Expression Over Perfection - Living With Limits - Digital Photography School
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Expression Over Perfection – Living With Limits

Subject First, Technique Second

I have been taking pictures on a serious basis for approximately three years now, and I would say that about two years of this have been consumed with learning about gear and technique.  So much of the material you will read and be exposed to revolves around the need to get the right equipment and learn the right techniques. This is certainly a great place to start and pretty fundamental in being able to take decent pictures.   There is however a point at which it comes time to put away the camera catalogs and start thinking about the mental tools and techniques needed to really take things to the next level.

“Pixel Peepers” will utterly hate the whole concept of a quality photo being dependent on something which cannot be assessed in terms of its physical performance, but I guarantee that an image which perfectly captures the moment will out shine a technically perfect shot which doesn’t.  In essence a great image is not absolutely dependent on gear and to illustrate I’d like to share with you a picture and a story.

Taking the Shot

This is a photo from a friends wedding which I took of the bride and groom as they left at the end of the night.  In truth I wasn’t planning on taking any pictures that day, however the father of the bride asked if I would, how could I possibly say no?  Having left all the ‘right’ gear at home and having no idea as to what would be happening or when, I have to say I was slightly stressed as I didn’t want to disappoint but was pretty sure I would struggle.

The end of the party came and the happy couple started to make their way out of the venue.  It was hopelessly dark and I knew that a decent exposure would be difficult.  The only light available was from the sparklers and to make matters worse the lack of direct lighting meant that the autofocus was hit or miss.  I quickly decided to shoot to the limits of the situation by shooting in aperture priority and dialing in a F stop which I knew would give me a reasonably forgiving depth of field without being too restrictive.  I cranked up the ISO to 2000 (as high as I dared go) and flicked on the high-speed continuous shooting mode.  The result was a shutter speed of about 1/30 which I know from experience I can just about hand hold.

I knew that I needed to shoot low as I wanted to frame the couple against the reception venue.  I also needed time to get focused whilst doing all I could to ensure sure I had a clear shot.  The action lasted less than a minute and I have to say I was fairly pushy with anyone straying into my line of sight.  I would completely believe it if more than a few people wondered who the guy with the camera thought he was.  Never the less I clicked away taking as many shots as I possibly could.

Straight out of the camera the images were grainy because of the high ISO and slightly out of focus because of the poor light.  I have to say that when I first got the files off the camera my heart sank but on closer inspection, the bride has a fantastic expression and looks fabulous in her dress.  The fact that groom is not completely in focus doesn’t detract from the story of the image and in fact adds to the sense of drama.  With a little effort in post I thought it might be possible to get something decent.  I won’t go into the full details but processing mainly consisted of correcting the basics (white balance, exposure and cropping) plus conversion to mono using Lightroom before using Photoshop to apply some curve corrections before finally adding a blurry vignette for additional focus.  The image below shows the RAW image plus the major steps.

Crappy Shot, Beautiful Photo

Expression Trumps Perfection

I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is successful shot or not.  When I showed this to the bride, she loved it but that said maybe she was being polite.

Personally I think that the mono conversion helps to compliment the noise and grittiness of the exposure and that the story combined with the beautiful expression on the brides face overcomes the technical shortcomings of the final image.  The experience of taking this picture underlines the importance of “Expression over Perfection”, by shooting to the limits of the situation I was able to concentrate on the other more important aspects of composition, timing and telling the story of the moment.

Next time you are struggling with the technical aspects of a shoot or if you find yourself in a situation which is less than ideal, remember this saying, set your camera to the best possible settings and if it all goes really wrong .. there’s always Photoshop!

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Russell Masters 'is a photographer, blogger and international man of meetings. Check out his work at eightfiftytwophotography.com and drop him a message via twitter @russmasters.

  • http://www.joe-elliott.co.uk Joe Elliott

    Hi Russ,

    I think under the circumstances you done an amazing job, just goes to show you really don’t know what’s waiting round the corner.

    Great & Thanks
    Joe

  • Joshua Sigar

    I love it and I’m not just trying to be polite. :) The couple was lucky to have you taken the shot.

    I like the blur in post, but not sure about B/W because I like the warm light (just need toning down a bit).

  • http://csafotography.wordpress.com Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri

    I love the last sentence “if at all anything goes wrong, there is always photoshop”. Well, I am not sure how to take it but I always first try to perfect it while shooting as I don’t know anything about Photoshop as of now and I am learning. If I dont like a shot I try to take the same shot again. Luckily, it works a lot of time but sometimes it is tough without Photoshop to bring it to the way we want it. :)

  • http://hoadvd.com Alan S.

    You have come closer to the essence and meaning of creating a memorable image than most of the things we read today. Great capture of the moment!

  • http://www.portraitinspiration.com Jai Catalano

    First off it’s tough to shoot at 1/30th. I gather you didn’t drink because you have to have great control to capture non blurry shots at that speed. Secondly I think you like. Thirdly the bride loves it.

    To me that is a success. What others think is totally irrelevant (so to speak).

    PS. Love that you were truthful about how you felt during the shoot. Most people go through that but hate sharing. :)

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-29/

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    I have to say the next level is also a moving target! When you reach there you realize it was a temporary stop!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/11/sun-plays-peak-a-boo-behind-the-clouds-lakshman-sagar-rajasthan.html

  • corina

    Agreed. A photo isn’t always about how it was taken.

  • http://Www.wildlifeencounters.eu Steve

    I like this post. So much is said about gear and technical perfection to the point, sometimes, of obsession.

    No matter what the gear, and even if you miss some of the technicalities, if you capture the moment and the mood and convey it then it can result in a great shot.

    One of my favourite shots which was taken when I first started and when I had not even learned the technicalities just captures the mood and tells a story

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Drakensbergs/G0000.XwoItDTaWY/I0000gn15z7lS_Qg/C0000D2MMb2JEuew

  • Scottc

    This is the best article I’ve read on DPS in quite some time. You forgot about the “limits”, and pushed them to capture a moment that you knew was special. And it worked. Thanks for sharing.

    I did something similar once. Climbed a long circular stairway, at the top I was breathing like a dragon and the light was low, but I saw this and did the best I could with the camera. I like the way it turned out.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4724529635/

  • Mei Teng

    Russell, I think the photo looked great…..nevermind that it may not be absolutely perfect in terms of sharpness, level of noise etc. You’ve captured the expressions and atmosphere of the wedding. Sometimes a great shot need not be all about perfection but also the mood and expression it conveys.

  • http://www.1107photography.wordpress.com Deb Scally

    I always enjoy stories about “real” photographers overcoming obstacles. It gives the rest of us “real” folks assurance that the main thing to keep in mind is how to do the best with what we have–whether it’s gear, or lighting, or scenery. The real talent is thinking on your feet!

  • http://www.cryptision.com Ben Bates

    This is so true, but sometimes photoshop/gimp just does not want to play along. I’m still stuggling to learn how to properly color correct (example: the blue haze over the photo I used in my last animation http://youtu.be/FrUC14y1eG8 )

  • ArturoMM

    I’m grateful for your post and words, just I’d like to say that -agreeing with joshua above- the edited picture looks warmer and more pleasant.

  • http://www.eightfiftyphotography.com Russell

    Hi Guys, have had some problems with posting comments. Many thanks for the great feedback. Hope that you found this post useful. Would love to see any pictures you take.

  • Lindsey

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I looked on a photo forum once and there was a beautiful picture of a mother having a sweet moment with her son, but others on the forum started criticizing the picture for “having trees growing out of her head” (the depth of field was shallow enough that they weren’t distracting, and the picture was taken in a forest, so I would find it hard to avoid) and telling the photographer that it looked amateur and he should have repositioned them. What no one seemed to realize was that if he had repositioned them, he would have missed out on the beautiful candid moment, which to me is much more important. It’s a shame more people don’t stress the importance of getting the shot in the right moment instead of getting it technically perfect.

  • tonyc0101

    besides the fact that a lot of things can be edited-out afterwards anyway :)

  • tonyc0101

    besides the fact that a lot of things can be edited-out afterwards anyway :)

  • Ren Faustino III

    and the only people who truly notice those pesky trees are photographers too.. clients and 99% percent of “regular” views probably couldn’t care less..

Some older comments

  • Russell

    December 2, 2012 10:23 pm

    Hi Guys, have had some problems with posting comments. Many thanks for the great feedback. Hope that you found this post useful. Would love to see any pictures you take.

  • ArturoMM

    November 23, 2012 07:44 am

    I'm grateful for your post and words, just I'd like to say that -agreeing with joshua above- the edited picture looks warmer and more pleasant.

  • Ben Bates

    November 19, 2012 06:19 am

    This is so true, but sometimes photoshop/gimp just does not want to play along. I'm still stuggling to learn how to properly color correct (example: the blue haze over the photo I used in my last animation http://youtu.be/FrUC14y1eG8 )

  • Deb Scally

    November 18, 2012 12:39 am

    I always enjoy stories about "real" photographers overcoming obstacles. It gives the rest of us "real" folks assurance that the main thing to keep in mind is how to do the best with what we have--whether it's gear, or lighting, or scenery. The real talent is thinking on your feet!

  • Mei Teng

    November 17, 2012 11:31 am

    Russell, I think the photo looked great.....nevermind that it may not be absolutely perfect in terms of sharpness, level of noise etc. You've captured the expressions and atmosphere of the wedding. Sometimes a great shot need not be all about perfection but also the mood and expression it conveys.

  • Scottc

    November 17, 2012 11:28 am

    This is the best article I've read on DPS in quite some time. You forgot about the "limits", and pushed them to capture a moment that you knew was special. And it worked. Thanks for sharing.

    I did something similar once. Climbed a long circular stairway, at the top I was breathing like a dragon and the light was low, but I saw this and did the best I could with the camera. I like the way it turned out.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/4724529635/

  • Steve

    November 17, 2012 05:32 am

    I like this post. So much is said about gear and technical perfection to the point, sometimes, of obsession.

    No matter what the gear, and even if you miss some of the technicalities, if you capture the moment and the mood and convey it then it can result in a great shot.

    One of my favourite shots which was taken when I first started and when I had not even learned the technicalities just captures the mood and tells a story

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Drakensbergs/G0000.XwoItDTaWY/I0000gn15z7lS_Qg/C0000D2MMb2JEuew

  • corina

    November 17, 2012 05:24 am

    Agreed. A photo isn't always about how it was taken.

  • Mridula

    November 17, 2012 05:16 am

    I have to say the next level is also a moving target! When you reach there you realize it was a temporary stop!

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/2012/11/sun-plays-peak-a-boo-behind-the-clouds-lakshman-sagar-rajasthan.html

  • Jai Catalano

    November 17, 2012 05:15 am

    First off it's tough to shoot at 1/30th. I gather you didn't drink because you have to have great control to capture non blurry shots at that speed. Secondly I think you like. Thirdly the bride loves it.

    To me that is a success. What others think is totally irrelevant (so to speak).

    PS. Love that you were truthful about how you felt during the shoot. Most people go through that but hate sharing. :)

    http://portraitinspiration.com/inspiration-for-the-day-29/

  • Alan S.

    November 17, 2012 05:15 am

    You have come closer to the essence and meaning of creating a memorable image than most of the things we read today. Great capture of the moment!

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri

    November 17, 2012 05:04 am

    I love the last sentence "if at all anything goes wrong, there is always photoshop". Well, I am not sure how to take it but I always first try to perfect it while shooting as I don't know anything about Photoshop as of now and I am learning. If I dont like a shot I try to take the same shot again. Luckily, it works a lot of time but sometimes it is tough without Photoshop to bring it to the way we want it. :)

  • Joshua Sigar

    November 17, 2012 04:45 am

    I love it and I'm not just trying to be polite. :) The couple was lucky to have you taken the shot.

    I like the blur in post, but not sure about B/W because I like the warm light (just need toning down a bit).

  • Joe Elliott

    November 17, 2012 03:11 am

    Hi Russ,

    I think under the circumstances you done an amazing job, just goes to show you really don't know what's waiting round the corner.

    Great & Thanks
    Joe

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