Are you insane?

Last Light, Half Dome, Yosemite
Sony a7R III
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
2 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

Are you insane?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this reminds me of the thousands of good landscape photographers with hundreds of beautiful images they can’t sell. These photographers have a good eye for composition, own all the best equipment, know when to be at the great locations, and are virtual gurus with state-of-the-art processing software. Yet they haven’t achieved (their definition of) success.

Conducting photo workshops gives me pretty good insight into the mindset of serious amateur photographers, the photographers serious enough to spend time and money to rise before sunrise and stay out after dark to photograph the world’s most beautiful landscapes in frequently miserable conditions. I’m struck that many of these photographers have serious aspirations for their photography, but are so mesmerized by technology that they turned over control of the most important aspects of their craft to their camera. Their solution to photographic failure is to buy more equipment, visit more locations, and master more software. But the most overlooked tool is the one on top of their shoulders.

Knowledge vs. understanding

Just as a new camera won’t make you a better photographer, simply upgrading your photography knowledge won’t do it either—knowledge is nothing more than ingested and regurgitated information. Understanding, on the other hand, (among other things) gives you the ability to use information to create new knowledge and solve problems.

Many photographers invest far too much energy acquiring knowledge, and far too little energy understanding what they just learned. For example, it’s not enough to know that a longer shutter speed or bigger aperture means a brighter image if that knowledge doesn’t translate into an understanding of how to manage motion, depth, and light with your camera. It’s one thing to know you need more light on your sensor, but something altogether different to know whether to add it with a longer shutter speed, larger aperture, or higher ISO—a choice that makes a huge difference in the finished product.

Take control

Automatic modes in most cameras handle static, midday light beautifully, yet struggle in the limited light, extreme dynamic range, and harsh conditions that artistic photographers seek. The auto modes have become so good that they have created the illusion of control in the minds of many photographers. I see many excellent photographers whose profound faith in their technology has caused critical deficiency of two fundamental photographic principles:

  • How a light meter determines the exposure information it gives you. This seems so basic, but auto-exposure success has fooled many into thinking they understand metering and exposure.
  • How to use the zero-sum relationship between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to manage photography’s three variables: depth, motion, and light. Proper metering and exposure is the universal tool that enables photographers to handle the limiting factors of every scene.

Books and internet resources are a great place to start learning these principles (here’s my Photo Tip article), but the knowledge you gain there won’t turn to understanding until you get out with your camera and learn to manage a scene’s motion, depth, and light in creative ways that set your photography apart.

For example

My metering philosophy is to approach every scene at ISO 100 (my Sony a7RIII’s best ISO) and f/11 (the best combination of lens sharpness and depth of field with minimal diffraction)—I control the light with my shutter speed and only deviate my baseline ISO and f-stop when the scene variables dictate. For example, when I want more or less depth of field, I’ll choose a different f-stop, or when I can’t get a proper exposure at the shutter speed that gives me the motion effect I want (blurred or sharp), I’ll adjust the ISO.

This Yosemite sunset from last February was about Half Dome, the clouds, the light, and the reflection in the Merced River. After finding my composition, the scene variables to consider when determining my exposure settings were:

  • Motion in the river: I wanted to blur the flowing water enough to smooth some of the chop and ripples, and to turn the floating foam fragments into white blurs
  • Depth of field: At 34mm, the closest foreground objects were far enough away that depth of field wasn’t a concern
  • Light: The dynamic range separating the brilliant highlights in the sunlit clouds from the deep shade in the trees and river was extreme, with a very narrow margin for error

The blur effect I wanted would require at least a one second exposure time, so I dropped my ISO down to 50 (as low as it goes). Keeping my aperture at f/11, I dialed my shutter speed with an eye on the histogram—when the histogram indicated I’d pushed my highlights as far as I could without clipping, my shutter speed was 1 second. This gave me a the proper exposure with sufficient motion blur, but I decided a little more motion blur would be even better. To double the shutter speed to 2 seconds, I stopped down one stop to f-16 and tried one more frame. In this case the benefit of the extra motion blur far outweighed any diffraction and lost sharpness (which experience has shown e would have been minimal with my Sony 16-35 GM lens), so that’s the frame I selected.

Insanity is in the mind of the beholder

If landscape photography gives you what you want, then by all means, continue doing what you’re doing. But if you’re having a hard time achieving a photographic goal, the solution is likely not doing more of what you’re already doing. Instead, try reevaluating your comprehension of fundamental photographic principles that you might not have thought about for years (or ever). Get out of your camera’s auto exposure modes and take control of your scene’s variables. You’ll know you’re there when you know how to get the result you want, or know why it’s simply not possible.

Do I really think you’re insane for doing otherwise? Of course not. But I do think you’ll feel a little more sane if you learn to take more control of your camera.

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A World in Motion

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7 Comments on “Are you insane?

  1. yes. 🙂

    On Wed, Apr 11, 2018 at 11:28 AM, Eloquent Images by Gary Hart wrote:

    > Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart posted: ” This e-mail is the first edition of > this post. Click here to read the most current version. Are you insane? > Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but > expecting different results. Hmmm. For some reason this r” >

  2. Great post, Gary! I just forwarded this to Bob’s grandson who is just starting to get into photography. Suggested he subscribe to your blog. Told him you pretty much taught me everything I know (about photography, that is). Looking forward to seeing you next week.

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