Photography – the art of compromise (#2)

Ripples #1 & #2

In my last post in this series I suggested that it is easier to be creative with a camera when you aren’t too focused on technical considerations. It is, however, important to understand how your equipment works.  In this post I will discuss the technical nature of photography a little more.

There are some brilliant websites around that describe how camera’s work, what controls are available to us and what effects we can produce with different settings on the camera. One that I highly recommend is http://www.photonhead.com/ . In particular I love the ‘SimCam’ on this website. It is a way of playing with settings and seeing how they affect the results. If you are unsure about the whole shutter speed/aperture/’film’ speed dance then you will find this site very helpful.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, I will assume a basic understanding of how a camera works. The creative controls available to a photographer are dictated by the settings on the camera (shutter speed, aperture, ISO), the behavior and lighting conditions of the subject itself, the technical limits of your equipment, the lens on your camera (which you may or may not be able to change), and the possibility of using peripheral equipment such as filters, flash etc. It seems like a long list. It is quite overwhelming to be faced with the sum total of all the creative potential a good set of equipment holds. It’s exciting, yes, but it can also be very distracting. It’s a bit like learning to drive a manual car. At first every gear change is a conscious act. It takes time to develop unconscious competence.

So today I want to make one very simple, vital observation about the technical side of photography. Whether it is unfamiliar and therefore demands a lot of attention, or whether you have spent a lot of time with your camera and reached a point where you don’t have to think consciously about every technical decision, one essential truth remains. Every decision you make when shooting will involve compromise. You will be continually called upon to choose between opposing considerations.

Here is an example. When you increase your aperture, you reduce the depth of field. So if you want a nice blurry background then you will choose a larger aperture. the result of this, however, is that you will have to increase your shutter speed or decrease your ISO or both. So what if you want some motion blur in your subject as well as an out of focus background? Then you will have to compromise. A lot of the technical decisions you make will be in favour of one effect over another. The more you shoot, the better you will get at making these decisions.

The photos in this post (which you will have seen before individually  if you follow this blog) show two different choices made at the same location. If your subject is not fleeting, I highly recommend trying a few different variations of the same shot. Here the choice is between different points of focus. Each shot has merit. In my first attempt the camera focused on the reflection of the tree. After considering my result I adjusted the settings so that the ripple was in focus. I prefer the second shot, but feel they both have merit. Changing one setting has produced two very different interpretations of the subject.

It is helpful to understand that the creative controls in a camera – shutter speed, depth of field, sensitivity to light (ISO), focus, lens etc, all interact. For every action we take to produce a particular effect there is also a reaction. So if you are deciding how to set your controls, choose the effect that is most important to you, and be willing to accept the consequences. It reminds me of life!

I will leave you with this thought. No doubt I will revisit this concept in future posts.

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