How Technical Do You Have to Be to Take a Good Photo?

I have a confession to make. I often shoot in aperture priority mode. I’m a reasonably competent photographer with a solid grasp of the factors that drive exposure, but I don’t want to fiddle with multiple dials when I just want to take a photo.

There are, of course, exceptions. I shoot manually when using strobes or stars, but those niches don’t represent the bulk of my photos.

While doing some casual weekend reading about ISO invariance and signal-to-noise ratios (SNR), I started to ponder whether understanding the science and technology behind photography made any difference to the end product. I enjoy improving my understanding of technical areas, but loathe the one upmanship that plagues online forums. I conceptually understand SNR, but I haven’t reviewed the math. The physics behind ISO invariance still puzzles me.

Does knowing the science behind photography help us create better pictures and/or get more out of our equipment? Or does the accumulation of such knowledge simply make more technical photographers feel superior?

Given how capable smartphone cameras have become in the past few years, you could start to make an argument that as computational photography and machine learning progresses, photographers will only need to frame a scene to create an amazing photo. Others might grimace in horror at deferring to a computer for artistic/technical decisions.

Technical (e.g. Ansel Adams) and non-technical (e.g. Annie Leibovitz) shooters have produced great photos and earned a full-time living through photography. Their success as photographers is measured by the quality of their photos. But Adams’ success is partially a reflection of his understanding of sensitometry as reflected by his codification of the Zone System with Fred Archer. So how technical do you have to be?

Every serious photographer should understand the exposure triangle

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO relate to one another and each has a different effect on a resulting image. Shutter speed affects motion blur, aperture affects depth-of-field, and ISO affects dynamic range. Every serious photographer should understand the relationship between these three factors and how they affect a photo.

The exposure triangle also presents a perfect scenario to contemplate how much technical understanding is sufficient to take a good photo. ISO is often represented as affecting the sensitivity of a sensor to light – a technically inaccurate description. Digital ISO is a form of signal amplification (aka gain), which proportionally increases signal and noise (unless a sensor is ISO invariant).

But before I understood that increasing ISO affected gain, I knew it made images noisier. So I would try to use the lowest ISO to meet my shutter speed requirements. I’m not convinced that the added knowledge altered my photographic process nor the photos themselves. Understanding the three vertices of the exposure triangle was sufficient, even if my understanding was incomplete.

Electrical engineers could probably eviscerate my understanding of gain, but it wouldn’t affect my photography. I’m technical enough for most styles of photography that I produce.

Context matters

Talk to any old sports photographer about shooting “chrome” (slide film like Kodachrome or Ektachrome) and they’ll likely tell you about a razor thin latitude that required perfect exposure. If you only shot sports with “chrome,” you’d never “push” your film, a common practice for photojournalists shooting in low light situations that exceeded the printed ASA.

Is the sports photographer more technical than the photojournalist? It’s a silly question. Each photographer accumulates technical knowledge for a specific need. Further, the photojournalist relies on the darkroom technician, who likely follows a chart developed by a chemist. The photojournalist needs to know which films can be pushed and by how much, but not much more to take advantage of the chemical capabilities.

Do you even ETTR, bro?

When it comes to digital photography, most experts encourage “getting it right” in-camera to maximize quality and reduce hours of post production. The light meter built into a digital camera gives us a starting point for an exposure and we can dial in EV (exposure value) changes or manually set shutter speed and aperture.

This image is technically underexposed by 1/2 stop. ETTR would suggest exposing the extra stop to yield more shadow detail to take advantage of the full dynamic range of the sensor. The image could then be adjusted to taste in post. Photo by Allen Murabayashi

Experts implore photographers to “use the histogram,” but even serious photographers often rely on their screen to assess exposure. If you want a deeper blue sky, it’s common to underexpose rather than “expose to the right” (ETTR) to use the full dynamic range of the sensor.

The technical photographer would argue to ETTR to maximize the full capabilities of a sensor, but a less technical photographer might pull up an underexposed image in post and be unconcerned or unaware of the loss of dynamic range. Surely, some landscape photographers concern themselves with maximizing the full dynamic range of their cameras, but again, that’s specific to a style of photography. After all, no one realistically scrutinizes the dynamic range of a spot news photo. The audience expectation for technical quality varies by niche.

Clearly certain niches like underwater or astrophotography require technical knowledge

You can throw your phone into a waterproof case and take underwater photos without understanding anything about the physics of water, but even a competent land-based photographer will struggle to get any “keepers” without a more specialized understanding and gear.

Photo by Allen Murabayashi

And even if a photo seems good enough, seasoned buyers have more sophisticated taste and needs. Domain expertise extends beyond the technical when trying to produce commercially viable work.

And I really don’t understand…

I didn’t read the manual, so when I plugged in an Atomos V to my Nikon Z7 shooting N-Log, I couldn’t set the camera to less than ISO 800. When I did read the manual, there was no technical explanation for this limitation. A Google search revealed a semi-informative, sometimes snarky thread on the topic.

A paucity of information combined with the complexity of color science suggests that there are areas of technical engineering that will always be out of reach for anyone but the most technically inclined. And my technical knowledge with still photography isn’t necessarily transferable into the world of video, which has absolutely compromised my initial foray into color grading. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

Taking a decent photo in well-lit conditions does not require much technical knowledge. Taking a great photo in the same condition requires skill and talent. Taking a great photo in difficult conditions requires skill, talent, and a modicum of technical knowledge.

Technical acumen helps, but isn’t a requirement

Paul McCartney famously can’t read music, but has written a trove of incredible music. On the other hand, he’s probably not the guy you want to hire to orchestrate the next Star Wars film. He can dream up a thousand melodies and write moving lyrics, but he probably doesn’t know much about bassoons.

I would never discourage the accumulation of technical knowledge, and admire anyone who has taken the time to understand the math and physics behind photography. In a sense, understanding an MTF chart isn’t a dissimilar exercise from understanding weather patterns, animal behavior, or athelete tendencies. All of these can potentially help a photographer take better photos, but not to equivalent degrees. If you shoot wildlife, you’re better off understanding biology than the physics of fluorite lens coatings.

The stereotype of doctors and dentists buying the most expensive gear reflects a bias against their lack of technical understanding. The trope is built upon the assumption that they lack the knowledge to know why they bought the best that money can buy. But while photography can be both technical and artistic, it is at its core, a form of creative expression.

Technical knowledge can make outcomes more predictable, speed up processes, and mitigate risk. Photographers are occasionally hired for their technical abilities, but most are hired for their vision, personality and price.

So how technical do you need to be? Technical enough to reliably capture the images you and your clients want.

About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article was also published here.