Nuts & Bolts
April 2008

by Bill Pierce

First things first.

Philip Jones Griffiths died last month of cancer. He lived with it for a long time and did so without self-pity.

There are a lot of good photographers around. Good photographers who are exceptional human beings are a lot more rare. Philip was among the exceptional. In Philip's case "He will be missed" is a cliché returning to its truthful roots. There is no one who knew Philip Jones Griffiths who can't feel pain and loss at the fact that he is no longer with us.

First things first. If you haven't already, look at Philip's pictures in the lead article of this month's DJ. Read what Peter Howe has chosen to say. You may want to spend some time thinking about what you have seen and what you have read before you come back to the rest of the Web site.

Here's this month's Nuts and Bolts.

The sinners of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" were forced to wear a scarlet A that stood for Adultery. I think today's photographic Scarlet Letter should be A for Automatic. It should be worn by anyone who thinks that the camera knows more about exposing and focusing a specific subject than the photographer does. And, especially, it should be worn by folks who think that once exposure and focus are set, you just have to push the button to take a picture.

It's pretty easy to poke holes in auto exposure. Shoot from a low angle to place a subject against the sky rather than a distracting background of ground level clutter and Auto Exposure finds the sky most interesting. You're stuck with your subject in silhouette, unreclaimable by any digital magic.

The subject looks out a window. Auto exposure really finds the expanse of the darkened room interesting. The subject you were so interested in turns into the abominable snowman, once again, unreclaimable by any digital magic.

Not difficult situations to correct – spot meter, close-up metering, anything beyond a misplaced belief in Automatic.

And then there is Automatic's evil cousin, Program. "Let me pick the shutter speed and aperture. It's easy. Don't you worry about it." Thus, the razor sharp telephone pole growing out of the subject's head or the subtle degradation of the moving subject....

Try aperture or shutter priority. Don't be like the professional photographer I once met who didn't know what Tv and Av stood for on the control dial of his camera. And don't be like the many photographers who know what Tv and Av stand for – and don't use them.

I am inordinately fond of large, goofy dogs. They are much friendlier than photo editors. But when you do a close-up portrait of a dog the Autofocus often puts the sharpest focus on the closest element, the end of the dog's snout. It does this with photo editors, but it's often not as noticeable because they have smaller snouts. It's rarely noticeable with your f/6.3 to f/11 all-purpose zoom, but with an f/2.8 lens wide open it is clearly obvious even with the smallest snouted photo editor – sharp snout, soft eyes.

Correcting the problem can be as simple as taking the autofocus sensor off a patterned mode and using a sensor positioned where the eyes are in the frame. But sometimes these sensors are not accurate at the wide-open apertures that are used in portraiture. The central sensor can be the most accurate. But using it to focus on the eyes and then reframing can be a problem because high-speed lenses rarely have a flat field, something most obvious at close focusing distances and large apertures.

My answer is to use one of the interchangeable focusing screen more suited to manual focus. The best screen for manual focusing is a course ground glass, probably the least efficient screen if you are interested in a bright, contrasty viewfinder image. The interchangeable viewfinder screens for DSLRs (that I am aware of) are not this extreme. They try to balance manual focusing accuracy and the loss of brightness in an intelligent compromise. And they succeed. Those screens, a little focus bracketing and prayer, let me shoot wide open with f/1.2 and 1.4 lenses and bring home the bacon in focus. Sadly, the Scarlet A does not.

And now we come to the most important auto sin – Auto Shoot.

In the days of the all-manual cameras, photo articles, even ads, used to feature awful acronyms that were supposed to remind you what to do as you pressed the shutter button. "FAST – focus, aperture, shutter, think" was one of the most popular. I propose a new acronym for today's shutter button: "PHAT – press halfway and think."

The terrible truth is it's not enough to be in focus and with the proper exposure. Now comes the think part. How is the framing? What can I do to improve it? Especially important for news, where's the moment, the expression, the gesture, that fraction of time that gives a picture that compelling, arresting quality?

I see folks pressing the button once the little LEDs in a camera tell them the autofocus and the autoexposure are set. "Me, too," you say. "I see amateurs doing that all the time."

No, I see professionals doing it. I've seen them do it before there were little green LEDs in the viewfinder that told them it was OK to shoot. You've all seen the shot of Nixon's final helicopter flight from the White House. Nixon was surrounded by his family and officials as, for a second, he flashed the double V for Victory sign that was his trademark. How many photographers were there? A lot. How many got that shot? Not as many as you might think. Some were blocked. Others were responsible for other aspects of the event besides Nixon, himself. A lot of folks have pictures of Nixon boarding the helicopter, but not at the time he was flashing the V. And yet, I've heard many photographers say, "I have that shot."

Bill Eppridge's unique shot of the mortally wounded Bobby Kennedy.… Would you believe I have heard another photographer say he had the shot of the Robert Kennedy assassination? No, he doesn't. Photographing at the event is not enough.

I don't care if the event is a head shot or a moment that becomes an important event in history. If you think that it's time to take the picture when the green light in the viewfinder goes on, then look out for the day they make a camera with wheels and a navigation system.

This month's "picture that has nothing to do with the column" was taken in Nova Scotia. I've always considered cat jokes a little too racy for a serious photojournalism Web site. Friends assure me that I am wrong. Are photojournalists lowering their standards?

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

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