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.