The Photographer's Tools

David duChemin

I believe in this beautiful craft now more than ever. I love its democratic nature and the way it uses the elegant raw materials of light and time. I love the mechanics and the way the camera feels in my hands. And I adore the final print. I revel in the joy of seeing an image emerge into the real world in dark black and graceful greys.

I believe we can experience photographs in a way that we don’t experience other mediums. They stick in a unique way. Or they can. But that stickiness isn’t innate. We have to put it there. And the tools to do so are not the camera and the lens, much as I love them.

The tools of the photographer are her language and not the camera itself.

I mentioned this in "The End of What it Looks Like," but I’ve been thinking a lot about it since. You know, we talk a lot about writing with light. It sounds poetic. But we talk so seldom about what we write and how we order the words to best say the thing we envision. We know our f/stops by memory and we can talk for hours about the latest advances that make it easier than ever to make sharp and well-exposed images, but ask us about balance, tension, colour palettes, and other elements of the visual language and we’ll look at you like you just licked our sensor.

Our cameras are not our tools; the elements of the visual language are our tools. The craft of photography matters deeply and you need to know how to use the mechanics, but that’s just the price of admission. It's assumed that you'll learn how to use the hardware. But using the hardware is not the same as saying something. It’s not where the stickiness comes from. That comes from someplace deeper, and it comes only through the use of intangible tools like contrast, scale, repetition of elements, and the way we use the frame itself. It comes from how we create energy and mood and story.  Your Nikon can’t do that. Only you can do that.

We will always have room to grow in terms of our craft. Over 30 years on and I'm still finding new ways to use the fundamentals of the mechanics of this craft. But that's not the goal. The goal is more: it’s bigger. The goal is to learn every day to see in new ways and experience this world with wider eyes. It is to find new ways to express that and new ways to tell stronger stories. So here is my challenge to you because it might be time someone told you: stop screwing around with your gear and start to learn the language. You’ve got something to say, I know you do.

Learn why the orientation and ratio of your frame help tell your story. Learn how to use scale and proportion. Learn to tell stories. Learn about colour. The mechanics are the tools of craft, but the language is the tool of art. Get fascinated by that. Go to a gallery and learn about the visual arts. It might be intimidating; learning always is. But find out why Van Gogh did what he did, and why it worked. Pick up a book about Picasso and learn about his use of line and shape, or about Rothko and his use of colour. Or about graphic design. Buy a visual art or graphic design magazine next time you’re tempted to buy yet another photography magazine. How many Tamron ads can one person absorb, anyway? Consider studying my book, Photographically Speaking, or Molly Bang's Picture This, or The Photographer’s Eye from Michael Freeman.

You’re probably pretty good at focusing and exposing. You’ll always get better. Now it’s time to study the harder stuff. Who’s in?

David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.

Craft & Technique Creativity David duChemin

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  • Well said. Learning the hardware and software is like learning the alphabet, the words to a language. It doesn’t give you anything to say. That comes from inside, and those thoughts can be translated out into any ‘language’.

    Mike Nelson Pedde on

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  3. Street Life: A Word With Libby Holmsen
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  8. In Conversation: Sharon Covert
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