A tip on tips

I once heard a feature story on the radio about holiday cooking traditions. A woman said that she cut the end off of a roast before cooking it because that’s the way her mother did. Her mother said she did it that way because that’s how her mother did it. Finally she asked her grandmother why she cut the end off of the roast. The grandmother replied that she did just to make it fit in her pan. Often we do things because it’s the way we see them done or we are told that’s the way to do it without knowing the reasons why.

A few years ago while my family and I were on vacation/kid’s soccer tournament in the Sonoma area we stopped for lunch at the roadside cafe called the Fremont Diner. It looked like a dive, not much more a shack really. There was even a rusting pickup truck out front that looked like it hadn’t moved in years but the place was packed. The small dining room was full and it was hard to find a spot at one of the 10 or so outside picnic tables that the restaurant had set up.

While we ate out meal at one of the outside tables I noticed a woman with a DSLR camera taking a photo of her child. It was in the middle of the day in open sunshine and she had a flash attached to the top of the camera. The flash, which swiveled and tilted as many do, was pointed straight up.

Now to me this was someone who got some tips from perhaps a friend who had a little more photographic knowledge than she did or maybe she got it from reading an article in print or online. But it also seemed like a case of only getting and using a limited amount of information.

Using a flash in the middle of the day, a technique called fill-flash, is a sound photographic practice. It helps to fill in the hard shadows beneath the eyes and nose created by the harsh noonday sun for a more pleasing portrait.

Pointing the flash upward is also a method know to many advanced amateur and professional photographers. It’s called bounce flash and it’s used indoors to bounce the light from the flash off a relatively low ceiling and around the room to create a softer light and more pleasing shadows.

Somehow this woman must have got into her head that she should always use her flash and she should always bounce it, but because she was outdoors the flash had nothing to bounce off of. Its light went straight up and into the ether rendering it ineffective. All she was doing was running down the flash’s batteries.

Now there are ways to use a bounce flash outdoors. One can bounce the light off of a nearby wall or a reflector but perhaps she hadn’t read that far or had been told that technique yet.

I considered telling her what was happening and how to correct things but I didn’t want to embarrass her. After all I was just some stranger off the street to her.

There are many ways to learn about photography these days, from books to online courses to the camera gearhead next door. People like to have hard and fast rules, especially if they’re novices and are just learning them. But in photography most “rules” are more like guidelines and aren’t set in stone.

I guess the moral of the story here is that when you try out new tips and techniques, try to learn not just the “how” of what you want to do but why you’re doing it as well.

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