Breaking the rules

Photography is a technical craft. You might think it’s full of hard and fast rules. After all the aperture of f/8 lets in the same amount of light in Stockton as it does in New York. Or the shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is as much 1/500th of a second here as it is on the moon. The truth is that in photography, as in life, there are very few absolutes.

During the San Joaquin County Fair, The Stockton Camera Club holds its Carnival Light Workshop. I joined them and had so much fun I went back to shoot more on a second night. Two camera club members argued the point of when to shoot the fair rides. One preferred the rich blue sky of the early evening, the so-called “blue hour.” The other liked the inky darkness of a black night. Both were right.

To be sure, there are rules in photography, and as beginners you should learn them. But once you’ve become proficient at them they become more like guidelines. They are made to be bent, stretched and sometimes even broken. Rules like “always use a long lens and a fast shutter speed to shoot sports, in general are true. But I’ve seen many sports shots that have been shot with wide angles or slow shutter speeds. The key is to be open to all the possibilities out there and then experiment.

The technique to capturing the fair’s carnival lights is basically the same as photographing a night shot: use a time exposure. Shutter speeds are usually measured in fractions of seconds but a time exposure can be several seconds, sometimes even minutes or hours long. Because of those long exposures, the key rule for shooting a night shot is to use a tripod.

Just before dusk at the fair I set up my camera and tripod near the Yo-Yo ride on the midway. Its lights are colorful and, combined with the ride’s swirling motion, it’s ideal for great picture. The setting sun cast a pink hue to the lightly clouded sky, and I was able to use a fast enough shutter speed to capture the riders against it. It wasn’t long before the light faded and the blue hour began.

Using shutter speeds ranging from 2 to 10 seconds, I captured the whirling lights of the Yo-Yo. The riders, lit only by the surrounding ambient light, became all but invisible to the camera’s long exposure. I was there long enough to see all the color drain from the sky and the blackness take over the night.

Near the end of my shoot, I thought about the tripod rule. I posed a “what if” proposition to myself. What would happen if I took the camera off the tripod?
Surely the images would be blurry from the camera motion, but, what the heck, I thought. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I removed the camera and put a telephoto lens on, further enhancing camera shake. I took a couple of shots at a shutter speed of 2 seconds, panning with the movement of the Yo Yo’s riders, then looked at the camera’s monitor. There were some swirls from the moving riders and a big swoosh of nearly indecipherable bright light from an adjacent ride but a couple of riders were silhouetted against that bright patch. It was something I hadn’t anticipated. It isn’t your standard carnival lights photo, nor is it everyone’s aesthetic cup of tea, but I thought it was cool nonetheless.

Learning the “rules” of photography is important, to be sure, but, once you do, if you want to stretch your creativity, try breaking a few of them.

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