is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
During the course of obliviously touring Paris, I took about five hundred pictures with my digital camera. For more experienced photographers, especially those shooting digital, that’s not a particularly remarkable number, but for me that amounts to the most shots I’ve ever taken on a single vacation. This is basically a reflection of a new and increasingly serious interest in my camera and how I can get the best shots I possibly can from it.
Never having had formal training in photography, I dabbled for a long time with point-and-shoot digital cameras. As anyone who’s used one can attest, they allow for instant gratification with little or no requirement for actually understanding the inner workings of photography. In that respect, they’re fantastic introductions to the craft.
But in the four or five years I was shooting with these models, I never really got it straight in my head what an f/stop is, for instance, or how to properly meter a shot — I was too easily insulated from the inner logic of picture taking. As a result I continually ran into frustrations in getting the kinds of shots I really wanted. I knew that I’d actually have to learn this craft, but it seemed silly to try and learn it with cameras so clearly designed not to teach it.
The Learning Curve
So I bit the bullet, bought a Nikon D70 and, in fits and starts for the past year, have been slowly, painfully trying to put together an understanding of the basics of taking pictures. It’s not particularly easy, and it always amazes me when I think, first, of how many people have undertaken this highly technical art form and mastered it, and second, of how many of those people who did it using traditional film cameras. I can’t imagine trying to learn the basics much less the artistry without the immediacy and virtually non-existent per-shot cost of digital photography. If you count yourself as one of those who learned the hard way, then respect.
For me, I’ve hobbled together a basic understanding from photography books, third party manuals for my camera and more experienced friends. It’s been hard, and I’ve often thought to myself, “You should really take a class in this.”
But I’ve never found a class — or a book — that focuses exclusively on what I want to learn. There’s almost always too much emphasis on how to manipulate photographs once they’re taken; how to get them from the camera to the computer, tricks for retouching unsightly details, techniques for vivid color printing, etc. All of which is nice, but of little interest to me; it’s no accident that I’m coming to photography at this stage in my life, because it’s one digital activity that will get me out from in front of my computer and engaged with the real world.
What I want most out of photography instruction is very concrete, very practical lessons on how to take pictures: tutorials on optimal equipment usage, hints for intuiting proper settings, frank advice on what mathematics I simply can’t get away with not knowing, inside tips on how to get the shot. There’s nothing wrong with making the most of an image with Photoshop, but I want to generate the best pictures I possibly can within the camera itself. If you know how I can get this done, please let me know.+