Gamekeeper turned poacher

I reckon that these days, about three-quarters of the work I do involves writing tutorials. It’s not the most glamorous kind of journalism, for sure, and writers who don’t do it often look down on those of us who do – but I really like doing it,  and in the case of Windows Vista magazine, I get a kick out of seeing readers’ responses when they say “thanks” after a tutorial. That’s partly because it’s unusual – most hacks’ inboxes, mine included, can be pretty abusive – but more because for every person who knows this kind of stuff inside out, there’s a whole bunch of people tearing their hair out in frustration. I enjoy doing my weekly tech babble on Radio Scotland for exactly the same reason.

That said, you can become jaded and forget about the very real frustration that technology can cause – until you end up in a situation where the shoe’s on the other foot and you’re not the person writing the tutorials, but the person who really needs them.

Can I give an example? Of course I can. I’ve just upgraded my camera to a proper, grown-up SLR, and after the initial enthusiasm – “Yippee! Shiny tech toy that I probably shouldn’t have bought!” – waned, I realised something pretty quickly: I’m hopelessly out of my depth.

If you’re not a camera expert, moving from point and shoot to DSLR is a big, big step. All of the options that make DSLRs so clever can be really intimidating if, like me, it’s largely new to you. I wasn’t worried, though, because all technology can be tamed through a combination of fiddling and, when you’re really stuck, reading the manual. Not in this case, though. One simple thing – trying to suss out how to change the flash brightness, because even simple pictures were way, way too dark – has had me baffled for days, and the more I fiddled and the more I consulted the manual, the more confused and frustrated I got. That one issue became a bigger problem: I mean, if you can’t work the bloody flash, what chance have you got of unravelling the mysteries of depth of field, ISO speeds, multi-segment metering and the like?

In the space of a few days I went from being excited at the possibilities of my great new gadget to being angry and pissed off at my own inability to understand even the simple things. My camera’s myriad options – the things that made me buy it – had become a minefield, and I was seriously considering taking advantage of the shop’s 30-day no quibble returns policy. Good camera, yes, I’d say. Too thick to use it, though.

So I did two things. One, I called David, who knows a lot more about cameras than I do. And I bought a digital photography magazine (a Future one, of course. I’m a loyal chap). David very patiently answered my very dumb questions, and I finally sussed out what I needed to do to get the flash working the way I wanted it to.

Next up, the magazine. When you do what I do for a living, you tend to skim magazines about the subjects you cover. “Yeah, the Google thing”, “Oh aye, search engine optimisation”, “God no, that image is ‘shopped, it’s not a leaked product photo” and so on. So it’s interesting to pick up a magazine from the same stable as the titles you write for but whose content is completely new to you. The gamekeeper becomes the poacher: when you’re reading a digital camera magazine because you’re increasingly convinced that you’ve bought something that’s too complicated for you then of course you’re coming from a completely different direction than when the content covers stuff that’s very familiar to you.

And you know what? The magazine was brilliant – bar one ad featuring a stunning photo taken at the top of the Chrysler tower, which made my vertigo kick in so badly that I had to go for a cigarette while thinking about things that aren’t tall in any way whatsoever. I didn’t feel patronised but neither did I feel hopelessly out of my depth, and even the featured photos – something which would normally make me want to chuck myself off a bridge in the realisation that I’ll never, ever be that talented – were inspiring thanks to one-para explanations of what the snappers did and what they used.

Inspiring is the best way to put it, I think. David’s advice started the ball rolling, of course, but reading the magazine did two things: it made me go “aaah, so that’s how you do it” or “right, I understand that”, and it made me want to grab the camera and go on a photo frenzy.

I’m not convinced I’m ready to don camouflage gear and spend days trying to get a really good shot of a badger, mind you.

18 thoughts on “Gamekeeper turned poacher

  1. Professor Batty says:

    The digital photography thing is a bit of mess, everything is so new. Every manufacturer has a completely different layout, operating system, sometimes even terminology- all this in addition to mastering the standard photographic concepts, which, while somewhat complex, are very elegant. Photo mags tend to get looked down upon by snobs, but they can deliver a lot of information in a high quality format. The cameras 10 years from now will be much better, not from an image quality point of view (“I canna change the laws of physics, Captain Kirk!”) but from a user interface. Good luck.

  2. mupwangle says:

    Photography is an odd one. There is a huge amount of snobbery around – all you have to do is look at the comments on Flickr, but its really odd how there are now “experts” in photography who know everything about the camera’s workings and know things like the rule of thirds and the like but wouldn’t know a good photo if it kicked them in the arse.

    I don’t claim to be good at this stuff – most pictures I take really suck – but it is still really good fun and it’s a shame when snobbery or poor interfaces spoil that. Credit to Nikon that I’ve been able to work out how to use most of the features on the D50 without having to spend hours looking stuff up. Your camera is so much more complicated but that is mainly cos it can do so much more than your average DSLR.

    Flickr isn’t bad for help (despite the numpties). There are a fair number of people who are willing to share hints and tips if you mail them and ask them how they set it up and what they were trying to do. It’s worth asking.

  3. Gary says:

    Professor Batty, I know exactly what you mean by the looked down-on thing: you get exactly the same thing in the tech field, a self-appointed elite who could probably rewrite an entire Linux kernel in a tea break looking down on people who are new to this stuff. The anti-AOL feeling when – gasp! – normal people got to use the internet was a good example of that.

    It’s daft, of course, because everyone’s a newbie at something at some point. There are millions of things I don’t know how to do, so for example every single car I’ve ever bought soon resulted in the purchase of the appropriate Haynes manual so I could find out how to fix basic things. Over the years those books have saved me thousands of pounds, I reckon, so it’s quite nice to be *writing* the same kind of guides – mags, books, whatever – on the subjects *I* know stuff about – not least because in tech, as in cars, there are people who see peoples’ lack of knowledge as an opportunity to sell them really expensive things they don’t need.

    Back to cameras – at the risk of making myself look really stupid, I didn’t *know* that you could adjust the brightness of the flash until David told me – so before that phone call, I was getting depressed by looking at the price of add-on flash units for a camera that damn near bankrupted me in the first place. And I’m quite sure had I gone into a camera shop, I’d have been persuaded to buy an expensive flashgun. So that one bit of really simple, really obvious knowledge saved me, what? £250 or something?

    David – yeah, some of the Flickr users are Fuckrs, some of them are ace. The Fuckrs are exactly the same people we used to encounter in music: amp worth more than a car, guitar worth more than a house, an attitude that sucks and no musical talent whatsoever. I’m the camera equivalent, heh.

  4. Squander Two says:

    Colin (who used to be Squander Three) was a dead good photographer (although he had a weird blind spot: he couldn’t tell the difference between his brilliant stuff and his bad stuff). Anyway, he once told me about a feature one of the photography magazines did. They got a handful of the world’s best photographers and gave them a budget of something like fifty quid each — which included the cost of the camera. The results were absolutely superb, of course. They did it to make the point that the technology doesn’t really matter. An odd feature for a magazine that makes its money by selling adverts for that technology, but hey.

  5. mupwangle says:

    I’ve seen some absolutely amazing pictures from cameraphones that I wouldn’t know how to get close to with a DSLR. Better cameras give you more flexibility to try stuff that you might not be able to do with a cheapy without a lot of hassle.

    Also spending a lot on a camera is an incentive not to lose interest!

  6. Armin says:

    Sorry, in German only, but I’m sure you can follow the pictures in the guide how to upgrade your camera:

    http://blog.beetlebum.de/2007/02/21/wie-werde-ich-profifotograf/

    He writes about the “measurebators” (I think there’s an English version somewhere of the page he links to) and how they look down on the people with the “wrong” equipment.

    The second part is about how to “upgrade” your standard Canon lens to an “L-Series” (that seems to be the expensive “professional” line). I’ve got a Nikon, so haven’t tried it and don’t know if it helps you to make better pictures ;-)

  7. mupwangle says:

    Won’t work with Nikon. I don’t think there is an equivalent modification you can do to a nikon to have the same effect.

  8. SarahG says:

    Gary, would you say the mag you bought is more targeted to SLR owners or could a Nikon Coolpix owner/beginner get any info out of it too? I haven’t a clue where to start with my camera, and now my phone has ISO settings on the camera too, and I’m lost!

    I’d love to get more use from my camera than basic point and shoot stuff. I’ve been thinking about looking at a magazine and would love to know if it’d be worth the money :)

  9. mupwangle says:

    Sarah – personally I would recommend having a play with all the settings then using google to explain anything you didn’t understand. However, if you wanted to know what’s going on before you actually do it then most of the mainstream digital camera mags are aimed at total amateurs. If you know what you ‘re doing (or if you think you do!) then why would you want to read a mag? I found the digital photography for dummies quite interesting but I learned so much more by taking photos and screwing them up. That’s the whole benefit of digital – the only cost is your time.

    If you’ve already got the kit – take photos and look back at them and try to work out why they didn’t come out as you thought. Ask other people if you don’t know. I’m not an expert by any means but I’ll help if I can on the technical side of things (david@kasino.co.uk) but artistically you’re really on your own! My pics are on flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/mupwangle. Look at other peoples stuff on sites like Flickr and SmugMug and mail the photographer for advice. Photography is an artform. There is no proper right and wrong. The hard part (like music) is converting what you see in your own head into a picture.

  10. mupwangle says:

    I forgot to mention – there is no real difference between a high-end DSLR and a high-end point-and-click. The DSLR is a bit more customisable and costs double!

  11. Armin says:

    Well, to an extent the SLR is just convenience. I’ve got both: A Nikon D70 and a Nikon Coolpix 3100.

    A few years ago I was on holiday when my then SLR (I think I had an Olympus then) broke and I was left with the Coolpix. A large number of the pictures turned out as well as I think they would have with the SLR. It was just a bit more difficult.

    I found the electric zoom very annoying, it’s just easier and more precise to use the manual zoom at the lens. The Olympus was a bit slower, but now with the D70 I wouldn’t want to miss the speed. With most point & click it takes a while until it actually takes the pictures after you pressed the button. With most DSLRs there’s no lag. That does make a huge difference if you’re trying to take pictures of salmon jumping up a waterfall…

    Apart from all that I’d agree with mupwangle. Just go playing. Take pictures, lots of them. Try out things. And use the delete button frequently. You can also find a lot of free help and tutorials on the web. Take a look at the archives on blogs like Lifehacker, they often have links to excellent tutorials and various tips and tricks for photography.

  12. SarahG says:

    Cheers for the replies. I realise it’s just a case of play and see what does what. I’m just the type of person who likes to learn by reading first, and really understand what’s going on! :)

  13. mupwangle says:

    >>With most point & click it takes a while until it actually takes the pictures after you pressed the button.

    Shutter lag is atrocious on my Sony DSC-P92. You shouldn’t have to take continental drift into account when taking pictures. I did use a new Canon Powershot the other day that had almost no lag at all. I was quite impressed.

  14. Gary says:

    Hi Sarah. As David says, most of the camera magazines are aimed at amateurs – the one I bought, Digital Camera, particularly so. You can usually tell by the headlines on the front cover – if it’s all “£10,000 tripod supertest” it’s probably too high end, at least for the likes of me :)

    I’d disagree with david on the power of fiddling and google, though. It depends on the sort of person you are, so in my case I learn better by actually *seeing* how to do it – eg, an illustrated tutorial – than reading about it. My camera-related Googling tends to land me on sites that assume a certain level of knowledge.

    I like the Dummies books (although I bloody hate the title) and at the risk of plugging a publisher I work for, if Haynes Publishing does digital camera books (I don’t know if it does offhand) they’re designed to take you step by step through absolutely everything.

    Another option is a camera club, although I’ve no idea what kind of people such clubs attract. Could be enthusiastic groovy people, or it could be sad trainspotterish types who patronise you senseless if you don’t know what an f-stop is :)

  15. mupwangle says:

    I don’t think there is anything there that I hadn’t seen somewhere else before but she writes in quite an easy to understand way. Quite interesting. Especially if she genuinely gives people feedback on the forums.

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