Ron Dexter's No Camera-Camera Course

Four of the most important skills of still, motion picture and video photography can be learned for no cost, other than a lot of practice. Because our eyes and brain seeing system was designed for our survival and not the archiving of images, we need to learn how to see as a camera does. The first tool is a simple viewfinder.


Cut a 1-1/2" by 2" hole in a card. Trim it to about 2-1/4" by 3-1/2" to fit in your wallet or leave it larger to fit in your pocket. Or punch a reject slide out of a 2 x 2 color transparency. With a black felt pen make a line around the inside of the frame.

Picture here?

Always carry this guide to better compositions. Our eye/brain imaging system doesn't provide a frame for us. We are used to a window, a picture frame, a TV set or a movie screen to frame images for us. Having watched millions of images framed by photographers paid a lot of money most of us have learned an inner sense of composition. To make use of this inner sense of composition, we must make many decisions which takes time and practice. Practice whenever you can to reduce some part of your environment or a picture into a frame that satisfies your own sense of composition.

For film and video do not use your finder vertically as we usually don't shoot movie film and video tape with the camera on its side, it makes viewing uncomfortable. For stills you have more freedom. At first use the finder with one eye closed. You can see a telephoto shot with the viewfinder held at arm's length, or wide angle, closer to your eye. If you have a camera you can calibrate your wallet viewfinder with your camera by comparing frame sizes and remembering how far from your eye the finder is for different zoom or individual lens angles.

You can re-frame pictures on a page while waiting on hold or in a doctor's office by moving the viewfinder closer or further from pictures in a magazine. You can also re-frame printed pictures with a couple of "L" shaped cardboard masks against the picture. Most magazine pictures especially ads and travel shots are well composed, but smaller parts of them often contain good compositions. It's like looking for frames in the real world; you are just limited by what some photographer shot. Printing stills in a dark room also develops this skill.

Try these first 4 rules of composition. 1. Is the horizon level? 2. Are the frame lines "clean" (nothing peaking in or out of frame that shouldn't.) 3. Does everything in the frame belong? (If something doesn't belong, re-frame or physically remove it. And last: 4. Do you like the composition? Does it satisfy your sense of composition?


The second thing that has to be learned is contrast control. Our eyes can see a tremendous range of contrast that cameras can't. To learn how to better judge what a camera can record squint while looking at a scene, with your eyelids almost closed. If the scene looks OK it will probably record OK. If there are black holes, areas that are too bright or your subject is silhouette to your eye, it will be to a camera. The best place to start is inside looking outside during the day. Notice how a white window frame inside goes black against a bright scene outside. The image you will see with your eyes almost closed will be blurry, but that is OK. This is only a test.


This skill takes some time to learn but is very helpful for operating any kind of camera. Try keeping both eyes open while shooting. It takes time to learn and has to be practiced consciously. Normally we close one eye and look through the viewfinder with the other. It is almost impossible to concentrate on two different images, but we can shift our concentration from eye to eye, what the camera sees to what our unaided eye sees. This is very helpful for watching when something is about to enter our picture that we want or do not want to include in our frame. Or we might be watching for a bottle, tomato or hand grenade coming our way. To learn this skill we merely shift concentration from our pocket viewfinder or camera back and forth to what our unaided eye sees. Pointing the pocket viewfinder or camera to one side helps for this exercise. Don't blink, just shift your concentration.


Recording an event usually takes some preparation, equipment, and often direction. When you look at a picture or possible location to shoot in, consider what would be needed to shoot it. Consider time of day for lighting. Is permission necessary? Is noise a problem for sound? Are people involved likely to be cooperative or have to be paid? If vehicles are needed, where will they park? Will any specialists be needed? Is there enough room for camera and cast in the best location? How many hours will it realistically take to shoot the scenes? (Multiply that number, it always takes longer.) Is this the best location available? How about safety? Will the location say what you want to say? Will people have to be fed? Where are rest rooms? Will people need protection from the sun, heat or cold?

These 4 skills can be practiced anywhere where we won't look like a lunatic casing the location for a devious reason. Most people accept that you are considering making a video or learning photography. Share your lesson. Don't say you are scouting to "shoot" some famous person. "Shoot" has various meanings.

© Copyright 1999-2004 Ron Dexter. All Rights Reserved.