Behind the Camera: All in the Details

· Reading Time: 17 minutes

Welcome back for another installment of my monthly Behind the Camera Series.  In this feature I will typically discuss something that has come up during the previous month that deserves a bit more than just a quick response on social media.  A very good question came up a couple of weeks ago that I earmarked for the topic for this entry.  The question came from Tom via Facebook.  This is what he said:

“Greg, I have been an amateur for a few years and learning.  How do you remember everything you did to take your shots?  How do you do it?  I am curious.”

Tom then goes on to talk about how he is wanting to learn to shoot in manual but is afraid of messing things up on the camera by fiddling with the dials and such.  I thought that this was an excellent question and one that would work out perfectly for this feature.  I don’t think that I am going to tackle the manual operation of a camera here though.  It is simple enough as long as you understand the basics of exposure, and I have taught the manual mode in less than 15 minutes on several occasions.  If you are wanting to get out of the auto mode and move into one of the creative modes like aperture or shutter priority, or even going right into manual exposures please remember that I offer 1-on-1 instruction and will be happy to walk you through the learning process on your own equipment at a location of your choosing.  It will be easily accomplished within the first hour of instruction.  Just reach out to me to schedule your session.

Enough about that though.  Let’s get into the really good question that was posed here.  How do I remember everything that goes into an image?  There is a lot to it from lens choice, to exposure, to where did I focus. Then you add in what filters were used which could be one, or several. Yes, this seems like a bunch of information to remember without the aid of a notebook.  Frankly, I don’t have time to worry about jotting down information in notebook from one exposure to the next.  So, how do I do it?

Remembering everything that I do for a shot is actually easier than it might appear.  There are some things that are just standard for everything that I shoot.  For instance, I only have one camera, so that is the one that I am using, but if I forget what that camera is, or I am looking back on a picture from many years ago, the camera information is listed in the embedded data of the image.  The same goes with the lens that was used.  The lens is actually very easy to determine since during the editing process, I am shown the focal length of the lens at the time of capture.  That is not an important detail most of the time, but will help me identify the lens very quickly with the exception of the range between 24-35mm which is the overlap of two of my lenses.  I also know that unless there are some very odd circumstance, I am shooting with the camera on a tripod just because that is how I choose to work most of the time.  Those odd occasions when I am not using my tripod will stand out and I will remember that detail very easily.  That will get me started with the details that I need to remember about my images when I talk about them, and as you can see there is no memory needed at this point.

Based on the way that Tom asked his question, I am assuming that he is referring more to the “settings” as this is the part of the equation that really seems to stump those learning the craft of photography.  We can look at the answer two different ways here.  The first way is remembering what “settings” were used at the time of the capture.  Again, that is extremely easy to do and doesn’t really matter in the long run at all.  Rarely do I even look at the different settings that I used after the fact unless I was doing long exposures when the duration becomes a little more important to the decision process on the image.  In order to see what those settings were, I can again just look at the file data attached to the picture.  It will give me, in addition to the focal length, the ISO, the shutter speed and the aperture with one exception.  When I use my Rokinon lens, I do not have access to the aperture since that is set manually on the lens and not through the camera.  That is the one time that I have to remember the aperture setting, and I know that for the most part, I am shooting at f/11 with that lens.  There are a few exceptions, but not many.

Honestly, this type of data is not overly useful for the photographer as it is all exposure information and by the time you are looking at the picture, the values don’t matter as much as what the histogram says and where your clipping is on either side of that histogram.  The actual visible image becomes more important than the settings used because you are now looking at it on a monitor that is hopefully set up to give you an accurate indication of whether the exposure is good or not.

Allow me to go on a little bit of a rant here about these so called “settings”.  As a photographer, I have heard that question over and over again in all different forms.  Essentially, folks are wanting to know what settings were used for a specific picture.  The numbers are irrelevant to anyone but the photographer that was shooting that image in that location in that lighting.  Any change to any part of the equation would yield different settings.  A much better question would be “why did you choose the settings that you did?”  This is how I teach my introduction to the art of photography class actually.  It is the why that will always provide the more useful answer to the budding photographer.  Just like the numbers don’t matter to me after the capture, they shouldn’t matter to other photographers when they aren’t in the same conditions with the same composition.


***Warning:  technical tangent ahead***

This brings us to the other way to interpret the question that was asked by Tom.  I don’t think that he meant “how do I remember what settings to use for each image that I am shooting?” but just in case here is the answer to that version.  Again, there is no memory involved here either.  There is a pattern that I follow for the exposure decisions I make and it is all based on the conditions and my creative goals.  It goes a little something like this.  My ISO is always locked in at 100 which is the lowest for my camera.  That gives me a very clean image with good color.  My goal is to not move that setting at all.  That is part of the exposure triangle and it leaves me with just two other variables to work with.  The next consideration is typically my aperture.  The depth of field is usually one of the most important aspects of any type of landscape photography and I need to get that set early on.  For the most part, I will use f/11 which is the sharpest aperture among my lenses.  Your lenses may vary, but it is a good starting point.  I will adjust that aperture as needed for more or less depth of field.  This is where my focus point comes in, and I will use one of three methods of focusing depending on my subject and the distances included in my images.  That is where I will fiddle with the aperture using the Depth of Field Preview button to confirm where my apparent focus is through the image.  Once I get that value set, I am left with only a single variable, and that is the shutter speed.  This is where I use the histogram and I adjust the shutter speed until my histogram looks right and I have a good spread of pixels without anything being blown out in the highlights, or stacked up too much in the shadows.  Once I have that, I have a good exposure and am ready to fire the camera to capture the image.  That is, as long as my subject isn’t moving.

The Lower Shoals“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, 8 images stitched together

If there is movement in my image, that is where I will have to work out my shutter speed to either show the motion, or freeze the motion.  In the example above, I tried to get a slower shutter speed, so I might need to increase the f/number to reduce the light coming into the lens or add filters.  That will allow me to make the shutter stay open longer.  The increase in depth of field won’t be a problem with my focus point, but I will have to watch for diffraction at the extreme end of the range.  On the other hand, I might have a windy day and the shutter speed is too slow which will allow the motion to be seen in the image.  This is the time that I can either open the aperture up which will decrease the depth of field, or I can boost the ISO just enough to achieve the shutter speed that I need for the amount of motion I am trying to eliminate.  I had just that experience the other morning on Rough Ridge when I was shooting the sunrise with the wind howling by.  By using an ISO of 400, I was able to speed up the shutter while only degrading the image slightly.  That is part of the compromise of being a photographer.  You have to work within the exposure triangle…to give to one, you have to take from another.

Step Into the Day“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2-stop hard edge ND Grad


***Technical tangent is now behind us, returning to regular the scheduled broadcast***

I’m sorry, I said I wasn’t going to try and teach anyone how to shoot manual with their camera but I kind of just did.  If you are trying to learn, read the last few paragraphs slowly and really think about what I was saying.  If you aren’t trying to learn how to shoot manual, then allow your eyes to roll back to the front of your sockets and you can continue reading from here.  I know the reaction that you are having as Toni gets that same blank stare when I try to explain anything but the shutter button to her.  It is ok though, I don’t hold it against anyone.

As you see though, there is nothing really to remember about the settings that I use in the field.  They are just designed to chase down a proper histogram and then I look at the creative end of things and adjust accordingly.  Once the image is captured, those numbers mean nothing at all to me.  The only thing that matters is the image that is captured and whether or not I have the information in the pixels that I need to present the image that I intended.  It is actually quite simple.

The next part of the process is the hardest to remember, and there are times that I have trouble remembering as clearly as I would like to.  That is the use of my filters.  There is nothing that is attached to the digital file that indicates if any filters are used, much less which one, or ones were used.  That part of the image is all up to my memory and to make matters worse, if I used the filters correctly, you really can’t tell by looking at the image that one was used.  So how do I remember what filters I have used?

15-Stop Mor Slo shown in the #1 slot and a Galen Rowell 2-Stop ND Grad in the #2 slot

To begin with, I will typically spend a great deal of time with a composition using the same configuration of filters for the majority of the captures.  What that means is that I have spent a great deal of time adjusting filters for each composition which makes it easy to remember if a filter was used in the first place.  Let’s say for instance, I was working a landscape view as the sun was coming up.  Early on I will determine if a filter is needed such as an ND Grad.  I have to attach the holder, and then slide the filter into it.  Now I have to adjust it.  I will usually take between 10 and 40 exposures as the light changes but will typically leave the same filters attached.  I have now spent a great deal of time with a composition and will remember that filter selection when it comes time to edit the images.  There are some times that I can just assume that a filter was used because it is an automatic choice such as with my decay photography.  Whether it is a barn or a car, I am going to use a Polarizer regardless.  The exceptions stand out and I remember that one wasn’t used because there was a conscious decision to leave the filter off and I will see the effects of the glare during the day, or know that if it is a night shot, there were no filters used so that light loss wouldn’t be an issue.

A New Roadmap“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, Galen Rowell 3-stop soft ND Grad

The easy filter to figure out is the ND filter.  I will usually have a static shot of the scene to establish my base exposure values before adding an ND filter.  Now, I can look at the shutter speed values in post processing and can easily determine if a 5-stop, 10-stop, or 15-stop filter was used based on the disparity between the original value and the ending value for the shutter speed.  Of course, these images take a lot of time to set up and I spend a lot of time dialing in the conversion in my phone app based on the strength of the filter.  That usually means that I remember the filter without even having to look at the shutter speed values.  The same goes with the IR filter and the Astro filter.  These both are for special circumstances and are easy to remember because those filters actually dictate the kind of image that is being captured and becomes an integral part of it.

The same thing can be said about me stacking filters.  When I start adding multiple filters for a scene, that image becomes a special event in my mind and it is very easy to remember what I used for the scene because I had spent time determining which combination would yield the results that I was after.  It is times like these that become the reason that the phrases “nice snap” or “great shot” kind of irk me (although I am always happy for positive responses to my images).  These phrases indicate a quick and off the cuff approach to the photograph.  I read that, and think about going through all of this in order to get the photograph that they are talking about.  It is anything but a snap, or a shot…at least in my mind.

Since partnering with Singh-Ray Filters a few years back, remembering what filters I used has become more important than it had ever been.  Actually, before that, I rarely cared after the picture was created.  If it looked good on the screen I was happy and that was that.  These days, I have a need to remember the filters.  Since there is really nothing attached the file, I had to find another way to document the filters used.  Well, I could add the metadata to the files in Lightroom, but I just don’t trust that and since so many people ask about my filter use, I wanted to make it very accessible.  I used to write about my filter use in the blogs which I have always done after ever trek.  That was fine for a while, but fifteen years later, some of the bogs have been lost and they are getting harder and harder to find specific ones at this point.  What I have been doing for the last couple of years now has been adding the information in the description to the uploaded image to my website as well as in social media platforms.  That way, when somebody looks at the image, they know exactly what was used to create it.  It also allows me a certain degree of transparency with my images.  I don’t hide anything about how they were created and what I did to achieve the final look.  It is also a great way for me to go back and refer to the details when I am writing out the description of the image for clients that purchase prints from me.

Caging Light“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

On the topic of my blog, this is the biggest form of memory for me.  In fact, I call it my “dear diary” in the tags.  It is just that, a way to remember each trek that I go on and what I did to get the images.  I’m thrilled that so many of you enjoy reading the accounts of my photography, but these entries will always be first and foremost my crutch for remembering what happened.  I can look at the date of the creation of the image, and then do a search in the blog for that date.  I now know everything from the planning of the trip to the editing of the images.  The key is to get home, get the images sorted and edited and get to writing while it is still fresh in my mind.  The most notable exception that that would be multiple day treks like when we go to the coast.  These are very hard for me to remember filters because there are usually four or more days worth of shooting to try and remember.  For these times, I will jot down notes in a notebook for reference later on.  The scenes that I shoot will only represent a handful of notes a day with what filters I used.  Also, at the beach, my default is no filters at all because there is just too high a chance of getting damage from the sand.  Therefore, when I use a filter, there is a specific reason for it and remembering that becomes a little easier for me, but the notes will help.

Having been a police officer for 20 years I am accustomed to report writing.  That is essentially what my blogs are.  They are reports about the different aspects of the creation of my images.  While I am out capturing the images I am recording the events in my mind just as I would have through an investigation for a burglary or assault.  I maintain the details until I can get them on paper (on on the hard drive) and then I have a complete release of the information from my mind.  It is odd, even to me.  When I think about the last trek that I went on to Rough Ridge (just yesterday at the time of this writing), I can’t remember much at all about it.  In fact, I had to really think back to remember when I went there.  I don’t really recall the images that I created unless I really stop to think about it.  That trek represented 21 hours of my day and I don’t really remember it.  However, when I was writing about it, I knew every detail, and could remember every stump that I tripped over to get up to the viewing platform.  That whole day has been relegated to my long term memory now and it takes me a while to access it.  That is because I have written about it and cleared it out of my short term memory.  I had the same issue when I was working.  I would answer ten calls during the day.  I would write my reports, fill out my activity sheet and forget about it.  By the end of the shift I would go through and mark boxes and would be surprised at what I had done for the last 11 hours.  I think that is the key to my happiness though.  I can much easier live in the moment and focus on the future because I have documented the past.  The difference here is that I am documenting it in a way where you can join me and experience aspects of it for yourself.

That is the key to me remembering what I do in order to capture my images.  It is not all that special, but I have learned how to use the crutches available to me in order to remember the details.  When I need to remember information about a particular picture when doing the writeup for a client, I will get the embedded information, and then refer to the blog entry.  It is just the same as when I would testify in court.  The report would unlock the long term memory and then all of a sudden I would remember each and every detail of the experience.  That is how I can write about how each image came to be.

I do hope that you enjoyed this month’s installment of my Behind the Camera feature.  I would like to thank Tom for the suggestion this month.  I think it was an excellent topic and I am happy to entertain any other questions that you might have pertaining to my photography.  Next month is already spoken for as it will be the last quarterly review for the business end of my photography as September 16, will mark a full year since I left my career to become a starving artist.  It is hard to believe that a full year has passed since that change, but the calendar doesn’t lie.  We will find out how that has gone next month, but in the meantime I hope that you continue enjoying my photography and if you haven’t already, why not click on the “Subscribe” button on my home page to get email notifications for each blog update.  You wouldn’t want to miss an entry in my diary now would you?
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