The Fiction of Image Data


Coquille Lighthouse Canon 50D, 100-400mm @ 100mm, f8 195 seconds iso 100

Why is it that when ever a photograph is posted, printed or displayed we feel it is necessary to place under it the exposure data for the image? It has become standard opperating practice and every photographer feels compelled to comply. Why?

It is almost as if we are saying “add one cup of light, stir gently and serve.” We treat the exposure data as if it were something sacred, a recipe that tells one how to recreate the magnificence (or lack there of) of the particular image. Granted it does tell us much of the mechanics, the quantity. It does not, however, tell us the quality, the feel. The exposure data does not tell us if the sun is 5 degrees above the horizon or 10 degrees. It doesn’t inform us about whether the light is cutting through a smoggy haze or being bounced from lush green foliage. These are equally important factors and I wonder if I should not start labeling each image with “Canon 5DmkII, 500mm lens, f4 1/500th second, iso 100, sun partially blocked by clouds 10 degrees above the horizon and rising, air quality good with no particulate matter…” Obviously I am joking. I have no intention of writing a book to describe the conditions and selections made for each image. I will probably continue to include exposure data if only out of compliance.

Light is more than quantity. It is also quality. It is the quality of light that conveys the emotive energy of an image. I am not simply speaking of the color temperature of the light, the relative warmness. It is much more. If we were only concerned with the temperature than two things would be true. First, we could simply change our white balance to select the emotion. Second, Black and White images would have no emotive characteristics. Neither is true.

The so called “Sweet Light” of the first and last hours of the day can truly be sweet. In ideal conditions we may have the direct light of the sun cutting though the atmosphere as well as reflected light and diffuse light all being present at the same time. Shadows open up and highlights remain full of energy while not blowing out. Here we have the possibility of multiple different characteristics of light playing together. These characteristics are not expressed in simple exposure data.

Ultimately, there is no light in which I will not try to create an image. I will do it at high noon in harsh direct light. I will make an image after the sun has set using only the evening glow of a sunless, moonless sky or in the morning before the sun has risen. The challenge to me (and I hope to you) is to create an image the shares the feeling quality I see at that moment.

The image above and associated data does not tell you that this shot was taken before the sun had risen. The fact that the lighthouse is more lit on the West side would suggest that it was taken as the sun set though it was not. It was just that the moon had just set and was providing more light than the not yet risen sun.

We have all had the experience of stepping out in the morning to feel the sun fall upon us as if it were wrapping it’s rays around us, giving us a hug and a kiss on the cheek. How do we say that in a photograph? However we manage to communicate that feeling, it can not be summarized as f16 1/125th second.


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