A Study in Exposure: Versailles

WARNING: Intense Photography Jargon Ahead

Whilst traveling through Paris and London, I noticed that most photographers prefer pictures of landscapes and landmarks without people in them.  Generally, this is understandable.  Large crowds, unless the point of the photo is to showcase the crowd, clutter a photo.  For my writer friends, they’re like unnecessary words that bog down the potential beauty of the passage beneath.

I’m not generally of the “no people in my photos”.  While I don’t go for crazy crowds, I like to include people in my photos for perspective (to emphasize how large a landmark is, for example, or its shape compared to a person’s).  Like this (click on the photos to enlarge):

The Hercules room in the palace of Versailles.

This photo is different for several reasons, not least of which is the perspective (I had the camera on the floor angled about 30 degrees) which emphasizes the height of the room and size of the paintings.  Likewise, without the people in the photo, the viewer wouldn’t have much of an idea of how truly massive and sumptuous the paintings (by Le Brun, I believe) are.  The elegance–or, let’s be honest, decadence–of the decoration is highlighted by the contrast of the clothing worn by us modern tourists.  My main issue with this photo is that I did a terrible job of editing the white balance (normalizing the color–it’s too blue and magenta).

However, sometimes people really do interfere with the composition of the photograph, especially when they’re in hordes (like tourists.  Or zombies).  That’s when having a shiny camera with manual options comes in super handy.

Cameras create photos by recording the light filtering through the lens, as our eyes do.  There are two ways to let light into a photo: through the lens, and by keeping the shutter (the thing that makes the click noise) open.  When visiting touristy areas, if you want to get people out of your photo to showcase the architecture or the landscaping or evoke a particular emotion, having a long “exposure” is your best bet.  Because people don’t reflect a lot of light while moving, the longer the exposure the more blurred they become–sometimes even disappearing entirely.

In the following photos, keep in mind that I didn’t bring a tripod with me to Paris (I’m dumb).  Tripods or a sturdy surface are absolutely necessary for long exposure shots, because most people can only handhold a shutter at, slowest, about 1/40th of a second.  Or at least for those of us who shake.

SO!  What does a long exposure do?  Well, it turns photos like this

The famous Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

Into something much less distracting, like this:

It was a cloudy day, and Versailles is low lit, both of which helped my ability to take the lower photo.  The first was taken at 1/60th of a second (ISO 500, F/4)–enough to stop most small action, thus keeping the photo from blurring.  The second, however, was a thirty second exposure (ISO 100, F/22).  That is, the shutter stayed open for thirty seconds.  Anyone moving quickly enough wouldn’t be picked up by the light.  There is a mass of blurry blue people near the entrance, mostly because the tourists bottlenecked there–reflecting lots of light–then quickly spread out, reflecting less.

I would never have been able to take the photo without the aid of a 10 stop neutral density filter.  I’m gonna call it a 10ND, for simplicity’s sake.  Essentially, a 10ND is like putting super, SUPER dark sunglasses over your lens.  It lowers by A LOT the amount of light that can travel through the lens, thereby allowing me to have an okay-ish long exposure photo during the daytime.  Without it, I might have been able to take a two or three second exposure by adjusting some other technical bits (those ISO and F/#), but not enough to blur out the foreground so strongly.

Long exposures also do cool things to water and clouds, evoking a dreamy, almost impressionistic effect on the viewer.  So, I’ll leave you with my favorite photo of the day from Versailles, a thirty second exposure of the Apollo fountain and the back of the palace.

From this...

To this.

So, tell me: did that make any sense?  Which do you prefer, photos without people, or photos with people?  And how terrible is my white balance editing, for serious?