Several times in life, I’ve experienced the “Aha” moment. That place in time when there’s absolute clarity. Something you’ve been struggling to get your brain around suddenly thumps you on the back of the head as if to say, “GOT IT!”
Some of those days have really stuck with me over the years: In high school, I learned that if you filled the trash can half-full of water, then threw in the lit M-80 and put the lid on top, you could not only blow up the trash can, but send the lid over the neighbor’s house. There was the afternoon in Hana, where Robert Ketchum finally got through to me how light “works” in the camera. And the day I learned how to throttle steer (read power slide) a car. Once you “get it,” it’s kind of like riding a bike: Once you learn, you never forget.
Earlier this week, I held a private workshop in Makena. When I do a private class, I always inquire to what the participants want to learn: Shooting the perfect sunset, macro flora photography and the perfect wave usually are what most answer. This class was different. “We know how to use our cameras,” the one said. “But we don’t know the settings ‘work.’”
Two of the participants went on to explain that they had both taken several photography classes, where instructors “told” them how to take digital pictures. One instructor had then shooting in manual mode the entire time (just like in the old days, where you would set the aperture and shutter speed) and work the two to get the best shot. Unable to get the shots they were looking for, they were hoping I could help.
Both of my students were from the “film” days, and wanted to take pictures that looked like it had been shot on film, but having to think “digitally,” they were never happy with how their images turned out.
The key, I told them, is not to think digitally, but think like you’re shooting film. The premise is simple: The only real difference (okay, may be not the only, but the most significant) is that a film camera captures light on a piece of plastic covered in silver-metal halide crystals or an imaging sensor that captures the light and “changes” it into a digital signal of ones and zeros. If you think film, your images will look like they were shot on film.
I saw the light bulb start to flicker. It was the beginning of the Aha moment.
We drove to our first shooting spot, found a nice scene with moss-covered lava, rolling waves and a clear view of Molokini and Kahoolawe in the background. After getting them setup on tripods and proper lenses selected, it was time to add some electricity to the flickering bulb.
We talked about the scene, how the contrast of the moss with the rocks works with the blue of the waves as they curl and break. The white foam adding just enough accents, while the islands in the background help give a sense of space.
I had them take a picture in automatic mode. The results were less than flattering.
“Now,” I told them, “You paid for the Nikon engineers to develop a fantastic meter and incredible algorithms for your cameras. Now use them.” I had them get out of automatic into aperture mode, playing with the depth of field, bracketing shots and experimenting with their cameras.
The light bulb went to a steady state of light. They got it.
After an hour of shooting different scenes, playing with shutter and aperture priority, we packed up the gear and headed off to shoot flora.
Finding a nice patch of ginger, it was now time to learn how light can be used to your advantage. We worked the blooms hard, with the sun behind a cloud (utilizing nature’s soft box) and direct sun, working the aperture of the lens to best utilize available light. The results were eye-opening, and the bulb was burning brightly.
I could see the months of frustration melting from their minds, as they looked at the scene before them, composed and set their cameras and made images. Looking at their screens, they were beautifully composed, had great contrast and the exposures were perfect. Nearby, I thought I heard a small sonic boom, made from the electrical meter from the draw from my student’s light bulbs. They had it, as we used to say in the film days, “in the can.”
Even today, I’m pleasantly surprised when I have a new Aha moment. It reminds me that from the beginning of life through death, we’re always learning, always striving, always looking to put new knowledge “in the can.”
I can only wonder what that next moment will be.