Gaining perspective through Photography 101

By David Talley | Published Saturday, September 16, 2017

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Courthouse View

COURTHOUSE VIEW – I held my camera up along the overhang by Sweetie Pie’s to get this view of Decatur’s most recognizable building. Messenger photo by David Talley

If I passed you Wednesday afternoon on U.S. 380 between the sheriff’s office and Victory Church, I’m sorry.

It was 5:15 and, for the first time since college, I was doing my homework at the last minute. This wasn’t an algebra or writing assignment. All I really had to do was take six photos with a camera for Messenger photographer Joe Duty’s Photo 101 class. But it’s harder than it sounds, and maybe, I was driving a little aggressively to get to the next location to shoot in time to turn my photos in for class at 5:30.

But despite the elevated stress levels, it’s also been kind of fun to practice photography with a purpose these past three weeks. Joe first taught us how to operate our cameras manually – things like aperture and shutter speed – and how to control them. These are things I’d done in college as part of photojournalism courses but abandoned over time to make things easier on myself. It’s essentially like driving a manual vehicle instead of an automatic.

When your camera is on manual, you’re reading the situation and adjusting settings. On auto, it does that for you. Photographers will usually shoot on a mode that affords them some level of control over these settings. Shooting exclusively on manual also means an inexperienced photographer like myself may come away with no usable photos at all. If too much light comes into the camera (controlled by aperture) your photo is going to be washed out, or even completely white. The aperture that worked for your shoot at 7:15 this morning doesn’t work at 4:45 this afternoon, so you’ve got to stay on top of changing conditions and adjust accordingly.

As our first class came to a close, Joe offered the week’s homework assignment, which was to demonstrate depth of field. In layman’s terms, that’s how much of your photo is in focus. A portrait photographer would use a short depth to blur out the background and focus solely on their subject while a landscape photographer might use a long depth of field to show a far off mountain range on a clear day.

Without access to mountains, I chose to focus on a few portraits and detail shots, submitting two photos of my dad in his woodshop, a sharp looking coffee mug, a photo of our dog and a photo from a plane wreck I covered last Monday. I was pretty proud of my final product but caught criticism in class for my framing and composition, which means my background was too busy and distracting.

While this criticism was fair, it hurt my pride.

Flash forward to Wednesday, running late and speeding down the highway. Our assignment had been to show the effects of slow and fast shutter speeds without adjusting the aperture or other camera settings, but I hadn’t done it until the day it was due. That morning I shot three photos using a slow shutter speed, which brought more light into my camera through a longer exposure, and I’d set out that afternoon for three more photos incorporating faster shutter speeds to account for the increased afternoon light. It was not going well. My first idea, to shoot photos of airplanes taking off and landing at the Decatur airport exceeded my camera’s maximum lighting capabilities, so I quickly left the airport and drove to Victory Church, where I could shoot photos of traffic. It didn’t have the angle I wanted, so I tried shooting from beside the Decatur water tower and also across U.S. 380 at the Airgas Supply Store. No luck.

It’s not that these photos weren’t well exposed or didn’t show motion, it’s just they didn’t have anything cool about them. They’re things you could take with a cell phone, and since my last photo submissions had been critiqued, I really needed something better than that. I was headed back to the office when I passed a train crossing just as the arms lowered. Trains show motion, so I took the shot. It was a little overexposed (too bright), but it accomplished the goal.

I headed back to the office ready to take photos of literally anything else to get my next two required fast shutter speed shots. I found a cool shadow from plastic fencing and horse apples. Good enough. I sent my photos in at 5:31, one minute after class started.

The photos were well-received. For some reason, these abstract photos were more popular. While I still don’t completely understand why, the ultimate lesson I’ve picked up from that is to look for odd angles. Take a photo in a way no one else would think to take it.

It feels good to have an epiphany moment. Like the homework procrastination earlier, it’s my first time since college.

David Talley is a Messenger reporter.

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