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Think Like Your Digital Camera And Capture Medium
It Will Make You A Better Photographer Today
During an NBA game, James Silas, passes the ball. The photo was captured with existing light on ASA 400 Fuji film.
I was going through my archived photos and remembered that by the time I shot this photo, approximately 30-years ago on Fuji 400 (ASA 400) film, I was already thinking like my camera and capture medium (film), before I took the shot. In today’s digital world, you’re probably wondering, “What does this have to do with digital photography today?” Well, for one, I haven’t changed, I still go to shoots with my Canon 5D Mark II, thinking like the camera and the capture medium, thanks to some great photography instructors.
As digital photographers today, the concept of being able to think like the camera and the capture medium will improve your results. I don’t walk up to a photo shoot and say, “F/stop, check, shutter-speed, check, ISO, check, all systems go,” and blast off great images. Pressing the shutter release is 5-percent of equation, the other 95-percent is broken down into comprehension, creativity and communication—for this photo tip I’ll focus on the comprehension of the digital camera and capture medium as that’s where it all starts.
Understanding lighting, exposure, composition and other photography elements aside, do you go to the shoot and think like the camera and it’s capture medium? While logically cameras don’t think like humans, they are made and programmed by great thinkers. Getting into that mindset of the camera and the capture medium when it comes to white balance, ISO, the correlation of the shutter speed and aperture settings to capture that photo, might help you if you look at it from the inside out, comprende?
Comprehension, when it comes to the camera itself, has nothing to do with taking a screw driver and a crowbar to your camera, it’s more about understanding the difference between an “F/stop and bus stop” and all the other menu options from white balance to selecting the proper ISO. So let’s see how ISO has evolved and why it’s the first thing in comprehension we should consider when thinking like the camera.
Photographer’s Toolbox, Film Photo
Camera: Canon AT-1 (manual version of the AE-1)
Lens: Vivitar 135mm F/2.8
Effective Focal Length: 135mm
Shutter Speed: 1/125
ISO: 400 (Fujifilm)
When I captured the featured photo I used ASA as a measurement of film speed while our colleagues in the United Kingdom used BS (yes, it’s true), in Germany it was DIN and in Russia it was GOST, not ISO. Without going into a huge history lesson and exploring SOS (Standard Output Specifications) or REI (Recommended Exposure Index) plus all the other engineering hoopla, in a nutshell, the world decided to play nice and we’re all now on one standard format, ISO. What is important here is to understand it’s the “universal” sensitivity standard used to measure the capture medium’s sensitivity to light, film or digital, ISO meaning the International Standard Organization. In other words, we’re all on the same sheet of film though we listen to different types of music.
As a photographer, it’s important to understand how ISO affects our choices of selecting shutter speed in correlation to our F/stops (aperture values) relative to the light source exposing our scene. On top of that, it affects our lens choices and what we capture. There are still digital photographers stuck in the old film mindset that the lower the ISO (ASA), the better—and while that was very true with film and a great starting point with most digital photos, it’s not necessarily an issue with today’s digital technology—we have more latitude today to bump up our ISO for more creative results. Heck, we’ve got digital cameras that break the 100,000 ISO barrier today with ease!
When I took the featured photo above of NBA great James Silas, or “Captain Late,” as he was known with the San Antonio Spurs, photographers were stuck with two main color negative film ASA’s, 100 and 400. In fact, Kodak ran advertisements showcasing how their 400 ASA films could stop action—this confused many photographers into believing that their film stopped action. Wrong! The higher film speed gave us the ability to raise the camera shutter speed to a higher value under a given light source than before because of the increased film sensitivity—the increased shutter speed is what stopped the action.
When I”m not shooting glamour or fashion photography, I love sports photography.
I saw this often as a one-hour minilab assistant manager back then, I”d have many photographers come in, view their photos and ask me, “Why are these photos blurry with ASA 400 film?”
They could”ve avoided this mistake if they”d thought like their film and not like what they saw on the tele. Once I felt like making some 3 1/2- by 5-inch signs that said, “Here”s your sign!” but instead I”d educate them on how the shutter speed, not the film speed, stops action.
Unfortunately in the introduction of ASA 400 many photographers still set their shutter speeds as though they were shooting ASA 100 and only increased their aperture values—so with action photos, photographers wound up with blurred images. They didn’t initially comprehend that a higher film speed allowed them the ability to raise their shutter speeds. Those that did, understood it also afforded them longer lens choices as higher magnification lens magnify camera vibration and shake, with increased shutter speeds, it made for a sharper image and reduced the use of a tripod and sometimes even flash.
In today’s digital photography, now that noise (think film grain) is reduced in higher ISO’s, going from ISO 100 to ISO 400 is practically nothing. This is one reason the Canon 5D Mark II is so popular, of all things, with video. It’s practically the top-selling video (still) camera on the market today. This year alone, the season finale of the television show “House” was all shot with the Canon 5D Mark II, albeit, outfitted with video stabilization and other videographer paraphernalia.
I’m trying to keep this article short, unfortunately it’s going long, so I’ll ask you to refer back to the “Pots And Pans Of Photography” and the various articles on this photoblog for other forms of comprehension and we’ll stay focused on our cameras. As the late Paul Harvey radio personality would say, “Now, for the rest of the story, page two.”
Page Two, Comprehension of My Capture Medium: I’m going to give you the story of the featured photo as I took it while thinking like my film whereas with digital, I’d think like my camera capture device. I was barely 18 years-old and a recent graduate from Victoria High School after being their top school photographer for three years, thanks to my Journalism instructor Barclay Burrow, when I got a wild hair to drive two hours to San Antonio and photograph a San Antonio Spurs NBA game. Back then, no real press credentials were involved. I just walked down to the floor and started shooting—nothing like my recent years of photographing the Spurs and all the red tape to get a full-season credential and media parking pass annually for many years.
Three C’s Of A Great Photographer
Though I never met the man, the late Dean Collins, an amazing lighting master, photographer and instructor was known to tell his attendees that the greatest photographers in the world were those that understood their equipment, understood creativity and had the ability to communicate to their subjects and intended audience
With no disrespect to the Mr. Collins, I summarize it as the “Three C’s of being a great photographer.” A great photographer masters comprehension (of their equipment), understands creativity (some are born with it, others have to learn it), and is skilled in communication (to their subject and intended audience).
In this 1980’s game, that featured the “Ice Man,” George Gervin and of course, James Silas, I was out to prove that Fuji 400, color negative film had great exposure latitude. From shooting this film before, I figured out that I could shoot it at ASA 800 and process it normally without “push-processing” it in the developer and the images would turn out perfect. The featured image of James Silas was from that test where I shot a few rolls of Fuji 400 color negative film and a few of Fuji 400 slide (transparency) film. The slide film would require push-processing because exposure for slide film requires dead-on accuracy, and as they said back in the film days of photography, “Slides don’t lie.”
Upon my return home, I went to the one-hour mini-lab where I worked, Photo One, owned back then by my still today friend, Mike Badough, a photographer himself. Badough taught me some principals and concepts of photography where Burrows left off, after my graduation from high school. While the mini-lab allowed me to see results within the hour, which was amazing back then, I also hand processed the slide film using a push-processing method (increased developer time) to ensure the slide film was processed at ASA 800. Remember, the negative film was not push-processed. In the end, when comparing the slides with the prints, both looked similar, so my theory worked—thinking like the film paid off.
The capture device (sensor) in your camera is the film—the digital card is the storage device, no need to think like a flash card—that’s just your memory. In my days of learning photography from Mr. Burrows, I was instructed back then, and still do it today, to think like the camera and film. He taught me how to process black and white film, from developing the negatives to printing them. He showed me how to pull-process or push-process film to increase or decrease contrast in addition how to print photos with an enlarger and use burning and dodging techniques to make images “publishable” quality. In fact Mr. Burrows taught me how to develop slide film while Mr. Badough taught me how to process and print color negative film in his home (bathroom) darkroom.
All this training made me think before I pressed the shutter of what type of work I’d have to do in the darkroom to get the desired result. Back then I was shooting outdoor photos during “school hours,” usually in the midday, the wrong time of day to shoot theoretically in photography—the worst lighting conditions. Not to mention, our school cameras were Yashica-MAT 120G, twin-lens reflex cameras with 12-exposure rolls—so every shot had to count. We also had to leave room for cropping in this 2 ¼-inch square format. Yes, 12 shots before we reloaded, not the “spray and pray” method I see so many photographers do where they capture 12 shots in two seconds.
Photography is like basketball, only the players have changed.
I didn’t have a problem with 12 shots, simply pull-process the film and select the proper filter in the enlarger for our variable contrast papers during the printing. Whether it was using D-76, Acufine or Microdol developer, push or pull, filter #1 or #4, when I took photos on assignment, I would think how the film would react (think) during processing and printing (post production) and that made me a better photographer. Same when I transitioned to color negatives. If an assignment called for an existing light shoot in normal florescent lighting conditions, no problem, we’d just make the color button corrections on our Noritsu QSS one-hour machine and BAM! the green color cast was gone.
All these conditions, shooting in the wrong light, making adjustments in the darkroom during processing and printing, shooting manual, etc., forced me to think like the camera (plus film) and how it would come together in the darkroom. I credit these early days for what I still do today before I shoot, I analyze the scene, think how the camera will react to it under the given lighting conditions, and what post-production will be involved which allows me to make the appropriate adjustments in the camera—I don’t just take the shot and worry about it later—I pre-visualize it.
The difference today, we’re not concerned with pull or pushing, we’re concerned with white balance, ISO, color correction of our light sources with gels, etc., because basically, whether it’s film of digital, 1/125th at F/5.6 is still 1/125th at F/5.6 with either medium.
Small light sources are still specular, color temperature of light still affects the medium, whether it’s film or a camera sensor chip. Just like basketball where the ball and backboard are still the same and only the players have changed, in photography comprehension, creativity and communication hasn’t changed, only the terminology and the tools. If you understand those tools, study them and apply them, you’ll be more than an average photographer and certainly not an imagemaker. As Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story.”