Shutters and Apertures

Through college, I used a little Canon PowerShot that more or less had an on-and-off switch and handled all the messy details of focusing and metering for me. For capturing events, it worked, but there was nothing timeless or intriguing about the images I took.

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn what made a photograph “good” and my first step was learning how cameras worked. I’m not really comfortable with “magic” in most forms, so my wife snagged a decades-old Minolta X-370 off Craigslist for a few bucks from a guy with whiskey on his breath at a time of day when that sort of thing is worrisome.

This kind of camera gives you full control over aperture size and shutter speed, and while it does have a built-in meter, it forces you to think about how light is hitting the film and adjust things to get the aesthetic you want.

Minolta X-370

The X-370, for me, was a great first “real” camera and I still shoot with it occasionally. It shoots in aperture-priority mode, meaning that all I control is how big the aperture opens and the camera adjusts the shutter accordingly. Aperture is how you control your depth-of-field, meaning if you want the nice effect of not having everything in equally sharp focus, you can make the aperture larger.

My little Canon gave me little access to the aperture and thus my pictures were all sharply in focus at all depths, so the person’s face 6 feet away was just as sharp as the tree a few hundred feet behind him. For some shots, this worked fine but sometimes you wanted to pull your subject away from a busy background or draw attention to something in frame by just using the depth of field.

With controlling just the aperture, I could choose which effect I wanted and with this one change, I started liking my pictures more.

My current daily shooter is a Canonet QL17 G-III which is a shutter-priority rangefinder. This means I tell the camera how fast to run the shutter and it figures out how big to make the aperture, so a faster shutter means less light hitting the film which means the aperture needs to be open wider for a proper exposure.

Canon Canonet QL17 G-III

Shutter speed is another major way to control the aesthetic of an image. An oft-shot image using shutter styling is where someone shoots a river but slows down the shutter speed enough to make the flowing water seem more “fuzzy” than sharp. With fast-moving water, you capture more of the movement of the water instead of how it looks at one instant in time. Shooting a baseball player in the middle of a swing will be two complete different pictures if you have a fast shutter speed versus a slow shutter speed.

For me, I seldom take photographs where I try to play with getting movement on film so I still use my shutter-priority camera like an aperture-based one, adjusting the shutter speed until I get the aperture size I want.

Washington Square

The above photograph was taken with the aperture somewhere between f/8 and f/11, if I remember correctly. It was a really sunny day and I wanted to get the people exposed as well as I could while still getting everything in focus, but with the direct sunlight, I couldn’t point and click without completely underexposing the people, rendering them as dark silhouettes. So, I filled my frame with people in the foreground, and adjusted the shutter speed until I got a small enough aperture for the depth-of-field I wanted, and I then set this aperture manually, overriding the automatic mode. I then framed the whole scene including the sun, fairly confident that most of the people wouldn’t be underexposed.

Getting Ready

This picture of Meghan getting ready in the morning uses a shallow depth-of-field to draw the eye to her reflection as the most important thing in the image. I sped the shutter speed up as much as possible to make the aperture open as much as I could, knowing that if I focused on her reflection, it would be sharply focused while her actual body would not be as sharp.

I took this picture of Trevor and Bert at a good Japanese restaurant near Union Square. In this image, I noticed that the menus and posters on the back wall were fairly noisy and if I shot anything smaller than f/4 or f/5.6, these posters would be sharply focused and would clutter the scene. Speeding the shutter up as much as I could in this underlit restaurant opened the aperture up wide, which put the guys in sharp focus while fading out what was in the background.

To play with this yourself if you have a digital camera, put your camera in something like Program mode which will choose a “best” shutter-and-aperture combination but lets you change each independently while keeping it exposed properly. This way you can see exactly the effect that shutter speed and aperture size have on the final image.

Days by Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

— Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Wedddings, February 1964

Choose Your Medium Carefully

So we looked in the dictionary for words around it, and we came across the word “twitter,” and it was just perfect. The definition was “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and “chirps from birds.” And that's exactly what the product was.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, LA Times

Something I've been thinking about as someone who has a too-large portion of his life tied up in bits and bytes spread across servers around the world is what would happen if the various services I use and publish to were to somehow lose all the data I've put into them.

If my emails were to disappear, I'd be distraught. That's my historical record. If I was an adult in any previous generation, this would be my desk drawer filled with correspondence with friends, job offers, birthday cards, wedding invitations, baby announcements, simple I-love-yous from my wife, with every single thing properly dated, sorted, and filed away. My email archive is exactly that, just in a virtual form in this virtual world. Other people's email, I imagine, would be just as important to them. Vast slices of modern life is stored away in these accounts.

Flickr is another service that I would be devastated if the archives were to disappear. Not only does it hold my photographs, but it holds a fantastic amount of important historical information, and because of the hard work and foresight of the people before me, the archival features and sense of history of the service is on par with museums and libraries, the same which use the service for their own online presences which I think says a lot. It also holds common people's historical records, every user getting their own section where everything is sorted and dated, showing that “yes, the history of your images is dreadfully important”. Losing Flickr would be equivalent to the loss of a major museum or library. (Aside: I work at Flickr because I love Flickr, not the other way around, or I wouldn't be there.)

My Delicious-now-Pinboard bookmarks are my personal filing cabinet, full of links to things that I have read, want to read, and should read. It's also the culmination of my smarter-than-me friends and acquaintances' thoughts and online trailblazing. Not only that, but with the genius of tagging, things are grouped together by categories and types and an organic ordering has emerged from the messiness of the web and the coldness of Google's algorithms that can only come from giving the data the utmost respect, by preserving it and connecting it. It's my personal memory and narrative about what I come across and as such is closer to an explorer's daily log, like Lewis and Clark's journals, filled with many small discoveries, the whole being worth more than its pieces. If these bookmarks were to vanish, it would be a hard-felt loss.

With Twitter though, if every account, including my own, were wiped clean, I think I'd miss very little about what was gone. I see Twitter as a day-to-day community pinboard, where people plaster new thoughts on top of old ones and it seems that most people approach the service likewise.

Pinboard: Mission Accomplished.

Twitter has never made an effort to be a service that shows that it cares about the history or permanence of its data. There's no archive page and even trying to get to the end of a timeline is a painful, slow experience. And due to these traits, I've never been tempted to treat it more than an interesting thing that hums and buzzes alongside my daily life that I poke into occasionally.

Maybe due to Twitter's own lackadaisical attitude towards its history or maybe due to its 140 character limitation, people don't seem to care about their histories either, creating very little content that stands out. I have trouble recalling any messages that I would actually want to pull from an archive. Even if someone keeps Twitter as their daily log, with the whole showing a life in progress, how is one user's moving day or new job different from another's if they are both limited to stating the main fact and little else? To me, that seems such like a bland, sparkless enterprise.

Regardless of the content created on Twitter or how people view the function of the service, it's hard to deny that Twitter has shown little effort in presenting itself as anything more than an ephemeral dumping ground of short sentences.

Of the @towerbridge events of the past few days, I'm more bewildered than sympathetic. I'm not surprised about Twitter's handling of the account transfer as businesses do what businesses do, but instead to the community's reaction to it. The emotion I feel is identical to watching someone build a sand castle at the beach that gets swept away: it was a nice sand castle, a majestic effort, but it was built on a beach and tides which come every day took it away. The only difference is that the castle-builder understood his lot in life and knew that the his creation wasn't meant to last. Why would you build something that you want preserved if you know now you won't be able to get to it later?

Sand Castle

I think it's incredibly optimistic for people to think that any online service will value your data as much as you do. To think that Twitter, where you can't even access more than 3200 messages into the past on a timeline, values that data so much that it will never a break a link, never transfer control of a handle for legal or monetary reasons, never limit access to your data, seems to be people projecting what they want the service to be instead of what it actually is.

I still enjoy Twitter and am active user and have a few friends whom I greatly respect that work there. Often, Twitter can be a beautiful thing but it's beauty is captured in knowing exactly what the Internet is thinking at that moment. I just think that people are asking too much of a service that describes itself as “a new and easy way to discover the latest news” to be a permanent historical record and who's earliest definition included the words “inconsequential information”.

To me, it seems that Twitter hands you a pile of same-sized paper scraps to scribble your multi-sized thoughts and occasionally the wind scatters them, down a drainpipe or into the ocean. If you want something to outlast you, or at least until the end of the month, you have to choose your medium carefully: Twitter is newsprint, not vellum.

Attributions: Sand Castle by Joe Dsilva, on Flickr, Pinboard: Mission Accomplished. by Filipe ’shello’ Rodrigues, on Flickr