Vision-Driven Exposure: A Clarification

In The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Tutorials &Technique by David11 Comments

I wanted to follow up on my article about how I expose, to clarify a few things. If you’ve read that article, read on. If not, you might want to read it first.

To make a few things clear, my last post was not a dismissal of craft. Craft has its place. Excellence matters. But there’s this thing about people that hold to craft as though it is the end itself, the goal, and not merely a means to something more: they have a tough time moving on when there’s a better way. Digital photography has no different a goal than film photography did. The means to get there is, or can be, increasingly different. I cut my teeth on films like Tri-X and T-Max and Velvia and I’m pretty sure if you send my blood to the lab you’d find traces of developer and fixer still in there from the hours I spent in the darkroom in my basement. So when I suggest that I don’t use a light meter anymore, but instead get to my exposures through a different path, it’s not for ignorance of the old ways, it’s for choosing a path more appropriate to the new technology.

I don’t see any honour in clinging to your ability to use a light meter if there’s no reason to do so. You might have those reasons. But many of us no longer do. I understand the zone system. There are exceptional photographers who have never heard of it. They still make great photographs. And I know how to spot meter; I just don’t need to know how to do so in order to make the photographs I make. Nor do I see a reason to burden my students with it if their cameras don’t demand it. The goal is to make an exposure that is both excellent and expressive in it’s final form: the print. The goal, at least digitally, is the best digital negative. And when compromises are needed, to know enough to make those compromises well. A histogram is a different way of looking at the light and making a decision about how to best use it.

We’ll all make much better photographs if we love our photographs more than we love our tools.

Use the tool appropriate to your needs. If that’s a histogram, then understand it. Be comfortable with it. Make sure it doesn’t get in your way. One of the things I should have been more clear about in my first article is that this way of doing things wouldn’t have been possible while I was using DSLR cameras. The lack of in-viewfinder histograms and an ability to see my exposure in real time, would have taken me too far out of the moment. If you’re thinking I make a frame on my DLSR, chimp through to look at the histogram, then put the camera back to my eye, you’re dead wrong, and I was less-than-clear. Nothing is more important to me than staying in the moment. Not even a perfect exposure. If your camera lets you do both, great – mine does – but if it doesn’t, use the best tool for the job, and that’s probably still metering traditionally.

If you’re thinking I make a frame on my DLSR, chimp through to look at the histogram, then put the camera back to my eye, you’re dead wrong, and I was less-than-clear. Nothing is more important to me than staying in the moment.

There’s a danger with blogs to read one article as though it were the sum total of the author’s thoughts on a subject. No reader is going to read the entire archives to see if something is more fully expressed elsewhere. And no author is going to re-hash years of writing just to be sure he’s going to be perfectly understood. I’ve written often on the need for excellence in craft. You have to know how to expose a photograph. You have to understand the medium and the tools. But when new technology comes along, like mirrorless cameras with in-viewfinder histograms, then the way we get to that final photograph can change. New wine for new wineskins as another teacher once put it.

In the end I love my craft but it’s only a means to achieving a thing I love more – the photograph. Do that in whatever way allows you to create something that shows me the world in a new way, that makes my pulse quicken and sparks my imagination. Use a light meter or don’t. Use a point and shoot digital camera or a 4×5 field camera. No one cares how you got there when they’re experiencing depth and beauty in your work. We’ll all make much better photographs if we love our photographs more than we love our tools.

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  1. David, you articulate my thoughts so clearly and so often, I sometimes wonder if you’re writing from inside my head.

    One of the camera clubs I belong to has two meetings a month dedicated to judging and critiquing images. One of the critiques that is too-frequently offered: “You’ve lost detail in the shadows” or “You’ve clipped the highlights” as if black black and white white are unacceptable in an image. I like dark shadows in my images – sometimes. And I like blown-out highlights, sometimes.

    Last summer I sold my Canon gear and moved to Fuji – based on the recommendations of several photographers I respect; you are one of those photographers. I’m so happy I made that change. I like working with my camera, not against. I like the way the Fuji can either get out of my way because everything is so simple to access, but that I also have the option of using it more like a high-tech tool, playing with all the settings.

    Your images and stories inspire me and I share them with the photography classes I teach. Thank you for helping me find my vision and workflow, and voice of artistic expression.

  2. Would it be really crass to yell “yessssssss” and throw in a fist pump? I read your first piece, and now this. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Over and over I tell people: it’s a tool. I dare anyone to look at a really stunning photograph and say, “yupper, that was definitely a Lumix shot, right there”. Or “Wow, that has Nikon stamped all over it!” Or Fuji, or Canon, or whatever. To be truly Canadian about it…did anyone ever care who made Gretzy’s hockey stick???

    It’s really important to know what I want to achieve from my photo; am I trying to create a sun-scorched earth sensation, or a feeling that all that is missing is a boat to cross the River Styx? Is it a sense of thundering awe, or a pensive moment of silence?

    If my photo is poorly composed and not well thought it, worse still, if my photo has nothing to say…then all the tools in the world won’t make a bit of difference.

    Thanks again. I like the sensibility you bring to this craft.

  3. Wait, wait, wait… This quote brought me up short: “The lack of in-viewfinder histograms and an ability to see my exposure in real time, would have taken me too far out of the moment.” This is precisely what I’m looking for in a new camera. This may sound ridiculous, but this is one of the reasons I prefer my phone these days over a DSLR, and now that said DSLR has crashed and burned, I can’t wait to replace it with something else, even if I have to buy a point and shoot until I can afford to invest in a “real” mirrorless system. No idea what that’s going to be in my price range of $0-99, though! 😀

  4. I guess for some it makes sense to be able to quantify how much they know about the art which they mistake to being same as craft. I know all of these tech stuff and non of my peers know what light metering is makes me ‘better’ than them kind of thought process. It makes some happy because they can put fingers on something almost tangile and tell how much they know whereas the thought process of the art as you talk so often (thankfully refreshing) is felt. It can’t be touched or quantified until it’s really touching or connecting. As you and most of greats keep telling us excellence in craft will take us all to same level after a point, what will differentiate us among millions is our own unique voice.

  5. David,
    can you please explain better how you do it?
    I have difficulties in combining this two statements from the last posts…
    “So I looked at my histogram and pushed it until the shadows had plenty of detail and then looked at the highlight warnings (the blinks)…”
    “If you’re thinking I make a frame on my DLSR, chimp through to look at the histogram, then put the camera back to my eye, you’re dead wrong, and I was less-than-clear”
    I can see the live histogram on my XT1 and if there are clippings, but as to where in the image those highlights or shadows are actually clipped I can only guess, unless I make a frame, review in that tiny little review mode then shoot again.
    Am I missing something?

    1. Author

      No, you aren’t missing something, Arnaldo. There’s an advantage in having done this a long time, and I think sometimes I overlook that. Yes I look at the histogram in the viewfinder, but I mostly guess, based on experience and the scene in front of me which highlights will be blown. The first shot then confirms that (or doesn’t), but that preview image is also in the viewfinder, so it’s a quick check that doesn’t require me to pull my face from the camera.

  6. The light bulb just went on for me. Thank you so much for the clarification. I have a Canon 20D that as I’m sure you’re aware, provides the histogram but not in camera. So I have to raise and lower, raise and lower to see that histogram which is rendered very tiny on the back screen. Now I get what you’re talking about.

  7. In college, shortly after the earth cooled, my main photography instructor demanded we removed the battery from our 35mm cameras so we had no access to a built in light meter. This was near disaster to our classmates who used a Canon AE-1. But the instructor, Joseph Costa, explained we needed to develop our sense for light. We need to see it and feel it. Our first and best light meter should be our eyes. One over the ISO at f/16 is the sunny day rule of thumb. With a little thought you can extrapolate other exposure situations. With practice you can walk inside almost anyplace and set exposure that will be pretty darn close. At first most of the exposures were all over the place ranging from near blank film to burt up beyond measure. But slowly everyone developed the sense of light. By the end of the semester most could go it alone with confidence. Like any endeavor it takes time, practice, confidence and a willingness to fail every once in a while.

  8. David,
    This is my first time to post a comment to you. Being relatively new to photography, I’ve decided, for the most part, to not listen to the equipment gurus and just shoot what speaks to me. This is what has attracted me to you and your writing. When I’m considering making a photograph, the last thing on my mind right or wrong is my histogram. I shoot in Manual mode and typically will make my first shot at the settings the camera gives me for a “properly exposed” image. Then I start adjusting knowing I’m going to make, according to the camera, an improperly exposed image. It may take multiple attempts but eventually I find the image that speaks to me and touches me. It’s an incredibly moving moment when I see “the image” and I’ve often been moved to tears to see what I captured. Some may roll their eyes over a comment like that but these “moments” are what drive me to be a better photographer. Thank you for your continued inspiration.

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