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on Jun 1, 2006 in Thought of the Month, Wildlife Photography

Analyzing – it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be!

Have you ever read Time Exposure by William Henry Jackson? It’s a great read about an era, humanity and philosophy that’s long passed. William Henry Jackson for those who don’t know the name was a pioneer landscape/nature photograph. I mean pioneer in every sense of the world. From being thought of as the inventor of the picture postcard, one of the first to use color film, and being the photographer for the Hayden Expedition to Yellowstone, he was a pioneer. He took the first photos of that grand place, can you even imagine what that was like? (He also went to congress with those photos to lobby them into creating  Yellowstone Nat’l Park.)


I bring him up because, well, I often wonder what this hero of mine would think of today’s photographers. He had to carry all of his glass plates, tent & chemicals to the locale he was going to photograph, set it all up including the camera, run to the tent, coat the glass plate, run to the camera, snap, run to the tent and process. Then, he had to carry all of these glass plates back to print them (the story of when his mule carrying all his exposed plates went over and smashed them all is a heart wrencher). When he analyzed his photos, he would say, “I like that one or, I don’t like that one.� This is photographic analyzation at its best!

The Photo of the Month was a shot taken last week in Custer State Park, SD while I was shooting with my mentee Jock Voelzke (who produced some fine images). I shot the whole time handholding a 200f2, at time adding the TC-17e, but always shooting wide open. That means I was shooting at f/2 or f/3.3, that’s a real narrow DOF. Looking at the photo, one would conclude that a bigger aperture was used because of all the apparent focus in the calf and in the ass of the cow. Looking at just the stats of 200f2 w/TC-17e shot wide open, one would conclude that there’s no DOF. Well which is it, a lot of DOF or no DOF? Which information is telling your eyes the truth?

You have two options really when viewing photographs, you enjoy the photograph for the photographs sake or you analyze it in the hopes you can duplicate it if you were to shoot it (which means, you actually did the first thing anyways). If you truly want to analyze the photo, is telling you the focal length and f/stop enough information to tell you about DOF or why what’s in or out of focus is in or out of focus? Nope, all that information will do is lead you down the wrong path if you try to duplicate the feel of the focus in this photo. (Especially not since you don’t know the physical distance between the subject and camera.)

More important is the information your EYES are telling you, if you let them. What perspective am I shooting at? I was shooting at ground level. The whole side of the calf is in focus even at f/3.3, what does that mean about my perspective? It means I was shooting so the camera back was perfectly parallel with the side of the calf. Why does the ass of the cow have any detail with such narrow DOF? Because it’s being sidelit. The side of the cow is GONE, no information, what does that mean? I was shooting in hard light and so I dialed in negative exposure comp. Seeing a photo caption with shutter speed, aperture and focal length doesn’t help you at all when it comes to duplicating the feel of the photograph.

William Henry Jackson had it made. He set up his 5×7 or 8×10, slide the front to focus and just go for it. He didn’t have to write captions, had few peers at all in the realm of photography. He just made images that made himself and the public happy to see. Now, that’s worth analyzing!