I’ve you’ve been around the photography scene long enough, you’ve probably come across someone who has shared a photo and noted that it was “Straight out of camera”. That is to say that there was no editing, no formatting, cropping or otherwise. Sometimes, it’s meant as a disclaimer from photographers who haven’t had the chance to edit anything yet, but they’re so excited to share. Other times, you may hear it from a photographer who is trying to show the raw data that comes from a camera for comparison purposes (I used to do this a lot when I was reviewing camera bodies or lenses). In both of these cases, I’m okay with the disclaimer. But then there is a third, darker role of the saying. On occasion, you’ll hear it from a photographer – typically one with nominal experience – offering it as a way to talk about how great their skills might be: I’m such a great photographer that I nailed the shot without having to edit.
Today, I want to talk about photographer in that last situation. Straight Out of Camera should not be a badge. It shows that you learned enough about photography to get a proper exposure without editing in post-processing. But it can also indicate a relatively inexperienced photographer who hasn’t broadened their vision yet. There is still more to the journey.
The Perfect Exposure Misconception
Often times, photography educators talk about the perfect exposure. The perfect exposure is allegedly when you hit all of the key targets. Your whites are white, your blacks are black, saturation is spot on, color rendering is accurate, etc. It means that you got all of the settings perfect including the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed (and sometimes, White Balance). It means that you exposed the sensor or film in an ideal situation so that you don’t have to do any post-editing to push (brighten) or pull (darken) the exposure. Exposure is one of the first skills that any photographer must learn. And so there is sometimes a misconception that there is only ever one perfect exposure. There’s not. There are hundreds. You can change the depth of field and get a number of perfect exposures. You can choose to mess with motion and freeze or blur movement with adjustments to the shutter speed. You can make it grainy by pumping up the ISO. Then you can’t exclude the artistic exposures such as high key, low key or just blown-out. These are all artist decisions and they are decided upon by the photographer. So keep that in mind as you are setting up your image. A bad exposure sometimes cannot be corrected (film, especially, tends to be unforgiving). But usually, it can be tweaked in post if you are close enough.
Straight out of Camera: Well, getting the exposure to match your intentions without any adjustments in post will certainly save you time. So it’s a skill you should hone. But that’s only part of the story. Sometimes, you want to do things with your image that just isn’t possible in-camera, or at least something that may not be possible with your own gear. Maybe you’re looking to tweak some colors to make a specific subject pop, or maybe you want to add vignetting. It’s possible you want to completely alter the image in a manner to completely change the narrative of the photograph. It all starts with vision, then you need to plan and expose for the finished image.
The next level after mastering perfect exposure is realizing that your exposure is only one step in the process.
Working Toward a Vision
During a visit to a traveling carnival, I started to get ideas about a series of photos based on carnival rides. I had a vision in my head that was probably inspired by the works of director Tim Burton, who directed such film greats as Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, and Nightmare Before Christmas. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he is known for having a surreal feel in his movies. While the settings are often dark and creepy, he’s known for using color in hyper-realistic ways. It speaks to the audience and tells viewers that you’re in a dream world, you’re in Burton’s world. So I had a vision of creating images that would look like something in his movies.
In Burton’s world, he’s creating everything in his set design and costuming from scratch. So he has a bit more control over the overall appearance. I, on the other hand, was dealing in a real world. In person, the colors at the carnival are vibrant, but my experience tells me that it won’t look great on film. I knew I’d have to tweak some things in post. So I shot a little under-exposed so that I would have all of the color content. I also metered and exposed for the highlights. If I were shooing to get the shot straight from camera, I would have exposed for a more neutral tone (like the red chair, red is always a good color to meter from). The resulting image would have looked pretty good and I wouldn’t hesitate to share with the public. But it wasn’t my vision.
A straight from camera perfect exposure would have resulted in a lot of lost data. I would have lost some of the more fragile colors, like that pale blue or the really pale yellow. Those colors would have been lost and it is not easy to recover from an image that was captured with too high of an exposure. Of course if I underexposed too much, then some of the darker colors would be lost entirely. The exposure I got was going to set me up quite well for post-processing.
In post, I tweaked a lot. I boosted saturation, tweaked the luminance of several colors, bumped up clarity and vibrance. This mostly took care of the colors. To make things look more surreal, I actually pulled down the highlights and whites and I boosted the blacks. I also added split-toning, a special technique to add a tint to both the highlights and shadows. I tinted my highlights a shade of yellow while the shadows are tinted a shade of blue. The resulting image is below (compare to the photo above):
I’ll admit that this isn’t exactly what I had hoped for. I really would like to have returned at a later hour to get a darker sky and for the lights to pop. Unfortunately, I rode one of those carnival rides and felt really ill, so I didn’t return before they packed up and left town. Lesson learned: I may be too old to ride certain rides anymore. Back to the image. I am happy with the result. Though, I do plan on trying again at a later hour next time some other carnival is in town or if we visit a theme park somewhere.