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Food For Digital Thought: Metaphorically Speaking, A One-Way Ticket to Mediocrity

No histogram here.

No histogram here.

Actually, the actual line came from one of my favorite all time movies, On the Waterfront from one of my all time favorite actors, Marlon Brando. Here is the actual scene for those old enough to remember it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_GGVDVrIcM

I’m writing this post as a result from another of my students taking my online class with the PPSOP just telling me that the Histogram is a great tool for figuring out the proper exposure.. It’s also come up a number of times when during one of my “Stretching Your Frame of Mind” workshops I conduct around the planet, I’ve walked up to a fellow photographer during the last rays of golden light coming from a beautiful sunset and he was studying the histogram on the back of his camera.

“What????? Are you kidding me?????”  I say to them. Ok, let me get this straight, they’re standing there looking at some diagram on the back of their camera, deciding if the exposure is correct? When there’s seconds of great light left? You do know what could and will probably happen…right? When they decide on the right exposure, the light will be gone. Light is so fleeting, that even for someone like me who has made light the number one priority in his photography over the past forty-four years, and is damn good at it, still has to react quick ( as in very quick) to get the shot.

I can say that in all these years, I’ve never thought about a Histogram, or any device created by the Digital Dork Gods that are suppose to make you a better photographer. What about these insane yet comical blinking lights that they also put on the back of your camera…why? So you won’t clip the highlights. Why would these digital dork Gods want to put these helpful tools on the back? To lead you down a one-way ticket to mediocrity. Why would you want to take a normal picture with a averaged exposure that a Histogram will do for you? I suppose it’s the safe thing to do, and to me safe means average.

Be a student of light and exposure, and the best way to achieve that is to learn how to bracket. Learn the shutter speed/aperture combinations, know when to overexpose more and when to underexpose more. Yes, I know that you really don’t need to know all that because that’s what Lightroom is for. Knowing how to adjust exposure in front of a monitor will definitely make you a better computer artist/digital technician but why not strive to be a better photographer. When it’s all said and done, twenty, thirty, or forty years down the road, you won’t have a clue as to what makes a good photo. What makes your pictures stand out from all the others.

In all these photos, including the one above, If I had looked at a Histogram to decide on what exposure looked the best, I would have lost the light and the shot in every one of them.

Btw, all these photos were created by bracketing and are all created in the camera, not sitting in front of a computer.

Visit my website at: www.joebaraban.com, and check out my 2015 workshop schedule at the top of this blog. I still have a couple of openings in my Springtime in Portugal workshop. Next July 26th  I’ll be back at the Maine Media Workshop for my 27th year. It’s a great place to spend a week immersing yourself in your passion…without any interruptions. I have two spots left in my “Autumn in Provence “ workshop next October 21st. An incredible experience seeing this part of the country during the Fall foliage.

In April of 2016, in conjunction with Epic Photo Tours, I’ll be leading a group of photographers to the coastal cities of North and Central Viet Nam. You’ll be able to see and shoot photos you would only see in magazines like National Geographic.

Come shoot with me sometime…like Marlon Brando, be a contender.

Don’t forget to send me a photo and question to: AskJoeB@gtmail.com and receive a video critique of your image.


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    { 8 comments… add one }
    • Valeriano December 29, 2014, 8:09 am

      One can be mediocre either by bracketing or by looking at histograms, either by not using at all or by abusing post-production, either by shooting every day or one day per year.
      If one is mediocre, is just mediocre, no matter the tools in use.

      • Joe December 29, 2014, 9:23 am


        One stays mediocre if one never opens their eyes and sees what others can’t. If that person is willing to forgo the things that are keeping them mediocre, I can absolutely guarantee that it can raise the level of their work; I have helped a whole lot of people do just that. As Henri Matisse once said, “Creativity takes courage”.


        • Valeriano December 29, 2014, 11:40 am

          Sure. The point is that you look like being on personal crusade against any new tool added to the game. I don’t get the point. It’s like a writer blaming a computer text editor cause it’s not messy as a typewriter though it won’t let him be creative with his writing.

          I absolutely agree with you that when someone is more concerned about the histogram on his camera than by what he wants to convey as concept in first place with his photographs, well there is a problem there.
          But on another extent these tools are now handy and used by creative people to get things easier than before they had them (I am not talking about myself, of course but about professional photographers just like you).
          Having said that I check my histogram especially when I do have a scene in front of me that should not be recorded as a “all the mid tones you can eat”.
          Let me rephrase that, to be more clear: if I have to burn the highlights cause I want to burn them, then I’ll give it a check on the histogram to be sure I am doing a good job at that.

          • Joe December 29, 2014, 12:02 pm

            The point is that you’re missing the point. perhaps you should go back and read the post again. If you would have read it you would have understood. It’s not about the tools, it’s about using them at the wrong time. I’m lucky that I can see in my mind what you need a “new tool ” to see with.

            • Valeriano January 5, 2015, 11:28 am

              Mediocrity kicks in much earlier than one takes his/her hands on a camera, or on a keyboard to write a post or a comment.

              @gary: try to bracket when shooting a motion filled opportunity, then cry on the spilled milk once back at home when you’ll realize most of the interesting shots fell in the worng range of exposures (oh and BTW try to also do that bracketing manually as Joe suggests in his class…). Then spend more time on LR, Photoshop or whatever to try to recover them… instead of being out shooting. Or just dump them, learn the lesson, and go for using the tools you have in the most efficient, reliable and productive way.
              You can even memorize an exposure chart, and not rely anymore on your camera exposimeter, then bracket as hell. Up to you.

            • Joe January 5, 2015, 11:42 am


              Shooting motion is a whole different ballgame. you’re right in that it’s hard to get the right exposure matched with the best motion shot.

              Here’s a way to remedy that, and it’s what I do…in the camera: I’ll take a few shots of the location and all around where I’ll be shooting to get close to the on exposure. It’s nice to have a camera that you can just look at the back of it and see what you’re getting.

              Once I have what I consider to be a good aperture/shutter speed combination, I’ll set my camera on that and then not bracket. I’ll be close enough to get it the way I want it to be later in post. Of course you have to be aware of the changes in the light, for example when and if the sun goes behind a cloud. In a situation like that, when the sun and clouds are playing havoc with me, I do those same test exposures with the sun in and out and change it accordingly.

              Of course it’s a whole lot easier to let the meter do it for you, but not as much fun..at least not for me…provided the subject and the surrounding environment read the same light…therein lies the rub as they say.


    • Gary Thursby January 4, 2015, 12:31 pm

      I wish I was practiced enough to look at a scene and know the absolute correct exposure . To dial in that shutter speed exactly so the light recorded can match the image in your head that YOU think is correct. Unfortunately that takes many years of dedicated practice and experience in making successful pictures. This is why Joe is saying to bracket I believe. If you bracket you will get at least one shot coming out the way you wanted. I even had a camera that had a button you could push while you pressed the shutter release and it would do, 1/2 under, metered, 1/2 over. I will say I have been told if you are taking a pic of a sunrise or sunset, get the sun just out of the frame metering off the sky then shoot 1/2 under to help saturate those colors and this lets the sun to blow out.

      On the geeky technical front, that really works for digital or slide film photography. Color negative and black and white are much more forgiving in exposure. Try shooting some Kodak portra 400 and be off a whole stop either over or under and you won’t see it. I think the whole world knows how forgiving Tri-x is to exposure.

      Lastly I do not think Joe hates digital photography. Just ask him when was the last time he exposed some film or look at his tool list he uses to create pictures. I think he does not like the mentality it fosters when people start learning photography. More worried about how great of a file they can get out of their camera instead of how great a picture you can get out of it. People more worried about the latest updates to photoshop or sensor technology instead of great timeless pictures people will always enjoy. I mean the Mona Lisa still looks great to us all these years latter. Thats the goal. To create pictures that last the test of time and stop worrying about new software or camera designs.

      • Joe January 5, 2015, 8:46 am


        You are exactly right…on all counts!!!

        I don’t hate digital photography, quite the contrary, I love it. I also love being able to tweak my images in Photoshop, and I do a little something to every one I shoot. That said, I also love the challenge of getting it in the camera, and to me that’s a statement on being a good photographer.

        Bracketing, in the scheme of current things, is a total waste of time, since the onset of the computer. However, part of being a good photographer is not using the computer to make good exposures. It’s knowing the light and how to use shutter speed and aperture combination to achieve the feeling you’re going after. It’s the process that’s a challenge and I pretty good at it after almost forty-four years. To me, standing there seeing and feeling the light is just more fun than taking care of it later.

        People in this modern age don’t want to or don’t have the time to being a good photographer. In fact, knowing from years of teaching, my fellow photographers have become lethargic as far as doing anything that would require more of their time..which seems to be a dichotomy in the sense that you’re going to spend more time in front of the computer. Most of the students I teach are a product of the digital era, where you think that all these gizmos and geek related ideas are a necessary part of taking pictures.

        I look at it this way: if one were to spend more time learning what goes into making a good photo, and why it’s a good photo, instead of keeping up with the latest “updates to Photoshop or sensor technology” one would come out much better at the end of the road. After all, the elements of visual design and composition have been around a hell of a lot longer than the digital age.


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