Do You Comb Your Face?
Why are we afraid to ask the most basic questions?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"correct" exposure is determined by which is
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
was shot just before sunrise. Auto white balance gives
the first image a bluish cast noticeable in the color of
the boat's hull.
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
Photography by email
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