I often read other photographers talking about a particular photograph and how it came to be. Sometimes, those stories are quite interesting, fun, and even informative. Other times, I call bullshit — especially when they start into ‘I knew that to get the shot the way I wanted I had to change the asa (iso for older farts out there) to 157, the shutterspeed to 1/249 and the aperture to 3.1218 and use the gmya filter with polarization to get the shot.”
For a studio shot, maybe a lot of thought did go into it. I hope so. Maybe there were test shots that led them to make changes and get the exact shot they wanted with non-standard settings. Maybe. Even there, I question it.
For shooting in the field, on the fly, gotta say I don’t believe it for a minute. Even semi-studio, like the shot above, I don’t believe it.
The shot above is one I took for a friend in college, an artist who wanted a series of shots of his then girlfriend for sketching and painting. Rather than have her pose long hours, the shots gave him what he needed. It also gave me one of the best portraits I’ve ever taken (IMO) and a lesson to share.
I wish I could tell you that I thought long and hard about this, and that lots of calculation and experience went into it. Experience, maybe. Calculations, no.
When we set up this shot, I realized that we had something special in terms of light, location, and subject. Playing with them began immediately as I moved around a bit to get the angle I wanted, and then the fun began.
One thing I miss very much from film days is that I had my aperture and related controls on the lens, and I could see what changes did as I made them with ease. In this case, I adjusted the aperture to work with the speed I already had, and bracketed. Yes, bracketed. It’s the smart thing to do.
Any time I hear someone brag that they only took one shot, knowing they had it, I figure them to be lucky or a liar. Smart photographers, and almost every professional I know, takes several shots just to be safe. You take a couple with each setting, because stuff happens. Heck, back in film days I knew of the same shot being taken on different rolls of film, in case something happened to one roll. Time consuming and a pain to do (and it can lead to some unintentional and fun/interesting/good multiple exposure shots), but when the shot counts, you did it. From my internship at Playboy, I can tell you that for any one shot in the magazine, a hundred or more may have been taken to get that one. It’s not just the exposure, it is the location, the subject, and the light and getting the perfect combination takes time, skill, and a lot of shots — even with luck.
In this case, the middle bracket (if I remember correctly) got it, as hoped. Won’t call it a plan. The result, even with a bit of water damage to the negative from a leaky trailer in a move, is this.
I do not yet have the confidence when shooting digital to play with all my settings on the fly. I’m old and cranky, and miss having more manual controls on the lens and camera. That said, I love digital and being able to check things as I shoot, and not having to worry about film getting damaged or lost, where the lab was in its chemical batch (you really didn’t want to be part of the last batch through before a change IMO), or the other joys. I like that I can play with darkroom effects without turning my fingers interesting colours or spending hours of trial and error. But…
For field shooting, I set things up as much as I can beforehand, and then trust the system to adjust within what I have set. I will do some changes while out, but it takes time to get used to a system and do it without thinking on the fly. Even then, you better shoot a lot, because getting the right settings, with the right lighting, with the right location, and the right view of the subject takes time and luck.