An introduction to the scientific, artistic, and computing aspects of digital photography—how digital cameras work, how to take good pictures using them, and how to manipulate these pictures afterwards. Topics include lenses and optics, light and sensors, optical effects in nature, perspective and depth of field, sampling and noise, the camera as a computing platform, image processing and editing, history of photography, and computational photography.

—Course Description, CS 178 – Digital Photography

My undergraduate education involved taking classes on drawing and illustration through the Engineering School. The idea was that it was easier to teach engineers how to draw than it was to teach artists how to do math. Similarly, in my art classes (through the Art Department), oftentimes it became very useful to know the technical workings of the medium. I’m not at all opposed to mixing the two worlds of techie and fuzzy. Yet when I saw the curriculum for this Digital Photography class, I quickly had a bad reaction to it.

It took me a long time to figure out why this class rubs me the wrong way. The assignments all look good. As does the technical information. Then it finally hit me; there’s nothing about seeing or communicating in the syllabus.

My drawing classes were not about turning engineers into artists. Because freehand drawing is a useful communication and notetaking tool for anyone in mechanical engineering, the point of the class was to learn how to illustrate our thoughts. I don’t get the same vibe from this photography class. Instead it looks like it emphasizes technique and technical know-how. This is always dangerous territory in photography.

When people ask me how to improve their photographs* the first thing I always ask is “what are you taking photos of?” The second thing I usually ask is “and what’s interesting about it?” Technique and gear are good to know and understand; neither of them are typically responsible for why people take bad photos.

*While nowhere near as annoying as “You must have a good camera,” “You’re so creative,” or “Did you take a class;” I hear “How can I take good pictures” or “What camera should I get to take photos like yours” enough that if I’m having a bad day, I’ll be in danger of reacting poorly. At least with the questions which indicate a wish for self-improvement, I can turn it into a teachable moment rather than smalltalk.

Why do people take bad photographs? In my experience, it’s usually a lack of vision. They fail to ask themselves: What am I photographing? Why is it interesting? How can I present what interests me in a way which interests you? Any beginning photo class which fails to emphasize that will rub me the wrong way.

The internet is full of technical experts who take boring photos. Or, worse, technical experts who don’t recognize good photos because they’re hung up on technical flaws.* At least be emotionally honest and say “this isn’t good because I don’t like it.”

*Brilliant satire becoming tragic reality.

Now, if this were an advanced photo class for people who had the basics of photography down and needed to learn more about the equipment? Completely. Different. Story. Sign me up for that class.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

One thought on “Gearhead”

  1. Well, it is a CS course, after all. Maybe the course in the Art Department has a different focus? Hard to tell from the description.

    ARTSTUDI 275: Introduction to Digital Photography and Visual Images
    Students use Adobe Lightroom to organize and edit images, manipulate and correct digital files, print photographs, create slide shows, and post to the Internet. How to use digital technology to concentrate on visual thinking rather than darkroom techniques. (upper level)

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