Skills = Patience

This is a little bit of philosophy 101 as it applies to technical skills – it may well be more applicable to people early in their careers but I suspect it is also possibly a good reminder for more experienced people…

While it has been a few decades now since I first started recording sound, I still learn something new every time I go out field recording or do a session in the studio. Learning of this kind is incremental, every bit of experience adds to your pool of knowledge and your ability to cope in a new situation is increased due to accumulated knowledge… The main goal from any situation is the same: to come out of it with good results, and preferably GREAT results.

So it has been interesting to observe my own behaviour & process as I have slowly learnt skills in a different medium: photography & moving image ie. video, timelapse, motion control etc… When I first bought a digital camera it was a tiny point & shoot camera & I always used it in auto mode. So I would frame the shot & the camera would do everything else as best it could: focus, exposure etc… If I was somewhere interesting the results would be interesting and for a year or two that satisfied me – I just wanted to simply capture a photo. But after a while I started to long for more control eg I accidentally discovered I could trick my auto camera into shallow focus by eg standing close to a tree and letting the auto focus lock on to this close tree, and the background would be pushed out of focus. Its an effect I had seen many times before, and while I could achieve it with my little point&shoot camera, I didn’t really have any form of accurate control over it. So a desire developed to attain that control.

Another aspect that frustrated me with my little camera was when shooting landscapes and interesting buildings – its little lens just wasn’t wide enough. It could zoom ok so getting close to things wasn’t such an issue, but capturing a wide perspective was difficult & unsatisfying… So a desire to have more control over framing developed…

The solution to both of these issues was my first DSLR, a Canon 30D. Having decided on the camera I then did a lot of keyword searching on flickr, looking for wide angle photos that appealed – architecture, landscapes etc… Slowly a lens choice developed, the Canon EFs 10-22mm lens which being EFs meant it specifically matched the crop sensor of my 30D and retained its ‘wideness’ (a full frame lens on a crop sensor incurrs a multiplying factor with the 30D of 1.6, so a wide full frame 22mm lens becomes a less wide 35mm lens when used on a crop sensor)

Having gained access to the tools I wanted, now I had to learn to use them. As per my old point & shoot camera I started off in auto everything mode – auto exposure and auto focus. The results were so much better than my old camera and I continued to shoot this way for many months, but when I had conversations with friends who had been shooting for years I learned they always shot in manual mode, so they had control of everything. At the time, one friend explained the relationship between aperture, exposure and depth of field but I simply could not understand it – this bizo with the F stops seemed counter intuitive (wish I had seen this back then) so I continued shooting in auto mode, and slowly, very very slowly started to try the other ‘almost auto’ modes – particularly Av mode.

And so now, here I am: a decade older, five or six cameras and many different lenses later. I still have that first lens, the EFs10-22 and use it with my infra red modified crop sensor 40D but OMFG have I learned some things along the way!! When I was first introduced to the idea of shooting in manual mode I secretly thought to myself ‘I will never use that’ but a decade later I shoot almost everything in manual mode (apart from using bulb exposures for long exposures)

So what happened to ‘auto mode’?

First I learned to control exposure: using my eye & the viewfinder, the histogram & the built in exposure meter, and metering modes.

Parting with auto focus took longer. Having suffered from myopia since my teenage years I have never been confident with focus – my technique often relied on using auto focus lenses, letting the lens focus for me and if I really wanted to alter it, then switching the lens to manual focus & tweaking it knowing it was already very close to being in focus due to the auto. The final push to manual focus occurred relatively recently when I tested out the Zeiss Distagon lens, which has no auto focus. I wanted this lens the same way I wanted that wide angle 10-22 lens when I got my first DSLR (ie after lots of research) but could I cope with manual focus? Finding the answer to that question was a revelation: in hindsight part of my issues with focus were due to the lenses – the EF Canon lenses are not cheap but compared to the Zeiss fully metal lens the Canon focus mechanism feels cheap, like playing a cheap clone guitar & then picking up a beautiful instrument. The feel and the subtlely of control is like chalk & cheese, and the scaling and sensitivity of the Zeiss focus mechanism meant I actually could focus reliably! Its an observation with important ramifications: sometimes the tools can actually limit your development (of course I am not criticising all Canon lenses)

So its taken me a decade to arrive at a place where I shoot manual, I can control exposure and focus. And I am starting to learn the skills of controlling depth of field. The simple example of using shallow depth of field I discovered with those trees way back then, is relatively simple and even easier with good, fast lenses. But developing an aesthetic and instinctively knowing what depth of field best suits a shot is a different skill again – composing depth of field is arguably as important as composing the framing. But it is a far less obvious skill to think about than framing, and is not available to you when shooting in auto mode. So I have spent a decade learning to frame, but far far less time learning to control depth of field.

With video and timelapse, acquiring skills has taken a similar trajectory. While shooting a day time timelapse is relatively easy, adding camera movement to it is less easy, and shooting light transitions is difficult: how do you smoothly capture the transition from day to dusk to sunset to darkness? During my two Artist Residencies I learned this skill and the same for the slightly more difficult transition of night through dawn (focusing in the dark is a really fun challenge!)

Thankfully due to long rich history of photography and film making, there is a mountain of information easily available online. A good example is a new skill I want to acquire – you might have noticed I love photographing birds, and I am slowly learning to do it better. But I really struggle to capture birds in flight – I had a few opportunities on that last trip down south & I pretty much blew every one of them, at best the results were good, definitely not great. But a quick search & I found a bunch of articles on that very subject, and the next time I get the chance I will have a much better idea of how to approach it….

So a few thoughts in conclusion:

If you are a soundie or musician you might be getting tired of this becoming a photo blog, but an invaluable part of my learning these new skills has such direct & important parallels with learning to record sound, that I will draw attention to some that I think are crucial.

– Acquiring new skills takes time, which equates to patience. People who want to take short cuts are actually short cutting their own long term development – there is no better way to learn than through action. DOING whatever it is you want to learn to do. Do it lots, spend years doing it. Make mistakes and work out why the mistake occurred so its not repeated (or even better, learning the unintended benefits of the mistake, so it also can potentially become a useable skill)

– Most people start off in auto mode. Its a part of learning, but to progress and achieve better results you slowly need to say goodbye to auto mode. While most sound recordists do not use auto mode, controlling and managing dynamic range is very similar to controlling exposure. And as a sound editor there is nothing I dread more than inheriting sound that has been recorded on a camera with auto gain control. But as with exposure, the minute you turn off auto gain control, you need to be aware of the ramifications: appropriate levels have to be predicted and set AND they must be monitored – no one switches to manual exposure on a camera & then doesn’t look through the viewfinder, they monitor the exposure the same way audio levels must be visually monitored and listened to. If its a bright day or a loud sound, can you predict the basic settings/setup to capture it?

– Learning to predict the ‘reach’ of a lens equates to learning to predict the ‘reach’ of a microphone. When you start out you may only have one lens or microphone, and no matter how good you might think it is, learning its limitations is an important skill as it informs your choices when you learn its limits and need to expand beyond those limits. A good condensor mic is great for many things, but its reach runs out at a certain point & a shotgun mic becomes a far better choice, just as a wide lens is great for some situation but a long lens is more appropriate in others. Or a contact mic/macro lens is a better choice for some situations. Context is everything, and making the right choice for each context and situation directly reflects on your range and depth of experience, in different situations and with different tools.

– Obviously there are lots of parallels when moving into post production, but one universal truth applies: capture great material and you make the time spent in post far more productive and satisfying.


“Experience is not what happens to you.
It is what you do with what happens to you”

Aldous Huxley


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