Finding your camera’s “truth”

Gossamer Twilight, Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur

Something I teach, write, and lecture on frequently (ad naseum?) is the photographer’s obligation to understand, not fight, the camera’s vision. Some people seem to get this; others, not so much. So I’ve decided to try a slightly different tack.

Visual “Truth” is relative

Without getting too philosophical, it’s important to understand that, like your camera, your view of the universe is limited and interpreted. In other words, there is no absolute visual truth. Instead, we (you, me, and our cameras) each have our own view of the world that’s based on many factors–some we can control, others we can’t. When you look through a viewfinder, the more you turn off your visual biases and understand your camera’s, the more successful your photography will be.

Limited vision

Before lamenting your camera’s limitations, pause to consider that what you and I see is incredibly limited as well. The visible (to the human eye) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is a minuscule part of the infinite continuum of electromagnetic radiation bombarding each of us, every instant of every day. For example, X-ray machines “see” waves in the one nanometer (one billionth of a meter) range; TVs and radios “see” waves that are measured in centimeters; humans, on the other hand, only see waves between (about) 400 and 750  nanometers.

Using this knowledge, astronomers peer into space with tools designed to see objects at wave lengths invisible to us. X-rays allow doctors to view bones hidden beneath opaque skin, and night vision technology uses “invisible” (to us) infrared radiation (heat) to see objects complete darkness. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, there’s no single absolute visual standard–it’s all relative to your frame of reference.

The camera has its own frame of reference. While it records more or less the same visible spectrum our eyes do, the camera is missing an entire dimension: depth. Not only that (since we’re not talking about movies here), a camera only returns a snap of a single instant. And we all know about limited dynamic range and depth of field.

Despite these differences, photographers often go to great lengths to force their camera to record what their eyes see. Not only is this impossible, it doesn’t take advantage of the camera’s ability to see things in ways we don’t.

Interpreted vision

Our visual input is interpreted before we perceive it, in much the same way a camera’s input is processed before it’s output (to a monitor, printer, or whatever). Visual processing happens in our brain, which makes adjustments for things like color temperature, perspective, motion, and so on.

Likewise, every photograph must be processed (interpreted) in some way before it can be viewed, either by the camera (if camera gives you a jpeg or tiff), or by the photographer, using Photoshop or some other processing software.

Visual synergy

In most ways, the eye’s ability to capture light exceeds that of even the best cameras. On the other hand, the camera does do a few things our eyes can’t do: In the image above, captured a year ago at Pfeiffer Beach on the Big Sur coast, I used my camera’s ability to accumulate light to reveal things that, while invisible to my eye, were still quite real.

According to the EXIF data (try getting your eye/brain to record that), the sun had set twenty minutes prior, but my camera was still able to see in the limited light. This twenty second exposure revealed more detail than my eye registered. In doing so it smoothed the surf into a gauzy mist, and captured reflected color lost in my visual darkness.

Another thing I really like about my camera’s take on this scene is the way it reveals the transition of light and color as the view moves away from the sun. Though the eye does register it, our brains, influenced by the subconscious misperception that a cloudless sky is a uniform sky, often overlook subtle differences like this. But capture it in an image and the transition is both striking and beautiful.

So what about the blurred water?

People who criticize blurred water images for being “false” because that’s not the way water is, completely miss the point (I won’t get into the whole cliché argument here, which has more validity). My question to them is, how would you choose to capture water? (It’s a trick question.) When they answer frozen sharp, I ask them how many times they’ve actually seen a wave or water droplet suspended in midair. (Checkmate.)

The point is, a still camera simply “sees” motion differently than we do. Rather than holding our images to an unattainable human standard, we should feel free to appreciate and convey our cameras’ unique perspective. In this Pfeiffer Beach scene, I like the way smoothing the water to an ethereal gauze more accurately conveys the inviting mystery of the sea.

What is real?

Is this image real? While it’s nothing like what I saw, it’s still a very accurate rendering of my camera’s reality. Understanding my camera’s vision enabled me to share a perspective that expands my limited vision and transcends human reality. Pretty cool.

Just another day at the office

Gary Hart Photography: Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur, California

Sunset, McWay Fall, Big Sur, California
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
Canon 17-40mm f/4L USM
3 2/3 seconds
F/11.0
ISO 400

As some readers know, fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I partner on many workshops, donating our time as co-leaders for each other’s trips. On a recent trip Don and I stood on a bluff at sunrise gazing at the Big Sur Coast (or was it sunset overlooking Yosemite Valley?) and reminded ourselves of all the people idling in traffic or confined in a cubicle, and how fortunate we are to do what we do for a living.

Not only do photo workshops allow me to see and photograph great stuff, they give me the opportunity to learn from the diverse perspectives of dedicated photographers from every hemisphere on Earth and virtually every state in America. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). One workshop included a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon.

Sometimes the education I gain from this eclectic mix of professions, preferences, and personalities is simply an insight or point-of-view that helps me better understand or inform future workshop participants. And sometimes my education is a bit more, uh, “esoteric.” On the day I captured this image of McWay Fall in Big Sur, I got a little of both.

This was a couple of years ago, on the first day of Don’s spring Big Sur workshop. Driving to the workshop’s first shoot we hadn’t been on the road five minutes when it was discovered my backseat featured a sex therapist and a gynecologist. Uh-oh. While they seemed quite excited by their mutual interest, I was uncertain that the other passengers shared the doctors’ outspoken zeal for the subject and did my best to deflect the conversation into more benign territory. But the doctors were not to be deterred. We spent the duration of the drive listening to these experts compare notes in graphic and excruciatingly uncensored detail. Topics ranged from, uh, well let’s just say we covered everything from oysters to “When Harry Met Sally.” Much to my relief, and after fifty minutes without exhaling, I pulled into the parking area at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with a car-full of laughing (and, it turns out, just a little better informed) passengers. Phew.

Amazingly, it turned out that the drive wasn’t even the most memorable part of the afternoon. That honor goes to the sunset, which I was fortunate enough to capture in today’s image. When we arrived at the view of McWay Fall, the sun was behind a cloud bank that painted land, sea, and sky matching gray. But successful photography is often not as much about what’s happening now as it is about what’s going to happen later. And few opportunities excite me more than watching the sun slip from the clouds just before it completes its dash for the horizon–exactly what was in store this evening.

Don and I rallied the troops and told them not to be deceived by the flat scene, to prepare for a sudden and dramatic change in the color and light when the sun popped from behind the clouds. We told everyone that the display wouldn’t last long and encouraged them to forego the current moment and search for a composition that would work when “the moment” happened. With about ten minutes to pick a spot, refine our compositions, and ready our cameras, I ended up working with about half the group at this location. Don stationed himself with the rest of the group a couple hundred feet up the trail.

After getting everyone situated, I opted for this wide shot that used the fall and sun to balance the frame. To reduce the contrast between the sky and foreground I stacked two graduated neutral density filters (totaling five stops); to get the starburst effect I stopped down to f18. Because everyone in my group was ready and comfortable enough with their camera, we were all able to capture our own version of this special moment.

I’m afraid Don wasn’t so fortunate. Most of his group was successful, but with little warning one of his people decided that this very moment was the absolute best time to learn the manual metering techniques Don and I had covered in our orientation. Despite suggestions from Don (and stronger “urgings” from her husband) to shoot the way she’s most comfortable now and defer the learning to later, she insisted that now is the time to crack the manual metering puzzle.

To Don’s credit, he passed his opportunity at this magic moment to work with her. So while Don didn’t get his shot (kind of the photographer’s equivalent of taking one for the team), we did come away with a great cautionary tale we now spin to all of our workshop participants: Practice, practice, practice, when everything’s static, but when the magic happens, always, always, always revert to what’s most comfortable.

All in all, a very educational (and productive!) day. I don’t remember the drive back up the coast that night, but given the sunset we’d witnessed I’m pretty sure the primary topic was photography. Over the course of the workshop our woman did in fact learn manual metering (as she has demonstrated in subsequent workshops), and Don will forever be able to tell people about “the one that got away.” I, on the other hand, learned how long I can hold my breath.

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