EXIF Data – The Other Perspective

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By Steve Russell

Last Thursday my friend and business partner, Tiffany, posted the article My Take on Sharing EXIF data. If you haven’t read her article, I suggest that you read hers first so that you get the complete perspective. Frankly, I thought it was a great idea for an article but she included the following:

Last week Steve posted an article about photographing sunrises and sunsets. I was particularly taken with one of his photos (this one) and wanted to see what lens and camera settings he used to catch the lovely tone of light that he achieved. Lo and behold, when I went to Flickr and clicked on “Actions” above the photo, I discovered that Steve doesn’t share his EXIF data. So I posted a comment under that photo asking him if he’d ever considered sharing his EXIF data.

He responded in an e-mail message a bit later on with, “Why would I?”

Oh ho! Great idea for an article! So here we are. (I like sharing the article backstory sometimes. It provides continuity. Also, it’s a lot of fun to document when Steve and I have differences of opinion.)

I read that and thought, “Oh ho! Great idea for an article! So here we are. (I like sharing the article backstory sometimes. It provides continuity. Also, it’s a lot of fun to document when Tiffany and I have differences of opinion.)

Let me add that Tiffany is a very accomplished photographer and takes some great photographs. I think I do a pretty decent job as well. However, we take different approaches a lot of the time and disagree on more than one thing. The results are what’s important, not the method.

Everglades Sunrise 2

This is the image in question.

Tiffany wanted to know whether I took the photo with my Canon 7D or my Canon 5D Mark II. The image was taken on March 5, 2011. I received my 5D Mark II on March 17, 2011.

The lens I used was my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L
at 24mm which is an apparent focal length of 38mm with the 7D. Additionally, the aperture was set at f/16.

You should be able to look at the image and know that I was using a wide angle lens with a very small aperture. Wide angle lenses give the impression of vastness of the scene. A long lenses compresses the scene making objects appear closer together front to back. Large apertures limit depth of field creating blur or bokeh in the foreground and possibly the background. In the image everything is in focus from the reeds 3 or 4 feet in front of me to the clouds that are miles away. It takes a small aperture to achieve that.

If you don’t learn and understand what causes different results in photography, looking at all the EXIF data in the world won’t help you learn anything. Also, looking at EXIF data from other photographers won’t teach you what causes different results. You have to know that changing the aperture changes the depth of field. You have to know that there is a direct relationship between aperture and shutter speed and changing one requires changing the other the same amount to get the same exposure (reciprocity).

If you look at the EXIF data for the photo in question you won’t see any shutter speed listed. Why? Because the photo is an HDR compilation of three captures at -2.33 stops, -.33 stops and +1.67 stops. Because HDR is post-processing, the EXIF data for this shot indicates that I shot in AV mode but it doesn’t indicate the shutter speed(s) I used. Shooting in the AV mode, the camera is going to select the correct shutter speed to capture what the computer in the camera considers the correct exposure for 18% gray which is, in part, why I used HDR and set the exposure compensation on my camera to minus one-third stop. Nevertheless, the ISO was set at 200 and the middle exposure was at 1/160 second.

There’s the relevant EXIF data. Think about it. It isn’t much help, is it? The reason it isn’t much help is because the EXIF data is such a small part of what it takes to capture an image like this. I was able to capture the photo because I was up and dressed at 4:00 am. Then we drove from the motel eighteen miles to the front gate of Everglades National Park and then another ten or twelve miles to the lake.

When we arrived I took my gear out of the car and set it up with what I was going to use, spread a poncho on the ground to keep dry and sat down and waited for twilight. Next I adjusted the tripod so I could see through the viewfinder while sitting on the ground and so the camera on the tripod was level. About 2 minutes after I sat down, I went back to the car and covered myself with insect repellant because the mosquitoes were swarming and biting like crazy. I also used a Cottonelle wipe to get the repellant off my hands so I didn’t damage any of my equipment. I listened to the birds as they were awakening, watched the alligator swim by about 10 feet in front of me, the same one that had been sleeping on the bank about 25 feet away earlier, and waited for the light to be right.

I took about 200 images, 3 at a time, and selected the three that make up the image in question and processed it in Photoshop using NIK HDR Efex Pro. Now, which is more revealing, the EXIF data or everything else I did to capture the image? Besides, I could have captured the same images at ISO 100 and 1/80 second or ISO 400 and 1/320 second. I could have set the aperture at f/11 or at f/22 and the shutter speed would have changed accordingly.

In other words, the EXIF data says a lot more about how much light there was than it does about what the photographer did. What’s more, I can go to the same location, sit in the exact same spot, put the same settings on my camera and wait for sunrise and I can’t take the same photo. In fact, if I try to do that, the resulting image may turn out to be horrible. It’s important to know what’s happening around you and the quality and intensity of the light to take an acceptable photo. Looking at someone else’s, or even your own, EXIF data from an image taken at another time provides little or no useful information for what you’re trying to achieve at the moment.

The next reason that EXIF data is way overrated is because of what it’s possible to do to an image in post-processing. You can look at the EXIF data of an image you really like but all it tells you is what setting the photographer had on the camera. You have no way of knowing what he or she did in Photoshop. It’s possible to change the exposure in Photoshop by 2 stops and still have an acceptable image. Now that alone destroys any value the EXIF data may present to you. Plus, there are a myriad of other tricks that can be achieved through Photoshop that diminish or eliminate the value of EXIF data.

On Saturday, I attended a Scott Kelby seminar that will be the subject of a future article. Scott took a hundred or so photographs and the resulting images were dramatically different. Guess what? With the exception of a small handful, they were all taken with the exact same settings on his camera. EXIF data tells next to nothing about how he was able to capture all the excellent images he did in one day. Far more important than his camera settings were the location of the lights, the intensity of the lights and the placing of the model. None of that would ever show up on EXIF data.

Now, this is my take on sharing EXIF data. It’s a lot like telling you what color of socks I was wearing that day. You don’t have to agree with it. In fact I doubt many of you will. However, there are a lot of very accomplished professional photographers, like Scott Bourne, that agree with me. I think I’m in pretty good company.

A last reference to Tiffany’s article; I don’t feel this way because I’m worried that someone will copy what I do. I feel this way because I believe that the value of seeing another photographer’s EXIF data is way overrated.

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  • Luka

    I got bored taking photos of birthdays parties and decide to get more seriously involved in photography. I read some beginners books and finally bought a DSLR (entry model). I did not make great photos before, but they were OK. After I bought DSLR I start shooting and the result was terrible. There were so many settings to look after that I simply forgot about some of them – usually the composition :) So I started looking at photo blogs, forums. First I just looked at photos of others and try to create similar to them and learn from that experience. At most cases I was quite successful, at some I did not get close to the wanted result. Then I start reading EXIF data of others and I learned quite some tricks that way (and more importantly I learned that my beginners equipment simply fails at creating beautiful photos at some extreme conditions). I agree with both perspectives. Without EXIF data it would take significantly more time for me to gain experience, since try and error is the most effective type of learning, but it also takes the most time. But what would be the ultimate learning experience would be to read such a background story as you wrote it today at every amazing photo I saw. They give insight about preparations that took place way before the photo was taken and some insight at what happen to it after. It gives us beginners a clue that we mostly overslept the important light and than we complain about mosquito bites, terrible artificial landscape and weak equipment. I learned a lot from EXIF, but more from those kind of stories.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tiffany-Joyce/1544637040 Tiffany Joyce

    Just one of those examples of “no wrong answer”.  I don’t think anyone expects EXIF data to be a “magic decoder ring” revealing all that was necessary to capture the shot.  You are right, anyone that understands the basics exposure, depth of field, etc. can look at a shot and estimate many of the settings that EXIF data reveals.  Not the camera or the lens used, though.  It was by looking at images that were shot with a 70-200mm f/2.8L II that convinced me to buy one for myself!  It’s not up to the photographer  to determine how we as individuals use the data, it’s just another aspect of sharing photographs that we include EXIF data.  Great article, Steve!  :D

  • julie

    I agree that EXIF data is only one part of the story of how the image is made, but I’d argue that it’s an important part and one that I use to learn how to improve my photography.

  • Genesis Jim

    I like the story about the alligator and insect repellent. Those are very important when it comes to taking pictures. Seriously, the back-stories interest me more than the EXIF details do. On the other hand, when I’m shooting, I look at the display now and then (keeping an eye on the histogram) to see what the camera is producing with the settings I’ve chosen. One good reason to check now and then is that you may have accidentally pushed a button and are now shooting in manual focus mode, 3200 ISO or b/w jpeg. 
    I look at the EXIF details when I’m post-processing to know how much noise reduction a batch may need (anything above 800 ISO gets some noises reduction with me). 
    Other than this, I would much prefer to have the camera record everything else that went into making a picture. I guess that is what the video setting in modern DSLRs is for!

  • Ang

    This was a great article and I learned alot.When I go out and try to capture an image, I usually to prefer to read details such as Steve’s  (lighting, timing, processing) to create a  similar shot.  I had no idea looking at EXIF data might be used as a tool to help me with my photography. Interesting.

  • Tina Haiser

    I wish it was possible to know if a picture I am looking at was an HDR composite, actually. I’m always wondering things like “Can my gear actually do that?” I find flickr’s camera search function really helpful that way, but also looking at the EXIF data for the kind of lens that was used. I wish more data was included, actually, more precise identification of lenses, what (if any) kind of post processing was done. Just like reading a forum, or a blog post, or following a class, or reading a book, I get little clues. Maybe looking at it confirms what I am hoping, which is that I don’t need to buy more stuff at this point, just get better at using what I have, if that makes sense. That said, there is plenty of inspiration out there, thanks to the fact that the default on flickr is sharing. Of course the story is more interesting than the data. How could it not be? I personally wouldn’t bother getting up at 4am to get eaten by mosquitos, however, because it wouldn’t be worth it for the mediocre photos I am capable of at this point, but now I am interested in trying to understand more about HDR techniques, and comparing what they can do to just a regular exposure, because you explained how you made that image. Now, as an adjunct, I will go and look at a ginormous pool of HDR images, and get it in my head what those look like, and don’t blame my equipment, when I cannot achieve such great contrast. People learn from EXIF data in ways that are not entirely explained by what’s contained there, if that makes sense, especially real beginners like myself.