Giving Back in the Wake of Irene

Rutherford, NJ, near the Passaic River, 8/30/11

After several days spent preparing for a hurricane by stocking up on enough canned goods to feed the 101st Airborne for a week and tracking the storm’s every wobble on television, we found ourselves lucky. Aside from a loss of internet access for a bit, we got off easy. A glance back at the television, and then a few days spent outside with my gear, reminded me that while this may have been a “minor” storm, there’re quite a few people — many within a short walk of home, some farther afield — who didn’t get off nearly as easily.

I’ve profiled nonprofits in this space before, and will continue to do so. For right now, however, I’d like to encourage you to help your neighbors — whether they’re down the street, or a thousand miles away — in whatever way you can. I’ve compiled a few tips to hopefully make the process a bit easier.

Wallington, NJ, 8/30/11

Things you can do:

    • Donate. Whether it’s your time or your money, it will be put to good use.
    • Designate where you want the funds to go. The American Red Cross got a bit of a bad rap in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 after a controversy over money not going where the donors intended. The Red Cross learned from the experience, however, and has procedures in place so that if you specify that you’d like your donation to go to hurricane relief, that’s how it will be used; likewise, if you’d like your money to go to the organization’s general fund, you can donate with no strings attached. Other organizations have similar safeguards in place. If you’re not sure, ask, and don’t be shy about making your wishes clear.
    • If you want to donate goods — food, clothing, and the like — call in advance to find out what’s needed. This can vary widely based not only on geography, but also on what the organizations on the ground already have stockpiled, or have already received. They may well be up to their ears in canned goods but short on toiletries, for instance; a tube of Colgate may go much farther than a can of soup.
    • Unfortunately, some people with no scruples will see this as an opportunity to profit off of someone else’s misfortune. Be especially wary of giving your financial information (credit card numbers and the like) to someone on the basis of an email or telemarketing call. If something feels “off,” it probably is. If you’re not sure about an organization that’s soliciting your time or money, go to, which can help you to find out if an organization’s on the up and up, as well as what percentage of your donation will be used for aid versus administrative expenses.
    • Find out if your employer will match your donations, either by percentage or in full. If they do, what you give will be multiplied that much more.
    • Donate online or by text message. The funds will often be available much faster to organizations much faster than they would’ve been if you’d sent a check.
    • Finally, don’t forget smaller, often local organizations. Some of these, naturally, will be providing disaster assistance. Others may have missions not related to Irene at all, but they’ll still need your help. People are unfailingly generous when disaster strikes, but often the donations flow to larger, better-known organizations at the expense of smaller ones.
Spring Lake Boardwalk, 8/29/11
    Curious what you can do as a photographer? If you live in or near an area that’s been effected, use your talents to get the word out, along with visuals. If it’s an area that’s been neglected by the media, so much the better. And of course, the usual rules of tact, ethics, and common sense apply: stay safe, be transparent about what you’re doing and why, and if someone would rather you didn’t photograph them (or their property), honor their wishes.  Think about it: this is a stressful enough time for many people, and the last thing you want to do is add to that stress.

To donate or get help, find your local Red Cross chapter here.

Visit Charity Navigator for information before you donate.

Full disclosure: the link for donations that appears below this post is for this blog, NOT for the American Red Cross or any other nonprofit. If you want to donate, please do it via the Red Cross link above, or via your local chapter.

Shooting in Manual: Sunny 16


Sunny 16: In this case, ISO 400, 1/400 Shutter Speed, f/16 Aperture

This week, we’ll wrap up our series on shooting modes with a very easy way to shoot in manual, called “Sunny 16.” Some photographers have even gone so far as to say that using this method, you can replace your light meter (which I think is too optimistic by half). What it does instead, I think, is eliminate some of the guesswork from choosing your exposure settings.

Your first step is to choose your ISO. If you’re shooting in daylight on a clear day, you can easily get away with an ISO of 100 or 200. ISO 400 is good for days that are a bit overcast, or when your light is unpredictable. ISO numbers of 800 and above should be used either when your lighting is awful, or when you need to use a higher shutter speed in conjunction with a stopped-down aperture (think sports and event photography). As previously discussed, try your camera out at various ISO settings when the results don’t matter, so that you know what tradeoffs come with higher ISOs, and how well your camera does, or does not, handle noise and loss of detail in those higher reaches.

Having chosen your ISO, leave it on that number and forget about it. You will now choose your shutter speed, which will be the reciprocal of your ISO. So, in other words, if your ISO is 200, your shutter speed will be 1/200.* You may now also forget your shutter speed.

All that leaves is your aperture. In broad daylight, under normal conditions, f/16 coupled with a “matched” ISO and shutter speed will give you a correct exposure. If your exposure is off, one of two things are wrong. The first potential cause can be the camera itself; some cameras will simply under- or over-expose slightly, more or less by default. You have the option of either correcting this via exposure compensation, or by changing your aperture.

The other possibility here is that the camera’s right, and there’s either more, or less, light in the scene than you thought. Remember, just because we’ve set our ISO and shutter speed and then effectively set them aside, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to ignore what the camera’s light meter is telling us. Check the metering, and make adjustments accordingly.

Even in dim light, f/11 was a bit brighter than I wanted. ISO 400, 1/400, f/10

Of course, the light doesn’t always do what we’d like. On different days (or even in different locations on the same day), you may find that f/16 isn’t quite cutting it. There are a few rules of thumb, therefore, for dealing with lighting situations that fall outside the “standard.” If f/16 is our baseline, then we may need to step up, or down, depending on lighting conditions, like so:

  • f/22 (down one stop) for beach scenes and snow
  • f/11 (up one stop) for weak sunlight, or dawn/dusk light
  • f/8 (up two stops) if it’s overcast
  • f/5.6 (up three stops) if it’s seriously overcast, or if your subject is in shadow
  • f/4 (up four stops) for sunset or open shade

If you’re not altogether sure what kind of light you’re dealing with, look for shadows. The sharper and more detailed the shadow, the higher the f/number you’ll need. If shadows are indistinct or nonexistent, you’ll need more light, and a wider aperture.

Bear in mind, as well, that you may not always need a full stop’s worth of light in one direction or another. Sometimes going from f/16 directly to f/11 means going from a shot that’s slightly underexposed to one that’s washed out; use your meter and your common sense. With that caveat in mind, however, this can be a great way to demystify shooting in manual, and taking more control over your camera and the exposures it gives you. Have fun with it!

 *Shutter speed settings vary by camera; some cameras won’t have a shutter speed that precisely matches the ISO you’ve chosen. If that’s the case, choose the closest applicable shutter speed by rounding up. Example: if your ISO is 100, your shutter speed may well be 1/125.

Rule 10: Find Inspiration Outside Photography

...Like Dancing About Architecture.

Early photographers – Brady and Stieglitz both come to mind, but there were literally dozens of others – were on one hand liberated by the fact that they were working in a new medium, but on the other somewhat constrained by the limits of the equipment they were using. The older cameras and film processes were as fickle as they were time-consuming, and would not yet give the speed and mobility that later photographers would use to such great advantage. Early photography, therefore, tended to be influenced more than a bit by the other visual arts that existed at the time (especially painting). As time passed and photography evolved, it began to engage in a dialogue of sorts with painting (Chuck Close comes to mind as someone whose style practically anticipated digital photography) and the motion picture (witness Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photos of dogs, horses, and people that attempted to capture a sense of motion long before movies were a commonplace).

As photographers we’re faced with a similar opportunity. While it’s vital that we know the works of photographers we admire (inspiration has to start somewhere) and those we dislike (since it’s equally useful to know what kind of photographer you’d prefer not to be, or the “mistakes” you’d rather not make), it helps to step outside ourselves and our craft from time to time in order to see what’s going on elsewhere, whether that somewhere else is music, sculpture, or even carpentry. Seeing the choices someone else makes to practice their craft and to realize the finished product shows the creative process in a new light, and gives us the means, sometimes, to explain our own craft to ourselves.

Of course, couched in that opportunity is a singular dilemma. We live in a time when it’s possible to have access, at relatively little cost, to more cultural output than ever before; we similarly live in a time when the means of producing and disseminating these artifacts is easier than ever, meaning that we’ll soon reach a point where these artifacts multiply exponentially, making it even more impossible to keep up with what’s being produced as it is to somehow catch up on all of what’s already been done. Find your own inspiration and build your own canon, tracing and building your own artistic lineage like a made-to-order family tree; after all, one of the best parts of creativity is choosing your lineage, and deciding where you will take it next.

From time to time in the weeks ahead, I will be profiling artists outside of photography who I think have something to say to us as photographers, sometimes highlighting parallels with photographers doing similar work. As with any other “list” (albeit one that will unfold, as it were, in slow motion), it’s highly subjective. By no means am I suggesting that you like the same people, or draw the same lessons from them that I did. You may choose to draw the same lessons from different artists, different lessons from the same artists, or you may just say the hell with it and learn something else from someone else altogether. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter which of those categories you fall into; what’s important is that you should be willing to engage, and learn from, others both in and out of photography who have something to say.

While it’s got nothing on painting, sculpture, or music, which have been practiced for tens of thousands of years, photography nonetheless has quite a history and heritage behind it. Part of our literacy as photographers – part of the visual vocabulary and syntax we employ every time we compose a shot and press the shutter – necessarily includes knowing at least some of that history. But part of our education also needs to come from outside photography. Just as we, as individuals, don’t evolve in a vacuum, neither has the craft of photography, or the art that’s evolved from it. There’s a sense of communication and community that takes place across different media that informs all that we do. The arts – all of them – give us so much. At different times, or sometimes all at once, they tell us about ourselves and our creativity, as well as providing us with context, inspiration, and instruction. About all they ask in return is that we pay attention, and remember.

Photo News Roundup, 8/27/11

This photo could get you arrested in Long Beach.

Quite the busy week this week. Links go to sources’ websites, as usual.

Chalk one up for common sense: a judge has not so much dismissed as smacked down Janine Gordon’s copyright infringement case against fellow photographer Ryan McGinley, stopping just short of saying the grounds for the complaint (she essentially claimed he stole her subject matter, style, and lighting techniques, none of which were all that unique to begin with) had no basis in reality. (ARTINFO)

Canon announces three compacts, the PowerShot SX150 IS, the PowerShot ELPH 510 HS, and the PowerShot ELPH 310 HS. They also announce two printers, PIXMA MG8220 and MG6220 All-in-Ones. The compacts, according to the Canon press release, have improved image stabilization, flash, and optics; the 510 HS, they say, has an improved form factor. You can read more about the cameras here, and more about the printers here. (Canon USA)

Professional photographer Jennifer McKendrick shows her principles, calls off senior portrait shoots with four clients because she discovered they were bullying classmates. She says she won’t photograph “ugly people.” (Huffington Post)

Might Fuji have another winner on its hands? There’s an image all over the web of a page from the current Promaster catalog showing the Fuji X-10/X-50 (the designation will be different depending on the market), with price and specs, which break down as follows: for six hundred bucks, you get a 12MP CMOS sensor, 28-112 equivalent manual zoom, OVF , HD movie function, RAW/JPG shooting, and the looks of a classic rangefinder. No word on whether it’d have the hybrid VF featured on the X-100; assume not, or the catalog would likely have mentioned that. If image quality equals what Fuji delivered on the X-100, and manages to ship in sufficient volume to avoid the shortages that have plagued that camera up to now, this has potential. (Mirrorless Rumors)

As expected, Nikon announced eight additions to its Coolpix lineup, including the S100, S4150, S6150, and S6200. The Nikon Coolpix S1200pj will hopefully improve on the projector feature first introduced with the S1000. It allows easier sharing to YouTube, and allows you to shoot tethered to an iPhone or iPad. The S8200 will have 16MP and 14x wide-angle zoom, plus the ability to do JPG capture during video recording. Nikon Coolpix AW100 is designed to be waterproof (up to 33′), survive low temperatures (to 14 degrees Farenheit), and even falls (up to 5′). The buttons are chunky — just in case you’re wearing gloves or have pudgy fingers. GPS is included for geotagging, and the video will record slow motion at 720p. The Coolpix P7100 replaces the P7000 barely a year after the latter’s introduction, but introduces a handful of improvements, including quicker AF speed and lowered shooting time lag. Hopefully it will also avoid the problems with the lens protector that dogged its predecessor. In an interesting development, Nikon have stuck with a 10mp sensor, which is actually a good thing given the 2.0 crop factor. Will also include a tilt screen (missing from Nikon’s SLRs, save for the D5100), HDR, a built-in ND filter, and an expanded series of “art filters” like those found on iPhones. Nikon users will still complain that it’s not the G12. Press releases, photos, and other goodies available on Nikon Imaging and Nikon Rumors.

Speaking of Nikon Rumors, two more announcements are said to be due in September.

According to Photo Rumors, there’s a new, “lighter” photo file format, “JPEG Mini,” that claims to make your files up to five times smaller with no loss in image quality. Went to, and it seems to work as advertised. It trimmed my 9.01MB test photo to 2.2MB (4.1x, by their reckoning), with no visible loss of image quality. Caveat emptor: while the terms and conditions state that you retain ownership of your images, they do go on to state:

You hereby grant ICVT and our designees a worldwide, non-exclusive, sublicenseable (through multiple tiers), assignable, royalty-free, fully paid-up, perpetual, irrevocable right to use, host, store, index, reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, and display and perform your Content on the web and on mobile devices, solely in connection with our provision of the Service
Caveat on the caveat: This may just be legalese that allows them to provide the service (you could argue that resizing the photo is, in a sense, a “derivative work”); if you’re concerned, don’t use the service.

Another argument in favor of point-and-shoot cameras: Japanese photographer Kazuma Obara snuck his past tight security to get the first photos from inside the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant. (PopPhoto)

Not to be left out, Sony likewise announced several products, many of which have been circulating in the rumor mill for weeks, including the 24mp A77 and A65 SLTs*, the 24mp NEX-7 and 16mp NEX-5N a battery grip for the A77, a 16-50mm f/2.8 lens, the NEX-VG20 camcorder, and three new E mount lenses (Sony-made 50mm f/1.8 and 55-210mm, plus a 24mm 1.8 from Zeiss). Additional press releases and information on Sony Alpha Rumors.

Your weekly dose of WTF: The arrest of a photographer is, sadly, hardly unique. This one… well, Sander Roscoe Wolff was detained in Long Beach, California for taking photos with “no apparent aesthetic value.” The photographer was taking photos around an oil refinery and a regular tourist, apparently, doesn’t take those kinds of pictures; however, the reason given wasn’t one of security, but rather of taste. I’m sorry, but I don’t know a single soul in law enforcement who double-majored in Art History… this reminds me a bit too much of the Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”) seizures/exhibits in Berlin some 70-odd years ago for comfort. (TechDirt, with a hat tip to alert reader Norman)

Just for fun: A photographer spent nearly a year building a working medium format camera out of Legos. As someone who loves both photography and Legos, I found this too cool not to share. (DIYPhotography)

*SLT=Single Lens Translucent Mirror; the mirror allows light to pass through to the sensor, rather than reflecting it the way an SLR does. A more in-depth explanation may be found here.

Got a Point-and-Shoot? You Should.

Allaire, 2010

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been writing about taking more control over your camera in order to have more control over your photography and the final appearance of your images. Today, we’re going to do a 180-degree turn, and I’m going to tell you to throw all of that out the window from time to time.

It may sound as though I have something against shooting in automatic, or against compact cameras. I don’t. What I do disagree with is not using those controls when you have them, turning an SLR into an oversized Brownie, or having a point-and-shoot mentality toward photography. I also think that, from a control standpoint, having a degree of control over your settings, knowing what they do, and how/when best to use them can be essential building blocks in becoming a better photographer.

My first cameras – an Imperial Savoy and a Kodak V1253 that I still have (and have used for a handful of images that have appeared on this site) – weren’t the best out there by any stretch of the imagination. Neither granted much control, but at the time, I got them because they were what I could afford. Perhaps more importantly, I simply wanted to photograph things.

With all of that being said, the knobs, dials, and buttons are only one (small) part of an equation with lots of variables. Not least of these variables is composition. Let’s face it, the more variables you remove, the more you can concentrate on what’s left. If photography, stripped to its barest essentials, is all about light and geometry, and you’ve already surrendered most of your control over light, about all you’re left with (with the exception of exposure compensation, which nearly every camera allows you to manipulate) is the geometry, and paying attention to how the available light interacts with that. It encourages paying attention to texture, line, and form, and also gets you used to some of the quirks of exposure (sometimes frustratingly so).

Another variable is just taking photos in the first place. You should always have your camera. An SLR, because of its size, weight, and tendency to call attention to itself, isn’t always a camera you’re going to want to have with you. Many compacts will easily slip into a shirt or jacket pocket, out of sight ’til they’re needed. With the exception of pancake lenses and small primes, you won’t be able to “pocket” much of anything on or about an SLR, and trying to put it in your jacket will just make you look like you should be in the nether reaches of some cathedral or other, ringing the bells.

Another issue, as we discussed earlier in the week, is control – not just controlling the camera, but the control issues we can sometimes have as photographers. The average compact is a control freak’s nightmare; many don’t have manual controls, and they have other limitations as well when it comes to high ISO performance, camera shake at longer focal lengths, inadequate flash… the list goes on and on. I grew frustrated sometimes with those limitations; over time, however, you come to realize that limitations can be something you either obsess over, or use as a learning tool. I chose to do the latter, and to try to get the most out of what I had. Instead of worrying about ISO or flash (neither of which the Kodak does very well), I was free to concentrate more on composition. If you can’t zoom to 300mm (to say nothing of the ridiculously long 600-800mm equivalent range on some current superzoom models), you can either whine, or learn new ways of seeing things closer to you, also paying closer attention to how you frame the shot when you can’t rely on the zoom to do all of the work.

If you’re wondering what your first camera should be, or if you’ve already long since made the jump to a system camera of some sort (SLR, micro 4/3, or anything else with interchangeable lenses), don’t neglect an automatic compact. I’m not about to give up my SLR, but neither would I give up my compact. It’s a fantastic learning tool, and its simplicity allows you to forget for a while about the technical stuff, and get back to focusing on what makes a good photo.

Review: The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr & Michael Wood

The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes indulges a little truth in advertising, for a change. “Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes.” That’s it; no hyperbolic promises, no B.S.

This is, in a sense, a book-length treatment of the ways of seeing. We see either by conception (what’s in our field of view is filtered through our ideas, thoughts, and feelings about it) or perception (we see what is, as it is, free of any mental or emotional baggage). The authors’ intent is to have us check conception at the door, in favor of perception. The advantage, they argue, is that you learn to see in detail, and in depth. In other words, you stop just looking at things, and start to pay closer attention, being present with the subject nearly to the point that your photograph is a means of bearing witness to it, rather than simply getting the cold facts of an image onto your memory card.

The upshot of this is that rather than being caught up in “big” things — expressing some big idea, making a grand statement — photography is freed to celebrate the small and the ordinary. What (hopefully) goes on behind the camera — letting go, being spontaneous and genuine — follows through to what’s captured by the camera. Furthermore, it encourages the photographer to broaden his/her sense of what constitutes things like “beauty” and “art.”

Far from being purely philosophical, the book also has a practical bent. This expresses itself first by the inclusion of exercises (some requiring a camera, others not) in areas including light, texture, shape, and visual awareness, that are designed to take all that theory and make it concrete. It’s also expressed by the practical advice given on the mechanics of making a photo (lighting, depth of field, shutter speed, etc.), because if you’ve only got one shot at capturing an image that jolts you into mindfulness, it helps to get it right that first time. Finally, it finds expression in the photographs, some by the usual suspects (Strand, Steiglitz, Modotti, Adams, Weston, and Kertész), and others by the authors and their students. Without all the photos, this would be a very slim volume — nearly a pamphlet — but the photos, besides being gorgeous, serve to illustrate the points made by the authors in the preceding pages.

There are appendices here on image processing and buying the right camera. They’re short, even by the standards of this book, but that isn’t to its detriment. Really, those things are supplemental to the authors’ main point, and they’re treated as such.

In short, this book delivers on its premise, and its promise. If you want to change how you view photography, your best starting point is to change how you see the world before you’ve picked up the camera; the photography will flow naturally from that. If you’re looking for even the basics of photographic technique, this book wouldn’t be the best place to start; if, however, you’ve mastered those — or moved well beyond them — and find that your photography’s still missing something, this may well be the right thing to point you back in the right direction.

Postscript: There are two websites worth checking out, either independent of, or in tandem with, the book:

  • is intended as a companion to the book
  • predates the book, and provides both further examples of the authors’ philosophy, and also a wealth of visuals.

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks for your support!

News Brief: Nikon, Sony Gear Announcements


Public domain, courtesy

As expected, Nikon announced four additions to its Coolpix lineup:


  • Nikon Coolpix S1200pj will hopefully improve on the projector feature first introduced with the S1000. It allows easier sharing to YouTube, and allows you to shoot tethered to an iPhone or iPad.
  • Nikon Coolpix S8200 will have 16MP and 14x wide-angle zoom, plus the ability to do JPG capture during video recording.
  • Nikon Coolpix AW100is designed to be waterproof (up to 33′), survive low temperatures (to 14 degrees Farenheit), and even falls (up to 5′). The buttons are chunky — just in case you’re wearing gloves or have pudgy fingers. GPS is included for geotagging, and the video will record slow motion at 720p. 
  • Nikon Coolpix P7100 replaces the P7000 barely a year after the latter’s introduction, but introduces a handful of improvements, including quicker AF speed and lowered shooting time lag. Hopefully it will also avoid the problems with the lens protector that dogged its predecessor. In an interesting development, Nikon have stuck with a 10mp sensor, which is actually a good thing given the 2.0 crop factor. Will also include a tilt screen (missing from Nikon’s SLRs, save for the D5100), HDR, a built-in ND filter, and an expanded series of “art filters” like those found on iPhones. Nikon users will still complain that it’s not the G12.

Press releases, photos, and other goodies available on Nikon Rumors.

Not to be left out, Sony likewise announced several products, many of which have been circulating in the rumor mill for weeks:

  • A77 SLR 24mp
  • A65 SLR 24mp
  • Battery grip for A77
  • 16-50mm f/2.8 lens
  • NEX-7 (24mp)
  • NEX-5N (16mp)
  • VG-20 (16mp)
  • Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 (E mount)
  • Sony 50mm f/1.8 (E mount)
  • Sony 55-210 (E mount)

Sony Alpha Rumors also shows the full text of a USA Today article regarding the new Sony releases, and is likely to have full press releases and info as it comes out.



Camera As Begging Bowl

Be willing to be surprised.

There’s a practice in several religions, but closely associated with Buddhism, of monks who’ve taken a vow of poverty hitting the road with little more than the clothes on their backs, begging bowls in hand. Those who give to the monks earn the karmic merits of their kind deeds. The monk or mendicant relies on the kindness and benevolence of those they meet for their sustenance. I’d imagine they also learn pretty quickly to be grateful for whatever ends up in the bowl, since you never quite know where or when you might come by the next morsel, and you’re mindful that no matter how little you may have gotten, someone somewhere had less still.

All of this might seem a bit removed from the day-to-day concerns of a photographer. When you stop to think about it, though, we’re not that far from those monks. Our cameras don’t function on their own; they rely on our imagination and vision to bring them to life. That combination, of eye, mind, and camera, is in a very real sense our begging bowl; it’s empty, devoid of image, if you will, and we set out to see what the world will put in our bowl, hopefully taking only what we need, and being grateful for what the day brings.

It’s not always easy to approach photography like this. It’s one thing to pick up the camera with a sense of anticipation, maybe even excitement. It’s something else again when that anticipation turns to the expectation of a certain nebulous percentage of keepers, if not amazing shots. The problem with expectations is that at some point, usually sooner rather than later, they come face-to-face with reality. We hit creative blocks, we lose some of the inspiration that we’ve come to take for granted, or we run into external factors we can’t control, like bad weather, uncooperative lighting, or misbehaving equipment. Experience, which you’d think would help, sometimes only adds more hindrances. With time, we come to know what we envision, exactly how we want it to look, and exactly when we want it (now, though yesterday would be preferable).

Disappointment comes when we get attached to those expectations, and think that somehow the world will play along, forgetting that the world has bigger fish to fry. If the sun ducks behind a cloud and ruins the perfect, rich sidelighting you had, it’s not because the universe is conspiring against you. Letting go of those expectations leaves less of a chance that we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

I understand if you’re working on assignment, you generally have a specific timeframe in which to deliver some very specific images. If or when you’re just shooting for yourself, though, try something: pick up your camera with nothing in mind other than making photos. Nothing more specific than that. No cheating, either… “well, I’ll get one or two nice sunset shots, then see what else I get.” For once, let your mind be as empty of expectations as your memory card, and just see. Let your eyes, and life itself, guide you from one image to the next.

I remember seeing a billboard once that read, “No matter what you’re looking for, the real joy is finding something else.” It was probably for some mall or other, but as billboard philosophy goes, I thought it was pretty useful. Over the years, I’ve tried to apply it both to my writing, and to my photography. The result, I hope, has been a willingness to always go into a project with my eyes open, willing – even eager – to be surprised by what I find (or what finds me), even if that something wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Always have your beggar’s bowl of curiosity with you, ready to accept those daily surprises, those calls to mindfulness, with a glad heart and open hands.

News Brief: Canon Gear Announcement

Image courtesy of under Creative Commons license.

Late last week, I promised updates as product announcements started to come out. Canon is first out of the gate with:

  • Three compacts,  the PowerShot SX150 IS, the PowerShot ELPH 510 HS, and the PowerShot ELPH 310 HS.
  • Two printers, PIXMA MG8220 and MG6220 All-in-Ones.

The compacts, according to the Canon press release, have improved image stabilization, flash, and optics; the 510 HS, they say, has an improved form factor. You can read more about the cameras here, and more about the printers here.


Shooting in Manual

Figure 1: ISO 400, 1/400, f/16

At various times in this space, we’ve covered best practices when shooting in Automatic, plus making use of Aperture and Shutter Priority, and how to use Program Mode. We’ve also seen how each of these choices can be either very limiting (Automatic), liberating (Priority modes), or even a bit frustrating (Program). From time to time, you’re going to either want, or need, more control than those other options will give you; shooting in Manual, while it can be a bit intimidating, gives you all the control you could want over your camera’s settings.

Here, you’re controlling every facet of exposure. As previously discussed, these consist at a bare minimum of aperture (how much light hits your sensor), shutter (how long it hits) and ISO (how “hard” it hits; that is, your sensor’s sensitivity to light).

Entire books have been written just on the subject of exposure, and while we’ll be revisiting that subject from time to time,* for today, I’ll be going over just enough of the basics to encourage you to try this on your own. Next week, I’ll give you another technique that photographers have used for years that can take some of the guesswork out of getting the right exposure.

For now, however, there’s one very simple tool we’ll be using, which is your camera’s exposure meter. The meter is going to measure the amount of light in the scene, typically using one of three methods:

• Spot Metering: This takes a very small sample of the frame, and meters the whole scene based on that. It comes in handy when you’ve got a scene where one element is much lighter or darker than the rest and you want to retain detail in that part of the frame.
• Center Weighted: Here, the meter’s concentrating on the center of the frame. If you want to meter something off-center while using center-weighted metering, put your subject in the center of the frame, lock your exposure and then reframe the shot.
• Matrix: Here, rather than choosing a spot in one part or another of the scene, whatever you’re seeing in your viewfinder is being metered and averaged. Until you’ve got the hang of the other metering modes, Matrix metering** tends to be reliable.

Figure 2: ISO 400, f/11, 1/400

The caveat here, of course, is not only that each of the metering modes acts differently than the others, but also that they’ll act differently in different lighting situations. When you want to expose something properly that’s either much lighter or much darker than its surroundings, you may find that the meter has either ignored that bit altogether, or metered it to perfection but clipped some other vital part of the scene. You’ll want to practice plenty to get the hang of what each does, so when the time comes for the shots that matter, you’ll be ready.

The meter will also give you a readout in your viewfinder; whether it’s horizontal or vertical, there’ll typically be a “-“ at one end, and a “+” at the other, with a clearly labeled midpoint. That midpoint is usually where you want your indicator to be, since that’s where the correct exposure should be (I say “should” because, as we saw above, you and the meter may not be on the same page when it comes to correct metering of the scene). Going toward either of the extremes means that your photo will be either under- or over-exposed.

This is where your previous experience shooting in Priority modes comes in handy; if you’ve been practicing using the A or S modes (and sometimes the P mode, when it behaves itself), you’ll have already noticed that when you change one value, the other values change with it. The difference here is that instead of changing just one value while the camera chooses the other(s), you’re in complete control, and so you need to be aware that each change you make to your ISO, shutter speed, or aperture needs to balance, or be balanced by, the other variables.

Here’s how the preceding sentence looks in practice. Let’s say that I’m shooting a building in bright sunlight (Figure 1). I don’t need a high ISO because there’s plenty of available light, and since the building is just sitting there, I’m not too worried about stopping a moving subject, so I don’t need a very high shutter speed. However, I would like the entirety of my subject to be in focus, so I’m going to use a small aperture of f/16. So my settings are ISO 400, a 1/400 shutter speed, and an aperture of f/16. If the “needle” is on the plus or minus side, I’d just adjust shutter speed or aperture ’til I had the exposure right, though there are times you’ll want to under/overexpose slightly, whether for practical or artistic reasons.

Now let’s look at Figure 2. As you might be able to tell from the background, it wasn’t quite as bright when this photo was shot. It’s still outdoors, though, so I’m keeping the same 400 ISO. Now I have a choice to make. If I look at the meter using the same settings from Figure 1 as a sort of baseline, it’s telling me it’s pretty seriously underexposed. I can either adjust the shutter speed or the aperture. Since I’m shooting pretty close to my subject and I don’t want it to come out blurry, I’d rather sacrifice depth of field than shutter speed. I settle on the same 1/400 shutter speed, but lower the aperture by a full stop, which leaves me with an exposure that’s right where I want it.

Figure 3: A guide to shutter speed, ISO, and f/stops, by kind permission of Ken Storch/PhotographyUncapped (click to enlarge)

Figure 3 is something else altogether. It’s a chart put together by Ken Storch of Photography Uncapped, showing ISO, aperture, and shutter values in full, half, and third stops. Where this comes in handy is making sense of those numbers, and how each relates to the others. Remember that each full stop (each doubling of shutter speed, ISO, or aperture) lets in twice the light as the one below it, and half that of the one above it. You’re not always going to need that much more light, so you can also increase or decrease by a fraction of a stop. Once you’ve got the hang of that, exposure compensation (which cameras typically display in thirds and full stops) begins to make a hell of a lot more sense as well (thank you, Ken), since there are occasions when changing ISO, shutter, and/or aperture to get the right exposure can give you a perfectly exposed photo that might be precisely the thing you didn’t have in mind. When that happens, you can dial in the appropriate exposure compensation and leave the other settings alone.

This probably sounds like a cursory explanation of a very complicated subject. In truth, it’s a cursory explanation of a subject that makes a heck of a lot more sense when it’s done than when it’s read about. Therefore, my next suggestion has nothing to do with settings, and everything to do with you: do not be afraid of Manual! It’s challenging, true, but it’s also rewarding when you find you’re “getting” it. Practice plenty, and be encouraged by your mistakes, since each of them will bring you one step closer to realizing what’s in your mind’s eye when you press the shutter.

*If you’d like something while you’re waiting, check out Michael Freeman’s excellent – and brief – The Exposure Field Guide (Focal Press)

**This goes by a number of names, depending on the manufacturer; since I’m shooting primarily with a Nikon, I’m using their terminology here. Yet another reason to read the manual.