Finding meaning in the grey scale

Sometimes in life you sign up for one thing and come away with so much more. This generally happens to me when I’m looking at life with my eyes wide open, my expectations unfettered.

Such was my posture on a recent Saturday when I signed up for a photography course. I had no loftier goal than to tame a rebel, in particular, a Canon Rebel Single Lens Reflex camera.  But it was Saturday; I was relaxed and engaging in a hobby that I’d put on the shelf for a few years. I was unfettered.

The Rebel is not mine, but I’ve acquired the rights to use it as part of my work. I need to master it but until I’d taken the seminar, the Rebel was master of me.

While I might be new to the Rebel, I’m not new to photography, having been pursuing it as hobby for more than 40 years. My love for making pictures was born the year my Dad gave me a Kodak pocket instamatic.  The camera has been long lost to me, but I still remember the feel of holding its sleek black body in the palm of my hand, the fun of looking through the lens and framing my own version of life.

I like using windows to frame my photos. I took this image in Newfoundland.

By the time I was in university, I’d graduated to a Minolta XGM Single Lens Reflex film camera, with a couple of lenses, a flash and a tripod.   Half of the money to purchase the camera was, once again, a Christmas gift from my Dad.

It was his way of investing tangibly in my career as a newspaper reporter. In those early days of my career, the small town newspapers I worked for expected their reporters to provide pictures with stories. A Pentax K1000 became the workhorse of my daily job, the Minolta my weekend buddy.

Sometimes you need to let someone else snap the photo and simply enjoy the moment life gives you face to face.

Over the years I’ve taken several photography courses, read plenty of books and learned quite a bit about making pictures from some fine newspaper photographers. One even taught me how to navigate a darkroom, an art long lost to me now that I live in the digital age.

Digital cameras have made me a lazy photographer, although it’s as much a hobby as it ever was.  I’m currently on my second Canon Power Shot.   The first, which served me well for more than five years, sits on my bureau, the shutter release button missing, yellow duct tape holding its battery in place.

The Canon I now use had the misfortune of accompanying me into a muddy creek when I flipped a kayak one summer day. Hoping for the best, I gently laid the camera, battery and memory card in a bowl of rice for a week. It dried out and works sufficiently by day, although it’s useless by night, the flash having drowned in the creek.

This could have used some metering expertise. But I still love the memory of this New Brunswick evening.

These days, I take a lot of photos with my Samsung Galaxy Smart Phone. It’s quick, handy and takes surprisingly good photos.

But the Galaxy pales in comparison to the Rebel, especially now that I’ve learned what all its buttons, wheels and menus can do for me.

By the end of the seminar, I began to feel a sense of control over the Rebel.  Even more importantly, for the first time in my life I truly grasped the meaning of metering, an important photographic technique that I’ve never been able to understand.

I still have a lot to learn, but I’m beginning to understand the play of light through a camera lens.

It was during the instructor’s explanation of this that I received the gift of so much more.  I had an ‘aha’ moment, totally unexpected (those fetters were loose), and brilliantly philosophical (at least in my mind).

Do you ever have those moments? The experience of realizing a truth that goes much deeper than the topic at hand?

Here was mine.  During his helpful explanation of how to set metered exposure, the instructor commented that a camera automatically goes to the grey scale of an image. It measures luminosity, rather than colour. And while the camera perceives black and white, its default is to the grey zone.

Forgive me, professional photographers, if I’m not getting the technical explanation quite right.  But quite, frankly, the technical part of what the instructor was saying began to move out of focus for me as my mind began playing with the variations of his theme.

‘I like the way a camera thinks,’ I was thinking to myself, as the instructor was talking.

On one level, I was madly scribbling notes, delighted that I was finally figuring out how to better control how my photos would look – no more dark, undetailed photos of flowers; no more brash, brighter-than-sunstroke beach pictures.

Shades of grey. Shade of blue.

On a deeper level, the one that pulls from my heart rather than my brain, I was thinking: ‘this is the way to live life and all its shades of grey. I need to move my own exposure meter to gain a true picture of reality’.

Here’s the thing, though: you have to switch off the camera’s automatic mode in order to control its exposure meter.

Taking photos on automatic may seem to be the quickest, simplest option, but it rarely captures the truest photo. Living life on automatic is no different. The older I get, the longer I take photos, the more interested I am in the grey scale, not just in my camera, but for life itself.

Lynda MacGibbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Her column appears on Fridays in the Moncton Times & Transcript and she can be reached at . Follow her on Twitter@lyndamacgibbon.

2 thoughts on “Finding meaning in the grey scale

  1. I too, owned a Pentax K1000! I bought it when I took a photography course during my time at college. It stayed with me for many years. I think my mom has it now. But alas, film has pretty much disappeared (except at Wal-Mart). I love this post–very little in life is black and white. The nitty-gritty of life is in the grey zone.

    1. I still have my Minolta, although I never use it anymore. But I can’t get rid of it — some day I’ll shoot with film again, just to prove I can, Rhonda!

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