Expose Yourself

Too often photography is treated as a technical pursuit instead of an art. The limitations of the tool (ISO, shutter speed, and aperture) are puzzled over as the source of the image. The most common expression of this misguided approach is GAS ("gear acquisition syndrome"), in which dissatisfaction with one's photography is blamed on the camera. 

The answer is simple, and just takes a shift in perspective: the tool doesn't create the art. If you're unsatisfied with your images, that's just a clue that you need to work on the ideas underlying them. If your ideas are good but you still aren't capturing what's in your mind, then rethinking your tools may be in order. That's what this post is about.

The two meanings of exposure, and why we only need the one

Sadly, most photography instruction makes the technical aspects of photography the central point because it is relatively easy to teach, and appears to give immediate improvement in results. In fact, the emphasis on the technical pushes people into a rut and impedes artistic progress.

To break free of the constraints, it’s important to reorient your thinking away from the technical and toward art, design, and psychology. An easy first step is recasting the basics of exposure.

The term exposure is used in a technical sense to mean subjecting a light-sensitive material to light in order to make a record of the image. Although that is a necessary part of the process a camera uses to make its record, we won’t limit our use of the term to that.

To expose an image is far beyond a technical act. It's a decision of thought and emotion. Exposure is, literally, to expose not only one's own motivations and interests, but to expose the subject to view, and expose the spectator to the result. When we take a picture, we expose ourselves as photographers, and the decision to make an image should reflect the gravity of that obligation. It's an affirmative artistic act to make an image: when we take a picture we are creating a work which will reveal to the spectator our thoughts, emotion, and creativity. Photography is an extremely personal act which makes photographers very vulnerable because we are literally letting others see through our eyes.

Looked at from this perspective, exposing an image is not a technical process. Instead, it’s the act of bringing our attention and action as photographers to bear on a moment in time, revealing our motivations as an artist, revealing our interpretations of the subject, and revealing our intentions towards the spectator.

Our chosen tool of photography has a limited set of variables which we use to record an image: ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. (Focal length is a more complicated piece of the puzzle, and we'll address that in a later post.) These variables are not restrictions, and therefore will not be solved by a different camera body or faster lens. Instead, these variables are ways for the photographer to manipulate a moment to best express the thoughts, emotion, and creativity being brought to bear on the scene. Each variable should be intentionally chosen, but in practice one usually dominates the others.

Shutter speed: Good photographs do not freeze time—they capture moments. 

Selecting a shutter speed is not about freezing time. Good photographs are not frozen. Instead, they record a moment. A moment is both physical and emotional. Because photography works in a two-dimensional, non-animated space, a sense of movement in the scene can be used to signal how long the captured moment lasted.

Motion is moment. A sharp image of a busy girl who has to do her reading on the go wouldn't make any sense. The blur of motion communicates more.

Fast bikes in a fast environment. The blur of activity informs the subject.
As with any other part of the creative process, choosing a shutter speed should be intentional and should reflect your perception of the moment. If you are in tune with the moment which you are trying to capture, then the choices will be obvious. Night-time is a slower, less precise time. It's the time of relaxation and wandering thoughts in low light. Slow shutter speed make sense for those types of moments. A bit of blur can enhance that moment, and it should be embraced. Endeavoring to make sharp, high definition images of the activities of night only creates a dissonance for the spectator: we do not experience low light in a precise, high definition way, and an image that doesn't comport with that experience will seem "off."

The inspirational surrealist Brassï.
Brassaï was a French photographer who wandered the streets of Paris at night. The exposures were long, and he often used a cigarette to time them. His images of Paris are a great example of capturing the mood of the time of day. His subjects are sedate, and the light is dreamy—just as one would experience in the soft light of Paris at night. Let Brassï be your inspiration.

ISO: ISO is not about noise or decreased dynamic range: it’s about mood. 

Our minds perceive visual static as information, and we experience this in daily life in situations which are outside the norm and usually have a heightened emotional component, such as where there is little light, adverse weather, or smoke in the air. Selecting ISO, in conjunction with the angle and amount of light in a scene, is about controlling mood. Avoiding grain is not a worthy goal. Controlling grain is. 

Noise and texture give depth and mood to an image. The concept can be added with ISO, but the same effect can come from the environment itself. 
The "noise" of the fog is enhanced with the grain of ISO, providing mood to the image.
Indeed, this is a problem with modern digital cameras: the noise at high ISO is so low that it can be difficult to add noise in. That's the reason apps like Lightroom have settings to add in grain. But it's far better to do the work in the camera by manually changing the ISO setting. Otherwise, the software is likely to take the mood away because it's programmed to satisfy the current trend toward flat, emotionless, crisp images.

Aperture: Depth of field is about attention.

An image of a person with high bokeh can be pleasing to look at because the focus of attention is on the subject and there are no visual competitors for the spectator's attention. Likewise, a pastoral scene with everything in focus is pleasing to look at because the spectator wants to examine the details of the scene. 

Attention is easily focused with a bokeh background . . . 
. . . but a clear focal point like the eyes is an even easier way to direct attention . . . 
. . . and it's better still to provide context and use interesting action to draw attention . . . 
. . . especially through the use of leading lines in the composition of the image.
In neither of those examples is the solution the clarity of the image: instead, the solution to getting a happy spectator comes from the photographer’s appropriate direction of the spectator's attention. Controlling depth of field is about directing the spectator to look at what the photographer chose as the subject, but it can be achieved in more ways than just with fast lenses

As with any other creative decision, there should be no default in your choice of aperture. For example, I shoot portraits with a wide lens because my approach to portraits is contextual. The subject's environment is important in the images I make, and therefore I want more depth of field in a portrait—not less—because I want the spectator to study the entirety of the image, rather than placing their attention on just a face. Accordingly, I use other elements in a scene to direct the spectator's attention to what I found important when I made the image. 

Exposing Yourself

To make a good photograph requires the photographer to engage all the senses and interpret not only the visual aspects of the moment, but its mood, importance, and context. Capturing that moment is not just the literal settings of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Instead, it requires approaching those options philosophically: action can be frozen with a very slow shutter speed when the action itself is stable, and a blurry background can come from motion and not just a wider aperture. Noise can be environmental as well as technical. The key to remember is that the camera as a tool is merely supportive of the concepts the photographer seeks to capture, but the concepts can be achieved in many ways. When the photographer is perceptually aligned with the scene, the camera settings for accurately capturing it will be mostly obvious and the resulting image will allow the spectator to engage in the moment as the photographer perceived it. The important part is for the image to reflect the photographer's perception of the scene, which should never have anything to do with technical notions of image quality. 

When the technical process of taking pictures is finished, what's left is an image which exposes not the camera and its settings, but the photographer's vision, thoughts, perception, and emotion. A photograph sometimes captures a subject, but it always reveals the photographer. So let go of the technical, and embrace the truth that considerations of exposure are always about the artist: you.