Photography, just like other things in life such as cooking and fashion, comes with a personal taste for the one that practices it.
In the same way that there’s no such universal notion as bad cooking or good cooking, or bad fashion or good fashion, each person develops a style that might suit her or someone else.
In my photography, for example, moments are everything. I’d even say that moments trumps everything. A moment, to me, is a source of life captured in time. Frozen in time. Photography allows us to have time perceived as a physical dimension in which we can travel in the past with our eyes, our hearts and our minds.
It goes, therefore, to say that as much as I care for composition, my mind is to put importance on moments over composition. A photograph with a good composition but with a poor moment is not a photograph that touches my heart. If it doesn’t touch my heart, if it doesn’t move me in some small way, I tend to reject the photograph.
How about exposure? Well, the same idea applies. Nowadays, the dynamic range of digital cameras are so good that we can have six stops of latitude to play with. With analog or film, the dynamic range is even greater with some having up to ten stops of latitude. Therefore, if you ballpark your exposure, you should be okay. It all depends how much work you’d have to sit to fix the photo in post-production if you’re too off. That being said, knowing that we can ballpark the exposure, the moment remains the hero that must be preserved.
Another thing about exposure is that there’s no such thing as a “perfect exposure”. Most of our cameras are configured with increments of one third of a stop (this applies to all exposure variables: shutter speed, ISO and aperture). Maybe the perfect exposure for a frame is 1/137th at ISO 52 and an aperture of f/4.39. Good luck configuring your camera with that exposure. Instead, what we have is a good enough exposure. So let’s be content with a good enough exposure in order to capture a strong, emotional moment that we can connect with. A timeless moment.
Sometimes you can't have it all and it's far better to capture the right moment with the wrong settings, rather than the wrong moment with the right settings. — Henry Carroll
Because I mostly photograph weddings and street moments, I need to be quick with my camera in such a way that the moment doesn’t escape. Once the moment escapes, it’s never coming back. So I set my exposure just enough to be ready to capture the moment in a style that I want. Then I visualize the scene by placing the background and foreground elements according to my desire, and I either wait for the moment to present itself or I capture it immediately, even if it breaks my composition by a bit or by a lot.
However, this philosophy wouldn’t apply if I was photographing landscape, food or real estate for example. Mostly because I fail to see moments in those types of photography. In that case, composition would be preferred over exposure. The logical order remains.
I was thinking about writing this piece today while out shooting with my Nikon F3 film camera. I was reminded how much time I take with it to properly compose my scene. However, if a moment happened to present itself, there’s not much time to think compositionally…there’s just enough time to press the shutter and capture that moment.