The Holy Grail
I’ve paid scant regard to this oft quoted missive up until recently. Getting it right in camera sounds like the holy grail that photographers of merit shoud seek at all costs. Because of course the camera never lies, ever. And the camera always captures precisely what we see, always.
Pondering on this recently, following a chat with a fellow photographer who doubted its validity and hearing echoes of students quoting that very mantra on a recent workshop, I’ve begun to piece together my thoughts on this. Share yours if you like in the comments or on facebook.
I grew up on film. Ilford FP4 and HP5 black and white negative stock to be exact. I processed the rolls depending on what I wanted as the end result. Then, at the printing stage I dodged and burned the details to lighten or darken areas of the image to fit with my vision. As did Ansel Adams and a million others.
Life as a professional beckoned and I switched wholesale to slide film. Fuji Velvia and Provia now flowed through my cameras like there was no tomorrow. Publishers demanded transparencies and that demand came with a whole bucketful of issues. Getting it right in camera was the only way to work. There was no post production other than pushing or pulling the film in the development stage to manipulate the iso rating somewhat. What I shot needed to be perfectly exposed and focused. I couldn’t even crop of course. I could manipulate results to a certain degree by choosing the appropriate film stock.
Revisiting the Old Mantra
However now the vast majority of us shoot digitally and it is time to revisit the old mantra. Maybe it’s even time to put it to bed. For the purpose of this article by ‘getting it right in camera’ I mean that the image which appears on the camera preview screen is exactly how you want the final shot to be. Perfectly exposed, with well managed saturation and just the right amount of focus. To my mind that’s what most folk mean by the phrase.
Firstly let’s look at what is ‘right’. What is that elusive state of vision that needs to be captured by the tool in front of our eyes or on the tripod. What about the reality of the scene in front of us? Do we ever really see that? Or is our vision of the world coloured by our own emotional state, expectations and overlays of memories past and dreams imagined? Also, our eyes adapt quickly to take in detail in dark shadows and bright highlights, so maybe that’s not the true reality? Then there’s the representation that the camera sees with its cold glassy eye that leaves nothing to chance, shows no emotion and brings with it a whole hornets nest of aberrations, colour balance issues and the like! So, reality is relative, relative to lots of variables.
Putting all of these conundrums aside, let’s examine the best the camera can offer on the preview screen. Yep, we can expose and focus to get a great image, perhaps using a graduated filter to retain sky detail. The shadows may be deep but they were dark after all weren’t they? To get it right in camera we need to do so in a single exposure. If we shoot raw we’ll be able to reproduce the shot from the back of the camera very easily with minimal post processing, and if you shoot jpegs you’ll probably be happy with what the camera’s built in processing engine can do.
The Digital Alternative
However, with digital we do have an alternative. Getting it right in camera may need to be consigned to 20th century photography. The image on the back of the camera may well have to play second fiddle to another guide, one shrouded in mystery for many. The histogram. You see, the old way of shooting doesn’t really make the grade any more. Not if you want to inject your emotion into the scene, not if you want to tell stories as deep as the ocean and as rich as the forest.
The secret lies in exposing to the right. This is not the equivalent to the filmic ‘expose for the highlights’ or ‘expose for the shadows’, it’s something completely new that raw digital capture enables. Camera sensors capture more detail in light parts of the file, and by an order of magnitudes. So it figures that if we want to have our options for image processing wide open we allow the file to be captured as brightly as possible. The preview image will look pants. It may well be painfully light with little or no contrast visible. Much of the screen may be near white and what should be black will appear to be a pale muddy grey.
That is how it needs to be. Trust me on this. The secret is to expose as light as possible without letting the highlights clip, almost but not quite. Now your image file will have unimaginable depth. A few seconds in Lightroom or Photoshop is all it will take to recover the exposure whilst still retaining the benefit of noise free shadow detail that will be recoverable with ease. Give it a try. You will be surprised.
Not getting it right in camera opens up so many more possibilities. If the dynamic range is too much for your camera to capture why not forgo the neutral density grad and take two exposures instead, one for the land and one for the sky? Once you’ve practiced you’ll be able to blend the two shots in Photoshop even quicker than you can pull out and fit your filter!
Perhaps you’ll choose to create two versions of the shot in Lightroom and then blend them together in Photoshop to give you the feel you felt at the time of capture.
Then there’s focus. Can’t get all the scene sharp. Try focus stacking several shots together. Nowadays it’s quick and painless.
If you follow these methods your image files will become more powerful even than monochrome negatives when you begin to process them. Using the sliders in Lightroom you’ll be able to recreate not just the scene that your eyes saw, but the scene that your heart felt as you heard the landscape speak to you.