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f/8 and Be There?

The common advice to photographers of "f/8 and be there" is often heard but its meaning and actual applicability are rarely considered in any detail. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

To begin with, to the extent that they may have thought about it, not everyone agrees on just what "f/8 and be there" actually means. It's a saying of few words but unclear meaning. It's possible to interpet it in whatever way you wish in order to reinforce your own beliefs about how to succeed as a photographer. Most photographers have heard the saying, but opinions differ as to its meaning. There are those will tell you that you should set your lens to f/8 since such midrange apertures represent the "sweet spot" of many lenses and that sharpness matters. By implication, they feel the saying implies once should intimately know the capabilities of their equipment to get the best results. Others will tell you the saying means to simplify the technical side of photography and to concentrate instead on being in the right place at the right time. The idea here is that if you waste time fiddling with camera adjustments you might miss the decisive moment. Still others seem to employ the saying merely as a mantra to justify their attitude that photography isn't as difficult as people think. All it takes is "f/8 and be there." How hard can that be?

Among those who have heard the saying and perhaps ascribe to some version of its meaning, few know where it came from. It seems to be an expression with origins lost in folklore than rooted in history. It's such a simple saying that there isn't any way to know for sure just who uttered it first, but the quote is generally credited to a New York City street photographer and photojournalist active during the 1930's and 1940's named Arthur Fellig. The story goes that Fellig, more commonly known by the nickname "Weegee" gave this answer when asked about the secret of his success. Indeed, it is because Fellig had such an uncanny knack of showing up at crime scenes and other newsworthy occasions, camera in hand, that he adopted the moniker "Weegee" as sly nod to how "Ouija board," the popular fortune telling device is generally pronounced. Somehow he just mystically knew where and when there were photos to be had. Even if he did learn "f/8 and be there" from someone else, he adopted it as his own.

But not all types of photography or all photographers are created equal. In the news photography business, getting the shot is very much about being there, and very little about trying to compose an artistic shot. If you're the only photographer to witness an accident, yours will be the image used on the front page of the newspaper or the in the lead story online. You have to be there with your camera, and time is of the essence. Now, I don't want to downplay what it takes to success in photojournalism, but the approach needed does vary for nature and many other types of photography. It doesn't take a Ouija board to divine where Mt. Rainier will be at any given point in time or that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.

So just as different photographers have different needs and priorities, it sort of makes sense that their interpretations of "f/8 and be there" also varies. It seems that this expression can be made to fit most everyone's needs in some way even if they don't all agree on what that way is.

So what does "f/8 and be there" mean to me?

I'd have to say, I'm not much of a fan of setting the lens to f/8 before considering what the subject is and how I'd like to portray it. If I can, I set the aperture only after composing a shot, and based on the depth of field I need or want, creatively. Adding things up, I actually have more shots taken at apertures smaller than f/8 and also more at wider apertures than I do at the magical f/8. The same is true of focal length by the way. I find I prefer longer and shorter focal lengths over mid-range "normal" lenses like the standard 50mm focal length. I guess I'm just not that much into "ordinary" or "average" settings. Part of the fun is to portray subjects in ways that people don't often see them.

But I am very much enamored by the "be there" part of this week's topic. And it's not just the idea that I have to be somewhere at the right time to get the shot, although that is important. It's that it's important to really be there. Eyes have to be open and receptive. The more I can actually be there, in touch with what's around me, the more apt I am to notice possible shots that would otherwise go unnoticed. Being there is more than just the physical act of being present. It's the mental state of being there too.

Every image contains an element of being there to the extent that it's hard to press the shutter release when your camera goes for an outing and you stayed home, literally (if such were possible) or figuratively. If your mind is elsewhere, you'll probably miss things. You're only partly "there."

Good images aren't (or at least aren't often) the result of happenstance, just passively "being there." But then neither are they (or at least not often) the result of a focused quest for something in particular, ignoring everything that doesn't fit with what you came to photograph. In my experience, a photographer is best served by adopting an attitude of actively being there, engaged and open to whatever the circumstances may have in store.

As I said at the outset of course, "f/8 and be there" is malleable enough to hold most any meaning a photographer wants to pour into it, regardless of what I've said here or what Weegee meant by it back in the 1940's. Perhaps what matters most is how you approach your own photography, and if convincing you that the meaning of "f/8 and be there" is worthy of deeper consideration, then my job here is done.

Date posted: May 24, 2015


Copyright © 2015 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Shooting Quickly versus Thinking More
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