Arrowrock Photography | WORKOUT SESSION: PLUS & MINUS


December 29, 2015  •  Leave a Comment


Life is anything but average in spite of what statisticians publish in easy-to-digest graphs and pie charts. A truly lived life is a series of g-force swerves and upheavals from one extreme to the next, from the moment of birth to our last breath. High to low and back to high again, racing across the barely registered center line of comfort and peace. Pendulum swings are what makes us tick, like clockwork. It's exhausting sometimes but makes for stories worth reading.
I'm told there's a pill for that, but you can't believe everything. Or anything.
Photography mirrors our raging penchant against stasis. Who wants to look twice at an average photograph? Instead, we strive for the edges of visual meaning - high hopes and impossible dreams, wrenching sorrow and draining despair, tingling excitement and sudden surprise, inevitable death and even more inevitable taxes, lasting love and life-altering romance. We avoid boring and flat like the Cleveland Browns and salt-free diets. 
Do you know that our cameras have a magic anti-average button? It doesn't get used nearly enough. It banishes boring and loves to push boundaries. It can make gray snow white again or the bad guy's murky hat truly black. It can enlighten a bride's smile or make Loki low-key.
The button works best in P (program), A or TV (aperture), or S (shutter) priority modes, and sometimes in M (manual) mode, depending on camera model. It has a little plus and minus on it and is called the exposure compensation button - a big name for a simple function.
It has a single purpose - to override the exposure meter's average reading and force it into more precipitous and exciting territory. For example, it's winter around here and there's lots of white, fluffy snow. The exposure meter reads the snow as 18% gray (the compiled average of visible tones from dark to light) and reduces exposure accordingly. Result, gray snow. To make the snow white again, the exposure compensation button can be adjusted up to +1.0 to +1.7 EV. Magic.
[Note: EV means exposure value.  +1.0 EV is the same as +1.0 stop.]
In manual mode (M), the same effect can be produced by directly adjusting shutter speed, aperture, or ISO up or down. The meter needle will no longer be centered, but will be notched to the left or right (each notch is 1/3 stop).
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to break out that camera manual you stuffed into the back of a drawer and read up on exposure compensation. This is an important step, so don't ignore it! Learn where the button is, what dial to spin to adjust EV, which readout to pay attention to. You'll be doing a lot of it over the next two weeks. A tip - set your camera up for 1/3 stop increments - your homework is to figure that out on your own. Then get used to muscle memory of "3 clicks equals one stop" as you practice in the wild.
Want a happier, brighter image? Plus EV. Want mood, mystery? Minus EV. Want photographic SSRI? Zero EV (not recommended for this exercise, but yes, it sometimes works). Do not, in any circumstance, get EV mixed up with ED. I cannot be responsible for what happens with those little pills.
The goal with this assignment is to develop a healthy mistrust of your camera's exposure meter, which is boring and built to be average. It's an accountant, not a designer. Instead, take creative control yourself and tell it what you'd rather see. On purpose, overexpose someone's face a half stop and don't worry if the background blows out a little. Underexpose a metered dark scene and give it gravitas. Experiment with plus and minus EV with every shot you take. Sometimes it will bring a photo to life; sometimes not. You'll develop a feel for what works for you and what doesn't.
If this is your cup of meat, you may end up doing some independent Google research with this one. If you run across the term "zone system" don't panic - read up on that too. You'll start seeing tones in terms of "over/under" or "plus & minus" and will develop an intrinsic ability to guess the proper exposure compensation for your desired creative effect. You'll train your camera to see tone the way you do, which is infinitely superior to an electronic meter.
When you post your images for this assignment, please add your camera data - shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and especially the EV value (like +0.33, -1.0, etc.). This is one of our rare technical assignments and exposure information will be valuable for others to understand your choice. 
PLUS & MINUS will run for two weeks, from Dec 30 through Jan 12. Happy New Year and even happier shooting!

"Leap into the boundless and make it your home!" - Chuang-Tzu
© 2015 Don Johnson



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