When I first got my camera I pointed it at the subject and pressed the shutter release and hoped for the best. I now have a fair degree of certainty how the photograph will turn out before I take the picture. What was the process of transition between hope and certainty? It was a lot of little buttons and controls on the camera. In this article I hope to take you through my transition as I discovered the buttons in chronological order. Now I am not going to discuss some of the obvious controls like “review image” and “format memory card”, “program mode” and “flash mode”. I think they are prerequisites before you even start. When I grab a new camera those are the first things you look for. If you haven’t found those controls, you may need to grab the instruction manuel .
Half press shutter release
Wow this can make a difference. When you half press the shutter, the camera pre-focusses. Just move the central square over different objects and half press. You can hear the focussing motors whir and see the results in the view finder. You can choose what will be sharp.Not only that – in many cameras it will also pre-expose the image. (In some cameras the two functions are seperated) If the initial image is overexposed, I will move the camera upwards to expose more of the sky – half press – and then reposition back to my original composition. The picture is now darker. I usually find that exposing for the sky works best in most landscape images.
So now that I can pre-focus and pre-expose I find I have gained a lot of control over how the image turns out.
I love spending time in the Australian bush. My first images were all overexposed. Something about grey foliage and grey trunks, it all looks bland and uninspiring. I could predict that reducing the exposure by 0.7 would improve my images. One of my first discoveries was the button that will do just that. It looks like a sqaure – half black and half white with a +/- symbol. If I was unhappy with my image I could retake it with increasing adjustments of the exposure until it was how I wanted it. My compact camera will allow +/- 2 stops. The SLR will go +/- 4 stops.
Isn’t it amazing that the same thing can be done in so many different ways. Bracketing will adjust the exposure of subsequent photos by a predetermined amount. I can take three photos where the exposure is +2stops, correct exposure and -2stops. Why would I want to do that? Well sometimes I am not sure what exposure I want. Braketing gives me three images to choose from.
In more recent years I have bracketed for a different reason. The sky may be a very different exposure to the foreground. To get both correctly exposed requires different photographs, one for the sky and one for the foreground. These two images can then be combined on the computer using HDR (High dynamic range) software. Bracketing is just what you need to create a stack of images for HDR processing.
The classic timer delay photograph is the family barbeque where the photographer has the camera on a tripod, presses the button and races to join the group shot with just 10 seconds before the shutter releases.
The most common use I find for the timer delay is to avoid camera shake when I am doing a long exposure scene with my camera on the tripod. You know, for sea scapes and waterfalls and star trails. The instructions for these shots will recommend remote control or shutter release. Timer dalay is a viable alternative. Set up the shot. Press the shutter and it will fire 10 seconds later when the camera has stopped wobbling. It will obviate the need for cable release.
ISO and Automatic ISO compensation
At first I thought that there were just two control to determine the exposure, namely apperture and shutter speed. Apparently there is a third, the ISO. This adjusts the sensitivity of the sensor. It is analagous to buying different ASA film for your film camera. I remember being told to buy ASA 64 for high quality landscapes with a tripod, ASA 100 for general use, ASA 400 for wildlife (and with an instamatic camera) and ASA 1000 for grainy night shots and concert photography. Same numbers will work for the ISO.
As the light deteriorates it is useful to increase the ISO so that the shutter speed does not get too slow. I remember being told that the slowest hand held shot will be the inverse, or one over the focal length of your lens. For instance if I’m using a 100mm portrait lens, I don’t want to shoot less than 1/100th of a second. (Of course you can relax that a little bit if you have image stabilisation.)
Amazingly there is a setting on the camera that will adjust your ISO automatically. Firstly you set the slowest shutter speed that you want to deal with. Secondly you set the highest ISO you will tolerate before you go back to slowing the shutter speed. Great feature. Don’t have to fiddle with ISO all the time. The camera appears to be able to shoot in the dark.
Beware you want to turn this feature off if you are doing slow shutter work (on tripod) or flash photography. You may end up taking a whole series on a ridiculously high ISO with attendant noise and loss of sharpness when it was really unnecessary. In these instances set the ISO at 100 – no ISO compensation, and let the slow shutter or the flash create the correct exposure.
I first became aware of the the problem at the Melbourne zoo with an old compact Nikon camera that seemed to have an incredibly long shutter delay. The monkey would grit his teeth and smile at me. By the time the camera had taken the shot he’d shut his mouth, closed his eyes and was facing the other way. I slipped the camera into burst mode. After focussing and taking the exposure, the camera would go on to take a burst of 4 to 5 photos with the same settings in quick succession. Magic. The first shot was a dud, but in the 4th or 5th shot the monkey opened his eyes and poked his tongue out at me. It was totally unexpected and beter than the initial shot I had contemplated.
With the SLR I don’t have the shutter lag, but burst mode is still a favourite feature for wildlife and people. Great at capturing the unexpected. Great for flying birds. Great for panning a moving car.
These settings are all about control. P is for program, A is for Apperture priority, S is for shutter priority and M is full manual mode. How much control do you want to have? If you want the camera to make all the decisions – choose P.
Most of the time I have the camera set on A with the apperture f8 and allow the camera to set the shutter speed. When I want a different depth of field I just adjust the apperture. If I want a different shutter speed I can also adjust the apperture, knowing it will change in the opposite direction. Just one thing to adjust. This is an excellent strategy for general use. Landscapes, portraits etc.
However if I want to really slow things down, say take a waterfall, I slip into S and select the shutter speed I want, say 1/4 second and let the camera select apperture. Likewise when I want to freeze the action I dial up say 1/1000 and let the camera work out the rest.
If I am doing some flash photography I will slip into M. I will select both shutter and apperture and let the camera create the right exposure with the flash. (If I do not have TTL, I will have to do this adjustment myself. It is easy to take a few test shots and adjust the apperture until the exposure is correct.) If I change the apperture I can change the depth of field. If I slow the shutter speed I will allow more ambient light into the photograph. It is important not to set the shutter speed faster than the sync speed for the shutter. (This is usually around 1/250th second). Helen Whitford explains why in this article.
You can use different modes at the same time. Say I am out doing some street photography. I might have the camera in A f8 to take my standard sharp shots. However to be creative, I might switch the dial over to S 1/10sec in order to blur movement. Excellent to capture a passing cyclist or to show people as a mass of blurred movement. Once done I slip back into A f8 and carry on.
Under a sodium street light I am quite happy with the range of shots I get. However I am horrified when I get home to find they are all strongly tinted yellow. I didn’t see it at the time. The eye seems to automatically adjust. The camera just records what’s there. The problem is one of colour balance.
You can fix this. Normaly I have the colour balance set to automatic. This does not seem to work well enough in my opinion. If I have the forsight I can select a colour balance for incandescent setting and the camera will correct the colour cast, just like my eye did. Just remember that indoor settings and artifical lighting usually requires some sort of white balance adjustment. Without adjustment incandescent usually goes yellow orange, while flourescent often goes green.
This is usually a feature of the lens. Some cameras (Sony) also include it in the camera body. It is designed to deal with that fine muscle tremor that is shaking the camera. We can’t help it, but it is always there. Turn VR on and you can take sharp images at shutter speeds that would normally be impossible. It can make a difference of up to 2 stops in what you can hand hold. This is ideal for telephoto lenses and macro. You won’t find this feature on your wide angle lenses.
Did you know that there are a range of settings that tells your camera how to focus. You can focus in a small central spot then recompose the picture as described above. In the program modes you might find the camera focuses a matrix of 20 to 30 spots in the field. It effectively takes control away from the photographer. Many cameras have face recognition. The camera looks for faces and focuses on them. Some cameras are able to track moving objects, for instance a bird in flight, adjusting the focus as the bird moves toward and away from the photographer. At night the camera may shine a small IR light on the object to assist with the focus.
Sometimes the right answer is to turn off all of the automatic focus functions, and manually focus. This is certainly what I do when I’m doing low light photography. Say for instance when photographing the milky way, or a night scene. You don’t want the auto focus vainly hunting for a focal point when you know it is too dark for it to succeed. Likewise it is often switched off in macro photography. In this instance you might move the camera backwards and forwards to find the focal point, rather than turning the ring on the lens.
Remember to turn automatic focus back on after a session of night photography.