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What are you thinking? Pt 1

I’m going to roll a mental grenade at you, and you might not like it.

If you are worried about what your camera settings are, then you likely have no idea how to expose a photograph.

If you think you are going to learn anything from someone else’s camera settings, then you likely have no idea how to expose a photograph and you will probably never learn IF you keep thinking this way.


The wording of this is intentionally harsh for a reason.

No one wants to be told they are “doing it wrong.”

But then again, if you are doing it right then you aren’t thinking about these settings. You aren’t questioning what your settings should be. You aren’t experimenting with camera settings. You aren’t looking at settings on Facebook assuming this will teach you something.

The only reason someone does any of these things is if they simply don’t understand the bare bones of how we go about choosing the settings we do to begin with.

With digital photography, there very much is a proper exposure – one that captures as much information as far to the right on the histogram as possible for the given situation. If you don’t understand this concept, then I would highly recommend checking out the article “Got Noise?” in the Fall 2018 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Photography (all membership levels come with access to all back issues).

But how you do this, how you set that exposure, why you make any choice you do, changes with every situation.

Because of the countless variables we encounter as photographers, learning the basics isn’t as simple as placing your fingers on the right strings to make a G chord as with a guitar.

Instead, how we achieve a proper exposure is purely conceptual.

Recently on a workshop in Alaska, I encountered a situation where a participant was asking for the correct settings for every shoot. This is common. This happens on every workshop I have ever led over the last decade-plus.

Of course, I told them my suggested settings for the situation, and then I described why I chose these settings.

The very next time they set their tripod on the ground, I was met with the same question. Again, and again and again.

I certainly don’t mind telling someone what my suggested settings are. But this is a problem.

As long as I kept giving the settings for them to dial in, they would never understand why those settings are chosen. And thus, they were never going to work out the exposure on their own.

We find this same situation unfold in the online world as well. Beginners often become hyper-focused on knowing another photographer’s settings when a photograph is shared.

But knowing that a photograph was created at 1/2000th of a second, with f/8, and ISO 1600 tells us absolutely NOTHING.

Think of it this way. . .

Why was the shutter speed 1/2000th of a second? Did it need to be that high? Was this a completely arbitrary number? Was the photographer hand-holding? Bouncing around on the boat and trying to compensate for the movement? Or maybe this is just a catch-all shutter speed they always start out with and adjust if they must. Maybe the photograph was created in aperture priority, and the setting was chosen by the computer in the camera and the photographer gave no input whatsoever as to what the shutter should be.

Knowing the photo was created with 1/2000th explains nothing about how or why we should use 1/2000th vs 1/500th vs 1/3200th of a second.

Knowing the aperture of the photograph is the same way.

Why was the photograph created at f/8? Was this arbitrary? Was this an f/4 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter that forced the lens to an f/5.6 but the photographer then decided to stop down for extra sharpness? Was this a zoom lens that finds its sharpest setting at f/8? Was this aperture chosen because of the distance to the subject and thus additional depth of field was needed? Were there other compositional elements in the photograph that the photographer was trying to retain a smidgen of detail in as part of their artistic vision? Maybe they were worried about losing focus just ever so slightly because of the action, and so they wanted added depth of field to safeguard against this – as we often do when photographing birds in flight. Or maybe the photograph was created using shutter priority, and the aperture was one that the computer inside the camera chose without any input by the photographer.

Knowing the photo was created at f/8 explains nothing to us about how or why we should use f/8 vs f/4 vs f/16.

How about the ISO? Was ISO 1600 achieved through auto-ISO? Was there an exposure compensation dialed in? If so, what was it and why? Or was it manual? Did the photographer set their ISO to ensure the image was “exposed to the right” on the histogram? Do they even understand that this is critical to capturing the maximum amount of information in a photograph? Or, did they set their ISO to 1600 because they DIDN’T know they were actually underexposing the photograph by 2 full stops, only capturing 25% of the total amount of information their camera is capable of (again, read “Got Noise?“), and then tried to “fix” the photo in Lightroom or Photoshop – while you the viewer cannot see the noise and artifacts or degradation to the photograph that happens when we do this simply because you are looking at a low res version of the photograph at only 1000 pixel or less on Facebook?

Knowing the photo was created at ISO 1600 tells us nothing about how or why we should use ISO 1600 vs. ISO 200 vs. ISO 10,000.

THIS is why we MUST look at our camera settings conceptually.

This is why me telling a participant what their settings should be in the field over and over will never teach them how to do it themselves.

And this is why knowing that a photograph you see on Facebook was photographed at 1/2000th, f/8, and ISO 1600 will never help you create a single properly exposed image – EVER.

Coming to understand settings conceptually requires a bit of a mind shift away from this old way of thinking.

Are you someone who continues to struggle to know what to do with your exposure? Do you feel like you have to “experiment” with your settings to get it right? Do you keep staring at people’s settings on Facebook or Instagram but keep fighting to nail the exposure in camera every single time?

If the answer is yes to any of these, then you are not thinking about these things conceptually. And you will continue to struggle with this until you learn to see exposure in a completely different light.

Part Two will be all about EXACTLY how we go about doing just that! And it’s possible that this will completely revolutionize how you approach your photography.

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