Settings Versus Seeing

I generally don't publish camera settings, and the process of putting resizable images on this Web site strips out EXIF information. Thus, I get a constant stream of "what settings did you use?" People see a picture they like, and then apparently want to "copy" it. 

I'm of the strong opinion that knowing what a camera's settings were don't help you much, if at all. That's because for settings to make sense you have to understand what the photographer saw and what decisions he or she was making to capture that. 

I'll use a simple example: a lot of landscape photos these days are captured with what I call "infinite focus." That's particularly been true since focus stacking came onto the scene. The extension of the hyperfocal distance idea has suddenly become "stack focused images from near point to far point." Doing so certainly puts acuity everywhere in the image, but it's not the way our eye/brain works nor is it what we saw while setting up the photo. 

My landscape photography mentor used to chant "near, middle, far" almost as much as he climbed near, middle, and far mountains, but he also didn't want to take out distance clues. Our brain interprets low level of detail as far, high level of detail as near. The analogy I like to use is this: if you can see whiskers, the lion is near; if you're not sure what the distant beige bump in the grass is, then the lion is far away. Why would you try to capture that any other way? 

Okay, there is the notion of contrarianism: do the unconventional to call attention to something. But when you're "copying", you're probably not doing that ;~).

Which brings me to my point. When you demand settings you're trying to understand and duplicate what someone else saw and captured. The thing about photography is that it is not a copy machine, it's a personalization medium. Susan Sontag wrote a whole book [affiliate link; as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases] that dealt with that way back in 1973 (which deservedly won a National Book Critics' Circle Award). One of the key quotes from Sontag's book is "The painter constructs, the photographer discloses."

To disclose, one must first see. 

So what is it you see? What is it you want to disclose? If you can't answer those questions, you not only have no idea how to set your camera, you probably don't even know where to point it. 

In the field at workshops, I teach not apertures and shutter speeds—though we do discuss them on occasion—but finding the thing that you wish to photograph, the thing you want to disclose to others. I'm constantly looking for patterns, for instance, as I find natural patterns as interesting as man-made ones. For instance:

bythom int bots savutikhwai April2022 Z9 18817


These lionesses are trying to figure out which prey to target (and yes, I seem to be one of them ;~). The focus is what it is because the matriarch is in front and probably going to determine where they go next. Trying to get all three in "perfect" focus would be nearly futile, partly because it doesn't disclose the hierarchy, but also because it would promote one heck of a lot of grass into visibility, which isn't what I want to disclose. 

Does it matter what lens I used? (100-400mm, not at 400mm ;~) Not really, unless you want to know how close to the lions I was (close, real close). Does the shutter speed matter? Not really for this image, as everything, including me, was stationary. Does the ISO matter? Also a no, though you might be able to sense it was quite high: this image was taken just after sunset on a cloudy day. 

The primary thing I would point out about the image has nothing to do with camera settings. It has to do with my position vis-a-vis the lions, the perspective, and my waiting for a pattern to appear (they were looking to and fro, so I knew that a pattern would emerge, and waited for that to happen). The moment in time I pressed the shutter release and my position were the two key elements that make this image what it is. Neither are really recorded in the EXIF data in a way you could learn anything from (the time stamp and GPS location tell you nothing useful; you couldn't duplicate the image by using those values yourself ;~). 

When people ask me for settings, sometimes I'll provide them. But more often than not I'll ask what it is they expect to learn. What do they think knowing those values will do for them? Most don't have clear answers for that question, which is why I don't generally provide settings.

Let me close by saying this: one of the things I challenged students on during my last workshop in Botswana was this: can you capture and convey the feel of Africa in your photos? It's one thing to get a head shot of a lion. But you can do that at a zoo probably easier than you can from a Land Cruiser in the middle of nowhere. If you spend over ten thousand dollars to get to that middle of nowhere, shouldn't your photographs somehow convey what that place feels like? 

I talk a lot about not photographing nouns. If the subject of your image is "lion," that's a noun. Get that out of your system at your local zoo. What you really want to capture are adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. "Looking for dinner" is a lot different than "lion sitting." And no EXIF data property is going to tell you how to capture that.

Update: Sure enough, some of you are arguing with me ;~). In particular, I've received multiple emails along the lines of: "I need to know the focal length so I can recreate the same perspective." Nope. Perspective has nothing to do with focal length. Knowing the focal length wouldn't tell you the perspective. You'd need to know the distance, which isn't recorded in the EXIF (at least not recorded accurately). I could have used a 24mm lens instead of a 200mm lens and gotten the same perspective (after cropping). I stand by my statement that nothing in the EXIF data actually helps you understand how I got this image, though my comments about looking for patterns actually would.

Oh, and the number two argument: "I need to know the ISO." No, not really. Because this is a relatively low contrast image—taken after sunset—the ISO I used had plenty of dynamic range capability. You might benefit from knowing what ISO range I use on my Z9. That would be 100 to 12,800, basically. However, at the higher ISO values noise is an issue I have to post process for. I deem current software tools are adequate for doing that for properly exposed ISO 12,800 images with the camera.

Originally posted in News/Views

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