A recent talk with Cliff Mautner was particularly refreshing. It’s not that everyone else tiptoes around the first thing folks need to know in order to get better photographs, it’s just that Cliff metaphorically walks right up to ‘em, stares ‘em right in the eye and says, “Smarten up!”

That’s metaphorically. Actually, he says, “There’s no way you’re going to make a creative photo if you have to rely on an LCD to make sure you’ve got a proper exposure.”

And: “If you don’t understand the basics and how to use light, there’s no way you can create compelling images...unless you get really lucky.”

And: “It’s common for people who don’t have the basics down or who don’t know how to set up the camera to think the camera’s failed them. The truth is the camera won’t fail; it won’t make mistakes.”

Mastery of gear and basics leads to self-confidence—that’s the essential message of Cliff’s Lighting and Skill Set Bootcamp, a workshop that builds images from the ground up. “How can you think about composing an image if you’re hung up on f/stops, shutter speeds and ISO settings?” Cliff asks. “They have to be second nature, practically instinctive.”

Cliff is a wedding shooter, but his background is photojournalism, and it’s probably that results-at-all-cost profession that’s responsible for his goal-oriented work ethic. He’s not one of those “the gear is secondary” photographers; for him the gear’s primary because mastery of its potential unlocks everything else.

For example: “One of the beauties of the D800 and the D4 is their facial recognition system,” he says. “The camera will bias the exposure for the face and not care about the background, so in effect you get the face properly exposed with the mood effect of shadows or light unaltered. When the face is recognized, you’ve got the advantage; it’s almost like cheating.”

Get the basics down; then the creative kicks in. “There’s a kind of dance I do with composition,” Cliff says, “a movement, a waltz with it, and that’s all about working the scene. It’s not a one-frame-at-a-time mentality in most cases. For a fleeting moment, obviously one frame is all you have, but if you have the ability to work a scene there’s the opportunity to get multiple exposures and multiple compositions of a particular scene. You can dance a little longer.”

True enough, but when the boot camp drill instructor breaks out the dance metaphors, it’s probably time to take a break.

Cliff Mautner is a Nikon Ambassador.

Learn more about Cliff & his photography on his ambassador page.