do f-stops and shutter really matter?

Discussion in 'photography, graphics & art' started by alef, Jun 18, 2005.

  1. untethered

    untethered For industry & decency

    "f-stops and shutter" and all the other technical knowledge about photography matter, but they're not the only thing that matters.

    The very first thing that matters about photography is subject matter. Start with something to say that's worth saying and you're at least half way there. Start with nothing to say and it matters little what else follows. I'm always bemused by people that are interested in "photography" as if it's an end in itself. They are excited by the process and flail around helplessly looking for something to apply it to. It's like people that say they want to "write" but when questioned haven't the faintest idea what about and have little engagement with real life or any definite opinions about it.

    So the absolute golden rule is to remember it's the medium, not the message. Put another way (badly misquoted, probably): "There's nothing more depressing than a sharp picture of a blurry idea."

    There are people that love cameras and all the paraphernalia of photography. That's fine. Many of these people call themselves photographers. They can call themselves what they like. If they want to spend more time reading (and writing) equipment reviews and defending their choices against others', that's up to them. Some people would rather spot trains than get on one to go somewhere. I once met a guy with a collection of sixty Leicas. He was nearly blind and had never shot a single frame. It takes all sorts.

    Some people are obsessed with the technical process of photography and are highly skilled at it. Nonetheless, they have little to say and no passion for anything other than photography. Fine.

    But what if you do have something to say? Doesn't it make sense to learn how to say it as eloquently as possible? To expand your repertoire, your range?

    We all know that cameras are getting much better at automating many of the technical aspects of photography. This means that many people can now get technically-good photos in many situations without having to know anything much about what's going on inside the camera. That still leaves composition and timing and in my experience it's a lot harder to teach people how to do this effectively than to teach them the basics of exposure (or focus). No amount of aesthetic training can teach anyone how to find something that's worth shooting.

    What about the situations where we don't want a "good" exposure? Where we want to do something different? What about extremely long and extremely short exposures where the normal rules don't apply?

    Many types of photography just can't be done on "auto". The situations are too complex and usually they require equipment (eg. large or medium format) that typically doesn't have much or any auto.

    Photos stand on their own merits at the end of the day. It matters little after the event who took them and how they did it. But who can argue against the idea that knowing more about what you're doing gives you many more opportunities to shoot in difficult situations, to choose creatively between one technique and another? Is this ever a disadvantage? Not in my experience.

    I'd favour the passionate photographer with little technical skill over the techno-fetishist with nothing to say any day. But I'd also encourage them to learn as much as they possibly can and I don't think I've ever met a really keen photographer that was doing it for a purpose that didn't try to learn as much as they could.

    Two words of caution. Passionate photographers that start learning technical skills can get bogged down in the details and lose the bigger picture. It happens but the good ones constantly refocus on their subject matter.

    Also, motivated people that are learning always go through a phase when they start taking worse photos than when they started. The technical skills haven't been fully learned and the process itself distracts them from the subject. Often, they get it wrong. (Every photographer sometimes gets it wrong.) But soon enough they come out the other side and making good technical decisions becomes almost automatic.

    f/8 and be there? That sounds like macho bullshit typical of some photojournalists. "Be there" is obviously what it's all about in every area of photography and often the very best go to insane and devious lengths to be where the action is that the second-raters just can't manage. But at the same time, I've never met a photojournalist (at least at the national press level) that didn't know what they were doing. Tales of dodging bullets are more exciting than those of ploughing through the books. Given the choice of technical competence and being there, you'd be there. In practice, the first is a given and the second is where the effort goes on the day.

    Professional or amateur? It's about money and absolutely nothing else. Show me the invoices and you're a pro. No invoices and you're an amateur. It says nothing whatsoever about ability either way. Ironically, many amateurs dream of being pro while many pros dream of being an amateur and having the freedom to shoot whatever they like. Sometimes life really sucks.
  2. boskysquelch

    boskysquelch Banned Banned

    Or sometimes you take control of your life rather than allowing your life to control you.


    Spoken like a true pro! :rolleyes:
  3. wordie

    wordie What's in a word?

    A passionate post indeed untethered, and I can see that the many other posters in this thread are actually all basically saying the same thing... It's just a question of degree.

    BTW, interesting choice of name, "untethered"... nothing to do with photography is it? ;)

    I'm not sure about the "be there" being what it's all about in every area of photography. Maybe the expression quoted is macho bullshit, for photojournalists, but let's not forget there are many other areas of professional photography that require painstaking technical ability as a fundamental pre-requisite, over and above a creative

    Which brings us back to your definition of a professional:
    I wholeheartedly agree....especially with the last sentence!
  4. Johnny Canuck3

    Johnny Canuck3 Well-Known Member

    I guess it depends what you want to do, also, how fussy you are.

    I always used to bracket my shots, just to see what different settings would do with the same image. There could be quite a bit of difference.
  5. Johnny Canuck3

    Johnny Canuck3 Well-Known Member

    Btw, both the alef and squelch pics at the beginning are very striking, very powerful.
  6. alef

    alef Needs to take more photos

    There is pretty much a complete consensus across this thread. To give more context to my motivations, it's because I wince when posts in this forum go off too technical for fear of alienating people.

    At urbanite events in Brixton people naturally ask my username and I explain that I mostly just post in Photography. "I've been in there a few times and just read about lens!" and other similar remarks are comebacks I often hear.

    Also, I get wound up by overly pushy techie photography shop staff. Remember one place in the US where I was vaguely asking about a 35mm SLR and the guy said "What, you've never heard of matrix metering?! Well then you need to buy this [insanely expensive camera]" I walked straight out.

    These are tangential issues to the title of this thread, but it's very important to emphasise that great photographs don't require any technical knowledge.

    Of course there's loads more you can do with fully understanding exposures and depth of field, but it should always be at least second to the subject itself -- which I think is pretty much what everyone here has said. And Paul was partially right, I was playing a bit of Devil's Advocate on this to exaggerate my point. I am glad I can set depth of field when I want to, though I rarely bother...
  7. Zaskar

    Zaskar Satirist of seriousness.

    Aye to that alef. But oh how I wish I could get a shallower dof. Roll on the dsr 570.... s i g h ......
  8. alef

    alef Needs to take more photos

    Cheers :) All my pictures taken while travelling in the Far East were with a disposable camera after my Rollei 35 was stolen, quite happy with the results generally.

    My main interest in SLRs has been more accurate compositions rather than aperture controls, but digitals solve that issue very well indeed.
  9. untethered

    untethered For industry & decency

    If the point is about technique, fair enough. But there's more to photography than technique. It doesn't mean the subject should be off-limits. I imagine the range of tech ability of people here covers the complete spectrum.

    Photo shops (and by extension, most photo magazines) are a curse on the whole field. Their job is to flog you stuff whether you need it or not on the flimsy proposition that it will improve your photographs.

    I really don't agree with that if what you're suggesting that people should regard technical knowledge as an optional extra that wouldn't benefit you even if you knew it. Individual great photos may be taken by people with no knowledge, but if you want to take consistently good photos then the more you know the better. This is especially so if you're required (for whatever reason) to come up with the goods in a specific unrepeatable situation rather than just shooting for fun in the hope that you get a few good shots.

    At what point a good shot becomes a great one is highly subjective so I'll leave that to one side.

    I entirely agree that some areas of photography require different technical skills than others and in some it's possible to get by on a minimum. That said, most photojournalists I know have a lot of technical ability. Their skills are different in many respects to people who, for example, shoot interiors. This seems to be what you're getting at: the massive diversity of photography. Many types of work require a ton of lighting and that's where much of the technical skill is employed. They simply can't be done on a point-and-shoot but it makes no difference who presses the shutter release if you've just spent half a day rigging the shot.
  10. editor

    editor hiraethified

    You can take great shots with a point and shoot/auto-everything camera, but if you wish to retain any kind of control in changing conditions, you're simply going to have to learn the relationship between f-stops and apertures and get a grasp of the basics of photography.

    Otherwise you'll most likely be very disappointed with the results.
  11. Johnny Canuck3

    Johnny Canuck3 Well-Known Member

    No, they don't. Just like there are great guitarists who can't read music. But understanding how to thoroughly operate your instrument, in this case a camera, might just make it a little bit easier to get it to do exactly what you want it to do, without excess trial and error, and without relying too much on luck.
  12. Johnny Canuck3

    Johnny Canuck3 Well-Known Member

    I used to use a manual Pentax SLR. I spent some time reading, and it didn't seem too hard to figure out how to alter images using f stop and shutter speed. I don't understand your resistance to manually controlling your camera.
  13. Johnny Canuck3

    Johnny Canuck3 Well-Known Member

    In the old days, you'd get flat depth of field by pushing the film to two or three times above its ISO rating. I don't know how you'd do it with a digital.
  14. Johnny Canuck3

    Johnny Canuck3 Well-Known Member

    Salespeople are the curse, or at least, their quotas are. If you go into a computer shop, or a car dealership, or whatever, not knowing much about what it is you're planning to buy, you can walk out paying way too much for way too little, or with something you didn't really want or need. It isn't specific to camera stores for this to happen.

    You get around it by knowing a little bit about what it is you intend to purchase.
  15. wordie

    wordie What's in a word?

    Well you may have to go back to the old fashioned filmakers tricks to get it.... things like gauze screens on the other side of your subject etc,....

    There's ways and means even if you can't get your DOF in the camera. Unfortunately like a lot of old trades, the cinematography seems to be a dying one, now that digital seems to be king. :(
  16. untethered

    untethered For industry & decency

    Huge depth of field in small digital cameras is of course both a blessing and a curse. At least with a compact digital you know you're going to get huge DOF which for most people, most of the time is what you want.

    Cameras like the Nikon D70 that have a sensor two-thirds the size of 35mm really give the worst of both worlds. (I like it otherwise.) If you're not careful you can end up with DOF just short of infinity so that your backgrounds are slightly out but not entirely. This tends to look like a mistake rather than intention. Yes, with care you can get round this but it's hard to adjust from a 35mm mindset to a camera that appears similar but has subtle rather than dramatic DOF differences.

    Cameras like the Mamiya ZD which they describe as "medium-format digital" have 645-sized sensors and use 645 lenses, so presumably they have the same DOF characteristics as the film equivalent. Not that I can afford one of those but prices are always falling.

    As for "digital being king" which I'm sure has been discussed ad nauseam here and elsewhere, unless you're doing pro work where your clients demand a particular medium, if you've still got film kit and are happy to use it, there's absolutely nothing to say that you shouldn't continue to do so. It hasn't magically got any worse just because something else is on the market.
  17. ViolentPanda

    ViolentPanda Hardly getting over it.

    To me (and I know I'm being simplistic) there are three things that will help you be able to take good pictures; a knowledge of basic photographic principles, a knowledge of your camera and its limitations, and an eye for composition.

    Bert Hardy (one of my photographic heroes although I'm sure some people will say "who?" :) ) legendarily took one of his most well-known pictures, "maidens in waiting" with a fixed aperture (f11) twin-speed shutter (1/50 and T if i recall correctly) box camera. He made the camera's limitations work in his favour, had a good eye for a picture, and (IMHO) pulled off a cracker that people still buy prints of 50-odd years after he took the photo.

    So (imho) knowing your kit (and its limitations) and knowing a bit about technique, allied with developing a good eye for composition may not be absolutely essential in an age of all-singing all-dancing digital cameras, but they will help you get the best you possibly can out of what you have.
  18. wordie

    wordie What's in a word?

    Exactly.... which is why, in a metaphoric if not absolute sense, digital has come to be seen as the current king! :D

    Well this is part and parcel of the entire discussion here is it not.... the move from a 35mm mindset to an almost, but not quite, digital equivalent. For many, the technicalities of photography, especially when you've got hold of a DSLR which is touted to be all things to all photographers, have just become that much more complex. Exactly the point you've made untethered... which becomes tacit acceptance of (or would that be sympathy with) Alef's POV.

    I can't speak for the Mamiya, but I think the inherent insensitivity of digital as opposed to film, doesn't make this as cut and dried as it might at first appear. IME using a Canon 1DSMk2, which has a CMOS sensor that is the same equivalent size as 35mm film, the DOF characteristics are considerably more tricky... than with a Nikon 35mm film SLR - if memory serves me correctly.

    I agree wholeheartedly, but I have to say that with many, many clients demanding faster turnaround as well as greater input into the entire process - (IMO a by product of everyone owning a digi cam I might add) plus the growing inability of clients to actually make a firm decision, meaning variations on a theme are presented to see whichever one the client's wife prefers... it's a brave pro that either hasn't already invested in a digital capture and workflow system or isn't considering it...

    Whilst film is in many ways superior to digital, the professional photographic process has become more complex and competitive, and to be blunt, creative expectations have diminished as well, making digital, at least in the common perception, king at the moment.

    However, most of this, whilst interesting is not really the discussion the thread was originally inviting. Sorry for the derail.... :(
  19. mauvais

    mauvais change has become unavoidable

    The point seems to be you can take good photos without knowing anything about what's going on. This is undeniably true. However if you have to take as many pictures as you have to buy lottery tickets in order to achieve that, then it's not really useful in any way.

    There's plenty you can do on full automatic, and frankly most shots won't be massively worse off for it; with film and often digital, especially if you have a good camera and are shooting RAW, you have a little more flexibility for altering the exposure via post-processing.

    However there are lots of things you know you can't do with an automatic compact - for example, air shows, birds and butterflies. Fast moving objects dictate that you obviously need a fast shutter, and that it's a small dark object against a huge bright sky means that you need to really fiddle with the timing and aperture to get it right. Helicopters are even worse because if you get any aspect of that wrong, you get rotor stop and it looks a bit daft.

    I found that night photography with a cheap digital compact was very difficult because it was hard to focus on, or tell if the subject was focused. Macro was also extremely difficult, despite the camera being capable on paper. You couldn't do any long-exposure creative stuff either, because you had no control. This wasn't a terrible camera; it's just intended for beginners or occasional amateurs.

    In conclusion then, you can shoot any number of common or garden scenes on auto, but they're not necessarily the best shots. There are many situations where you require more control for technical reasons to take any usable shot at all, and there are many more where it's DOF that makes the shot, and you don't get that in auto.
  20. Paul Russell

    Paul Russell Psychogeographer

    I remember reading some journo or critic assessing REM's Michael Stipe photographic "work" and saying "he wouldn't know a f-stop from a bus stop", which I thought was good...
  21. boskysquelch

    boskysquelch Banned Banned

    I prefer his photography to his music. :oops:
  22. Paul Russell

    Paul Russell Psychogeographer

    Great band til 1990-ish. Erratic/DULL since. Should have split when the drummer left.

    Sorry, back to photography!
  23. snadge

    snadge metal alchemist

    I'll stick me twopenneth in here, one of the things that I hated about my olympus c3000 was it's seemingly infinite depth of field over which I wanted control, used in the right picture DOF can make or break it.

  24. Paul Russell

    Paul Russell Psychogeographer

    Yeah, the curse of the tiny sensor!

    Another "depth of field" shot taken at the weekend:


    An example of a pic that if I'd had the camera set on Program, it would probably picked f8 or something and the background wouldn't have been as out of focus as I wanted... I think this was taken at f4.
  25. sajana

    sajana ting ting da ting

    Elaborate discussion. With valid points for technical knowldege, am sure. But frankly apertures bore me.

    and usually makes me think that people who know try to show themselves off as "better photographers." :rolleyes:

    here is a picture of a street play, i took some months ago. the top-left (or is it right? ) could have done with some less burn. would F-stops have helped? don't know. or what of DoF? :confused:

    Ring side view

    i think subjects and composition count more for me rather than tech know-how.
  26. mauvais

    mauvais change has become unavoidable

    But that's presumably at hyperfocal focus, so it doesn't matter. There is no variance in distance of field in that shot, so the issue doesn't apply. It's a good picture, but inherently it doesn't rely on aperture, DOF etc.
  27. sajana

    sajana ting ting da ting

    three cheers for uncomplicated photography :)
  28. Paul Russell

    Paul Russell Psychogeographer

    Yeah, it's a shame about the overexposed bit at the top, which draws my eye away from the "action" straight away. Would you consider cropping it as a last resort? Shame, as the man looking down from the balcony is a nice touch.

    Having said that, my eye is alway drawn to the imperfections in pictures (especially my own). Maybe most people would concentrate on the "action" and not even notice. I don't know.
  29. untethered

    untethered For industry & decency

    When photographers post their own pictures online and when you see things in photo magazines, very often you get the full technical spec: shutter speed, aperture, film/ISO, camera, lens. In 99% of cases this is just too much information. Before I knew about photography I assumed that once I learned it, this information would magically tell me something that would improve my pictures. It doesn't. If anything, it just confuses people because they might think that doing the same thing will give them the same results. It probably won't. If you know photography well you can broadly speaking work out the relevant technical details yourself in as much as it really makes a difference. Knowing the exact details is almost never relevant. More's the point, I've never bothered recording tech details for general photos I've taken, only for sequences of shots that are purely technical experiments. Digital cameras now record all this for you but again, I rarely bother to check it.

    But this is entirely the point. Unless you know what you're doing, much of the time you're not going to make the best of a shot and sometimes it's not going to work at all. I'm not for a second suggesting that you or anyone else should go out and learn more. If you're happy doing what you do, fine. However, the more you know the better your pictures are going to be. Whether you think it's worth the extra effort is down to the individual.
  30. Corax

    Corax Luke 5:16

    With some careful selection, would tweaking the levels in that area be a goer?

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