They're no longer just two wheels and some peddles. Just as many other things have over the years, bikes have gone high tech. There's a lot more to riding a bike than back when I was a kid.
Cameras have gone high tech big time over the years. I once had a camera that would operate with no battery at all. The selenium cell in the meter needed a battery, but that was it. Modern digital cameras are specialized computers and can do wonderful things, but there's a lot to learning to use them than there was way back when. So if you learned to use a camera way back when, you'd likely nonetheless find yourself out of your league with a modern camera. Even more so than when comparing modern bikes to the ones I grew up on.
Cameras keep on changing too. You have to keep on learning to use them just in order to keep up.
But if I think back to what I do recall about learning to ride a bike, it becomes clear that much of what it was all about had more to do with not falling over than it did with actual riding. It's just that not falling over meant maintaining enough momentum forward from riding that you wouldn't topple over. And most importantly, it meant getting in touch with your sense of balance to be able to keep yourself upright and not list too far to either side as you did it.
And it's here that I find the most resonance with learning photography. Despite changes in where you photograph and precisely what vintage your camera may be, the one thing about photography that sticks with you most is the ability to see a well composed image. And just like with riding a bike, it comes from getting in touch with your inner sense of balance. What makes a good image? Truth told, you already know. As with not falling off a bike, you just have to feel what works. There are any number of tips and guidelines that may help assist with this process, but ultimately the achievement of success has to come from within the learner. And once you've found your own inner sense of composition, it's this that makes you a photographer rather than just someone operating a camera.
But never forget that you have to feel this compositional balance while at the same time operating the controls on your camera, just like peddling a bicycle while feeling your center of balance over the bike frame. That camera becomes a tool for expressing your sense of creativity.