Blundering on photography.

I’m starting a journey to get good at photography again. Writing about my blunders on these pages gives me a way to look back and measure my progress.

Some of my OK images from the days of film.
Some of my OK photos made by accident rather than by design, from the days of negatives and viewing transparencies on a light table. At least 12 years before the design studio computer never mind digital photography.

Blunders are the best way to learn. The bigger they are the bigger the lesson. At the beginning they will be huge and I expect to learn lots. But when my photography gets to being OK the blunders will be harder to find and I’ll begin to have delusions that I’m good. That’s where I could get stuck. But I’m old enough now, I know better.

Years ago I took photographs as a part of my job and my photographs were OK. However a colleague, Lorne Gill, was working at becoming a great photographer and his OK images totally surpassed my OK images. So I stopped. Now I begin again.

This time I have it easier. With modern cameras I don’t have to understand light meters, I don’t have to set shutter speeds or apertures but most of all I don’t have to endure days of waiting before seeing the blunders in transparencies or prints. Digital kit has benefits.

At the beginning of such a journey it would be stupid of me not to accept help so I took up the offer of a free set of night classes with Kenneth Malcolm of kgm photography. Two main things he said to me were “Endeavour to make the image you see in your head, not the snap you see in front of the lens.” And “Get yourself off auto and round the mode dial until you’re able to use manual effectively.”

The camera modes on the body of my camera, auto, P, A, S, and M.
Take photographs exploring the mode dial: give up the AUTO setting and learn; (P) programme mode, (A) aperture priority mode, and (S) shutter priority mode until you’re able to use (M) manual mode to specifically make the image you want.

I took that to mean: give up AUTO and explore; P, A, and S until you’re able to use M to specifically make the image you want. So with my new camera that is what I have begun.

My new camera has buttons, switches, dials and rings that I can push, flick and twist. So I can learn by physically shifting the camera settings to try and transform the snap in front of me into the snap in my head. Tactile feedback and muscle memory help make a lesson stick. Ask any dancer or martial artist.

showing positions on my camera of the ring, switch and dials that adjust settings.
I use the ring, switch and dial along with the usual zoom and take a photograph button but there are more bits I have yet to figure out. And they can all be programmed to do different things as well. Lots to learn.

To make the image I see in my head I need to learn how to manipulate three things in a camera: How sensitive the image capture chip is to light (ISO); How wide or narrow the hole is that lets the light in (aperture); And the fraction of time I allow the light in (shutter speed). How I mix these three things will determine what specific image I get.

These three things are called the exposure triangle. I made an information graphic on the subject so I could get a better understanding.

The things I have to do in order to practice to learn are: First I have to figure out and set the correct exposure for the image I want. Then I have to take a lot of images of the same scene with the exposure triangle set differently each time. And finally for every image I take I have to keep the triangle in balance or I will change the exposure and ruin my photograph.

Balancing the three parts of the triangle is easy. The increments on all three parts of the triangle are such that going out a notch one way doubles the influence of light and going in a notch the other way halves the influence of light. Think of adjusting the holes in your belt while on the scales – making you twice as heavy or half as heavy every time you move it out or in a notch.

So in the triangle when I move one of the three options out a notch I must move one out of the other two remaining options in a notch to keep my exposure the same. For example; if you make the hole for the light to get in smaller by two notches then for balance you can simply make the shutter speed slower by two notches. More time for the light to get through a smaller hole works out to being the same amount of light hitting the sensor as previously.

This notch shifting of the exposure triangle affects my images in; blur, sharpness, fuzziness, shakiness, focus, how much is in focus, how much is a blur and the scene and exposure chosen always has a huge influence on all that. Now you know why I made the information graphic. And why I need to get out and practice.

I will probably get one image from any scene out of all my attempts close to what I had in mind, but it will be from my blunders that I’ll learn the most. And that’s what I did.

At the night class the first exercise I was set was to take a high contrast image. I used my wife’s pocket digital camera (I didn’t have my new one yet) and took a nice view of a path buried in shade from overhanging trees, like a tunnel. I set the exposure so I would get all the detail in the sunshine drenched leaves and branches at the far end. Too lazy to carry a tripod I upped the ISO to a high number so there would be no camera shake caused by a slow shutter speed. Smugly pleased with my care and understanding I took it as my chosen image to the class.

I was making my first blunder public. I showed the class where nice leaves and branches should have been but instead there was nothing but fuzzy blobs of colour. Theoretically it was all perfect. Correct exposure, a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake and carefully focussed. The tutor Kenneth Malcolm put it simply. The sensor on your wife’s pocket camera is just too small to handle high ISO settings and you’ve set it ridiculously high. Great.

composite image showing fuzziness caused by too high an ISO on an inadequate sensor.
This image shows the high 3200ISO (fuzzy as hell) and a 400ISO (shows some detail) to illustrate the difference. Both taken on my wife’s wee digital camera. The 3200ISO is blown up to its max so you can see why it was a blunder to set it so high on such a small camera.

So now I indelibly know that too high an ISO setting on a sensor creates noise, the visual equivalent of static in a radio broadcast.

One blunderful lesson learnt – loads more blunders to go.

One thought on “Blundering on photography.

  1. Hi Alan,

    Practice makes nae bad if not perfect and all photographs are fiction. First and foremost though, make images for yourself and what you find interesting.


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