How Your Camera Kills Your Creativity

 A Canadian Forces member looking through his machine gun scope.

Your camera is a jerk.  Seriously.  If your camera was a person it would be incredibly smart, intuitive, and capable; it would follow your lead, support you however you please, and it would give you instant reliable feedback no matter how you treated it.  Here's the thing though: Your camera would mislead, misdirect, and outright lie to you every chance it gets.  But it's not your camera's fault it's a jerk, it was born that way.

You see, your camera is designed to be absolutely mediocre.  Its every natural inclination is to aim for the middle, and stop you from being creative.  When it's in any form of automatic mode it's designed to assess the scene and adjust the image to expose it to a comfortable middle ground where most if not everything is contained in the middle of your histogram. 

When it's focusing it keeps its best focus points in the center and makes it difficult to focus on the intersections of the rule of thirds:

 
 

Trusting the way your camera works isn't setting yourself up to fail, it's like riding with safety wheels.  It can't save you from absolutely everything, but it'll keep you riding vertically most of the time.  What it won't do is suggest ways of pushing the boundaries, of experimenting outside of safe territories.

So what do you do about it?  How do you take the wheels off and take the power back?  Simple: ignore the camera's feedback and understand what it's really telling you.  If you have a vision, say for instance you want to achieve a photo that has a very dark and moody feel, you need to know how to adjust the image to be shifted mostly to the left on your histogram.  If you're in an automatic mode such as Aperture or Shutter Priority, or in full automatic, this means you should adjust your exposure value setting down until you start to see the results you need.  If you're experimenting with manual you'll have to prioritize which element you need to use to bring it downward (ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed).

If you're looking to selectively focus on something that isn't in the middle of the frame, you should learn how to control your focus and shift your lens without it changing; I would suggest using back button focus or manual focusing.

Let's take a look at what this all means in application.

Here's a shot I took last weekend during a Canadian Forces exercise in Valcartier, Quebec:

 

Photo Credit: Cpl Andrew Wesley
Canadian Armed Forces
© DND-MDN 2016
Settings: F/1.4, 1/50, ISO 2000
Equipment: Nikon D4, 50mm 1.4G Prime

 

Here's the histogram for that shot:

 Very spiked in the dark ranges and almost nothing in the middle

Very spiked in the dark ranges and almost nothing in the middle

If I had exposed the way the camera's meters suggested then his face and headlamp would be completely blown-out, and there would be no moodiness in the image.  Instead I shot entirely in manual which allowed me to more effectively control the mood of the image.

Here's another shot I took last weekend with the opposite problem, I wanted the whites to be very white and I wanted to expose to bring some detail into the reflection of his helmet.  My vision was to show dynamics in the reflection that speaks to the environment outside of the shot, and to encourage a solar flare that wouldn't overly compromise the dynamic range of the subjects it bordered.

 

Photo Credit: Cpl Andrew Wesley
Canadian Armed Forces
© DND-MDN 2016
Settings: F/2.8, 1/640, ISO 160
Equipment: Nikon D4, 24-70mm F/2.8 (Set wide open at 24mm)

 

Here's the histogram for that shot:

 Spiked in the highlights and almost nothing in the middle

Spiked in the highlights and almost nothing in the middle

Here's one that deals with two issues, speed and focus.  I composed the image to align the subjects along the rule of thirds.  The problem with trusting your camera on that is that it requires you to focus outside of the focus points in the center.  It also relies on extreme shutter speed (1/8000 of a second), something that automatic modes would almost never predict unless programmed into Shutter Priority.  To overcome the focus issue I used back button focusing on the subject and recomposed the shot, and to overcome the speed issue I shot in manual set to the following settings (1/8000, F/2.8, ISO 640). See how it turned out:

 

Photo Credit: Cpl Andrew Wesley
Canadian Armed Forces
© DND-MDN 2016
Settings: F/2.8, 1/8000, ISO 640
Equipment: Nikon D4, 70-200mm F/2.8 VR (Set to 150mm)

 

In no way am I saying that it's just a matter of knowing the how-to's of photography, it certainly isn't.  What I am saying though is that as a photographer, amateur or professional, you should always push your limits and experiment with new approaches.  Get creative!  Fail a few times!  Sometimes it pays off to ignore your camera's feedback and to follow your gut.  With enough study and practice I assure you it will pay off.

 
 Signature block.
 

-Wes

Ps. Wanna see more of my work in Valcartier?  Check out this link:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadianarmy/albums/72157664293948041