Posted by: kerryl29 | February 8, 2017

Thematic Interruption: The “M” Setting

A bit more than two weeks ago Thom Hogan posted an article on his website that essentially provided a series of “assignments” for photographers to fulfill.  The first assignment was to go out with a camera, with exposure and focus set to manual with a single normal (i.e. 50 mm equivalent) prime lens attached and shoot for an hour or two.  The assignment is a great idea and I highly recommend that everyone read the article and follow through.

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

What’s that you ask?  Did I actually go out and do the assignment?  Well, as a matter of fact…no.  I didn’t.  Why not?

Wilson Creek Beach at Sunrise, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Wilson Creek Beach at Sunrise, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

Here’s the thing:  the assignment was designed for folks who don’t ordinarily photograph in the manner described in the article.  That is to say, the assignment is for people who don’t typically expose manually.  People who don’t usually focus manually.  People who tend to use zoom lenses as a figurative crutch, and don’t change their photographic position readily.

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

The reason I didn’t complete the assignment is that I do these things every time I go out to photograph:  I expose manually (and with a spot meter); I focus manually; and while I don’t use prime lenses, I spend a lot of time moving around from place to place to examine a variety of perspectives.  (Ask anyone who’s photographed with me.)  I use the zoom feature on my lenses to fine tune a composition, not to establish one.  In short, I didn’t complete the assignment because its terms mimic my standard modus operandi whenever I’m out in the field.

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Pink Canyon, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

If, however, it doesn’t mimic your standard m.o., I encourage you to follow through on the assignment.  And here’s why.

McConnell's Mill, McConnell's Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

McConnell’s Mill, McConnell’s Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

I’m not telling you that I photograph with fully manual settings, that I expose using a spot meter and that I’m extremely mobile when investigating compositional options in the field because I’m trying to impress anyone.  I’m not trying to impress on anyone that I’m some sort of photographic purist or because I want to be patted on the back for doing things in some sort of “old-fashioned,” uncompromising way that’s somehow “the right way to do things.”  I photograph the way I do for several reasons, the least compelling of which, I think, is that this is how I learned to do it.  But the most compelling reason (again, in my view) is that…this method of shooting constantly makes me think about what I’m doing.

Mary Lake and Lake O'Hara from the Opabin Prospect, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Mary Lake and Lake O’Hara from the Opabin Prospect, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

This process doesn’t get in the way of my vision–the je ne sais quoi of a subject that naturally captures my attention.  It’s after that moment–the exercise of seeing–that the approach I’m describing kicks in and forces me to think about how to go about capturing what I found compelling about the subject matter.  I find that it helps to go through the process–of exposure, of focus, of mobile perspective–to produce an edge of tangibleness to the otherwise intangible.  It provides for a mingling of the conscious and the subconscious.  It introduces the realm of thought directly into the aesthetic process.  It makes me, I firmly believe, a better photographer.  It makes me–if I dare use the a-word–a better artist.  And there’s the chance that it will do the same for you.

Birch Tree Twins, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan

Birch Tree Twins, Hiawatha National Forest, Michigan



  1. I am totally on board that train! The only thing I do differently is I changed from using spot metering to evaluative metering awhile back, but I don’t remember why. Can you elaborate on that choice? And, yes, I can vouch for the statement that you “spend a lot of time moving around from place to place to examine a variety of perspectives.”

    • As with most of the rest of the process, the use of the spot meter is partly a relic of how I learned how to expose a scene. I cut my teeth on highly unforgiving transparency film (think Velvia Classic, an emulsion that might have had five-stop exposure latitude). If you wanted to avoid blowing the highlights, it was critically important to identify the brightest element of the scene, identify the proper exposure for that element (by compensating appropriately for the meter’s attempt to identify a middle tone exposure) and then let the rest of the chips fall where they may. If that meant blocked up shadows, so be it. If there was any mixed lighting in the scene, an evaluative metering approach would almost always miss the mark; it would handle mid-tones just fine, but the highlights would invariably be blown. In even light, the evaluative approach was usually okay…and with today’s much higher dynamic range digital sensors, relying on evaluative metering is going to leave you with a decent (or better exposure) much of the time, but it will still miss the mark occasionally (the more extreme the range of tones in a scene the less likely this approach is to give you acceptable results). Of course, with digital capture, if the eval. approach doesn’t give you a satisfying result you can always make a (manual–ha!) adjustment and try again.

      In line with what Tom noted in his comment, the spot metering approach is so deeply ingrained in my m.o. it’s second nature to me at this point. I always spot meter off the brightest element in the scene first and make the tonal compensation in my head, then dial in the exposure. If I’m dealing with mixed lighting I’ll then follow the same approach with the darkest element in the scene, again compensating for the difference from mid-tone. If the highlight and shadow readings differ by a wide enough amount, I’ll likely plan on running an exposure bracket for possible HDR work in post-processing. Some scenes (sunrise/sunset, for instance) essentially automatically imply this latter approach.

      • Thanks for taking the time to write your explanation. I’m going to try the spot metering approach again and see how it goes.

  2. We both have the same manual m.o., Kerry. Have to admit that, after all these years of making technical decisions, it’s become a habit requiring minimal conscious thought. In other words, the manual approach has now become automatic.

    I can’t say if my results are any better for this, but there is absolutely no doubt about the greater sense of control it provides. Plus there’s the satisfaction of mastering elements of the craft. Masterpieces can be made in the program modes, but I suspect the odds of doing so increase with greater involvement in the process by the photographer.

    • I know what you mean, Tom. The general approach is pretty much automatic for me too (irony aside); but the specifics carried out from the approach still require a turn of the crank.

      There’s no doubt that some form of this basic manual approach instills more control and assuredly provides for better technical results more frequently than letting the camera make the decisions. And that’s all to the good. But I still think that there’s a less direct, more intangible side benefit to going about things this way simply because–even for photographers like us who are embedded in the procedure–it makes us think about what we’re doing.

  3. It’s always fun to experience that “Eureka!” moment: that time when something finally clicks and makes sense. For me, it was this: ” If there was any mixed lighting in the scene, an evaluative metering approach would almost always miss the mark; it would handle mid-tones just fine, but the highlights would invariably be blown.”

    I’ve rarely used the spot metering function on my camera. I’ve tended to stick with evaluative, because I didn’t quite understand the point of “all that.” Now, I’m eager to get out and give all this a try, particularly since I’m often in a situation where there’s a lot of light variation, and I’m prone to those blown highlight.

    I’ve always used manual focus with my macro lens, but you’ve made clear how much value there can be in “going manual” with other settings and lenses, too.

    • Spot metering is a lost…not art, but skill. Few people seem to advocate, let alone teach, this approach these days, partly because digital photography’s robustness seems to make it unnecessary. There’s a certain irony to that because the same instant feedback endemic to digital capture that might seem to make a careful approach to metering/exposure superfluous makes it easier than ever to learn how to properly expose an image using a spot metering technique. I’ve long said, give me an afternoon, a digital camera with a spot meter and a willing individual and I can teach anyone this technique.

      Even back in the film era I knew a lot of experienced, accomplished photographers who exposed using evaluative metering and some system of exposure compensation. (This is still a manual technique, but the differences between this approach and the spot meter technique are more than just procedural in nature; they’re substantive.) These folks got great results and clearly had a technique down pat, so what was there to complain about? Just this: every camera has a somewhat different form of evaluative metering. Two different cameras, both set on evaluative, looking at exactly the same scene may come up with a different baseline exposure. So, the appropriate compensation necessary for one isn’t necessarily the same for another. But the spot metering technique is universal; I can apply it, without alteration, regardless of the camera I’m using. In the field, I approach exposure today exactly the same way I did when I was using an N80 film camera. (I’m currently on my fourth iteration of digital SLR.)

      I still have to think about exposure, of course; that, in fact, is one of the benefits of using manual exposure that I mentioned in the post. But this thought is about applying a known technique; I don’t have to think about the technique itself.

      In any event, I applaud you for investigating the spot metering approach. (The most difficult part is recognizing the relative brightness/darkness of different tones and appropriately compensating for them based on the meter’s reading.) If I can be of any assistance to you, please let me know.

      • I’m heading out this afternoon, and have carved out all day tomorrow to take the camera and go. It will be fun to see how I do — particularly since one of my subjects is freshly burned prairie, where I’ve already discovered that ash, silvered stems, bleached wood and gray skies can make for a complicated subject, indeed. I’m looking forward to it. Now that I have the concept, even in rough draft, I just need to pack an extra dollop of patience and get with it.

  4. Really really incredible photo’s!!

    • Thanks very much!

      • Aw your welcome!

  5. Great shot of Mary Lake in British Columbia. Also your Bear Rocks Preserve fog shot. I too like early morning shots, just as the sun is about to come over the horizon with that early fog wrapping around everything. Great shots here.

  6. Great post, Kerry. I shot transparencies for years, so framing and exposure are second nature to me, along with manual control. After reading your explanation of your technique, I realize that I can frequently evaluate a scene by eye and adjust the exposure as needed before the first shot. Still, I miss my defunct handheld spot meter. My recent discipline is to shoot the scene without having to crop anything, which forces me to consider composition more carefully.

    • Thanks, Lynn.

      If you came from the world of film…particularly transparency film…particularly extremely narrow exposure latitude film…you really had to learn how to expose manually or you were going to end up with utter garbage the vast majority of the time. I never used a handheld spot meter (I use the one through the lens), though if I’d ever made the formal transition to a view camera, I would have had to get one. There’s no “through the lens” metering with a view camera. 🙂

  7. Your photos are incredibly beautiful. I also rather expose and focus manually. Autofocus settings for sure make things easier but they sometimes don’t give you the results you wanted. I love my manual 50mm Yashica lens, which I use on my Nikon D750.

    • Thanks for leaving a comment–and for the kind words within.

      I really believe that utilizing manual settings–particularly regarding exposure–forces one to engage more actively in the process of photographing, whether we’re actively aware of it or not. Anything that has that effect is, I think, a good thing.

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