Monday, March 3, 2014

Lessons from Photography



"Anticipation In Isaan"
I am too old and definitely too set in my ways to say that photography has taught me a great deal about life.  More likely my photography has been more influenced by my life experience and philosophy.  However, I am convinced that my photography experience has confirmed many of the lessons from my life.

I have written and I believe that although we inhabit the same planet, we live in different worlds.  Our individual worlds are formed and shaped by our perceptions of reality.  Our perceptions of reality are formed, shaped, as well as defined by our environment and more importantly by our individual life experiences.

Through the different prisms of our cultures we view the rest of the worlds outside of our comfort zones.  Our initial reaction when encountering something new or different is that it is not good.  Unfortunately for many people, the mere thought of encountering something new is enough deterrent to even seek new life experiences.

Last night, after attending a Theravada Buddhist funeral in an outlying small village here in Isaan, Duang and I attended a Morlam Lao show at a Wat near our home.  Duang's youngest brother stages and performs shows throughout the area.  Last night he was performing at a local Wat festival.  The festival which was being conducted in conjunction with Pha Wet or Phawet also was a fund raiser for the maintenance of the Wat (temple facilities).  We have attended many of these and always enjoy them.  I have hundreds of photographs of these events.  Despite having photographed all day with the temperature hitting 40 ... 40C (105F) and having so many photographs of Go-Go dancers getting dressed, applying their make-up, as well as performing, I brought along my camera gear - all 22 pounds in my nondescript backpack.

I went backstage, actually underneath the stage in an area enclosed by tarps, reserved for the performers.  I went to sit down and rest for the 1-1/2 hours before the start of the show.  I even told Duang who sat on the saht with me, that I was not going to be taking any pictures. Then, just as happens so often in life an opportunity was presented to me or I at least recognized a photographic opportunity.

One of the dancers had completed her preparations to the point where she decided to lay down in a hammock suspended from the scaffolding that supported the dance floor and bandstand above our heads.  While she lay in the hammock, she was using her smart phone.  The area underneath the stage was fairly dark, the only illumination being a very bright floodlight about 5 meters away pointed horizontally into the area so her face was essentially only illuminated by the light from her smart phone screen.

I really could not control the lighting of the area.  Just as in life, there are many things that you can not control.  The secret of life and photography is to control what you can control, not worry about what you can not control, and always ... make do with what you have.

I was fascinated by the lighting, shadows and mood created by the small amount of light form the dancer's phone.

I normally shoot in the aperture mode of my camera.  Digital cameras today have various modes in which they are programmed to take photographs.  Typically these modes include at least the following: Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Programmed, and Manual for any given photographer selected "film" speed (ISO setting).

In the Shutter Priority, the photographer selects the speed for the camera's shutter ( examples - 5 seconds, 1 second, 1/125 second , 1/2000 second) to operate at and the camera's electronics and software will automatically determine the aperture to create a "properly" exposed picture. "Properly" exposed is the camera's interpretation of the readings that it sensors are receiving and the results of the camera's microprocessors using those readings.  The result will be a picture where the mid of the subject matches or almost matches the mid tone of the photograph itself.

In the Aperture Priority, the photographer selects the size, f-stop, of the lens opening (examples - f-1.2, f-2.8,  f-22) for the camera to operate at and the camera's electronics and software will automatically determine the shutter speed to create a "properly" exposed picture. "Properly" exposed is the camera's interpretation of the readings that it sensors are receiving and the results of the camera's microprocessors using those readings.  The result will be a picture where the mid tone of the subject matches or almost matches the mid tone of the photograph itself.

The following is a photograph of the dancer with her phone.


Apeture Mode Picture - ISO 1600, 1/8th second, f2.8

What the ... ?  This is nothing like the scene that I described earlier in this blog!  I described and wrote about the scene from my perspective and sense of reality.  In this case my camera recorded the picture based upon its perspective and sense of reality.  My world and the camera's world are completely different!  In the case of the camera, its perspective is based upon the "reality" or if you prefer, the perception that "a properly exposed photograph is a picture where the mid tone of the subject matches or almost matches the mid tone of the photograph itself."  In this case, the camera lightened the entire scene up to achieve this result - a result that no where matched my reality.

This example also shows that the determination of a correct exposure is a subjective as well as well as interpretative exercise.  "Correct" is in the eye or experience of the beholder.  The camera interpreted this scene's exposure as "Correct" based upon its interpretation (programming) of proper.  My experience there last night convinces me that this exposure is wrong and no good.  So it happens everyday in our life - we make judgements and act on evaluations driven by our senses of reality.  Quite often in the case of cultural differences these judgements and actions are flawed and not justified.  Unlike errors in photography, errors related to cultures and our reactions to them often have disastrous consequences.

Since I selected the aperture reading of f2.8, and a "film speed" of 1600 the camera selected a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second to produce its interpretation of a properly exposed picture.  With my input of film speed and lens opening, the camera had no freedom other than to choose 1/8th of a second.  Besides not matching my reality (experience) of the scene, the selection of 1/8th of a second created another problem, a problem that dooms this picture.  The picture is blurred because of camera shake.  The shutter speed is too slow to avoid recording movement of the camera because of my hand movements.

So is the case in life, there are consequences, some bad as well as many being unintended, to the actions or decisions that we make.  In digital photography, the consequences are quickly revealed, quickly understood, and easily rectified.  In life it is seldom the case as in digital photography.

I decided to shoot the scene in manual mode, a mode that I am finding myself shooting in more and more frequently recently.  This is the old fashioned way, where the photographer selects shutter speed, lens opening and "film" speed to better capture their experience or to create a different reality of their choosing.

Manual Mode Photograph - ISO 800, 1/40th second, f2.8
I lowered the ISO setting because I wanted to reduce the "noise" in the photograph ("grain" in film prints - speckles).  I just f2.8 because I did not want sharply focused details to show in the background.  I was seeking a "shallow depth of field"  Just for the hell of it or perhaps from experience I selected 1/40th second as a shutter speed.  I knew that it was about the slowest speed that I was capable of hand holding the camera without camera shake showing up in the photograph.

For the shot, less was better.  Less exposure created a better photograph.  It captured my experience better.  As often in life, less can be more and more often than not it is enough.

Since we were both enjoying the shoot, I decided to use a remote flash to my equipment.  Still in the manual mode and setting the flash output manually I took some more photographs of the dancer.



The above example is not exactly what I saw, my experience, but is an acceptable reality or interpretation of the dancer and her phone only in this case I was not relying on her phone to illuminate the scene.  For this example I controlled the amount as well as direction of the illumination in the scene to take the photograph.  This is not always possible, in photography or in life, to control major elements; nor is it essential as shown in the previous example of just illumination from the phone.  The key to success to to recognize and control what you can control while at the same time being able to exploit and effectively utilize what you are unable to control.

Using programmed modes will very often give "acceptable" photographs all other things considered.  But is photography or even life all about being acceptable or "good enough"?  Is not the goal to be "extraordinary", to be better than before, to be diverse, to stand out?

In taking full control of your camera, the manual mode. you have the capability, the freedom, to be creative.  The ability to be different rather than just conform to someone else's standards or interpretations is possible when we take control and responsibility for our camera's settings.

For me the same is true in life.  There is so much more to life when you control and take responsibility for your life rather than relying upon others to do it for you.

These are lessons from photography.

1 comment:

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