When I returned to photography close to two years ago, I swore that I wouldn't use a light meter. I don't really know why – honestly, I didn't have a reason other than my philosophical approach to the craft, which often borders on stubborn.
At the time, all I knew was that eye metering was the only way to go – the purest way to gauge light. (Before you roll your eyes, know that I already am.) I found it an intriguing challenge to assess the light at any given moment and to adjust my camera settings accordingly. And generally, I didn't want to rely on a device.
Yet, a year later, a spontaneous shoot reminded me that the eye is imperfect. I was shooting a portrait in a striking scene with elusive light, and I was feeling a little self-conscious as I was shooting film for the first time in a while. I breathed a sigh, and pulled out my dad's old light meter from the 70's, held it to the subject, and adjusted my settings to match.
The resulting portrait was beautiful, and the experience convinced me to loosen my rigid philosophy. I learned to appreciate the light meter then, and I've used one since. Sometimes philosophies change – just as the light itself does. And that's a good thing.
Recently, I did a shoot with Elijah Leftridge, a talented photographer and director, at Ponce Inlet – a beautiful place. We both had similar ocean-oriented concepts we wanted to try out, so packed our gear and headed out.
My main goal was to get a portrait of him in the water, inspired from other ocean-borne shoots I'd seen. By the time we got into the water, the sun was setting, and I was nervous. I knew from a prior shoot that dusk was, in fact, a wonderful time to shoot. But the light was dwindling, and I had to move fast. To save time and avoid water damage, I put away my light meter and said, "**** it, I'll just guess." I had to trust my eyes alone once more. I had no idea how the shots would turn out.
I received the scans the other day, and I was absolutely floored (not least because of the great processing job Coastal did). The shots turned out exactly how I wanted. And – as I'd learned before – the light at dusk really complemented the mood and vision I had in the first place.
So, with that, I introduce the seventh photo in Anatomy of a photograph. It's a photo of Eli facing away from me at an angle, and it's perhaps my favorite of all of the shots. It's also the first medium format photo in this series!
The photo is soft and subtle, with a nice moodiness and slight movement I think is compelling. I don't remember the exact settings I chose, but it was likely 1/60 and f/4 or f/2.8. (At that point, I was shooting Kodak Gold 200.) I made some changes on the fly to account for the dwindling light, and crossed my fingers.
One of the interesting things about my medium format camera (the Mamiya C330) is its 6x6 format – a unique square format. Prior to getting the C330, I'd mainly seen the 6x7 format, and hadn't seen as much 6x6. I pretty much immediately fell in love with shooting in the square format – something about it forces you to compose more thoughtfully and precisely. It's naturally clean.
With the 6x6 format, I've really embraced centering subjects – it creates a striking simplicity – as seen in this shot. What I didn't intend in this photo is the slight forward angle of Eli's body, which probably has to do with the fact that my camera was itself at a slight angle (you can see in the horizon line). I actually like the ever-so slight off-kilter look, something I've grown fond of lately.
I also am happy with my choice in shutter speed, because it captured the motion of the waves better than if I'd chosen a faster speed. I'd chosen the slower shutter speed to account for the decreasing light, and only realized upon reviewing the scan how I liked the blur such a choice allowed for. It adds to the natural movement of such an oceanic scene.
Looking at the photo in black and white, you can better see the bold nature of the centered subject – the subject stands out by nature of the composition. You can also see the movement of the waves, the result of the slower shutter speed. Though I prefer the photo in color, it's nice to see the compositional and technical elements stand out in black and white.
This shoot was an interesting experience in that it brought me back to my original line of thought – really trusting my eye. I won't be as stubborn as I was before, as I now truly see the benefit of metering. But I can also acknowledge and honor the value of relying on my eyes and natural sense for the light and my camera. My philosophy continues to shift and morph just like the light, the waves – and me. I suppose it's just a matter of surrendering to the gray waves of growth.
With love and light,
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P.P.S. Follow Eli – he's great.