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Après moi, le déluge

Unlike King Louis though, I do care about what happens next. The story starts with me arriving at the end of the queue to get into a diving site. The camera and housing were in a tool tray on the passenger seat. I poured myself a hot drink from the flask and began to assemble the camera into its underwater housing. Then the queue started moving. So I dumped the camera into the tray, threw the tea out of the window and made my way in.

The usual business then ensued with getting scuba gear assembled, getting my drysuit on and sorting out what we were doing and who we were doing it with. I threw the camera into the housing and pressed the rear door closed. It was a little more resistant than normal, but the O ring seal is always a bit tight. And off we went diving.

I was trying-out something new with the camera and its external flashgun, to try and eliminate backscatter from silt in the water. This mean that, as soon as I was back from the dive I had a look at the screen on the back of the camera to review the pictures I’d taken. And then noticed there were beads of water on the inside of the housing. And then noticed there was a puddle of water in the bottom of the housing. It didn’t dry up, even with the names I was calling it. (This level of invective will usually scorch paper)

So out of the housing came the camera and out of the camera came its battery. The camera was wrapped in my towel with the battery door open. Luckily we were diving in fresh water, so there was a chance the camera might survive once it dried-out.

At the end of the day I got home and put the camera on a radiator to dry. I then had a good look at the housing. Trapped in the groove that the O ring seals into was a tiny black machine screw – the kind that holds cameras together. It was small enough to allow the housing to close, but large enough to cause a leak. It was a small leak: the housing took on perhaps an eggcup full of water after 45 minutes under three times normal atmospheric pressure. It did the fateful job of killing my camera, though.

The screw was trapped here, by the hinge

A quick check showed that the camera wasn’t completely dead, but it was badly injured. It would power-up enough to extend the lens, but the rear screen wouldn’t work and neither would the zoom controls. So, big decision – do I wait and see if the camera will revive, or buy a replacement if I can find one cheap enough? The check also found the source of the screw. There were actually two missing; one from either side of the tripod socket. Perhaps what I should do in future is give the camera a good shake before I put it in the housing, or at least check the O ring seal all the way round.

This is the screw, compared with an SD card for size

I’ve also got yet another dead copy of this camera that could be an organ donor. This was my first copy of this camera, and died with a common fault when an internal screw came loose. If the drowned camera doesn’t revive I might try swapping-in some components from the donor. Not that I have any way of telling which parts might have broken, but I can have a go and see what happens. Curiously, the loose internal screws that killed the first camera are different to the one jammed in the housing, so it’s not a repeat of the first problem.

Drying…

But… repair or replace? I have one working copy of this camera and it would be useful to have two. The whole reason I had two was for just this situation. So off to eBay I shall go. The Canon G9 fetches a wide range of prices, but scruffy ones that lack a charger or case can be quite reasonable. The drowned camera shows no signs of getting better so I’ll leave it on the radiator, but replace it is. Lo and behold, eBay spits out a very reasonably priced and tidy G9 with the original camera case. So we’re back up and running. The next thing, of course, will be to dive the housing to see if I’ve fixed the leak. What I’ll do is put the dead camera in it to stop it being too buoyant. I’ll pack the housing with tissues, which will be a good indicator of leakiness or success. Sounds like a plan.

This is also why I dive with a camera that is good, but not expensive. I may have had a bad day, but my broken camera was replaced for less than my buddy spent on one of his new fins. (He bought two obviously, or he’d swim in circles). The joy of cheap – the G9 is not the very best camera, but I can buy replacements at a reasonable cost, so I don’t mind putting them into situations where they might break.

Let’s call this gaining experience.

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A sketch pad

This idea came from Grant Scott and Neale James, and it’s to treat your camera as a sketch pad rather than every shot being a finished and polished masterpiece. This means that photos become captured ideas for future development or (the shame!) simply a record of who you were with and where you were.

This is easy with digital but was harder and more expensive when I used film exclusively. With the marginal cost of a digital picture being effectively zero, why not grab pictures of things that are interesting or have possibility? It can also be an informal record of where you were or what you were doing. If your camera can also capture the location of a picture, you have the easiest method for grabbing something interesting and then finding your way back to the place at a better time or in better light.

This field gets grazing light in the morning

I think this also fits with the idea of journaling. This is keeping a written (and doodled) record of your thoughts and ideas. Ade of the Sunny 16 podcast is doing this. Even I do it. I carry a little notebook that fits in my pocket and one of those little space pens. I’ve also got my favourite little snapshot camera that isn’t much bigger than the notebook. This goes in the pocket or the bag and is part of the leaving the house checklist (keys, wallet, phone, poo bags for dog, camera). The notebook captures stuff for later – ideas, plans, books to read, films to see, even ideas for pictures. The little camera grabs things as they happen – sunrise, newts on the path, details of cameras to use in this blog. The notebook jottings get reviewed and either moved to a collection (books to read), turned into something useful (ideas to try) or deleted (jobs done). Same with the camera – the pictures get moved to the filing system so that I can find them again or deleted if they were a temporary record.

Yes, the notebook is covered with duct tape. Because, well, duct tape.

The benefits are in peace of mind. I forget less, like ideas or references. I remember more, like things that caught my attention. There is another benefit in having the recording tools with you. It’s less stressful than seeing something and having nothing to save it on or with. Turning these things into a habit means that I’ve always got them with me, so I use them.

I was curious about the way the houses appeared to stack

An aside – I’ve also got a notebook for the house. It has a plan with measurements of every room, how much paint or wallpaper it took and the names of the paint. It gets updated when we move and is most excellent for decorating, redecorating or choosing furniture that fits </smug>.

I know a mobile phone can do these tricks, challenging the need to carry a separate notebook or camera. I do find though that the pictures on my phone rarely make the jump to my main picture files so I lose track of what I’ve got. I also find it easier to make notes on paper than in a phone, because I doodle shapes with the words. Or maybe I’m a dinosaur and still can’t work my own TV. Taking written notes does mean though that I can use Easy Script shorthand for speed, compactness and a basic level of privacy.

I need to go back and get a better look

Anyhow, it’s the idea I recommend, not the method. Capturing notes, thoughts and pictures as they arise so that you can reflect on them later is useful. It also breaks the psychological bond that everything you do must be at least good, if not perfect. Unfinished means still flexible and capable of development.

The difference

What one thing made the biggest difference to your photography?

For me it was a bit of critical feedback. Someone was looking at my images and said “pictures without people in are boring”. After the initial sting (the feeling of pride leaving the body), I realised it summarised what I liked most to take pictures of: people doing things. It was liberating. I didn’t have to take pictures of places to record that I’d been there. I didn’t have to take pictures of objects to show that I’d seen them. My loose definition of ‘people doing stuff’ could cover sport, family and friends. I still do the equivalent of landscape and wildlife photography when I’m diving, but I seem to be the only diver in my group who regularly photographs other divers.

I can’t think of any piece of equipment that has made a large difference. Any improvements have been incremental. There was never any feeling that this thing, whatever it was, had lifted the veil and changed my life. Saying that, there was a touch of that feeling when I bought my first camera. This was the first camera that was mine, as opposed to borrowing the family snapper. I could do with it what I wanted and because I paid for my own film and development, there was no guilt in shooting things that were “without merit”. That was a liberating step.

Once apon a time, this was the British Microsoft

I could say that getting an underwater camera made a big difference, but that too was incremental. I started with barely-capable splashproof kit and progressed to using an SLR in a flexible housing (a plastic bag). None of it was revelatory, as I gradually worked my way towards what I wanted to be able to do. If I could send my present setup back in time to beginner me, that would be a huge improvement. But what I use now didn’t exist then, and the path that led me from there to here taught me a lot along the way. And actually, I had to develop my diving skills as well. There would be no point giving my scuba-diving camera to my snorkelling protege, as it is meant to be used differently.

So it feels like my path from there to here in photography has been one of small steps and minor improvements. Except that here is a long way from there. I can look back and be amazed at the differences, but none of the steps felt large, or even planned. I am aware that I hosed the world with my camera when I first started. Everything felt new and I took pictures of things to see what they would look like in a picture, or to see if I could even get a picture. So along the way I have accumulated a vast record of boring pictures that capture an event as a bystander would see it, with no interpretation or art. The liberation for me was the comment I got as feedback, that freed me to ignore the things I didn’t feel engaged with.

It’s like books: I used to feel a duty to finish what I started. Then I found that there were lots of books in the world and I could neither read them all or be interested in them all. And some books were not well-written. This meant I could stop reading a book that didn’t engage me or at least teach me. (An aside – I keep a list of books I’d like to read so that I can raid bookshops and libraries with purpose and method. But serendipity needs to be in the mix too.)

So gaining a sense of what was valuable to me (or rather, having it pointed-out by helpful criticism) was the thing that made the biggest difference. What about you?

How did you learn?

What got me thinking was hearing a photographer described as ‘self taught’. That has surely got to be the majority of us, don’t you think? Even when I started taking pictures, I knew there were college courses that included photography. But I was on the science track. Schools then streamed pupils in subject groups, and I was better at science than art.

I could probably have done an arts or photography course after secondary school, but I was always going to be a better technologist than artist. Besides, teaching myself photography was part of the fun. I read every book on photography in the library. With my pal, who had a camera and knew how to use it, we read every magazine we could find (or afford) and critiqued every Photography Year Book. We also took pictures of anything and everything.

This was back in the days of Real Cameras which used film. It meant that the feedback cycle of comparing the results with the subject and one’s intentions was quite long. Digital photography has made the cycle much shorter – you can shoot, chimp and adjust immediately. This has got to be a better way of learning. Using film also introduces more variables. I might have got perfect focus, but then I messed up the development or printing. It was the reason why I would habitually take two shots of a subject in case I broke one of them. But film and chemicals seemed to be cheap and were certainly easy to obtain: Boots sold an own-brand mono film and every half-decent camera shop had bottles of Aculux. So we followed the percussive learning route – running into every wall until we found the way.

We were young in those days. Bless.

I was lucky in many ways that I was technical. I could develop my own film, I knew how things like dilution and temperature worked, and I (eventually) understood the camera’s settings. So gradually, over several years, my outcomes came closer to my intentions.

I will confess though, that my pal and I were rather taken with the legends of our revered photojournalists. We watched a documentary about Don McCullin in which he made a throw-away remark about changing film while lying in cover. So we practiced loading our cameras without looking or in the dark. One of the magazines told us we should be able to change the camera settings without looking, so we practiced. It was a harmless bit of fan-boy homage, but we did actually learn to handle our cameras with more confidence and less fear.

We were messing about when I noticed the shape of his shadow. It took a fair bit of processing to get the result I wanted from the picture I took.

Do I still think this kind of apprenticeship is necessary? No. The purpose of photography is the results, not the methods. I chose to learn the methods because I wanted to get more control over my results. My digital cameras now allow me to get the results directly within the camera and allow me to check immediately that I’m getting what I wanted. Do you still need to understand the exposure triangle? Totally. But getting immediate feedback makes it easier. It’s also changed in that ISO is now something you can vary with every shot, rather than being fixed for the length of the film you are using.

Would my photography have benefited from an input of art history or informed criticism? Absolutely, but I found my way into these later. So what’s my point? I am entirely self taught. I claim no merit from it: it’s just the way it worked out. For me the journey has been part of the pleasure. I guess that is the technologist in me: I want to understand how things work so that I can use them better. When I started taking pictures I did have to know how my camera and film worked in order to get the results I wanted. If I was starting now I would have a lot more automation and a much quicker learning cycle, so I would probably let the camera handle the settings while I concentrated on the results.

I also have a bad feeling about what a photography course could contain. I know what a proper college syllabus covers, as I’ve looked at them to see if I should do some proper study in photography. These courses are good. My reservations are for the shorter informal sessions given by amateurs. My fear is that these are more about how to control and use a camera than how to see things in a way that makes good pictures. If this is the way you might learn photography you would be better off looking at good photographs and paintings and thinking about why they are good.

So I followed the self-taught route, driven by a desire to make pictures and learning what I could in a haphazard fashion. The alternative route of formal learning teaches you more, better and quicker and leaves no gaps in your understanding. Self taught needn’t be less skilled, just as formally trained needn’t be more artistic. I think the route to avoid though is learning how to use a camera in the hope it will improve your pictures. Nobody cares what shutter speed you used, but using the right one can get the result you wanted. And the right shutter speed comes from your intention, not from the manual.

But to get back to the original point, I wonder how many photographers didn’t take an arts course or learn photography through formal education? Or perhaps it’s more strongly streamed than I realise. Perhaps people who want to take photographs usually follow the artistic education route and do learn by formal methods, while people like me fall into photography because they like it and learn by any method they can? But I’m a sample of one. How did you learn photography?

Treasure hunt

I’ve discovered a great way to enjoy my photography, and it wasn’t even my idea. To be fair, most of the ideas in the world aren’t mine either. But back to the point, I joined a photography club a while ago. One of the things they run is a monthly session on a Saturday lasting three hours. Each session is on a type of photography: architecture, portraits, monochrome and so on. After a bit of chat on what the particular thing is, how to get the effect, what to look for, the challenge is on. We have a treasure hunt.

The point of the hunt is not the theory but the practice. We have 45 minutes to produce examples of the brief and bring them back. And therein lies the joy. No faff, no explanations, just results. Better still, results that you share and explain. Each person puts two or three of their pictures onto a laptop and we project them for everyone to see and discuss.

Now, 45 minutes is not long when you are looking for good architectural pictures or monochrome shots. Obviously we know what the subject will be, so it’s possible to prepare. The last two times I had worked out where I was going, that had likely subjects. My little trot round some photogenic sites took me to some places that I’d driven past but never walked. What I had missed was old warehouses and industrial property in shabby decay, trees breaking free of paving, odd alleys and pubs left standing as the single building in a demolished row. Sounds delightful, but it’s the history of this town and of a country where we stopped making things.

I also took a few minutes to experiment. I put a flashgun on the camera and covered it with a blue filter. Then I photographed one of the members in monchrome. The plan was that the blue light would give an ortho effect on his face while leaving the background normal. It kind of worked, in that it did make his skin look darker and more rugged with more prominent veins. It needs more practice though.

The projection of the results is not just a slide show. The person working the laptop loads the pictures into an editing program, so we can all propose changes and see the results immediately. It’s not the sort of fine-tuning you could spend hours doing to one of your own pictures. This is quick and dirty guerrilla pimping. A bit of cropping, play with the exposure, darken or lighten a few areas. Then put the original and the edit side by side. It’s usually the author who suggests the first edits, as they had something in mind when they took the picture. But then someone else will chip-in with a “what if you…” and we get to play.

What I like about this is that we all take different pictures. It’s enlightening to see what other people can see. When we did an architecture theme, the pictures ranged from old to modern, from whole to detail. There were also some pictures that pushed the accepted definition. If architecture is the built environment, then is a railway line architecture?

Wierd, I know. View through a fence.

I’m also eager to get home afterwards. I drop my picture files onto the computer and do some quick edits to capture both what I saw and also what other people saw in them. Now, I don’t know what your hit rate is when you go out with a camera – how many keepers you get. I can go out for the day, take two pictures and be bored with one and hate the other. But the hit rate from a treasure hunt is higher. I think the focus of a deadline and a theme makes me try harder. Subjects I would have previously have looked at and bookmarked for a later day become things I look at with concentration to decide if it fits the brief and could give me a good picture. So, like I said above, I spend 45 minutes doing an intense burst of photography with no interruptions. There is no “that’s interesting but I’m busy right now”; the reason I am here is to take pictures.

So I highly recommend a treasure hunt. It definitely works best with other people, as the sharing and discussion of pictures is really what it’s about. The theme and the deadline are just the method for obtaining a set of pictures to discuss. Having to shoot quickly to a theme is also an excellent way of pushing yourself to try something new.

Diversifying

If you become good at something, or well-known for something, what should you do next?

In writing or music the answer might be ‘do more of it’. This is the curse of the three-book or four-album deal. You become indentured to the publisher to make more copies of the same thing. But you can also become your own victim by repeating a successful formula, even despite the likelihood of diminishing returns.

As a photographer you might develop a particular look or style. If it gains approval, the temptation is to prolong that style to maintain the approval. If you were a professional the drive might be stronger, as that style might be what you are hired for. But tastes change – what about informal family group portraits shot against plain white backgrounds, for example? And what about your own creative growth? Do you want to be limited to wide-angle landscapes with a rock in the foreground?

There are artists who are recognised as having changed their work over time. Think of David Bowie as an obvious example, but you could also look at Sparks, Neil Young, Tom Waits or Alan Moore. Indeed, Alan Moore is explicit in his descriptions of the writing process, that as soon as you recognise yourself repeating a style you should stop using it and develop something else. His advice is to pick something you find difficult and try that. This is the way to grow, not from comfort and safety but from restraint and risk. If you don’t make yourself do something different, when are you likely to do anything different? Or as Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstei said, “We do not go through life imagining alternative ways of seeing what we see”. You could rephrase this as “nobody ever set out to prove themselves wrong”.

This is different to being in a creative hole. In a hole you are stuck and don’t know what to do next. Instead, here you are riding high, master of your craft and technique, but taking the conscious decision to break away and do something else. This is getting out at the top of your game, before your style becomes your handcuffs. It also hopefully avoids the diminishing returns of repeating what was a successful formula.

Bored already

I did write previously on developing a style, where I wondered if I had one. There must be something, as I’ve had one of my pictures identified as mine even though it was anonymous. So perhaps I now need to break away from what was recognisable and try something else?

I’ve mentioned Alan Moore above, and he has something to say about having a recognisable style. If I may steal quote from his book Writing for comics: “if your ambition is to be a creator, then know that creativity is an ongoing and progressive phenomenon and that stasis and stagnation is sure death to it”.

Taking that as the aim, what could I do with my own cliches?

  • Simplicity – try more complex pictures or containing more elements
  • Block or simple shapes – work through the full list of compositional elements
  • Black and white – shoot colour instead
  • Shoot some landscapes (which I currently avoid)
  • Shoot some street photography
  • Try shooting video rather than stills

I’ve had some words to say on most of these: I like simplicity; shoot a lot of mono; avoid landscapes and street photography. So now is my opportunity to stop doing what is comfortable and see what I can do in a less familiar genre.

Not that I’m presuming to have anything like a consistent style or to suffer with artistic angst. But it doesn’t harm to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. I might even (one day) find what it is I’m good at or enjoy more than taking pictures of things that go fast or swim.

PS – I had a go at what I proposed. I went out and wandered around some landscape and did a bit of architectural photography. Not as bad as I’d thought. I may never take either of them up as my default, but having seen my first results I now want to improve. Give me a hand and we’ll shift this paradigm.

Selby riviera

“I want to learn how to take pictures”

This is often followed by “what camera should I buy?”.

Perhaps the best way to start would be to go to the end and work backwards. “What sort of pictures do you want to take and how will you use them?”.

The answer friends and family, shared online means sticking with your phone camera and perhaps learning the basics of composition. This desired outcome is not about learning how a camera works but all about how pictures work.

To capture the amazing places I go and make prints could mean a decent quality digital camera with a zoom lens and adding some time to learn post-production and printing (or post-production and finding a reliable print shop). This is also all about how pictures work, with enough about the camera settings to be able to capture scenes as intended.

I’ve been given a camera and want to learn to use it can be much more focused. This is a technical how-to that is tightly constrained to a specific camera’s functions and capabilities. But once the camera has been mastered, what then? I could learn how to operate a lathe but unless I have an outcome in mind it would be an empty technical skill. I think that learning to use a specific camera should be directed by what it will be used for. Shooting fast sports needs different settings to macro work or portraiture, so you would be learning less but it would be more relevant and useful.

A manual rangefinder, because Leica.

Because all the social influencers are using one of these is a scary response. Perhaps the best that can be offered is a description of the workflow and some advice on the costs. Camera possession as social confirmation is a strange edge-case. My preference would be to suggest a cheap and simple digital point and shoot to try. If they like the results and persist, then we can talk about how or if to upgrade, based on what they want to be able to do.

a TLR, because life isn’t hard enough already

The ‘given a camera’ and ‘want to be like them’ responses could also be part of an enquiry that was “I want to learn to use film”. I think this needs the same response of ” what do want to be able to do?”. Why go to all the bother and expense of using film if you are already getting the results you want? And if what you want is to learn to control the camera more, digital is by far an easier learning tool than analogue, as it’s so much quicker to see the results (plus the results are not dependent on a further step, so there is one less variable in the process).

It was my dad’s

With all of these, I think the best approach is to start with old, cheap and simple. This is because you don’t know what you really want until you learn what you want to be able to do. Once you find yourself pushing against a constraint in your kit, then you know what kit you really need. And you might get bored and give up too, so why invest heavily at the beginning? As an example, I go scuba diving. For this I wear an inflatable jacket that also carries the air tank. The jacket can be inflated to control my buoyancy underwater and to float me on the surface. There are many different types of jacket and they can cost a lot of money. The one I use for normal diving is functionally OK, even though a bit awkward to use. But it has loads of buoyancy if needed, so is great for the diving I do with novice divers in open water. I also have a second jacket that I use in the pool when training. This is a different design that has the buoyancy arranged on the back, either side of the tank. The jacket is very comfortable to wear and holds me easily in a good posture underwater. But if I ever needed this jacket to support me on the surface it would fail: the buoyancy bags would roll me face-down in the water. Fine for snorkelling, not fine for general safety.

It’s similar with cameras and photography. Starting with secondhand kit means a soft entry and a chance to learn what you like or not and what you need versus what you have. Do I need depth of field preview? Never used it. Do I need to be able to change focusing screens? Not really. Do I need light metering? Yes please. Rangefinders? Why make things harder? Autofocus and focus confirmation? Yes very please. Good high ISO performance? Very useful. Wide range of lenses? Absolutely. Small, light, rugged and available? Definitely.

So those requirements cover several different types of photography (or use cases, as we nerds say) and result in several types of camera. Each camera has a job, as opposed to buying something very clever and having too much power most of the time. I confess though, that I am as guilty as many others of having more kit than I need. My only defence is that it was all the cheapest I could find, in the usual quest to find out if X is better than Y. Everyone raves about the Lomo LC-A for example. Tried one, didn’t like it, swapped it for something else more functional and suitable for my needs.

I’m an IT guy, so I was often asked the equivalent question of ‘what computer should I buy?’. This got the same answers of ‘what do you want to be able to do’ and ‘will this change over time’. Wanting to do a bit of t’interweb and email leads to a different solution from editing video.

So, circling back to where we came in… I think there are two avenues to explore. Learning to take pictures is a lot about learning what makes a picture work, and this means studying pictures. It means working out what you like in a picture and the types of picture you like. Then you can study how to get the effects you like in the type of pictures you want to take. Things like exposure, aperture and shutter speed make sense when they are linked to results. Learning to use a camera is a technical skill that can be learned but has very little to do with the final pictures (as long as the camera settings are about right – but that is why we have automatic modes).

The bonus from this is that, if someone is learning how to get the type of pictures they want rather than how to operate a camera, they might be less inclined to give up when it gets difficult. Every step forward would be towards what they want, rather than just one possible method of getting what they want or a further descent into a technical rabbit hole.

Speaking of rabbit holes – anyone who keeps asking for a camera recommendation should go here.

Aphantasia

Now, here’s a thing. And I didn’t even know it was a thing. It’s the inability to see pictures in your head. A blind mind’s eye.

It started when I was reading Imaginable by Jane McGonigal. Highly recommended, by the way. But there was an initial exercise that asked “imagine yourself waking up in ten years’ time. What’s it like”. So in all good faith, I started describing it to myself. Then the book continued to ask me to imagine every detail and colour of the scene as vividly as possible “unless you are one of the 2% of the population who have aphantasia”. Say what? I could describe my future world eloquently in words, but the best picture was a fuzzy version of my existing bedroom. Hang on – do other people see pictures?

Now close your eyes and imagine a horse. But not this one. This is Bob.

Then, as life does, synchronicity slapped me on the head. There was a press headline on a news feed about a study into aphantasia. So I read it. Then took an online test that seemed to have a lot of its results feeding into further research. And you know what, I don’t seem to have much of a mind’s eye. I can’t see a picture in my head of things that I’m not directly remembering. Even then, it’s lacking in detail. Like most things, it’s a spectrum. A fuzzy imagining, rather than a total absence, is called hypophantasia. Nothing to do with the Disney film, by the way.

How about imagining a sheep?

The first question of course is wether this is true, or at least true for me. The online test seemed to confirm it, but I’m sure every hypochondriac says the same. On the other hand it would explain a lot. It may explain what my wife calls my total lack of an aesthetic sense. But if I can’t imagine what something could look like, I’m unlikely to go out and buy paint. It could also explain why, the one time I went off piste and did buy paint, it was so far from the right colour it wasn’t even wrong. My wife is still puzzled why someone who takes photographs could not see it was the wrong colour. Perhaps I now know why. It may also explain my fascination with colour in production design: I can’t really see what a scene could look like, so I think people who can are very clever. It could even explain why I feel I see things as an alien, but that’s probably stretching it. I do think it could explain why I was rubbish at art when I was at school, but much better at writing (and explains this blog).

If this is true, and it’s still an if, it’s not the end of the world. The condition seems to be no hindrance to creativity. In the case of Derek Parfit it was mooted as the reason for his interest in photography. It may even be compensated by better spacial cognition.

So if it is true, it explains a few things. If not, it’s harmless and gets me out of choosing paint. I may be using this as the drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination – but at least I got a drink out of it.

Out of curiosity, how do you get on with this test?

How to expose

There was a bit of an argument on Faceplop/ Melter (colour me surprised), about the right way to meter light for photography. So I thought I’d weigh in with my own version.

The reason for even thinking about exposure is because what it means is getting the right amount of light on your sensor/ film. To do that you need to measure the amount of light there is. To do that you need some form of meter (which is better than guessing).

Actually, it’s a two stage process. The first step is to measure the amount of light correctly. The second stage is to decide how you want to use that information. Let’s start with step one.

The amount of light emitted by the sun is effectively constant. The amount that reaches the ground (or the subject) varies with time of year, time of day and the weather conditions. This is why a meter is better than guessing.

Sounds easy though: point the camera at the subject and either press the shutter or change the camera settings to what the meter says. Most of the time this works, and the better or more modern the camera the more likely it is to work pretty well. If you have one of these cameras and you get good results, that’s the end of this article.

But… some cameras don’t have meters, or don’t meter light well, or the subject lighting is not ‘average’. This is where we need a better way to meter the light. The obvious tool for the job is a separate hand-held light meter. But there are two basic types and they work in different ways, which was the cause of the online argument.

The first and most common type of meter is a copy of the one you find in a camera. You point it at the subject and it measures how much light is being reflected back towards the camera. Providing the bright and dark areas in the subject average out, the reading is good to use. A reflected light meter can struggle if the view contains lots of bright sky, or is backlit, or is a bright object on a dark background. There is a specialised version of the reflected light meter that has a very narrow angle of view, so lets you meter on a single small part of the subject. These are useful if you can’t get close, or for measuring the brightest and darkest spots to calculate the full range of brightness (the reason for this is in step two, below). These spot meters are expensive though, and don’t give you the general average reading you also need.

The second type of meter measures how much light is falling on the subject. This type is an incident light meter. The idea is that light falling on the subject is the correct middle point that you need to expose for. The brighter bits of the subject will reflect more light and be brighter, the dark bits darker. Providing the total range of brightness fits within the sensitivity of your film or sensor, then this works very well and is immune to scenes that are not an average mix of light and dark. It does need you to measure the light falling on the subject though, which can be difficult if the subject is distant to you or under different lighting.

A reflected meter, as top left, takes the average of everything it can see. An incident meter measures how much light there is and gives you a reading that works if everything is average.

Which type of meter is best? The one you have with you, obviously. Both types work, providing you understand what they are measuring and if they might need some interpretation. The reason for the interpretation is step two.

A typical digital sensor response is on the left. Analogue film is more S shaped, as on the right.

Your sensor or film can record a certain range of brightness. Too little light and it won’t record. Too much and it will record as pure white with no detail. Ideally the brightness range of the scene will match the sensitivity range of the sensor, and it usually does (because sensors and film were developed to match the average range of brightness we encounter). So the average reading that a light meter gives you is intended to provide the mid-point of the camera’s range. How that average reading fits onto the range of a digital sensor or a film is shown below.

The meter reading is meant to put the measured average on the mid point of the sensor or film range (the sun symbol). The total range of brightness in the subject should then fit onto the working range of the sensor of film (the arrow).

So despite all the noise about 18% grey and metering for the shadows or highlights, what you are trying to do is to find the average brightness and set it at the midpoint of the camera’s range. If possible you also set the camera so that the range of brightness in the scene or subject matches the range that the sensor or film can record. If the range of brightness in the subject is less than the range of the camera you can choose to move it up or down the camera range by giving it more or less exposure. Sensible people give as much exposure as possible, without the highlights going off the top of the scale. To be more accurate, the highlights in which you still need to see detail should be on or just below the top of the scale. If the sun is in shot, just accept that it will be overexposed. But if your subject has a white shirt or dress you may want any highlights to show a bit of detail and tonality and not be featureless white. This pegs the maximum exposure you can give. Alternatively, if the scene is low contrast (has a small range of brightness) you may want to give it more than the average exposure. This shifts the whole scene up the scale and will reveal more detail in the shadows. This is exposing for the shadows.

But what if the range of brightness in the scene is too great to get both the highlights and shadows within the camera’s range? You have options. One is to accept that part of the scene will not record. So you could let the highlights or the shadows fall off the scale. Most people keep the highlights and let the shadows go totally black, but it’s up to you.

The range is too wide for the sensor. You can give it less expsoure (which shifts the arrow left) and keep the highlights at the expense of the shadows, or go the other way.

Another option is to decrease the range of the subject. You can add light to the shadows with flash or a reflector. You can reduce the highlights by changing the lighting or adding some haze or filtering. Moving out of direct sunlight into open shade works well (but beware of the blue cast you will get from the sky).

A third option is to expand the range of the sensor or film. This is what HDR does for digital. With film you can play with different types of film, developer and processing. The aim with both is to be able to squeeze a wide range of subject brightness onto the narrower range of the sensor.

So, to get back to measuring exposure, a reflected light meter is saying ‘this is the average brightness of everything I can see’ while an incident light meter is saying ‘this is how much light there is. If everything in this light averages out, this is the correct exposure’. Which is better? If the full range of brightness in the subject fits into the range of your camera, the incident light meter is better as it can’t be fooled by non-average subjects. But if the brightness range is too great for the camera or you have something special in mind, you will need to set the camera differently to the average, change the lighting or take special measures to widen the camera’s range.

How do you know if the subject fits the camera range? Digital cameras win here if they can display a histogram or the under/overexposed flashies. If you can adjust the camera settings, you want the histogram shifted as far to the right as you can (as bright as possible) without losing any important highlights. With film I’m afraid it comes down to experience, and knowing that negative films, particularly colour negative, can take a bit of overexposure and still produce good results (due in part to that S shaped response, as above). If you have a separate light meter and you are close enough to the subject to be able to measure the highlights and shadows separately, try measuring the range. It works best with a reflected light meter. Take your overall average reading. Then measure the brightest highlight that should still show a bit of texture and tonality. This should be no more than 3 stops brighter than the average. The darkest shadow that you want a hint of tonality in should be no more than 4 stops darker. It is possible to capture a wider range, but this is about what works without taking special measures.

The special measures? There are ways of developing film that can capture a wider range of brightness. With slide film you are really stuck with what it offers. With digital you can try HDR. This combines a set of over-exposed shots (that capture the shadows) with under-exposed ones that capture the highlights. With some techno-magic the best bits of each are combined to compress a wide range of brightness in the subject to fit onto the range that the sensor is capable of recording. It can look strange if it’s done badly, and it often is.

The alternative is to base your exposure on what is important in the subject and let the rest fall where it may. If there are people in the scene, you would normally set the exposure so that you can see their faces. Just be aware that there is range of skin tones around the ‘average’ – don’t be like Kodak.

So if this is all getting too confusing, this is what you do in practice. Most subjects are average. Point your reflected light meter at the scene and angle it down a bit if there is a lot of sky in the shot. Or point your incident meter back towards the camera, with the meter in the same light as the subject. Job done. If the range of brightness in the scene is likely to be too wide, you will need to decide which end of the scale to keep, and it’s usually the highlights. On a digital camera take a test shot and look at the histogram or flashies. Reduce the exposure until the highlights are inside the histogram or stop flashing. With a reflected meter measure a highlight and give it three stops more exposure. It’s harder to gauge the difference with an incident meter but you could try taking one reading with the meter pointing at the camera and one pointing at the main source of light (often the sun). Try setting the camera at the midpoint of the two readings. And bracket – take extra shots with one stop more and one less of exposure. Bracketing is good for learning, as you can tell just by looking at the results that a scene like the one you shot really needs more or less exposure than what the light meter says.

So there you are. The purpose of metering the light is to work out how best to fit the scene onto the sensor. No one type of light meter is best – you need to use your brain with both of them. Incident light meters are less likely to be fooled, so may give more reliable results. Reflected light meters work from further away. The histogram or flashies on a digital camera do the same job. Light meters work best with average scenes, but luckily most scenes really are average (by definition). But look hard at your subject and the light and you will learn what different to average looks like and what to do about it. And then you can join the perpetual squabble on t’interweb about how exposure works. (As an aside, the only comparable geek argument is how countersteering works for motorcycles. So if you really want to start a flame war, ask people how best to expose for a countersteering bike.)

And by the way, you may have heard people either praising or damning the Zone System. All it does is help you try and fit the range of brightness in your subject onto your sensor, just as described above. None of this is magic, or even particularly difficult. It’s all about squeezing what there is into what you’ve got.

Becoming arsed

To explain, there is an English expression meaning “I can’t be bothered”, which is to say “I can’t be arsed”. Just to avoid the confusions arising from a common language. This is about getting arsed again.

After two years of lockdown, isolation and working from home it can be difficult to even get interested in life again. Apparently this condition now has a name: languishing. I find myself flipping between sparky and dull, so I guess I’ve caught a bit of languish.

Part of it is that many of the activities I used to enjoy and take pictures of have closed down. I could still go for walks all through the lockdowns, as long as I stayed away from other people, but where’s the (photographic) fun in that? I did join a photo club, which meant that even if my active photography was restricted, I was still thinking about pictures and how to do things differently or better. This kept me cheerful and mostly sane. I also did a long exercise of scanning all my old colour slides. It’s something to do while vegetating through online meetings. I would really like to get out more though, to get over the slump of lockdown and to rekindle some enthusiasm.

Anyway, enough of me, let’s talk about you. Are you too wondering how to get some interest back or find that mojo? Well, the components of fun, according to Prof Laurie Santos, are playfulness, connection and flow. Playfulness means not taking the thing seriously: it’s not a competition. Connection means other people, so lonely treks in the woods are out. And flow means being absorbed in the moment. And it doesn’t even have to be about photography either. Why not do something daft but fun, for no other reason than you can have fun with some other people? Try learning something new and flow will come, as you concentrate on how to do it. If the activity is not photography, then it might create opportunities for pictures. At the very least it will stop you worrying about the price of film or whether you should upgrade your camera again.

My distraction was beer making. I’ve always pottered around in the shed making brews, but I took up with a local brewing group when I moved house recently. They are all far more experienced and skilled than me, but it has made me raise my game and study the science and methods behind the process. It’s also ridiculous fun to stand in a barn, freezing and wearing wooly hats and gloves, discussing the subtleties of the beers we are tasting. Imagine an Inuit party where everyone stood far enough apart you would think they must be family.

The other remedy is to take delight in the small and everyday. Ross Gay wrote a book about a year’s worth of noticing the delightful. We were out walking and noticed that the low-angled winter sun revealed that the field was covered in a complete layer of fine spiders’ webs that sparkled in the light. We also had a chat with some twitchers who had come to see a rare bird, of which there were around six sightings a year in the UK. They let us have a squint through their telescope. I can’t tell one bird from another, but it was a lovely gesture of friendliness.

So I guess the summary is to try something new if you can, especially if it involves other people, and to take delight in your surroundings and experiences. I may not be taking any more pictures, but I’m not anxious about it and the ones I do take mean more to me.

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