Posted by: kerryl29 | May 11, 2022

Technicalities

I recently read a piece written by Thom Hogan explaining why he seldom provides camera settings associated with posted images. The article resonated with me; as long-time readers of this blog know, I almost never list the photographic technicals of images I post (though I will provide them if someone asks). But there’s a point to be made: I think the technicals (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length) can get in the way of the most important part of photography, and that’s the exercise of seeing.

Water Abstract, Matthiessen State Park, Illinois

During my recent trip to the Smokies, I spent a fair amount of time photographing reflections in (sometimes) moving water. This is something I’ve done many times before, at many different locations. Partly due to the conditions I experienced during the trip, there were numerous occasions when this sort of subject matter was the best thing to focus on (pardon the pun).

Oconaluftee River Reflections, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

I’m still discovering new spots in the Smokies that are amenable to this type of photography, but over the course of half a dozen visits to the area over 20 years, I’ve found several reliable locations that I know work well at certain times of day, at specific times of the year, under particular conditions.

Merced River Reflections, Sierra National Forest, California

I could provide the technical information associated with the moving water abstracts and semi-abstracts that I’ve posted but…what would really be the point? I mean, take the Merced River image immediately above. If I told you that the image was photographed at 250 mm, ISO 100, f/11 at 1 second…what of consequence would that really tell you? Even if you wanted to copy the image–and I’ll get to that subject and why it’s an awful idea in a moment–this information wouldn’t really help you do so.

Water Reeds, Beaver Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta

Is one second the magic shutter speed with which to capture this scene, or one like it? The answer should be obvious: there is no “magic shutter speed” for capturing moving water. There are endless factors that go into deciding how best to render a scene of this sort–starting, and arguably ending, with personal preference. But perceived speed of the water itself, the extent of the flow, whether there are other objects in the scene other than just water…these are simply some of the factors that should be considered when deciding how to render such subject matter.

Stahl Lake Reflections, Brown County State Park, Indiana

What good would knowing the focal length do? It might provide some sense of distance from the subject (assuming there’s something in the frame that would make scale obvious), but, essentially, so what? These are abstract or semi-abstract images. The relevance of scale ranges from mostly irrelevant to utterly irrelevant.

Sable Creek Reflections, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

The aperture and ISO settings, in this case, mean nothing outside of the context of setting a desired exposure (when the shutter speed is included). Without knowing other particulars, some of them creative and intangible, knowing this information provides nothing of meaning.

Autumn Creek, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan

Most importantly, the very premise for knowing the specific information–duplicating the image–does anyone really want to do that? (And if you do, should you?) The point of photography of this type is to produce something that reflects one’s individual sensibility. Truly, all photography should exemplify this principle, in my view, but abstracts and semi-abstracts are particularly good examples.

Basin Pond Reflections, Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

Perhaps you’re inspired by examples of these images; you’d like to produce something that falls within the genre, but is uniquely yours. That’s just fine (in my opinion). Obviously you don’t need to know the camera settings. You can tell if, for instance, a relatively fast or slow shutter speed was used, in the event that you think you need a rough starting point for what should be an exercise in experimentation.

Enderts Beach Abstract, Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California

And what is the nature of that experimentation? It starts with finding something interesting. That’s the “seeing” that I mentioned at the heart of this post, and it’s at least 90% of the effort. The rest is easy–determining the settings that apply to render the scene the way you want it rendered. And for that, the technicals for my images don’t mean a thing.

Tenaya Creek Reflections, Yosemite National Park, California

Responses

  1. I agree that tech info means little. Sometimes it helps me think about how I might manage a shot differently than I usually do. That is always a creative plus. All that aside, I am moved by the images in this post, and inspired. Thanks.

  2. The relevance of technical information likely is a function of the distance the viewer has traveled along the photographic journey; it’s probably the whole enchilada for beginners. I haven’t read Thom Hogan’s piece, however.

    • That’s distinctly possible, that less experienced photographers are more desirous of this information. I still think, however, that such desire is misplaced, as I don’t knowing the specifics will do them much, if any, good and may have the tendency to inflate the importance of technical information relative to other considerations that (I think) hold more value.

  3. Such gorgeous images, Kerry, and such wise words raising fundamental questions. There are similar situations in the other arts – famous guitarists are always asked what strings they use on their guitar, etc. When I was first starting to explore the world through my SLR in the 80’s, I bought “The Art of Seeing” published by The Kodak Workshop Series. Although there was technical advice, the real takeaway was to really look and see possibilities, which is of course what you are addressing here. Fortunately, your words from this blog are always in my head when I’m shooting, reminding me to look more deeply – thank you for sharing your insights so generously with the rest of us.

    • Thanks very much, Lynn. To the extent that you’re finding something of value in my blatherings, it’s highly gratifying to know.

  4. The main time I mention technical details in my posts is when I show two pictures together that I took with very different settings, for example moving water recorded at 1/4 of a second and the same water caught at 1/2000 of a second. I’ve always thought it strange that some photo magazines will include even the brand of tripod the photographer used, as if what the camera sat on could make any difference to the resulting picture. You might as well tell us what brand of shoes the photographer was wearing at the time.

    • Good point about the side-by-sides. In that context, knowledge of the settings would be genuinely useful.

      I completely agree with your statement about (for instance) including the tripod brand (or the brand of the tripod head–something else I occasionally see referenced) in a photo mag caption. That’s just plain silly.


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