With any endeavor, what steps do you take to get started? Figuring out what comes first - chicken, egg, or wok isn't always easy.
Pants first, then shoes.
We've been revisiting back-to-basics themes for the past couple assignments. This one follows the same stream back up the canyon to the headwaters of creativity. Priorities matter, or so they say. Let's just see about that by twirling a certain dial on our cameras.
The one on top with the green thingy and a bunch of letters. More on that in a minute. But first a few words about priorities.
We prioritize with photography every day. There's the obvious first things first stuff like charged batteries, extra memory cards, and oh $%*&$% I forgot the tripod again. Priorities in the wrong order usually result in less than desirable consequences. We may want to make good photographs but if we set ISO too high, we get noise. Shutter speed too low, we get blur. Aperture too wide, Aunt Sally's elevated nose is out of focus.
Dear Aunt Sally is hard enough to please as it is, so nose focus is critical.
Although our cameras don't have an Aunt Sally mode, if we prioritize we may get lucky enough for her to not write us out of her will.
Ok, grab your camera and look at the mode dial on top (its usual location). You'll see AUTO in green, some letters, and maybe some hieroglyphics that make about as much sense as the etchings on the inside of the great pyramid. What mode is your dial set to now?
For this assignment, you can ignore everything on the dial except the following letters:
S (or Tv), A (or Av), and M.
Ignore the P - it's just AUTO on an ego trip. Let's say it stands for Politician (to make it easier to avoid).
That leaves us with SAM. SAM's first priority is to get us off AUTO almost permanently. If you've never shot with SAM before, she's about to become your best friend. And if you haven't shot in AUTO for years, jump in and help the new Sammies. SAM I am!
S (or Tv) is shutter priority mode. You set the shutter speed and the camera will figure out aperture for you, as well as ISO when needed. If you set a slower shutter speed in S mode, aperture will automatically stop down by an equal and opposite amount so that you get the same exposure.
A (or Av) is aperture priority mode. Same deal as before, except this time you set your desired aperture and the camera does the rest of the heavy lifting. Opening up aperture will automatically select a faster shutter speed to match exposure.
Both S and A are highly useful priority modes in changing light. If shutter speed is critical to your situation (a track meet, for example), dial up S and set a fast shutter speed to stop all motion. If aperture is more important (you want shallow depth of field), A mode is a great go-to.
[TIP: If your camera's ISO is set to auto, turn if OFF. Yes, there are good reasons for ISO AUTO, but treat them as exceptions and only turn it on when absolutely necessary.]
But wait... there's one more priority mode - M for Manual.
"Now wait a minute" I can hear some of you yelling in the back row - "M is not a priority mode!" And I'll shout back "It most certainly is" while dodging the tomatoes and bottles. I don't wear this poncho and catcher's mask for nothing.
M is a priority mode and here's why - M mode makes YOU the priority. M stands for MASTER, you see. It puts all exposure choices right back where they belong - under your own creative control instead of letting the machine guess at what it thinks is right. Which it often isn't, by the way. If it was right all the time, there would be no need for an Exposure Compensation button. One major downside of depending on S and A modes too much is that you'll be twiddling that EC button/dial all the time. Extra credit if you can figure out why.
M is the best priority mode of all. In M mode, you have to figure out shutter speed, aperture, and ISO independently with no help from the camera's AI. Changing one will have no effect on another. You look at the light meter, figure out whether you want to zero it out, shoot brighter at +1 (hey, snow is white again!) or go -1 to match the dark and moody nightly news. And you have to know, on the fly, which makes more sense to adjust - shutter speed, aperture, or ISO.
M mode has a downside too - it's harder. At first. You often have to tease the magic out of a meter reading to nail that perfect exposure. The meter is lazy, and will try to tell you everything is 18% gray and boring. You'll have to fight for the extremes where the exciting stuff lives. Don't like the meter's zero-centered exposure? Push or pull your settings until shadows lift or midtones fade to black. You rule your photographic world. Prioritease.
So... the assignment in a nutshell is this:
Shoot in each of the 3 priority modes, on purpose, for a specific reason. With each photo you post, state which priority mode you used and why. Stories are always welcome; share what you learn.
IDEAS FOR PRIORITEASE:
PRIORITEASE will run for two weeks, from Jan 30 through Feb 12. Happy shooting!
Last assignment, it was dark in the beginning. Then a light was switched on. Photographers sat up and took notice, raced out their cave doors to buy film, along with iguana eggs and yak milk, then scattered across the globe to record everything everywhere.
Right off the bat, one of them said, "It's all about the light" and the race was on. The faithful said "Ooooooh" and almost immediately started hairsplitting arguments about the nature and behavior of light - natural versus artificial light, incident versus reflected light, hard versus soft light and so on and so on. We've seen all the YouTube videos and read all the books, some of which were great, others meh, and a few with way too many footnotes. Our time on earth is short enough, so let's boil light down to some basic characteristics that matter to us today when we're pointing a lens at something. In fact, let's cover only one this time.
But before we get started with this assignment, let's do a couple "look versus see" experiments. Step right outside your door; we don't have to go far. Regardless of whether it's sunny or cloudy, take note of where the sun is (it will be the brightest part of the sky). We'll call this "incident light." Then look around and note everything you see - sky, hills, houses, trees, roads, snow, walls, grass, sagebrush, more snow, your dog pulling your niece across the beach, and so on, and snow. All these things are visible because of only one attribute of light - reflection. Wavelength is absorbed or rejected by the atomic structure of these objects and determines the color of "reflected light."
After your neighborhood object scan, do it one more time, paying attention to the angle of reflected light.
Light has a number of interesting characteristics - it travels at a fixed rate in a single direction and rapidly falls off in intensity. It bounces off surfaces at exactly the same angle of the strike. It refracts into colors through a prism and is absorbed and/or reflected depending on the elemental makeup of the reflective surface. A large light source casts a softer shadow than a small light source. Stuff like that.
So why start with angle? Understanding incident and reflected light angle helps us locate the sweet spot where light behaves most elegantly.
When we're asked to shoot a portrait of someone, for example, what do we consider first? Location, right? We find a beautiful or striking setting and plop our subject into it. We adjust some camera settings and fire away, maybe with natural light, or by adding some additional help. And results vary, don't they?
But what if we don't care about location? Instead, what if we place more value on what the light is actually doing, and find the one spot where it behaves elegantly, then set up the shot there instead? These spots are easily overlooked, but become apparent as we begin to understand how light behaves.
Let's say we've taken Matilda to the park for her senior photos. We find a lush grassy area with some tall dark trees in the background. Maybe even a natural shade line to have her step into. Matilda sits, poses, elbows in the grass - beautiful shot! We might open up our aperture wide and get some pretty bokeh to set her off. We're happy. We even used a reflector, just like the other 88 photographers in the same park that day. So we must be doing it right.
But since we've shot for location instead of light we failed to notice a drastic (and common) problem. Because of light's perfectly predictable angle of reflection, the incident light struck the grass, absorbed some of the green cast, and bounced it right back up into Matilda's neck and chin. Oops. Green skin.
Matilda does not like her green skin.
So we take Matilda back to the park for a reshoot. But this time we don't care so much about location. Instead, we're looking for reflected light that complements her skin tones. We spy a light colored building nearby. It's in the park but lacks the lush grass we found earlier. We don't care. Filtered sunlight is bouncing off the wall at a 30 degree angle. We set Matilda up next to the wall in just the right spot (paying attention to the reflected angle) to catch the wall light, which is acting like an expensive and huge softbox. She turns slightly into the camera where the shadows are buttery soft and the incident sunlight makes the perfect backlight through her hair. Oh. What a difference.
This way of seeing doesn't just work for Matilda and her friends; it works for anything we shoot. By taking the time to do a 360 examination of the light, where it's coming from and its reflection angles, as well as the resulting colors, can make a huge difference in what we consider to be photo-worthy. Location is nice, but should take a backseat to angles of light reflection.
In a nutshell, the assignment is this - study the source of light, see everything it reflects from or passes through, ask how it mutates with each direction change, then use your knowledge of angle to create photographs based on light behavior rather than location. Sounds easy, right? If you're lucky, yes. But chances are it will take some retraining in how to see a scene. Remember, it's all about the light, not about the stuff that gets in its way.
IDEAS FOR ATTENTION ANGLERS!:
ATTENTION ANGLERS! will run from Jan 14 through Jan 29.
In the beginning was nothing, not even a spark of light for photographers to point lenses at. What on earth did they do? Spend more time in the darkroom, fumbling around with primordial chemicals and coming up with arcane theories about what light would be like if they could only see it? Things like zone theory and the inverse law, for example. In their spare time they codified everything and often made a grand mess of it. Some of them got so good at it they left to create the IRS, insurance companies, and Applesoft. But that's another story.
So let's start over.
In the beginning was nothing. The Lightmaker said "let there be light... and it was good."
Close enough. We can work with this abridged version.
Note that our Lightmaker made no mention of bad or mediocre light - it was all good. Previously, Darkness had the run of the place since before time was invented, so imagine the shock and awe that light must have caused with her sweet entrance onto the Great Dance Floor.
One swoosh and a swirl and paparazzi were instantly legion.
But let's back up yet again. In our photographic mythology, light requires a source, so the Lightmaker created an orb, a sphere which emits electromagnetic radiation, some of which we call light. Let's call it Orb A. Or as we know it, the sun.
But light is useless without a receptor - someone or some thing to receive and appreciate its existence. Darkness wasn't about to stand up and applaud, being so rudely upstaged, so some other mechanism was required. The Lightmaker solved this dilemma by creating Orb B, the eyeball.
Now isn't that interesting - two orbs, the simplest shapes to exist. One orb to transmit, the other orb to receive, each requiring the other, and the result is constant astonishment.
At any rate, we now have a handy, simple equation.
oA + oB = astonishment
The astonishing part for me is basic - neither light nor eyeballs have any function on their own; each requires the other. But put them together and... wow. Fireworks.
Oh yeah, we were going to make this practical, weren't we? Here's how.
Let's start with the Orb we all know so well - the sun. And let's use our B orbs to register Orb A's emitted light, whether it's incident or reflected. Then, knowing that we are part of the primal creative equation, start making decisions about how to make light behave. This orb-to-orb transfer business gives us enormous creative power, once we get cameras in our hands.
For this assignment, stay as simple as possible and dispel any notion of good or bad light. If light has no such inherent qualities, it's our own psychology that's providing them. Photograph light and its effects, but do so with a bright mind and a brilliant heart, as naturally as possible. If the light's "bad" figure out how to make it "good." The creative response and process is 100% internal. It's sort of like putting on glasses backwards, or standing on one's head, but understanding that light is as much internal as it is external can be the juice that turns a snapshot into a photograph.
If this allegory doesn't work for you, go back to your own roots. In the beginning was nothing. What happened next?
2017 is a good year to explore light and its myriad secrets. It will be a fun ride. Today we start at the beginning. Again.
Ideas for BEGIN AGAIN:
BEGIN AGAIN will run for two weeks, from Jan 2 through Jan 15.
It's music season, with lots of semiquavers, flagged flats, and accidentals rattling from car speakers and desktop radios. There's Leonard's major lift, Gruber's famous not-so-silent thirds, and Robert Burns' unforgettable "fair use" of an auld folke song.
But let's settle in on just one musical attribute today - the semibreve.
The semibreve is the musical notation for a whole note, the longest note now in common use. Anyone can sing or play a whole note, so it's very inclusive, safe and warm, and good for warding off all these frosty nights. Raise a glass and sing.
The week between Christmas and New Year's Day could be considered a semibreve, a time to take a deep breath before diving headlong back into the daily tempo of hemidemisemiquavers (otherwise known as 64th notes). This week is a good time to reflect, retrieve good memories, deeds, and successes, and to discard conflicts, miscues, and stumbles before considering new resolutions to break. The semibreve is our private period of wholeness.
Therefore, there's no official "assignment" except to be at ease, to consider the photographic journey we've taken the past 12 months, to share some unseen images if we're so inclined, and to tap our tuning forks to listen for the tones of 2017. It's a time to be wholly open to revisiting our best and worst photos from 2016, and to imagine what we'll create during the next 12 months.
This assignment will be shorter than usual - less than a week - as the clock is reset for the new year. New Photo Assignments (as well as Circle of Confusion topics) will be posted on the first and third Mondays of each month, so they'll now both sync up. Look for them at approximately midnight every other Sunday night / Monday morning. And whenever possible, there will be a tighter link between PA and CoC topics.
2016 was the year of NIA, the ineffable, the inner landscape. 2017 will continue our upward journey but with renewed focus on practical matters too (not that the ineffable isn't practical, mind you). We may see more hands-on projects like Tinfoil Hat and extra events like Coffeetalkenwalks that everyone can participate in. And as usual, we'll throw down a few jazz notes just because we can.
Meanwhile, be semibreve. May all your notes be harmonious.
SEMIBREVE will run for five days, from Dec 28 until Sunday, Jan 1, 2017.
It's December, and we've arrived at the gates of our own Bethlehem after a yearlong journey of inward-focusing photo assignments. There has been an underlying theme, you see, a reason for all of them. Remember ostranyenie, touched in the head, hidden, mumble tracks, memory leak, heavy light, or the one that whacked almost everybody - photosynthesis? The thread that held them all together, the map that led us here, is the ineffable, the unlabeled, the presence of the present. It's the "it" that's virtually impossible to put into words, yet we employ thousands of them in its pursuit. Aren't we an odd persevering lot?
When we're touched by the oneness of wonder, we know it, don't we? We feel connected, in tune, in awe of what is. But when we try to describe it to someone else, it never translates well, does it? It's ironic - wonder is a direct connection to All That Is and a uniquely private affair at the same time. It's like sticking a fork into an electrical socket - now that's a direct experience that can't be shared because you're paralyzed! Later, you could describe it to someone but they'd have zero clue until they did it themselves. No doubt that's why some kind, sharing genius invented the taser.
Lens People have a big advantage when it comes to sharing and spreading the sense of wonder. Photographs don't need words or explanations to directly transmit a feeling, a mood, a concept, a message without interference from one soul to another. Photographs bypass our addiction to language, especially our modern dialects so infected with misdirection, double entendre, propaganda, and dilution. A camera fully sees What Is, simply and without comment. Our goal is to see that same way - judgment free, witnessing each moment as a brand new act of creation, and to facilitate that awareness to someone else. The more we get out of our own way, the more the Way is revealed.
There is an apropos Latin phrase that sheds some light on our condition as we approach our annual season of reflection and renewal. It goes like this:
"Nascantur in admiratione."
Loosely translated, it becomes "Let them be born in wonder."
Doesn't that describe what we're seeking? We see it often in babies and young children as they discover something greater than themselves for the first time. And if we haven't killed off our own curiosity and openness, we occasionally experience such expansion in ourselves, too. But it needs constant care and feeding, and as we age it becomes easier to forget where we left the watering can.
To be born is to be willing to trust, love, and care - and wonder is the environment in which trust, love, and care thrive. Sounds like the perfect soil for photography, right? Do we trust what we see, love what we do, and care about the outcome?
We are all too aware of how badly the world craves more wonder at the moment. Let's give birth to it with our cameras. Find it where it lives; let it lure us out of our own shadows into the light. As we temporarily turn off the medium of language - tv, radio, magazines, papers, internet - we will find wonder still beating beneath the noise. Wonder hasn't left us; it's we that wander. Be still, quiet, waiting, and relieved of the stress of thinking. Watch, observe, feel, and listen at rest. Then click the shutter as wonder sidles up behind you and kisses you on the cheek.
Merry Christmas, one and all. Unwrap your present of presence.
NASCANTUR IN ADMIRATIONE will run for two weeks, from Dec 14 through Dec 27.