Rule 49: Concerning the Proper Way To Eat an Elephant

Twice in a Blue Moon

In case you’re wondering about the title (and whether or not I’ve taken leave of my senses), it’s from an old riddle. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

If you’re just starting out on the photographer’s path, it can be awfully intimidating, what with all the stuff you have to learn. Shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure, composition, the Rule of Thirds, lighting, Sunny 16… I’m reminded of a bit from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, where Michael Palin’s preacher solemnly intones, “Oh Lord, ooh you are so big…” Substitute “photography” for “Lord” in the preceding phrase, and you start to get an idea of the problem. Photography is so big. So absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here I can tell you.

Ahem. Sorry. Got carried away there. Where was I? Oh, yeah, photography.

So anyway, there’s no getting around the fact that photography is really freakin’ large. Lots of moving parts. Many things to learn. And with something, anything, of that size, there comes the temptation from time to time to just throw up your hands and say to hell with it, ’cause there’s just no way you’re going to learn all that stuff all at once.

Easy there. Nobody said you had to. Best of all, there’s no prescribed (or proscribed) order in which all this stuff needs to be learned. You can be as systematic or as haphazard as you’d like. You can invent your own learning system, set your own learning curve… or you can just pick up a camera one day and start shooting, gradually working your way through options and menus ’til you know the thing like the back of your hand (then buy a new camera and start all over again). Or you can shoot ’til you realize there’s something missing, something you’d really like to do, and figure out how to do that thing, moving from thing to thing as you need to, one side effect of which is that there are things you’ll have no idea how to do, but the things you do, if you’re diligent, you’ll do really, really well.

But above all, remind yourself that nobody learns anything — photography, knitting, playing the bagpipes — all at once. Just the same as you can’t swallow an elephant whole*, you cannot reasonably expect to master the whole of your craft in one fell swoop (and if you have, or think you have, congratulations; you’re doing it wrong.) Take it one step — one setting, one shot — at a time. Your photos will be better for it, as will your skills. And there’s less risk of indigestion.**

*Unless you’re a boa constrictor

**I hear elephant repeats pretty badly.

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