The Perils of Certainty

As you’ve probably noticed, it’s rare that I identify specific settings for a photo published on this site. I sometimes do when I’m making a comparison, thus reveal the setting that changed between two examples. But for everything else, I rarely identify anything, despite the fact that EXIF and XMP these days would let me pretty much document every last detail (certainly hundreds of details).

Why my reluctance?

It has to do with what happens when I (and others) do publish specifics: readers believe that these are SuperSettings that they should use, and they copy them religiously, with absolute certainty that it will improve their photography. This use is without regard to what the settings actually do and whether they are appropriate for the situation they’re photographing. Let me state it emphatically: I can identify hundreds of decisions you make just prior to taking a photo, and hundreds more if you’re going to post process it. It is almost 100% true that my decisions wouldn’t be the same as yours—otherwise why do we need individuals pursuing photography?—yet those that seek settings want to use them as substitutes to their decision making.

Over a decade ago I made a mistake in a settings file that I supplied with a book: I accidentally left the Copyright option set to my notice. Within weeks, photos were showing up all over the Internet with my Copyright notice, photos that I hadn’t taken. Worse still, when I looked at those photos, nothing had been changed from the file I had supplied. And yet, casual examination of those photos showed that many settings should have been changed.

I publish two “configuration guides” (for the Sony A7 Mark III/A7R Mark III and the Sony A1). I’m pretty careful in those guides to explain why I suggest various settings, and when you should be making changes to my suggestions. I consider those books as being helpers to get those complex cameras to an initial configuration that meets their owners’ needs, and I imply (and explicitly state a few times) that the readers' choices will change as they use the camera more and tailor it to their specific work. These two Sony books are actually an experiment on my part in providing my thinking about how to configure a new camera when you might not be a long-time user of that brand/genre. 

If what you want is to study other photographer’s settings, you can find plenty of sites on the Internet that reveal some, many, or virtually all the details for a photo. But let me throw this out: when I visit those sites, I almost always find settings that (1) raise my eyebrows; (2) are arguably poor choices; and (3) aren’t what I’d have set. And when I see others visit those sites I see that they have an opposite reaction: (1) oh, that’s different than what I’m doing; (2) that’s arguably better than my choices; and (3) I’ll just use that setting in the future.

Which brings me to this article’s title: the peril of certainty.

I see photographers trying to embrace certainty all the time when they should be doing the opposite:

  • Set the focus system to All Auto All the Time. The camera will get it right.
  • Set the aperture to f/11 (or worse f/16 and f/22, which are likely diffraction impacted). The depth of field will get it right. Or: everything needs to be in focus.
  • Set Auto ISO; set High ISO NR to ON or HIGH because noise is so horrendous it should always be avoided or eradicated.
  • Use Clarity, often at levels in the teens (Adobe numbers). Crank up the mid-tone contrast, because mid-tones always need a lot of contrast.

The list is nearly infinite. I encounter “but I was told to do this…” all the time. The common denominator is the belief that you can set something and forget it. Heck, I’ve seen the “set and forget” mantra used in articles, books, and teaching so much it probably originated before mankind discovered fire. Anyone that tells you this is invoking a simplification that will almost certainly be proved to be incorrect at some point in the future. 

The correct mantra to use is “think and set.” Think about what you’re trying to do (show). Consider the implications of specific settings. Maximize settings to what you’re trying to do. 

Of course, trying to juggle hundreds of decisions in real time (timing, focal length, focus point, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, just to name a few big ones) is hard. You can’t always take the time to evaluate everything, so you take shortcuts or get things wrong. Thus, you also have to prioritize: what’s the most important thing to get right for this photo? For sports, that may be timing. For landscapes that may be composition or lighting. For events it might be focus. For architectural photography it might be “level and straight.” 

So yes, all of us want a “base” of settings from which we will then vary. But here’s the thing: my base of settings differs depending upon what I’m photographing, and I reconsider those before every session. One reason why I said the Sony A1 got settings right was that that camera is the first to allow me to name 10 different baseline settings and keep them on a storage card. So I can get certain baselines set fast and reliably. But even after doing that, I go through a thought session where I challenge whether I need to be making any changes. And when I’ve got the camera to my face, I’m making further changes as warranted.

In other words, there’s no certainty that any setting is the right one until you fully examine the situation you’re trying to document and make some decisions accordingly. 

Camera makers don’t seem to understand any of this (the Sony A1’s excellent settings abilities notwithstanding). One reason why so many people gravitate towards using their smartphones as their camera is that they’re okay with Apple and Google using AI to adjust everything and figure out final pixels, even if that means changing or even inventing some. Apple and Google get that “more right” than the non-thinking camera user does, and there are now literally billions of non-thinking camera users. The Japanese camera makers basically gave up on this audience (why did BSS go away, Nikon?). So why would that audience buy a dedicated camera?

But then why aren’t camera makers making it easier for the thinking photographer? The Sony A1’s settings is one counter-example, but I can think of plenty of things that would help me make and adjust spontaneous settings that aren’t available (raw histogram, anyone?). 

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