#1160. Introducing Basics

By pascaljappy | News

Dec 23

When you read or view tutorials about photography online, it’s hard not to feel most of the teachers are putting the cart before the horses. It is not uncommon to witness a terribly elaborate post-processing procedure applied to a photograph that’s composed all meh, for example.


So, I’d like to offer a counter point to this. After announcing Critique, last week, here’s a look at Basics, a new series of posts for the new year.

In my mind, it’s far more useful to master the basics and and experiment than to follow advanced tutorials in certain areas with weak foundations in others. I think it’s fair to say that fewer than 1% of the influential and expensive (outdoors) photographs seen galleries and museums used fancy techniques. An inverse proportion, however, had the fundamentals perfectly right.

Photography is generally a reactive process. Unless you are working in a studio or are setting up shots with lights, filters and assistants, you’re generally reacting to a scene and having to make do with what’s there. To do this successfully, you need to build a solid intuition. And to do that, you need to keep things as simple as possible, experiment, and get feedback.

In real life, things get messy fast

The Basics series will be all about keeping things as simple as possible.

It isn’t meant to dumb down aspects of photography, but to isolate and explain the essentials as well as possible.

The first part – isolating – is at least as important as the second – explaining. Because in a world where everyone wants to sell you something, it’s difficult to sort the signal from the noise and do that isolating on your own, unless you’re already a subject matter expert.

Edge of darkness

That’s why I’ll try not to do this alone.

My ideas on some topics are very clear. Composition, post processing, for example. But they are far more shaky in other areas of photography, such as colour science. And it’s quite likely that there are other areas that elude me completely and would never make it to this series if not through the suggestion of someone else.

Teams always win over individuals. So, I’m hoping expert volunteers will help me with this.

Rule of thirds? Nope.

To repeat, the goal of this series is to isolate what’s important in every aspect of photography. In post processing, for example, that’s lighting and contrast. All the fancy scripts using 12 layers you can find by the dozen on youtube are the 5% icing on that 95% foundation. Software such as Hasselblad’s Phocus doesn’t even allow anything fancy to be done. It’s all about following a logical and efficient workflow of basic manipulations.

So we’ll be focusing on understanding contrast far more than on masking.

And we’ll be focusing on how all of those basics work together.

Peasants and nobles

And, yes, we’ll be working with non-Disney pictures as well πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ I just can’t resist using those here πŸ™‚ So, if you already know of a topic you’d like to read about, please let us know in the comments. And if you’re willing to share your high-level of expertise on any photo-centric topic with others, please contact me at pascal dot jappy at gmail dot com.

Over and out ’til after Christmas. Let me wish you a very happy holiday. Stay safe, stay united. Cheers.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:


    Well last year my wife – who has at last retired – decided she’d take up drawing. Or painting. Or both, maybe. Shot off to Jackson’s Drawing Supplies – they have everything. Found an art teacher. Then another. And finally the present one.

    Always looking for encouragement. And with some of her attempts, you could in fact provide some encouragement.

    But even she felt she wasn’t getting anywhere.

    So i took her to a different art supplier – unbeknown to her, this one specialises in art supplies for kids – because its market is primary & secondary schools.

    She was delighted. Why? This time, the art supplies were much simpler. And intriguing, the way they were presented. They invited attention. AND experimentation.

    Soon, she reached a new stage. She was delighted, bu still frustrated. I said to her “It’s a road. You start at the beginning, not the end. And as you move along the road, you improve. You learn. Because you keep trying. Just like that road – now you’re 3 kilometres from the start, but nowhere near the other end. Hey – I’ve got a suggestion – why don’t you have a go at XYZ?”

    Because without encouragement, you get too many “drop outs”. And beginners are their own worst critics – they never see the bits they were successful with, they only see the flaws.

    As far as I know, Michelangelo was mostly self taught. He used to climb out of his bedroom window and go to the mortuary, and pull bodies to bits, to see how they were made. So when HE did a sculpture, you could “see” the muscles etc through the “skin”. His sculptures heralded a whole new era. And what he achieved, he did by “trying” – by “doing’ – by “observing”.

    Apart from self-destructive criticism – “self-flagellation”! – a basic problem with beginners is to get them to focus on one thing. Like the caption to your first photo – “K.I.S.S.” It isn’t the name of the statue – or anything else in the frame. It’s a principle promoted by the Yankees during World War 2 – it means “keep it simple, stupid”. And the message for a beginner is to focus solely on one subject – don’t try putting too much in – instead, try to keep practically everything out of the frame, so you focus on one thing. Do it – do it well – and you’ve achieved something. Oh – and laid a foundation. Which is something you can build on.

    So Pascal has issued another challenge. And regardless of who we are, or how good, we can all try to jump into this one!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Very interesting, Pete, thank you.

      Coming from a mathematical background the idea of cycles and series. Start with a foundation as simple as possible, experiment, get feedback. That’s one cycle. Now your foundation has expanded, repeat until mastery πŸ™‚

      The only important factor here is to make a deliberate decision (the experiment) and to get proper guidance (feedback). Soon it becomes intuitive and you don’t need as much guidance, except for (true) masterclasses and contact with masters of the craft.


  • Dan says:

    Hi Pascal,

    good insight – a strong photograph does not need any processing. You can do it with a cellphone and print it big, if the picture touches the viewer, people will not look at the quality.

    On the other hand there are some pictures that can be greatly improved by being processed – large urban vistas can always get more impact from an increase in contrast/saturation, portraits sometimes get better if the shadows around the eyes are removed and/or the white balance corrected and a few other cases. But you still need the basics to be in the pictures – as the saying goes you can’t make silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

    Regarding the statement that team work is always better than an individual’s – I will always take the advice from a talented, knowledgeable individual over the collective advice from a group of others. There is also a strong element of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” here – people are more sensitive to advice that matches with their own preferences than otherwise.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Dan,

      You make two very good points.

      Design by committee is indeed a cardinal sin and leads so often to blandness. But a good team functioning well with strong individuals can achieve a lot in a short time. Let’s see if we can make that work πŸ™‚

      Some images do benefit a lot from post processing. In particular fine art photograph, in which processing and printing techniques sometimes take the forefront. I’m just saying that no amount of PP will save a poor image and that good PP rarely needs 20 photoshop layers πŸ˜‰


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Pascal, you B&W night shot is one that rates comment.

    Being taken with a Hassy, there’s no sign of noise issues in the shadows. So what you end up with is a mysterious image – an intriguing one. A photo that draws you in – starts you wondering what’s happening in that house. A suitable scene for a murder, perhaps.

    And with my passion for available light, night shots, it presses every button. If it was taken out of the series you shot at Disney World, I doubt whether too many people in the world would pick it as being in that location.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Pete πŸ™‚ It was indeed taken in Disneyland Paris. It is at the entrance of the Pirates section. The quality of lighting in the park is so good that shot opportunities are everywhere. It’s a brilliant place for patient photographers. Patient because there are also zillions of other people πŸ˜‰ Cheers

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Patient, like waiting for an extra half hour in a church in France, for the tourists to get the hell out of the way, so I could photograph one of those ancient clocks from c. 1400 AD that so often were erected in the local church – simply because it was the safest and most secure building in the local town.

        And no, I didn’t travel half way around the world to photograph mannerless people standing in the way.

        Janie was coldly unimpressed – she just want to move on, she doesn’t have the patience to sit these things out. So I sent her off to look around the rest of the church while I sat it out.

  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    I return to this, a clarion call for what must be ‘got right’! – our basics. What a wonderful subject and thing to shine a light on and be competent in, through practice build on a foundation of solid basics. These ‘basics’ are surely the cornerstone of good practice in photography. The basics establish and secure competencies used to springboard from when that subjective urge prods us to point our camera at what we see – in contrast to what we are looking at. The basics allow us to distil that subjective essence and convert that into a meaning visual and emotive summation of the emotive, the process, and the practice of the art of photography. Well, that’s what I suspect happens. Others may proffer a different point of view, which is fine.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      “Others may proffer a different point of view, which is fine.”

      Thanks Sean – I treasure that sentence! Yes, that IS fine – but a different “opinion”? BEURK !!!!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Sean. Indeed, the basics are the cornerstone. Mastering the basics is what lets you forget about them and work on a personal style. Even if that style implies breaking the rules. As long as the basics are understood, it’s perfectly fine to deliberately err in any direction πŸ˜‰ It’s just when rules are broken unintentionally that it shows painfully πŸ˜‰


  • philberphoto says:

    After reading the post and the comments, I thought: for once, I don’t agree. Giving it more thought, I am not sure the title fits the purpose. Yes, experimentng and getting feedback matters and it is a sound path. Another key point is trusting yourself, else you end up working to other people’s preferences/styles/rules. But there is nothing basic in that IMHO. Just as simplicity isn’t basic. My personal motto i: “simplicity is the ultimate form of beauty”. Not exactly basic…. though of course YMMV.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Philippe, I think we agree, I may have been unclear about the goal. As replied to Sean, above, beginners break some basic principles unwittingly and it shows. Experts break those rules deliberately and we are all in awe of their work. But before you can explore a personal style such as “simplicity”, there are essentials to understand. Much like Chagal started his career with textbook perfect academic paintings before starting to smoke the carpet with such elated talent πŸ˜‰ Cheers

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I’ve seen a documentary about Pablo Picasso, in which he made similar comments about his own career as an artist. Truly “great” artists al seem to have gone through a period of “apprenticeship” in order to get started. And life is a constant process of learning – at least for those who aspire to improving, anyway.

        Whenever I come upon masterpieces by artists like Chagal, Picasso, the “impressionists”, Rodin, Michelangelo, etc, they generally impact on me in a quite extraordinary way. I can’t count the number of times they’ve left me rooted to the spot – unable to do anything, except stare at their work.

        But they all worked hard, to achieve that standard. Just as Mozart was always a genius – but he didn’t write his greatest music when he first started. And from the time he did, he was constantly learning and improving.

        Of course you’ get the occasional clown – like the modern “artist” who famously hung a blank white canvas! But no matter how many people might consider that to be “modern art”, it isn’t really art at all. He hadn’t done anything!

        I’m quite sure Susan Sontag would approve of this initiative, Pascal – and your previous one, on “critiquing”. Together they should provide a great deal of help and thoughtful ideas to everyone – young and old – beginners or, even, experts – as they absorb the articles which will follow.

        Curiously, this kind of mutual help and guidance seems to be much more prevalent amongst photographers than it is in other disciplines. It’s one of the things that makes photography such a pleasant pastime or occupation!

        • pascaljappy says:

          That’s probably the only universal definition of “good art”: it grabs some people very deeply. And that’s what we should strive for with our photographs. No easy task πŸ˜‰
          I do hope we can live up to your hopes of mutual help and guidance πŸ™‚

  • Pascal O. says:

    Hi Pascal,

    My belated two cents.
    I think going back to basics is essential.

    The writer from whom I learned most is Scott Kelby and I regularly go back to the very simple, accessible books he wrote to get a refresh.

    Taking a different vantage point, I would like to emphasize that the system I use now, Sony with manual lenses, forces me in some way to go back to basics all the time in terms of aperture, speed, focus.

    Maybe that means that I have to divide my attention between what is in the frame and the above mentioned technical side of things. However, at least this is how I feel, it also means that within basics, my photography has to include more input if you will than “just” pressing on the dΓ©clencheur.

    Takes no merit away from those using fully automatic lenses, it just gives me a fuller sens of what photography is. Like driving and older car without ESP, or ABS ;-).

    Hope this helps. Take care.

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