As you know there are a million ways to skin a cat. As long as the cat gets skinned how you get there doesn't matter that much. In photographing just about any subject there are a lot of ways to get to the same place. Let's take exposure for part one of this series on working method. I thought I would give everyone a break from my 4,000+ word blah, blah, blah's and make this shorter hopefully all of them will be bite-sized. I have been leading quite a few workshops this year – far more frequently than I have in the past. One of the cool things about doing them was the glimpse I get into other people's points of view. Sometimes even stumbling upon something that you don't see discussed much, if at all. Things that might be obvious to most or so you would think but maybe not so obvious…
For this installment I'll talk about exposure. Something I've never really had trouble getting my head around. Hence it baffles me as to how much has been written, discussed, debated, stressed over, and re-hashed through out photographic history. A point I try to demonstrate, no matter what the obvious subject, is that exposure isn't a fixed entity in any given lighting scenario. There are all sorts of choices to be made in how to use the light in relation to the subject which then relates to how you may want to make exposure decisions which again depends on your intent and has substantial choice on your behalf even once you decide the above.
One of the things that really helps focusing on choices, treatments, etc. is to have a standard working method. Depending on what you photograph and the conditions surrounding your subject matter of choice, you may have more than one working method for various circumstances. It's probably better to have fewer along with a whole lot of practice and experience than it is to have many that you randomly choose from based only on intellectual understanding. Try a bunch on – your gear may influence which particular one happens to be best for a situation but know that up front instead of just theorizing about it. Try a bunch in various situations but at least be consistent when you are trying them out so that you have some real experience over multiple similar scenarios when you decide to settle in on one. Tweak them, improve them, be open minded, but don't decide to do that on the fly completely differently all the time on every occasion you use your camera. My working method for a hell of a lot of subjects is manual exposure. At least for any subject where I'm going to make more than one shot. Part of that is because it's the same across many many cameras – all of them.
To spell out the reason you want a consistent working method is to produce consistent results over and over and over again that are exactly what you intended. Don't know what you intend to do? All the better to have a consistent working method. If you decide your intent was wrong you know exactly what to change so that your results follow suit next time around. Get it? All of the above doesn't contribute to the word-count here, it was an introduction to the series. The word count for part I starts right here. On to the meat of this, exposure control…
Back in pre-historic film times incident meters were great as a working method. Simple and gave the "correct" results no matter what color the subject was etc, etc. In some cases that wasn't practical or convenient or you were just too lazy to carry an off board light meter around or pay attention to changing light or subject positioning relative to the light. I could shoot film in my meter-less Hasselblad very quickly outside and only need two readings no matter what my subject orientation was. If using an in camera meter I generally liked really tight meters like a Leica or an F3 or even a spot meter. Depending on what type of film I was using I would end up with negatives or slides that were absolutely consistent. Even when choosing a metering method there are working-method variables to work out. For slides (similar to digital) I would generally find something white in the same light, meter it, and open up by 1 and 2/3 stops (which depended on MY particular ISO rating for a film). With negative film I would typically measure shadow midtones and close down one stop (also depended on MY ISO rating for a particular film). Without knowing all the details of other people's working method and crap like "I over expose by 2 stops" is worthless.
Fast forward to digital. You can use the same mentality as you did with film if you want but now you also have the luxury of previewing the result which allows you to learn and develop working methods very quickly. You also can use it to preview "intent" decisions assuming you have an intent. Working method vs intent on a given scene are two completely different things that I see mixed up far too often. Develop a thought process on the two independently – I promise it will help you in the long run. Actually with digital long run is now a very short term process.
Although I am typically a shooter that will go to manual exposure if I am going to make more than one shot I'm extremely well versed in other working methods. I've tried them all on to see what they can do for me. In many cases what they will/won't do for you is highly dependent on what you shoot, what particular gear you use, and the circumstances you find yourself in. Today I wanted to talk a little bit about intelligent metering, exposure compensation, and exposure lock. A set of tools that many photographers seem to use no matter what the circumstance, occasion, or subject. Habit? Who knows. In any case I want to share something that blew the mind of one long time Nikon shooter – actually three long term Nikon shooters at the same time related to a particular working method I pointed out that was obvious… or not.
Although this is going to be in the context of Nikon there are a lot (if not most) cameras and camera systems that operate in the exact same way. Some don't which sucks in my opinion and is a fatal flaw due to not supporting what I consider a valid working method. Probably more valid than what these particular shooters were doing with the combo of intelligent (matrix in Nikon speak), exposure compensation (and rarely AE lock). To set the scene let's say we are going to make more than one picture of a scene/subject combo and the light isn't vacillating wildly (rare). What do we do?
We could do something like this…
- shoot a frame
- chimp exposure on the back of the camera
- decide if it's too dark or too light or highlights are gone or whatever
- dial in exposure compensation
- shoot another frame
- check it again, repeat until you have what you want
Here's the rub; Too bad framing variations, minor subject positioning movements, especially in higher contrast light) and about 4,000 other things can and will cause frame to frame variations. Those frame to frame variations can be mild to wild. Trust me on this. Mild, wild, doesn't matter I would rather have them identical for any given scene and intent I happen to have. Easier and quicker to post process for minor tweaks as well.
Working method two. Maybe you are a he-man and you don't need no chimping 'cause you are at one with your gear. You know just what to dial in before you ever lift the camera to your eye. Hmmmm… bullshit. Remember I said you were using intelligent/matrix metering. Sometimes it knows your pointing the camera at a mostly a white/light colored bunch of stuff. Other times it doesn't. Same goes for dark/black stuff, contrasty stuff is a crapshoot as to what it will decide. What I would guess is a 5% framing difference can be night and day in what the camera decides depending on those 4,000 different things. Will it get "close"? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The point is that even if you are sort of okay at guessing why would you put yourself through that with an "intelligent meter"? This actually works with a spot meter or a tight CW meter that does the same thing all the time as long as you have a lot of experience to back it up. In any event you have the same problem as scenario one.
Let me suggest something else. For some of you this is going to be an epiphany for others you can slap your head and scream something along the lines of "OMG, I cannot believe everyone never tried this".
- Assuming you have AE-lock and hold setup (Nikon speak for the AE lock button locking exposure until you press it again) Hit AE-lock before you shoot any picture.
- Shoot a frame
- Check it on back of camera.
- Make exposure compensation adjustments based on what you see and your intent for that scene.
- Shoot another frame to check again (you don't have to after a bit of experience but can't hurt) and on a real camera this happens instantly.
- Shoot shoot shoot, shoot some more, and more and more. Never chimp again until… your light changes or you move to a different scene.
Every single frame will be absolutely identical in terms of exposure. No need to pay attention to the aperture/shutter readout and then wrestle with the meter based on framing. Just pay attention to your subject and the light which is what you should be doing anyway. Yes – most cameras allow you to lock exposure and THEN adjust compensation after looking at the histogram/image. A few things to consider if this sounds like something you want to try…
- All of the exact conditions where your camera decides to cancel AE-lock. Some cameras will turn off AE-lock as soon as you chimp a picture which is frigging stupid and worse than useless (see why I like manual control considering I shoot with a lot of bodies/systems that are not my personal cameras or system of choice)
- Most current and even recent Nikon's will only reset AE-lock when the meter times-out or you turn the camera off. Check yours it's easy enough. I have my meter timeout set for 30 seconds vs the default half second or what seems like it. As a side note I have my info display, my playback, etc all set to very long times so they annoy me less. They go off as soon as you half-press the shutter anyway on Nikons so it really doesn't affect anything like battery life.
- Make absolutely sure your camera allows exposure compensation after you lock exposure. Some don't. Also stupid and worthless. I won't mention the very popular (at the moment) company that perpetrated both of these atrocities on us.
- Make sure you have a working method. I cannot repeat this enough. If you say something like… "but what if I forget to turn AE-lock off and turn around and shoot another completely different scene…" then you do not have a working method. Get it?
Obviously this is not the only way to work. Manual does the same thing except you need to potentially twist two different controls to get to the starting point vs one or none. Can it be faster? Sometimes. It obviously doesn't work if you are shooting single shots of wildly varying scenes either? Is it "better" and useful in a whole lot of shooting scenarios – absolutely. Even with things like events, or street photography. Rarely do you randomly stumble upon a moment with the camera turned off or in your bag that somehow you are going to grab and be remotely successful in doing so. If you are at all serious you will be anticipating action and the moment and you will be all setup ready to go waiting for it. Even if that "preparedness" happens to only be a few seconds.