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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.
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.
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!