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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