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Pixels: More Or Less

Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

Nokia, I am told, has demonstrated that a helicopter-mounted Nokia smartphone can get HD-quality imagery of pedestrians on the street below and thus, to quote them, “could replace professional photographers.” I almost bought it when I heard it had 41 megapixels. Sure, the idea of 41 megapixels is beautiful. But then I decided the pixels were not the priority in a smartphone, and eventually its pixel count will be exceeded by other later models and other manufacturers.

Pixel counts are not everything. More importantly, a camera holder is not necessarily a photographer. If the world were a flat canvas in only two dimensions, then Nokia could be correct. (Though I doubt any camera could exist in such a world, as nothing could have depth.) However, in our three-dimensional world, the mind’s eye makes all the difference. Do we imagine where we might be, and where the light could be coming from? Do we feel the shape and texture of our subjects? Do we understand how to light a subject so that the desirable features are shown and enhanced while the undesirable features are minimized? If so, we should be good photographers.

I have often said that we think in the terms we speak, and as long as we use expressions like “take a picture,” there is no doubt that we will maintain the mental concept of snatching, grabbing, or, what’s the word . . . ahem, taking a picture. All these words imply that the image is there for the taking—when it is not. The subject or object is there. But the image is only a fantasy. That is why some people are said to have a good eye. They can pre-visualize where to be, and how to adjust more or less gear, to get specific results.

They have to make the fantasy into a reality. And that involves light, in the right place, at the right time, and in the correct relationship to both the subject and the camera. When I was 17, light was already a fascination to me. And what I call the mathematics of light was at the core of my interest. Over the last four decades, through repeated painful experience, and from chatting with countless photographers in all categories and multiple professional organizations, I realized that photographers, or at least 99% of the ones I have met, do not understand or want to learn the mathematics of light.

That is why so many love doing outdoor photography or to use natural light. For those working exclusively outdoors, with no artificial additional lights, there is very little mathematics involved. Mathematics is required to understand and predict how the intensity and spread of light vary over distance from the light source to the subject being lit. But outdoors, we are nominally 93 million miles from the sun. A few miles more or less won’t make any difference at all. Indoors, moving a light six feet can make a huge difference. Outdoors, on a hill or in a valley, you will be equally bright.

Regardless of whether you are using a candle, a firefly, a light bulb, an electronic flash, or a flashlight, the mathematics of light state that light varies in inverse proportion to the square of the distance. That is the inverse-square law. That applies to all small light sources. Broad light sources behave differently. So that too must be understood. Photographers have always amazed me by their eagerness to use complex gear that often is expensive, troublesome, and unreliable in order to avoid mastering the basics that can be fun, rewarding, and constant.

Manufacturers do well engineering and selling “photographer replacement technology.” And advanced photographers have been known to work equally hard at harnessing much of the automation to do what they want, rather than what the machine wants. Those who understand the theory and how a particular automation works can fool the device to get results that they seek.

You see a flash fire and think it is lit for a second. Usually it is lit for at most 1/500th of a second. Decades ago, in the age of basic electronic flash units, Vivitar, a third-party brand, developed an interesting flash with automatic exposure technology. It was innovative. Vivitar employed a thyristor sensor that measured the light bouncing back from the subject, and stopped the light when it was time! Quite amazing, no? Sometimes the flash burst could be as brief as 1/20,000th of a second! So you see, 1/500th was very long!

That was the basis of much automatic flash technology still used today. But a person wearing a white dress reflects much more than one wearing a black suit, even when skin tones are similar and both subjects require the same amount of light. Black is meant to look black and white to be bright. So a photographer could vary his light output manually, knowing what he needed, based on the mathematics of light, or could constantly be anticipating how the flash would interpret the scene.

I am sure you are confused already. My point is that pros then fell into one of three categories: those who did everything manually, not believing the automations. Next were those who trusted the automation and used it blindly. And finally, those who did not trust the automation fully and felt that it needed help by varying the device’s settings. Which meant that after buying an automatic device, they were then manually adjusting it. Only a few really understood how the device worked, and instead of varying its settings, varied the camera’s setting to match the flash!

Pixels don’t replace passion. Passion comes from people who have opinions, vision, and a statement to make which leads them to a perspective—a particular view. Photographers then use lighting skill to empower that view. Having more pixels means sharper detail, and the ability to use a smaller part of the image. Pixels won’t make an image great. That is all up to you! v

Gary Rabenko can be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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Posted by on February 2, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.