Nick Carver Photography Blog

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Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna BeachAbstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach
Double exposure on Ilford Delta 100 Film
Click to Enlarge

I'm not really known for abstract photography. Most of my work consists of more literal interpretations of landscapes and nature. Nothing wrong with that, but lately I've been feeling the urge to flex my creativity a little bit by attempting a more abstract approach on my subjects. I've found that forcing myself to see a subject in a different way that departs hugely from my typical straightforward approach tends to open up the flood gates of creativity in me and I often times create photographs I'm really proud of. If I skip the "obvious shot" and just concentrate my efforts on doing something different - anything different - from my first inclination and from what I've seen before, I often times like the results more.

I'm beginning to believe that an ounce of "different" is worth 10 pounds of technical perfection, dramatic composition, and epic light.

So one day in January when I ventured out to Laguna Beach to photograph the sights, I decided to try some abstract photography on the multitude of palm trees down there. I wanted to try something different than simply  straightforward photos of palm trees. I didn't want the viewers to look at these photos and think "yep, there's some palm trees in Laguna Beach." Instead, I wanted my viewers to be unable to express exactly what the photos made them think of or feel. I wanted their emotional and mental response to be difficult to explain.

See, I like it when a photograph or a painting simply instills a "vibe" in you - a feeling that you can't really express in words or describe fully to anybody else. The paintings of R. Kenton Nelson do that for me. When I look at his work, I just get a vibe. I can't articulate it and I don't even want to try. I just feel it.

I know, I'm getting deep here.

But seriously, I think a painting or a photograph should instill this kind of unexplainable sensation in viewers. It shouldn't be easy to describe why you love a work of art or what it means to you or what it's trying to communicate. Because if you could just put it into words, then what's the point of the artwork?

Now the thing about abstract photography is that it doesn't get the same enthusiastic response from viewers as the Peter Lik-esque epic landscape compositions that are bursting with color and drama. Flashy colors and epic scenics grab people, plain and simple. After all, those types of photos look awesome on a digital display. But I've come to realize that I personally don't like hanging such epic, in-your-face photographs on my own walls. I tend to gravitate towards the more subtle, somewhat understated photography that doesn't punch you in the face like the typical landscapes out there. I like wall art that accents a room, not overtakes it. 

So when I photographed these palm trees in Laguna Beach, I wanted to capture them in such a way that the pictures would be (1) something I've never seen before, (2) something I'd want to hang on my own walls at home, (3) something that would really push my creativity and force me to think outside my normal approach, and (4) something that would instill that unexplainable, difficult-to-articulate feeling in my viewers and in myself.

To accomplish (1) and (3), I exposed my film multiple times with overlapping compositions of clusters of palm trees so as to create a more abstract photography look that wasn't so structured. I wanted it sloppy, yet precise - simple compositional elements of various palm trees overlaid to create some interesting shapes and tones. The goal of the compositions was simplicity. Two of the compositions were triple exposures on a single piece of film, two were double exposures. The one with the seagull is a straightforward single exposure. I found out upon developing the film that I did successfully achieve point (2). And as for point (4), these photos do instill that intangible feeling within me, but I can only hope it achieves that in others.

I framed up this abstract photography of palm trees in Laguna Beach for a month-long display at Artist Eye Gallery in (fittingly) Laguna Beach, CA. If you're in the area, swing by Artist Eye Gallery on Thursday, April 3rd from 6:30-9:00pm for Art Walk to see me and these photos in person!

Click any photo to enlarge. And just for fun, there's a little Instagram video for you at the bottom.

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

Abstract Photography: Palm Trees in Laguna Beach

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Why the Exposure Triangle is Completely Useless

Understanding Exposure: Why the Exposure Triangle method is complete BS

The "exposure triangle" is a common tool for teaching beginners about exposure. But here's the truth about the exposure triangle: it's a terrible learning tool that is more likely to harm than help beginner photographers. I believe this tool is adopted by teachers who actually aren't that good at teaching a simple concept. They can't communicate shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure in an effective way, so they teach via this "learning trick."

The Problem with The Exposure Triangle

Take it from someone who teaches photography for a living: the exposure triangle makes the simple concept of exposure seem much more complicated than it is. I know exposure, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO better than I know myself and I can barely make sense of the exposure triangle. I'm serious. It's comical how unnecessarily complicated it is. It's like watching one of those Rube Goldberg machines that turns the simple task of toasting bread into a thousand-step process.

But aside from the fact that it's overly complicated, the inherent problem with the exposure triangle is that it relies on memorization rather than understanding. You are expected to visualize a diagram with shutter speed, aperture, and ISO labeled at each respective corner, trying to remember which corner means more light, which one means less light, which side deals with motion blur, which side deals with depth of field... Unless you have a photographic memory, you're going to have to carry along an exposure triangle cheat sheet for reference.

So then what's wrong with carrying around a cheat sheet? Well, taking pictures with the help of a cheat sheet is like trying to ask a girl out on a date using a pre-written script - it'll work until she says something you weren't prepared for. The "cheat sheet" method of shooting is too slow and too inflexible. You have to be able to think fast, think on your feet, and adapt to situations quickly. An exposure triangle cheat sheet can't do that.

The Better Way to Think About Exposure

The way I teach my students about exposure doesn't rely on memory tricks like the exposure triangle because learning by memorization doesn't work. Memories can't be trusted. But if you understand how something works, then you'll almost never forget it and the whole process becomes easy. So let's talk about how to understand exposure so that we no longer need to rely on memory.

For now, let's ignore all the numbers connected to shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The numbers are secondary, first you must understand the mechanics of exposure. If you think about the mechanics of how an exposure is made, then you'll be able to problem solve any exposure situation - no need for an exposure triangle cheat sheet. The numbers will follow.

How Exposure Works

Creating an exposure is simply the process of recording light on a photosensitive material. Traditionally that light was recorded on film, now digital cameras record light with a photo-sensitive computer chip called the "image sensor." Getting a "correct exposure" means that you recorded the correct amount of light - not too much, not too little. If you didn't record enough light, the picture would be "underexposed" or "too dark." If you recorded too much light, the picture would be "overexposed" or "too bright."

Light is made up of particles just like anything else. It's almost like water, except we can't touch it or feel it. Getting the right amount of light to your sensor is a little like getting the right amount of water to a sponge. So let's forget light for a minute. Let's talk about water.

Let's say I have a big sponge that I want to saturate with exactly 20 ounces of water from a garden hose. I can't have too much or too little - it needs to have just the right amount of water in it. And let's say I have to turn on my garden hose for exactly 1 second to get my 20 ounces. Simple enough: Garden hose turned on for 1 second and I get my 20 ounces.

Well what's going to happen if I switch out my garden hose for a fire hose? Will I have to leave my faucet on for longer or shorter now that I have a bigger hose?

Shorter. Duh. It's a bigger hose, so more water comes out, so I won't need to turn it on so long. Now how did you figure this out? Did you refer to your "water, hose, faucet triangle" on your "water triangle cheat sheet"? No, you just thought about it. This is how you should think with light and exposure. Don't rely on an exposure triangle, just think about the flow of light to your image sensor. The sensor in the back of your camera - the thing that creates the image - works just like a sponge, but instead of soaking up water, it soaks up light.

How exposure works: DSLR Camera mirror

Above is an image looking into the camera with the lens off. This is the camera "at rest" meaning it's not taking a picture right now. You'll notice there's a mirror there. That allows you to see what the lens sees before taking the picture. 

Below is an image looking into the camera while it's taking a picture. The green box in the back is the image sensor. That's what collects light (like a sponge) and turns it into an image. The mirror has to move up out of the way so the sensor can soak up the light. When the photo is done, the mirror will go back down. 

How exposure works: the digital image sensor

The aperture inside the lens is simply an adjustable opening in the lens that allows you to let more or less light through. This would be like the size of the hose. Which one of the following aperture openings would let in more light? Of course, the larger opening will.

Above is a wide aperture (low f-number), below is a small aperture (high f-number).
Guess which one will let more light through...

The shutter is the mechanism that "opens up the flow" of light to the sensor. It's like turning on the faucet. Which of the following shutter speeds (that's the duration of time the shutter is open) will let more light through: 1/100 of a second or 1/2 of a second? Well, 1/100 of a second is a much shorter time period than 1/2 of a second, so 1/2 of a second will let more light through.

How exposure works: the shutter

Here is a view of the shutter with the mirror held up out of the way. You'll notice the shutter is a set of overlapping blades that blocks the sensor from light. It keeps in the sensor in complete darkness until you actually take a photo. When you do, the shutter snaps up out of the way like a window shade so that light can soak into the sensor. When the picture is done, the shutter goes back down to block off the light. 

When you make an exposure, the shutter opens up, light flows through the aperture opening, soaks into the image sensor like water soaking into a sponge, then the shutter closes off the flow of light once enough light has been recorded.

Shutter opens > light flows through aperture > image sensor soaks up light > shutter closes. Faucet opens > water flows through hose > sponge soaks up water > faucet closes. It really is that simple. Here's a diagram demonstrating the concept:

Understanding Exposure: How exposure works on a DSLR camera

In the diagram above, you can see the aperture, shutter, and sensor all indicated along with how their setting is measured (the aperture is measured by the f-stop, the shutter is measured by the shutter speed, and the sensor is measured by the ISO). 

In the diagram below, the labels are gone to remove the clutter. This is how your camera looks when it's not taking a picture - when it's "at rest":

Understanding Exposure: How exposure works on a DSLR camera

When you take a picture, all these mechanisms have to work together to get light to the sensor so it can soak up the light and create an image. It goes like this: The mirror moves up out of the way, the aperture closes down to whatever you set it to, the shutter opens up, and the sensor soaks up the light to create an image, like this...

Understanding Exposure: How exposure works on a DSLR camera

...above is a diagram of the camera as it looks while it's taking a picture.

Some time later - maybe 1 second later, maybe 1/8000 of a second later depending on the chosen shutter speed - the camera can cease collecting light. The shutter closes to shut off the light, the aperture opens back up, and the mirror goes back down. Like this: it's back to it's "resting position" ready to take another photo.

So again, shutter opens > light flows through aperture > image sensor soaks up light > shutter closes. No need to make it more complicated than that.


Changing One Setting Affects the Other

Much of what the exposure triangle is trying to illustrate is that if you adjust one setting (shutter, aperture, or ISO), then another setting will have to change, too, assuming you want to keep the exposure the same (i.e. collect the same amount of light). But again, you don't need an exposure triangle to understand this. It's as simple as trying to get water into a sponge. If I use a wider hose to feed water into that sponge, I won't have to leave the hose on so long. If I use a narrower hose, I'll need to leave the flow on longer. Simple.

It's no trickier than this with exposure in photography. If I open up my aperture wider, then I won't need to leave the shutter open so long (the shutter speed will be faster). If I close the aperture down to a smaller opening, I'll need to leave the shutter open longer to make up for the loss of light. More on the aperture, less on the shutter. Less on the shutter, more on the aperture. You get the idea.

But what about the ISO? Well, let's say I had some way of making my sponge (the image sensor) much better at soaking up light. In other words, I was able to increase its absorbency. Well, if I have a more absorbent sponge in my water analogy, I wouldn't need to leave the faucet on so long since it's better at soaking up water. Same goes for light. If I can make my image sensor more absorbent to light, it won't need so much time to soak it up. This is what raising the ISO does. When you increase the ISO number, you're making the image sensor more absorbent to light. As a result, the shutter will only need to "turn the flow on" for a brief time. This is why raising the ISO results in faster shutter speeds.

The Bottom Line

The exposure triangle doesn't work. It's a terrible learning tool. There is no shortcut to learning the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Exposure is a concept that must be understood, not memorized. Cheat sheets and the exposure triangle won't get you there. Of course you won't be an expert from this short 1,000-word explanation either. My goal here is only to show you that there is a way to understand these things through logic, analogies, and simple physics without the need for a confusing exposure triangle that relies on memorization. There is much more to it that my short summary here. This is just a foundation. That's why more than half my Introduction to DSLR Photography online course is devoted to these things alone.

Sorry to throw a sales pitch at ya, but if you want to learn these things fully, check out my Introduction to DSLR Photography online course here (perfect for beginner photographers) and in my How to Shoot in Full Manual online course here (for intermediate to advanced shooters). With a clear, concise explanation aided by example images, diagrams, and videos, you can learn exposure better than any exposure triangle can deliver.

Please download the free lesson guide and video with the full explanation of shutter speed here. Download the free lesson guide and video fully explaining the aperture here.


Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

I love me some vintage cameras. Take a stroll through my office and you'll find old cameras on display all over the place. They just look cool. Vintage cameras are like vintage cars - they're from a time when visual aesthetic appeal didn't play second fiddle to cost of materials and functionality. Sure, most of these cameras didn't sit in your hands as comfortably as a modern day DSLR with its ergonomic grip and rubber coating, but they looked awesome.

Modern cameras, like modern cars, are designed primarily around the ideas of functionality and comfort. It's no wonder they all look the same - same grip, same shoulders, essentially the same control layout. Once manufacturers have a design that sells, they're afraid to mess with the ergonomics and style shooters have become comfortable with.

But vintage cameras are as varied as snowflakes. Designers were still experimenting with different designs back then. The collective ideas of survey-based marketing hadn't destroyed the art of product design yet. They had beautiful lines, interesting color schemes, and a charming lack of bells and whistles. Vintage cameras are sculptures that should be put proudly on display.

My favorite thing about vintage cameras is that their designs were usually so simple that there was little to break or malfunction. No electronics meant no deteriorating circuit boards. Few precision mechanisms meant fewer things to go out of alignment or timing. So long as you can find a film to fit, many vintage cameras from 100 years ago can still be used. I once put a roll of film through a 1920's era Kodak Brownie. It worked just fine.

A good friend of mine recently gifted me an Argus 40 TLR camera. "TLR" stands for "Twins Lens Reflex." "Twin Lens" because it has 2 lenses - one you look through to compose the image and the other lens to actually expose the film. "Reflex" because it has a mirror in it. Any camera with a mirror in it is a "reflex camera" because one definition of "reflex" is "archaic: (of light) reflected." You can probably guess how they got the name "Single Lens Reflex (SLR)."

I was thrilled to learn that this Argus 40 camera still worked - not bad for a camera from the early 1950's - and that it can accept modern film with a simple modification. It used the now-discontinued 620 film. 620 film just so happens to be the exact same size as modern-day 120 film, just on a thinner spool. So I picked up some old 620 film spools off eBay for $15, re-spooled a roll of 120 Ilford Delta black and white film onto a 620 spool and boom, I had myself a fully-operational Argus 40 ready for shooting.

With no internal light meter, I had to meter manually using a handheld light meter. No problem, that part's easy. The tough part was the focus. It's all done with a crude distance scale on the lens. I had to guess how far away my subject was, then find the corresponding measurement on the focus ring. My estimation of distance was really put to the test.

To try out my first roll of film, I ventured to nearby Old Towne Orange to photograph some old structures there (thought it was fitting for this camera) and finished off the roll at Corona Del Mar beach. I also threw in a photo of our dog for a real challenge.

I love the look this camera creates. The 75mm lens gets a nice, shallow depth of field, the square format is just classic, and the crude-by-today's-standards lens created some awesome lens flare, vignetting, and blurring. The images are gritty and riddled with flaws - just how I like it. Can't wait to do some portraits with this bad boy.

Click any image to enlarge

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR

Vintage Cameras: Photography with the Argus 40 TLR