One well-known axiom of photography goes “f/8 and be there.” The quote is attributed to (and I had to look this up) New York photojournalist Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, who apparently gave it in reply to a question about how he consistently achieved high quality work.
The meaning behind the quote is fairly simple: ” f/8″ is a versatile, middle-of-the-road aperture that strikes a good compromise between achieving acceptable depth of field while letting in enough light to use a reasonably fast shutter speed to avoid motion blur, and “be there” simply means you can’t capture the image if you’re not there to take it. Fellig’s formula allows one to shoot quickly without taking undue time to think through the camera settings before hand, undoubtedly a very useful ability for photojournalists capturing fast-moving events.
Landscape photography probably does not conjure up thoughts of fast-moving events in the way that photojournalism does. Personally, I like taking the time to think about a scene, compose my image, and select the camera settings accordingly. Don’t be fooled, though – conditions in the landscape can change very fast indeed. Such was the case for this image, “Clearing Storm, Mummy Range.”
First, the “be there” part. After spending the better part of an evening driving around Rocky Mountain National Park in a consistently flat, dull, and pouring rain, I was just about prepared to go home. I figured I would drive the car around one last bend in the road, turn around, and pack it in for the night. Cresting a rise in the road, though, I was treated to the sight of the trailing edge of the storm, with the rain abating and the sun peeking through the clearing clouds just before it was to set. The setting sun lit up this view of the Mummy Range like a spotlight.
Now, the “f/8” part. The sun was going down so fast that I could literally see the light fading on the peaks as I pulled my car over to the side of the road. I jumped out of the car, fumbled with setting up the tripod and locking down the ball head as I composed the image, all the while observing the light fade as fast as I’ve ever seen it do so. Fortunately, I keep my aperture set to f/16 by default, so I simply adjusted the shutter speed to get my desired exposure, did a quick manual focus of the lens, and tripped the shutter.
But wait a minute, shouldn’t I have set my aperture to f/8? Well, no, for landscapes I am of course interested in maximizing my depth of field, and while landscape conditions can change quickly, they still generally don’t change so fast that motion blur is a problem. So, I’ve modified the axiom for my needs to “f/16 and be there.” This formula is flexible enough to meet nearly all my landscape shooting needs, saves me time in fast-changing conditions, and generally simplifies my thought process in the field so that I can concentrate on seeing what’s around me.