Mar 25, 2012

The Perfect Zebra Photo in 3 Easy Steps.

A Story

Hank the Zebra

Meet Hank the Zebra. There he stands stripedly, at the zoo, flicking his tail under the willow.

Nearby, my buddy Bill steps up to take a photo. He squints and looks through the finder of his late model dslr with f/2.8 mid-range telephoto. Zooms in and out a few times with his busy fingers. Presses a few buttons without even pulling his eye away (he has double control wheels). And then (click, click, click, click, click). Actually, he takes five photos – hedge the bets – it's digital after all. And I lean over to see his LCD as he flips through them.

Lighting: check. Exposure: spot on. Shutter-aperture combination: very suitable.

And..... they all... well, they are all extremely average. Bland, really. It's probably better not to say anything, I think to myself. And I smile.

Up steps Julie. Pause....... Walks to the left several feet. Stretches, looks around. Pause.......... Stands there with her right hand at her hip, casually holding a consumer APS-C dslr with a cheap 50mm prime (is it even auto-focus?). Pauses.......... Looks around again. Walks to the right a few steps. Bends down and rests the camera on the guard rail. Looks through the finder for a full Hail Mary.

And finally. Pause......... (Click) takes a photo.

Hank chews and snorts.

Interested, I nudge over to her side as she double-checks the shot she just took.

"Wow. That's really nice," I say to her.

"Thanks," she shrugs.

And on to the monkey cage we all go.

As I ponder the zebra scene, I ask myself, "What was it about that photo that made it... just right?" And then, with great respect for his efforts, "And why did Bill's suck? All five of them?"

Both seemed to get the right exposure (one manually, the other on automatic). You just couldn't lose on the colour, what with the black and white stripes surrounded by verdant green and yellow, under warm, late-day light. Both certainly had enough megapixels. There was... something just different.

Later that evening, it's a barbecue at Julie's, and I see in her stairwell a series of framed prints of any number of subjects from flowers to vistas to fire hydrants. And they all seem... just right.

And the zebra thing gnaws at me, so I ask her point blank.



"Are those all your photos?"

"Yep", she replies, tossing some croutons into the Caesar salad.

"How do you take such great photos?"

"Oh, they're not that great."

"Yeah, they are. And I want to have your children."

"I already have children."

"Right. But what is it about your photos, especially that one of the kaleidoscope? It's amazing."

"I dunno."

"How can you not know?"

"I don't. I just take pictures."

"But what do you actually DO when you take pictures."

"Well," she says, and hope rises. "I did take this evening photography class once and the instructor made us do these three little things. I never forgot."

"Three things?" I ask.

"Well, one thing," she replies. "But three exercises."

"So, what were the three exercises? What did the instructor tell you?"

At the opening class, he said that exposure is a huge factor in photos of course. And that there are whole libraries full of books on it. He said that taking people shots is a lifetime of study, and that landscape photography is a career of it's own. And journalism is often about timing, he explained. He said there are endless debates on the merits of post-processing verses relying on your original image capture. And apparently, there are even Internet forums where people just text until late at night about what equipment they'd like.

But, he said, there is one thing that applies to every photo, all of the time. It doesn't matter what subject, what time of day, whether indoors or outdoors, whether fast or slow shutter speed, wide-angle or telephoto.

One thing matters, every time, every shot.

And then he made us take a coffee break! Jerk.

So, when we reconvened, he got all mystical and talked about the one thing and then he said:

Stop thinking! Stop thinking, stop pressing buttons, and LOOK!

So we looked.

Looking, he said is about composition. And composition is looking.

Uh-huh, we nodded, waiting for him to close his eyes and hum something.

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