About Me

My photo

I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hung up on the numbers

One thing I notice about a lot of beginning photographers is that they tend to get hung up on the numbers. When they start using cameras which allow them to set apertures and shutter speeds they tend to let those parameters dictate their photographic lives.

One of the most common questions I get asked when out in the field is ' should I shoot this at f5.6 or f8' or something along those lines.

Other students tell me how they like to look at all the technical data printed next to photos in books and in galleries. As if knowing whether a photographer used a one second exposure or a two second exposure is going to help you take a better photo.

I say that it's much better to look at photos without that information printed and work it out for yourself. The actual aperture or shutter speed used is irrelevant, it's what the numbers represent that's important.

Take this photo above. It was taken at the Gokyo Lakes in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in Nepal. A simply stunning part of the world. Just before I headed up there the autofocus on my camera died and I was shooting everything manual focus praying like hell that everything else was working! But I digress.

A quick scan of this picture will tell you a lot about photography. The first thing you can ascertain is the focal length of the lens. Do the mountains in the background look a long way away or do they look really close to the rock in the foreground? Reasonably far away but not really tiny. That immediately tell you it was taken with a medium wide-angle lens. What focal length exactly? It doesn't matter. All that matters is that you recognise it was a medium wide-angle lens and if you want to get that same spacious effect you have to put the wide-angle on and experiment.

Next you can tell the aperture pretty quickly. Is everything in focus or is only the rock in the foreground in focus? The whole frame is pretty much in focus. That immediately tells you that I used a small aperture. Exactly what aperture did I use? You already know my answer to that.

What about the shutter speed? Well is anything in this picture moving? How do you tell? Have a look and see if anything is blurred from movement? Those rocks and mountains haven't moved in a few million years so shutter speed is basically irrelevant. Set your aperture and let the camera do the rest.

What else can you tell about this picture? If you have a look at the sky you can see an unnatural darkening near the top of the picture. That's caused by using a polarising filter, which also increases the contrast between the sky and the white mountains.

So just by looking at pictures you can pretty much figure out how the photographer took it and go out and practice the same thing yourself. Five seconds look at this picture and we figured out that I used a wide-angle lens, a small aperture and a polarising filter.

Exactly how wide a wide-angle, what focal length lens and what angle I had my polarising filter on is for you to get out and experiment and find out. The best photographic education you can get is by looking at the pictures you admire and reverse engineering them. Once you figure out how to do that you'll never need that technical mumbo-jumbo in your captions again.

No comments: