Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online

Do You Comb Your Face? 
Why are we afraid to ask the most basic questions?

I was grumpily standing in a long baggage check-in line in Newark International Airport. It had already taken two hours and two train connections to get here. 

I looked at my watch and did the math. Another two and a half hours before my flight, which would take seven hours to get me to Madrid. A three hour layover there, followed by an hour flight across Spain to Valencia, and another hour in the car to get to my hotel. With any luck I'd be able to rest for a bit before I was off to our first meeting after 16 to 17 straight hours of planes, trains and automobiles.

Pondering this I made a mental note to strangle the next person who innocently observed "It must be wonderful to travel so much on business!"

When I looked up from my watch I noticed the tired looking woman standing in front of me with a little girl clutching her hand. Mom had a beaten look that only someone traveling with a small child can manage. But the little girl was wearing the look kids get when they're just dying to ask a question that may get them in trouble.

I like kids. We're about the same maturity level. So I gave her a smile and a little wave, which was all the encouragement she needed.

"Where are you going?"

"Spain, how about you?"

"We're going to England where they have a Queen."

I observed that England was a pretty cool place and asked if she thought she'd see the Queen while she was there.

"No we're going to see my Daddy, he's working there now." Her answer was delivered in a tone of voice that clearly indicated my question had been quite silly. Mom was looking at her now, obviously worried what her daughter might say next. Not one to disappoint, she screwed a deadly serious look onto her face and asked, "Do you comb your face."

Mom's expression was one of sheer terror and she instantly started to apologize. I just laughed and said I thought it was a perfectly sensible question. As a matter of fact you have to treat a beard just like your hair. You shampoo it, dry it, and even run a comb through it if you want it to look neat - at which the little imp shot her Mom a very satisfied "I told you so look."

Mom looked relieved and admitted it was something she'd never really thought about, but that it made sense. "She keeps me on my toes, I never know what she'll come up with next, she's always asking questions." At that moment Mom was called up to the counter and we went our separate ways.

But it got me thinking. As kids we ask lots of questions. We're not expected to know the answers so we just ask. There are no consequences - real or imagined - and there's no embarrassment.

It's different when we get older. There are things that "we're supposed to know" based on our position or our experiences. We're often embarrassed to ask questions, or sometimes even to admit to ourselves, there are gaps in our knowledge. This is especially true when it comes to areas where we think of ourselves as experienced. You know - about things like photography.

Do You Understand Light? 
In photography, light is the tool with which we work. Cameras, lenses and a whole host of related doo-dads are simply tools that help us harness light. Most folks who are serious about photography get pretty good at the basics of camera operation and exposure, and after a while their images are sharp and well composed.

But I would venture that many, too many, never truly come to understand light. And past a certain point are embarrassed to admit it, even to themselves.

Let me clarify that statement. Understanding light is more than simply getting the proper exposure. After a while we all get to know our gear and when we should make minor adjustments off the meter readings. 

But when we can look at the light falling on our subject and know how our cameras will record it and how the recorded image will differ from what our eye is seeing -- then we have begun to understand light.

When we recognize those differences, and consciously choose how we will accept or alter our images through our choice of film, our choice of camera settings, and/or our choice of digital camera settings (white balance) so the captured image is what we conceive in our mind's eye - we are using light as a tool.

This is a level of understanding you'll never get from a magazine article or from looking at images in a book. Some are lucky enough to have an almost innate feeling for light, but for the rest of us it is learned through repetition.

Back to School 
Here is a simple way to program your brain to understand light. If you're shooting film, the exercise will cost about $200 and will have a far greater effect on your photography than any piece of fancy equipment you'll ever buy. If you're shooting digital it will cost you nothing but time, but you'll have a few extra steps compared to your film-shooting brethren.

To better understand light, start with a single location. It should be a place you can reach easily as you'll be going there often over the next few weeks, and it should be something you find interesting. If you're shooting film you'll need 20 rolls of slide film. Digital shooters will need their camera and an empty memory card. You'll also need a notebook.

A simple change in exposure can have a dramatic effect on both 
color and shadow detail, notice the deeper oranges in the image at left 
and the increased shadow detail in the image on the right. 

The "correct" exposure is determined by which is more 
important to you in this scene


In the article The Ultimate Equipment Bargain: Dramatically Improve Your Images under $200, I outline a detailed plan for shooting a location in varying light conditions and with varying camera settings. You can get the details by clicking on the link, so there's no reason to repeat those steps here. 

The point is that by shooting simple scenes under varying light conditions, and using a variety of camera and white balance settings (for you digital shooters), you can come to understand, and eventually control the way you capture and use light. And in the process you will take your photography to the next level.

Eventually you'll reach a point where "the light goes on" (no pun intended) and it all seems so obvious. 

Sometimes it just takes someone asking the question to make us to say "I never really thought about that"; or for some of us to admit to ourselves "I was too embarrassed to ask that question myself".

This image was shot just before sunrise. Auto white balance gives the first image a bluish cast noticeable in the color of the boat's hull.

 A slightly warmer white balance setting brightens the white hull for a "correct" color, but changes the mood of the image from "early morning" to "overcast". By choosing a white balance setting that is still warmer the image takes on a sickly yellow cast. 

Related Articles

The Ultimate Equipment Bargain: Dramatically Improve Your Images under $200

Image Sushi: When to use Raw

Exposure: Get It Right The First Time

Exposure: Get It Right The First Time - Part II

Digital Learning Curves


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