Jeremiah Rogers

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Tie One Hand Behind Your Back

Note: This is the first time I’ve used images that I didn’t take in my articles. I need to adjust the code so that people are prevented from buying prints of the images that aren’t mine. Please don’t try :).

Henri Cartier-Bresson is perhaps the world’s most famous photographer. Some people would agree with that statement, others would say it’s Ansel Adams. If you then asked who the greatest living photographer is, people might respond that it’s Sebastião Salgado.

A modern full-frame digital SLR is an almost infinitely better than anything that these three men used (or use, Salgado is still alive) 1. It has fast autofocus, automatic metering, much higher usable ISO, and much faster and higher quality lenses. So why aren’t we all getting better pictures from our cameras?

A photograph from Henri Cartier-Bresson in India. You can look at this photo for a very long time before wondering how much noise it has, what aperture it was at, or what shutter speed Henri used. That’s the point of this article.

Too Much Technology

Why aren’t we getting better pictures from our cameras? I think it’s because today we have too many options. Cameras are so powerful, have so many lenses, and each camera has so many settings that we have an almost infinite number of ways to take a decent picture. This makes it hard to focus on any one method and it’s hard to master that method.

The most technically advanced camera I ever owned was a Canon 6D. It could see and shoot anything: the stars, butterflies, landscapes and people. I would point the 6D at subject, take a picture, and the picture would come back with such remarkable detail that I’d spend all day shooting different pictures and staring at the results in awe. It wasn’t so much a camera as a scientific instrument that functioned well even as a telescope.

A few of my previous favorite shots from the Canon 6D. I later realized that these were beautiful pictures aesthetically but lacked depth. You can also see the wide variety of topics without any restriction.

The photos from the Canon 6D were beautiful. I showed them to a friend and she thought they were beautiful as well — but she then challenged me that they lacked emotional depth. She was right. It blew my photographic ego to shreds. The pictures had technical quality, but other than being pretty there was nothing of significant substance shown.

Maybe We Should Throw The Technology Away

So how do we get better at making pictures with emotional depth? How do we make pictures that help people feel things? I think the secret is to throw all of that modern technology away. Photography as an art form hasn’t advanced much since the 1950’s, so to make great pictures you don’t necessarily need anything beyond 1950’s technology. In short: If you tie your hands behind your back and you might get better pictures.

One thing that ties the three photographers mentioned at the beginning together is that each of them has a definitive look. As I’ve learned more about their definitive looks I’ve learned how it’s really a restriction on the number of things that the camera can do. As these men things to think about, they focused more on the content and composition of their photos. They tied their hands behind their backs, limited what their camera could do, and got monumental photographs as a result.

All three men made pictures almost exclusively in black and white and at narrow apertures. Their photos fit into narrow rules, described below:

Almost all of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos were shot in black and white with a 50mm lens focused at 4 meters with 1125 sec shutter speed. He only varied the aperture to get an adequate exposure. As a result Cartier-Bresson spent no time focusing, no time changing lenses, and no time deciding to make a trade off between depth of field and shutter speed.

Two of my favorite pictures by Henri Cartier-Bresson. No one cares what lens, shutter speed, or ISO these pictures were shot with. Details for left picture, and right picture.

Sebastião Salgado shoots in black and white at enormous ISO, often 3200. He uses all kinds of cameras and lenses, but by sticking to high ISO he’s limited to fast shutter speeds and narrow apertures. This probably means that he spends almost no time focusing, or thinking about shutter speed and aperture. The only concern is getting enough light on the film and he can focus on making remarkable photos like the two below.

Two of my favorite pictures by Sebastião Salgado, both from Genesis. No one sees these photos and thinks about bokeh, selective focus, or noise. Few people would care about the lack of color.

Ansel Adams’s famous pictures are shot at narrow apertures on slow, large plate film. Unlike the other two, Adams rarely made pictures of people. His goal was supreme detail and so his pictures were at insanely narrow apertures2, with long exposures, and carefully timed to choose the exact best scenery, light, and weather to photograph.

Two of my favorite Ansel Adams pictures. These were likely shot on 8x10 view cameras, at super small apertures, with crummy lenses. Sources: left, right.

My Lessons

A modern camera with a fast lens can shoot in almost any light, can blur away a dull background, can stop bullets in mid-flight, and its raw files can be post-processed to create dreamlike high dynamic range landscapes. It can make a nice looking photo out of almost anything, but unless it’s used carefully those photos won’t be good enough to hang in any room except a hotel room.

In the in early and mid 20th century none of this technology existed. Lenses faster than f/2 were rare and expensive, zoom lenses were shit, and film didn’t go to ISO 128,000. As a result the masterful photographers during that time had to work within narrow parameters to find art. They had to carefully stage scenes and wait for the right moment to take a picture.

I think that all of this restriction made these men better photographers. This doesn’t mean that the formula for a good photograph requires that it be in black and white, deny autofocus, be shot at a constant shutter speed, or be shot at high ISOs. However, I do think that the more restrictions I put on my camera the easier it is for me to make emotionally meaningful photographs.

How am I applying this? I’ve talked before about how fast lenses make me worse at photography. Fast lenses encourage me to focus on getting awesome blurred bokeh-rich backgrounds instead of finding interesting things to photograph.

In a similar vein I’m starting to think that shooting at low ISOs and keeping even my f/2 lens somewhat open is making my pictures worse. I like to shoot at low ISOs so that my pictures didn’t have a lot of noise — so that they will be technically perfect. But then the results is that I focus on technical details instead of creating interesting photographs.

An Experiment

So I spent a day shooting at ISO 2500 and around f/8 with high shutter speeds. The results were incredible. Instead of thinking about how each picture would be executed on a technical level I was free to look for the best content and composition.

Below are two similar pictures shot with different methods. The picture on the left is at ISO 500 and f/2 with a 1750 second exposure. The picture on the right is at ISO 2500 and f/8 with a 1125 second exposure. I applied minimal editing for exposure levels and applied Lightroom’s default “Black and White Red Filter” adjustment. There were no noise or levels adjustment.

Is either photo better than the other? I don’t think so. The photo on the left has the aperture wide open and lacks noise. The photo on the right has the aperture closed all the way up and is noisy. No one can tell these details without viewing the pictures very large.

I think that both of these photos are effectively the same in emotional depth — they are both fairly lacking. I also think that it’s more obvious that the photo on the right shot at f/8 lacks depth because there is no technical wizardry to distract a viewer from the bad composition and subject matter3.

Thoughts

Each time I make my camera more simple to use my pictures improve. Shooting with prime lenses taught me how to see in fixed framelines and walk to get pictures. Shooting in manual only mode taught me to meter for exactly the part of the scene I cared about. Shooting at narrow apertures and in black and white further improved my photos by really making me focus on subject matter and composition — not fancy color and selective focus tricks. You might like to try this as well.


  1. Sebastião Salgado did in the past use Leica R film SLRs. As far as I can tell he now uses Canons. Much of his older work seems to have been shot on Leica M cameras. [return]
  2. A note about aperture: almost every lens looks fantastic at f/4 and beyond. The money we pay for fast lenses first goes to letting them take shots wide open and then goes to making the wide open shots look good. But there is practically no difference between a $100 Canon or Nikon 50mm lens at f/4 and a $2,000 Leica 50mm lens at f/4. So why shoot Leica? Most people shoot Leica because the ergonomics are better. [return]
  3. I’ll also mention that the noise I’m concerned about seeing at ISO 2500 isn’t a big deal at all. The Leica M9 is notorious for being noisy at anything above ISO 1000. I think the extra noise here looks fine. [return]