For new photographers, this is a four letter word. Or well, maybe a 8 letter word I should say. I remember when I was first getting started with my photography 10 years ago, I was the same way. I shied away from the dreadful “M” option, and I certainly didn’t have a clue what “A” or “S” was for. Every time I started trying to get my mind wrapped around the concept of “f-stop” and how they related to the amount of light that entered my camera and how that in turn effected my depth of field, I contemplated mixing sleeping pills with alcohol.
I remember very well the day that I decided to really learn exposure theory. I drove out to Cascades Park just outside of Boone North Carolina to a nice little waterfall. I set up my tripod, and spent the next 5 hours coming to grips with exposure.I have to stress though that exposure is not something you just simply learn however. Professional photographers the world over are still mastering the finer points of exposure.
I hear photographers all the time off handedly remark that if they don’t quite get it in camera, they can just “Photoshop it.” Sure now a days you can shoot in RAW and then adjust exposure from there, however this only helps to correct minor details. If you don’t nail the exposure you want in camera, than there is nothing RAW can do for you. Blown out highlights? Featureless shadows? What if you wanted to create a silhouette? Without understanding the basics of exposure theory and having the right settings dialed into your camera before hand, then such things as action and wildlife photography will always be out of your reach except under the most basic situations.
The photograph that I have included with this blog entry is of an unknown species of duck exploding out of the water silhouetted against the orange glow of sunset. First off, if you have ever photographed waterfowl, than you know you cannot just simply walk up, set up your tripod, and begin photographing. Why? Because from a couple of months after they are born, they are hunted relentlessly. During the migration every pond, marsh, swamp, creek, river, or wetland that these birds descend upon, they can assume that most likely there is someone waiting, shotgun in hand, in the vicinity. Thus as the old saying about waterfowl goes, if you are not in a blind and you can see them, they are already fleeing.
As I was hiking along the backside of the North Pond impoundment at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, the sun was beginning to set. I could see that there were several white ibises wading around in the salt marsh on the other side of the trail and that they would be back lit from the direction that I was approaching. I went ahead and set my exposure so that I would be ready to silhouette the birds when I came into range. As with any bird, you never know if it will stick around or not as your begin to approach it and so you have to be ready.
With the ibises still 40 yards ahead of me, I walked out from behind a group of wax myrtles. I managed to take only two steps before I heard a commotion just off the trail from my right side coming from one of the ponds that had just moments before been empty. As I was behind the myrtles, a couple of ducks had alighted on the water and I had been completely unaware of the fact. As soon as they saw me, in typical fashion, they bolted.
Hearing the noise and catching the movement out of the corner of my eye, I quickly pulled my Nikon d300 and 200-400vr lens to my face and managed to take one single photograph before all of the birds were out of the pond and flying off over the Pamlico sound. This is the result of that one click of the shutter button.
Without judging the lighting situation that I was faced with and deciding that my best option would be to silhouette the subject before hand, without my exposure preset, this photograph would never have been possible. As daunting as a task as it might seem, if your still shooting on “P” or the little icon of the camera, you are only holding yourself back. Your camera is nothing more than an expensive point and shoot unless you begin to take control over the settings. The best way to do this, is to go ahead and set your exposure mode to Manual and just grit your teeth and bare it. Once you understand the basics of exposure and can succesfully acomplish your artistic vision time and time again in manual – then you might consider taking advantaage of Aperture priority or Shutter priority mode. Practice makes perfect, everyone knows that. Whether you are learning to photograph, learning to play the guitar, or learning to throw yourself off a 20 ft waterfall in a kayak – you have to practice in order to accomplish your goals.