No Image Stabilization? No Problem.

In this instance, the less said about proper hand holding technique the better.

At this point, nearly every camera manufacturer has incorporated something into their cameras to reduce the blur that’s caused by camera shake. It goes by an alphabet soup of abbreviations, depending on the manufacturer: VR (Nikon, “Vibration Reduction”), IS (Canon, “Image Stabilization”), OS (Sigma, “Optical Stabilizer”) and a host of others. While many manufacturers build this feature into the lens, a couple (like Pentax) build it into their bodies, so that no matter what lens you’re using, it should help.

Here’s a layman’s explanation of how it works. You’ve got small gyros* in the camera which sense camera motion; these movements are then communicated to a processor, which will essentially instruct small motors in the lens to move lens elements (usually in groups) to compensate for that motion. Some manufacturers claim up to a four-stop improvement in camera shake, which I think is great marketing hype, but too optimistic. More realistically, it’ll take care of a little bit of shake (minor instability), but not that much (if your hands are about as still as the average earthquake).

So what if neither your lenses nor your bodies have some kind of image stabilization built in? Well, this is where it helps to take a cue or two from film shooters, who generally didn’t have any of this fancy stuff either. Your first, and best, solution is a support, whether in the form of a tripod or monopod. If you’re using a timer, shutter release cable or a wireless remote, you don’t even have to worry about touching the camera at all once it’s mounted.**

There are going to be times when a support’s impractical, or you just don’t have one handy. There’s a simple rule that should eliminate most of your camera shake, and give you nice, sharp photos (provided you have a reasonably steady hand). The reciprocal of your shutter speed should be the same as the focal length you’re shooting with. So if, for instance, you’re shooting at 105mm, you should be fine with a shutter speed of 1/125. At 200mm, you’d want to shoot at a minimum of 1/200.

There’s a slight wrinkle here if you’re shooting with a cropped (non full-frame) sensor; the crop factor acts as a magnifier/multiplier, so that 105mm is actually behaving like a 155-160mm, and a 200mm will give you a magnification closer to that of a 300mm. This is a double-edged sword, since on one hand, you’re getting a bit of extra reach (think of it as a built-in teleconverter), but on the other, you’ll also have to shoot at higher shutter speeds as a result (1/320 on a 200mm lens versus 1/200).

This is all fine and dandy in daylight. After all, shooting Sunny 16 at ISO 200 will give you enough shutter speed to keep your images nice and sharp with many lenses. But if the light’s a bit iffy, your other settings will start to come more into play; you may need to tweak either your aperture or ISO (or both) in order to get a higher shutter speed.

Image stabilization’s a great option to have, but it’s not going to solve every stability issue that comes down the pike. Using your shutter speed (in conjunction with your other settings, if you’re feeling adventuresome) can be a good supplement to, or even replacement for, the image stabilization you’ve already got. Otherwise, a support – whether it’s your trusty tripod, or just leaning against a tree – will work wonders.

*Those would be gyroscopes, not tasty Greek sandwiches. That would be awkward and messy.

**I should mention that if you’ve got a stabilized lens or body and you’re using a tripod, you’ll want to shut it off. It can actually lead to your photos being less sharp if used in conjunction with a tripod, for one thing. For another, depending on how your body/lens works, it may lead to a slightly faster battery drain, since the camera’s going to be trying to stabilize the image whether it needs it or not.

Cemetery Photography


Go ask the youngest angel, She will say with bated breath, By the door of Mary's garden, Are the spirits Love and Death.

I love a good cemetery. That probably sounds morbid, but it’s not. They’re peaceful places, for one thing; hardly anyone ever bothers you. Besides, I figure that since one of these days I’ll be going into one and not leaving, it’d probably help to start getting used to them now.

On a more serious note, cemeteries have a unique sense of history about them that not many other places do. You learn a lot about an area – the way its demographics changed over time, mortality rates, the people who settled and built an area – by who’s buried there. You also realize that for all the expense associated with the death industry (and it is that), we just don’t do mourning like we used to. Don’t believe me? Compare headstones from the 1800’s or even the early part of the last century with what you get now; we used to send our dead out in style, versus sending them out in the equivalent of a Happy Meal container.

Angels are not economists; magnificently, they squander their light.

But I digress. Because of their variety and rich history, cemeteries are also a wonderful place to photograph. Today, I’ll be sharing some tips from my time in the graveyard.

• Bring bags with you. Most cemeteries are well-kept. Some, however, aren’t, or they’re located in areas where people tend to use them as shortcuts (or, worse still, dumping grounds). If you see trash, pick it up, and don’t ever leave trash of your own behind.
• I say the following as someone who smokes a pack a day: Don’t smoke in the cemetery. It’s just tacky.
• Likewise, if you’ve got an MP3 player, mobile phone, or anything else on you that makes noise, shut it off.
• Bear in mind that many cemeteries are private property. You may be asked to leave; if you are, do so, since you’re trespassing if you don’t.
• You may also be asked what you’re doing in the cemetery. If that’s the case, be honest and respectful.
• Speaking of respect, a little goes a long way. If you see a family nearby visiting a loved one, or if there’s a service going on, put the camera away. The photo’s not so important that you have to be an asshole to get it.
• Some cemeteries actually have photo policies. Some may explicitly state that you’re not allowed to take photos (rare, but it happens), while still others will allow picture taking as long as you don’t sell the photos, or may require a special arrangement if you want to sell what you’ve taken. It can also be helpful to call ahead to find out.
• Watch your step. For one thing, you don’t want to walk over someone’s floral arrangements, flags, and the like. For another, you may come across uneven ground, or even sunken graves, from time to time.
• Disturb as little as possible on or around a gravesite. It’s one thing if a stone or plaque has a layer of leaves and dirt on it; there’s nothing wrong with cleaning someone’s resting place.* If, on the other hand, the marker is partially obscured by flowers, toys, or anything else left there by loved ones, leave it as it is.**
• One last rule of thumb: if you’re not sure whether you feel right taking pictures in a graveyard, ask yourself one simple question: how would you feel if someone were taking a picture of your or your loved one’s tombstone? I’ve thought about this from time to time, and I think that as long as someone’s being respectful, I wouldn’t get bent out of shape about it. You may feel differently, and therein, I suppose, lies your answer.

A Heap of Dust Alone Remains...

If you want to learn more about cemeteries themselves, there are two great resources. The first would be a local church or historical society, who can tell you a lot about the town and its families (especially useful if you’re not familiar with an area). The other is a book that you can easily find online, called Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography which explains burial customs, iconography, and the significance of certain types of grave markers. It’s not a photography how-to, but it’s invaluable if you’re as interested in the history of a place and its dead as you are in the photos themselves.

Sites of Interest: (Find a Grave) (The Graveyard Rabbit)
A listing of cemetery and funeral home reviews:

*One exception would be stones, since it’s common custom to leave stones on or near the grave marker when you’ve visited. This is most common in Jewish cemeteries, but I’ve seen it done elsewhere as well.

**One site goes so far as to suggest moving anything that’s in the way of your photos and replacing it afterward, which strikes me as a step too far.

The quotation on the first photo is from William Butler Yeats’ “Love and Death”; the quotation on the second is from Jean Arp.

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

A Photographer’s Checklist

Abstract Lights

Atul Gawande knows his checklists; his book, The Checklist Manifesto, has garnered rave reviews and spent ages on the bestseller list. He’s a general and endocrine surgeon who relies on them to keep things going smoothly in the OR. It’s a good thing, too, since even a small failure can have disastrous consequences. As photographers, what we’re doing doesn’t generally leave lives in the balance, but it’s still a good idea to have our own checklist to make sure that everything goes well during a shoot, whether we’re in it for the money, or just a good day of shooting. What follows are the essential things to look out for when you prep for a day out with your camera.

•Is your bag clean, inside and out? Lint brushes are helpful for the bag’s exterior, while a vacuum helps get stuff out of the interior. No sense in cleaning your lenses if your bag’s just getting them dirty.
• Are your batteries charged? This includes not only the camera’s battery, but also batteries for your flash, and making sure the backups are also charged.
• Is a backup battery packed? Some batteries are rated for thousands of shots. They’re not rated for nearly as many shots if you don’t have them with you. I had one long weekend when I made the mistake of leaving one camera battery at home in the charger, so I was thankful to have my “spare” to get me through.
•Are your memory cards clean (i.e. images backed up) and formatted properly? Having a few days’ worth of stuff on your card(s) means not having room for today’s shots, and can also mean frantically going through older pictures trying to figure out what to delete to make room. Save yourself the headaches.
• Spare memory packed? An additional caveat to the point above. It’s especially vital if you’re going on a long vacation or a shoot that you know is going to involve a lot of photos.
• Camera body clean, free of dust, dirt and fingerprints (including viewfinder and LCD)? Enough said.
• Lenses packed? Sometimes you’ll only want to carry part of your kit with you. Think about where, and what, you’ll be shooting, and pack accordingly.
• Lenses clean and capped (both ends)? Dust, smudges and fingerprints can wreak havoc on your photos.
• If you use a UV or other filter to protect the lens, is it secure? This is especially something to look out for if you’re using multiple filters (say, a UV or skylight filter to protect the lens, along with a polarizer), since sometimes taking one filter off the lens will loosen the other.
• If you have other filters (Polarizer, ND, Infrared), are these also clean and in a safe place? Get a filter wallet, or, barring that, use the cases the filters came in for protection.
• If you’re using a tripod, is the quick release plate already on your camera? Over time, I’ve gotten in the habit of just leaving the quick release plate on the camera all the time. It only comes off if I’m using the monopod. This way, I always know where my quick release plate is, and it’s always ready if I want to use my tripod, versus having to pause and put the thing on the camera each time. Besides, if you’re changing it too often, you can strip the threads on either the quick release or the camera itself.
• Is your tripod/monopod clean, and is all the hardware (especially the head and clamps) in proper working order? Make sure everything’s as tight as it’s supposed to be, especially if you’re in the habit of using a heavy lens on a heavy body.
• Have you packed, at the bare minimum, an air blower and cleaning cloth? Even if you’ve taken care to clean your gear before a shoot, sometimes conditions – dust, pollen, inquisitive toddlers – can lead to issues during a shoot that can affect your images.
• If you’re planning on using a remote release, are its batteries working?
• Have you packed your manual or other reference? You never know when you’ll suddenly want to use a feature or setting that you haven’t touched since about a week after you bought the camera, and have since forgotten how to use.
• Are you bringing lens hoods with you?
• Do you have a pen and paper with you? You never know when ideas will be sparked, or connections made. Have something with you to record what needs recording.
• Have you packed a towel or washcloth for those “ohshit” moments? It’s not just the gear that gets dirty, sometimes it’s us. If you don’t want what’s on you on your camera, get it off before it becomes a problem.
• If you’re shooting an event, have you made a checklist of the shots you expect – or are expected – to get?
• Finally – and perhaps most importantly – have you checked your settings? I’ve missed shots because I forgot to reset things like white balance, exposure compensation or ISO from a previous shoot, and have also lost time switching modes or settings on the fly, when I could’ve avoided the issue by checking ahead of time. These things don’t take long to change with practice, but sometimes even those brief intervals make a huge difference.

So there you have it… the essential checklist for your essential “stuff.” Incidentally, it’s also helpful to go over these items after a shoot, as well. Leaving your equipment dirty, your batteries depleted, or neglecting any of these other items after you’ve used your gear isn’t a good idea either, since there are times you’ll want to be able to just grab your kit and go, without having to worry over whether one or more of its component bits are going to fail you. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to print this list, or one like it, out, at least ‘til you’ve committed to the routine and do it as a matter of course. There are other lists you could make as well, dealing with individual photo shoots, postproduction workflow, and other things, but we’ll take those up in the future.

Have I left anything out? Is there something you do to take care of your gear as part of your routine that you could share? Email me!

Shoot with “Film”


"Beach Stump"

I shoot far more in digital than I ever shot in film. Some of this had to do with impatience. I wanted to know when I’d gotten it right, whether in terms of composition or exposure, and what I’d need to do to fix it. It never helped matters much that the time between shooting a roll of film and then actually remembering to get it developed, then actually having it developed, could end up being long enough that I’d forget what I’d done to get those shots; worse still, shooting film on an automatic compact left you with no clue at all how you’d gotten the exposure, for better or worse.

The thing is, regardless of the type of kit you’re using, you don’t have ongoing processing costs to see your results, nor do you have the wait time that’s associated with film processing. It’s no longer a matter of buying film (sometimes a few different types, of different ISO ratings, or even with different white balances), shooting, waiting for the film to be processed, and only then realizing which shots are your keepers. Now, all you really need to do is check your shots as you’re taking them, and make adjustments to your settings on the fly. It’s easy to take a hundred or more shots in the course of a day without giving it so much as a second thought.

Give it that second thought.

Next time you’re shooting, assign yourself a number of “rolls” you’re carrying with you (and no fair saying you’ve got fifty of them, either; choose a low number like three or four), with a set number of shots per roll (multiples of 24 or 36, unless you can’t be bothered to do the math, in which case limit yourself to two rolls with 25 shots apiece, or 50 photos). You can even take it a step further, and make yourself stop every 25 frames or so. Pause, reflect, recharge, and then start again with a clear head, and eyes open. Find a happy medium, of course. I’m not about to ask you to act as though you’re shooting in the days of box cameras and glass plates, and limiting you to one shot (though the results of that could be interesting; let’s try it sometime, shall we?).

It can be challenging, as is anything that requires us to try on a new way of thinking about something we may have done up to now mostly out of habit. You may find yourself questioning shots where you wouldn’t have before (do I take this shot, or do I wait, lest I “run out” of shots before I’ve run out of time?). But it just might be a good poke with a sharp stick in case you needed something to shake up the how and why of your photography.

This should be something you try more than once, and if you’re going to do it on a fairly regular basis, challenge yourself by limiting the number of “rolls”  or exposures you’ve got just a little further each time. This isn’t something you need to do every time you shoot, but it’s a useful exercise from time to time to help you be a bit more mindful not only of what you’re shooting, but why you’re shooting it. If you’re only “allowed” 100, or 50, or 25 shots, you’re going to be a lot more careful than you might’ve been otherwise. Once the habit’s built up, it’s a lot easier to carry over into your approach to everyday shooting, keeping you on your toes, and making you shoot more thoughtfully.

I know a lot of the arguments for shooting with film rather than digital, and the more time passes, most of the arguments against digital have fallen by the wayside. Cost has come down to the point where an average consumer can afford the average DSLR, sensor resolution and color depth has improved to a point where the image quality is practically indistinguishable, and even the control given over the final result in the darkroom has been preserved, if not surpassed, with digital workflow. The one argument that digital hasn’t rebutted (and might never manage to) is patience. It’s useful to remember that the mindset where we want it all from our gear, immediately or sooner, didn’t come in the box with the camera. It comes from us; it’s something to which we’ve been conditioned both by culture and by technology. But it’s a choice, and a learned behavior, something that we can unlearn and replace with other choices, and other conditioning, if we choose to do so.

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.

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.

Shooting in Program Mode


Shot in Program, f/5.6, 1/160.

If your camera has priority controls (Shutter and Aperture in addition to full Manual), it likely also has a “P” alongside the A, S, and M. That “P” stands for “Program,” but as we’ll see today, it might as well stand for “Pray.”

Program mode is theoretically supposed to be like Automatic, but with a degree of control. This works fine in principle; the camera makes decisions for you based on how your scene and subject are lit, but you have control over ISO, exposure compensation and flash. Some cameras also allow flexibility within Program, so that you can alter either the shutter speed or aperture as well. In those cases, it should theoretically be like having both Aperture and Shutter priority in a single control option. In practice? Picture playing whack-a-mole with your SLR.

Here’s the problem: we saw in the previous weeks’ tutorials that when the camera allows you to choose one variable (say, your aperture), it automatically takes control of the other to give you what it thinks should be the optimum exposure. The problem with shooting in Program, as with shooting in full Auto, is that there are many combinations of shutter speed, aperture and ISO that will get you the same exposure in the same lighting conditions, but sometimes the choices the camera makes won’t be ones that you’re comfortable with. Sometimes it’ll give you the quicker shutter speed you’d like, but make you sacrifice aperture for it; conversely, you can also try for the slower shutter speed only to find out that more of your background is in focus than you’d like. Sometimes slight under- or over-exposure is needed to get the rest of the photo to look the way you wanted (or you may even have a preference, as some people do, for one or the other as a general rule). Program takes some degree of that control from you. What’s worse, several frames taken in sequence under the same light can have different shutter and aperture values.

This is especially a pain if you’re trying to use exposure compensation; if you dial in a -.3 exposure compensation, you can still end up with shots taken under the same conditions being exposed unpredictably. As you get used to your camera’s quirks, it becomes easier to predict when it will go to one side or the other of a medium exposure, and to compensate accordingly.

Setting shutter and aperture is similarly problematic; you may find the thumb wheels unresponsive for a few tries, to a point where it’s like trying to figure out the button combination in a video game. That’s all well and good if I’ve got a character from Street Fighter in my viewfinder, but otherwise I expect my camera to behave like a camera rather than a game console.

It’s entirely possible that I’m doing something wrong here; I know a couple of photographers who absolutely swear by Program mode. To my mind, the purpose of having controls in the first place is just that: control. Anything that adds unnecessary guesswork to the equation isn’t terribly useful. But then, your mileage may vary.

Program can be good in situations where there’s a lot of action (sports and street photography), though it’s a good idea to check your photos frequently if you’ve set the aperture to make sure it hasn’t picked a default shutter speed that’s too low. It can be downright lousy when you have the time to compose your shot and a very definite idea of the settings you’d like to use (and sacrifices you’re willing to make). On that note, in the next two weeks we’ll be putting together the lessons of the last few weeks and shooting in Manual.

Shooting in Shutter Priority

Figure 1, Warts n' All

Last week, I mentioned that the right exposure is all about the intensity, amount, and duration of light. We’ve already discussed how Aperture and ISO affect your shooting, so this week, we’ll take up Shutter Priority.

There are several types of shutter, but regardless of how they work, they’re all meant to do the same thing. The shutter’s a bit like a set of little doors built into your camera body. If the aperture is like your iris, the shutter is your camera’s eyelid; keep it open longer, and more light is reaching your retina. Similarly, the shutter will remain open for lengths of time ranging from 1/8000th of a second to several minutes or hours (as is commonly done in astrophotography) controlling how much light will hit your camera’s film or sensor.

Figure 2

If you’re using Shutter Priority (usually denoted by an “S” on your control knob), you’ve chosen to control the shutter, and let the camera meter the scene, guess at aperture, and possibly also adjust your ISO, depending on your settings.

When might it be better to shoot in Shutter priority rather than Aperture? For one thing, if you’re not particular about your depth of field (deep, shallow, it’s all the same to you as long as you’ve got a decent exposure at the end of it). For another, shutter speed comes very much into play if you’re photographing in extreme lighting conditions. If you’re shooting in bright, direct sunlight, for instance, you may want or need a faster shutter speed than your camera’s Auto setting would choose under those same circumstances, so as not to overexpose your picture. On the other hand, if you’re shooting in low light, using a longer shutter speed means not having to use a higher ISO, thereby preserving details in your photo and keeping noise levels down.*

Shutter speed can also have artistic uses, sometimes creating a sense of motion (for instance, showing light trails from fireworks, doing a light painting, blurring a moving object against a sharp background, or vice versa), and other times stopping it dead in its tracks. These can be very individual decisions, and can also vary based on what, and when, you’re shooting.

Figure 3

Shutter priority is useful for far more practical reasons as well. While you can always get more light to the sensor by opening your aperture, no matter what lens you’re using, at some point you’ll have opened it as far as it can go. Sometimes you can’t go any farther for artistic reasons; a lens that opens to f/1.4 will usually give you good bokeh and a nicely blurred background, but will also give you a razor-thin focal plane when sometimes you need, or want, either the focal distance or the depth of field. Other times you just can’t go any further for technical reasons; a lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 isn’t going to open to 2.8 simply because we’d like it to. You can, however, control the duration of light, so what you’ve gained or lost in f/stops, you can easily balance by changing your shutter speed.

As we did last week with Aperture Priority, let’s take a look at what the camera’s doing when you shoot in Shutter Priority.

In Figure 1, I wanted to show the motion of the cars as they passed me, so I used a shutter speed of 1/10. I’m not too worried about camera shake, since the subject’s not even going to be in the same ZIP code as “sharp.” It’s a bright, sunny day, so the camera should stop the aperture down… and it does, to f/25. Notice that even at ISO 100 (my camera’s base ISO), the photo comes out washed out. This is one instance in which you’d generally want to stop down, resort to exposure compensation, or use a polarizing filter if you have one.** In Figure 2, I wanted a similar feeling of motion, but this time, I’m shooting in the shade, so the camera should stop the aperture up. This time I’m using a 1/8 shutter speed, and the camera’s giving me an aperture of f/20 with a much more even exposure.

Figure 4

Figures 3 and 4 are a bit different, in that I didn’t particularly care about capturing, or stopping, motion. I just wanted a reasonably well-exposed photo. So in Figure 3, I’ve used a comparatively speedy 1/200 shutter speed, and the aperture the camera’s chosen is f/10. If you recall last week (Aperture Priority), you’ll notice that the camera tries to balance the settings off one another as you change them; if you want to exercise a bit more control when shooting in A or S, you almost have to think like the camera. So if I want a bit more depth of field (at this distance f/10 really should suffice, but play along for a minute), all I need to do is slow the shutter speed; the camera will stop the aperture down to compensate.*** If I want less, I do the opposite. But since I want more in this instance, I’ve chosen a slower 1/30, and the camera has obliged me with f/14, which gets me a bit more DOF.

Not so bad, was it? As always, check your photos as you shoot so you can make adjustments on the fly as you need to.

*Long shutter speeds can also be a source of image noise, which is why some cameras have long exposure noise reduction. However, comparing the noise from a long exposure to that from shooting at a very high ISO generally shows that longer exposures are by far the lesser of two evils.

**A polarizing filter, besides being useful for cutting glare and giving you lovely blue skies, can also be adjusted to vary the amount of light that’s reaching your camera’s sensor by a stop or more.

***There are exceptions. Because any medium, whether it’s film or a digital sensor, can only capture images within a certain range of light, at some point, you run into what’s called “reciprocity failure.” In plain English, the amount of light you’re letting hit the medium is either too high or too low for that medium’s dynamic range, so all you’re going to see is something terribly under- or over-exposed, if you’re lucky to see anything besides just a solid black or white square. If you’re operating around the camera’s limits, it will generally let you know; you’ll need to read the manual to see how and where it will show you that warning.

Shooting in Aperture Priority

Figure 1

Photography, from a purely technical standpoint, is all about getting the right exposure, which, in turn, is all about light: how intense, how much, and how long. The controls you’ll be using most often on your camera (or, if you’re shooting in Auto, the controls the camera’s choosing for you) deal with these three things. This week, we’ll be taking up the role of the aperture, and shooting in Aperture Priority.

The aperture’s a diaphragm located on the end of the lens that connects to the camera body. It looks a bit like, and functions more than a little like, the iris in your eye; the more “dilated” it is, the more light it lets in. It does something else, as well, controlling depth of field, which, in plain English, is how much of your scene will be in focus.

Aperture Priority (usually denoted by an “A” on your control knob), regardless of the camera you’re using, means that you’ve chosen to control the aperture, and are leaving the rest of the guesswork up to the camera; it will “choose” your shutter speed based on how it meters the scene. If you’ve chosen Auto ISO, it may also adjust your camera’s ISO, especially in low-light situations.*

Why choose Aperture Priority over Shutter Priority or Manual? Well, for one thing, it’s useful in low light situations, since a larger/faster aperture is letting more light into the lens, and therefore onto the sensor. For another, it can also be useful as an artistic tool. If your subject is in an area where there’s a lot of background clutter (figure 1), changing your depth of field can blur that clutter, making it less recognizeable and keeping the focus on your subject. Likewise, when you want more of your shot in focus, you can set your aperture to f/11 or higher, giving you greater depth of field. Shooting in Automatic removes much of your ability to do that; often as not, you’ll get a nicely blurred background on something you wanted in focus, and vice versa.

Figure 2

Now, let’s look at what the camera’s doing when you shoot in Aperture Priority. Since it was a nice, bright day out, I kept my ISO at 200 for all of these shots. Figure 2 was shot at 21mm, with the aperture set at 3.8, which is the widest my f3.5-5.6 will let me go at that focal length.. The shutter speed is 1/400 (1/400th of a second). On Figure 3, I’m using f/8, and the camera’s set the shutter speed to 1/100.  By the time we get to figure 4, I’m using f/18 (remember, same ISO and focal length) and the shutter speed defaults to 1/20. Notice what’s happening here: there’s very little difference in each exposure, because each time we stop down**, we’re letting in a bit less light, and the camera, in order to compensate, is making the shutter speed a little slower in order to make sure that the sensor’s “seeing” that light for a longer period of time.

Figure 3

Suppose you’ve chosen your aperture, and the picture’s either under- or overexposed. You have two possible fixes. One is to make note of what shutter speed the camera’s choosing for you, go to “M” and make the shutter either that much faster or that much slower to compensate (because in “A” you could technically stop the camera up or down, but then it’s just going to choose a shutter speed that gives you the same exposure issue). The other is to use your camera’s exposure compensation settings. Exposure compensation allows you to lighten or darken the picture by anywhere from three to five stops, in 1/3 stop increments. So your viewfinder, or LCD display, will show a value of +/- .03, .07, 1, etc.; some will preview the effect if you’re using the LCD and shooting in live view. You may need to take a few shots ’til you’ve got one with which you’re happy. If you notice your camera’s consistently under/overexposing in a certain situation, you may want to keep the exposure compensation at a given value. Just make sure to check your photos from time to time, since an area may not be as dark as it seems, or the sun can slip behind a cloud.

Figure 4

A side note on Aperture: you’ll sometimes hear people talk about a “bright” or “fast” versus a “dark” or “slow” lens. What they’re generally referring to is its maximum aperture. A “fast” lens (generally in the range of f1.4-2.8) lets in more light, allowing for a quicker shutter speed (the “fast” part). Because a lens will stay at its maximum aperture for its focal length until you press down the shutter (an f/2 lens stopped down to f/22 stays open at f/2, for example), it’s going to look brighter in your viewfinder than something with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 (the “bright” part). What difference does that make? Well, focusing — whether you’re doing it yourself, or using the camera’s autofocus — is a heck of a lot easier the “brighter” the lens. Autofocus tends to “hunt” in low light with a darker lens, and you, likewise, will find it harder to focus, especially if the lens doesn’t have a focusing scale on it.

*I’ll be discussing ISO later this week.

**”Stopping down” is going to a higher f/ number, while “stopping up” is going to a smaller f/number; if this sounds confusing, think of the aperture like a dimmer switch: turn it up, you get more light, whereas if you turn it down, you get less.

Shoot with your Feet


Example 1: 18-105 lens, shot at 18mm

Last week, we talked about the importance of not neglecting your other senses in your photography. This week, we’re going to take up something else that’s too often neglected by photographers: feet.

If you’re shooting with a compact, odds are better than even it has a zoom lens. If you’re shooting with an SLR, it probably came with an 18-55 or some other species of zoom. In fact, unless your camera’s either a rangefinder, or comes with a fixed lens, nearly everything comes with, and nearly all of us shoot with, zoom lenses.

Zooms can be a godsend, especially when they enable us to do things we couldn’t otherwise have done. The ability to go from wide-angle to short telephoto (and, with some all-in-ones like the 18-200 and 28-300 zooms, go from wide angle to long zoom, all with the same lens) saves us time and missed shots. There’s also a cost factor involved. The average 300mm prime lens retails for $1350-$4900 bucks, while a zoom that starts at 55mm or 70mm and goes to 300mm will only set you back between four and six hundred. Big difference.*

Example 2: 18-105 shot at 105mm from the same vantage point as Example 1.

Zoom lenses also enable you, as a photographer, to cover more ground without necessarily having to move your feet. You can go from shooting a landscape, or the entirety of a train station (see Example 1) to picking out a detail in that scene without changing lenses or wearing out your shoes. This is not, as it turns out, necessarily a good thing.

Lots of things look interesting from a distance. The problem is, once we’ve gotten the photo, sometimes it doesn’t seem as intriguing as it did before we pressed the shutter. Sometimes the reasons for this are technical (the exposure’s off, it looks like there’s a branch sticking out of someone’s head), but other times it’s because when you have the chance to really see your subject, it turns out it’s not all that much to look at, as in Example 2. The opposite can also be true; things that look ordinary through a viewfinder at 200mm may also reveal shapes, textures, and details you might otherwise have missed had you not bothered to rub elbows with them. Looked at one way, those small details can be context for a larger image; they might also, however, turn out to be interesting subjects in their own right.

Example 3: Same 18-105, shot at 50mm, this time after some walking around.

If you want to start putting this in practice, there’s a very simple way to do it. Pick a focal length, and for a predetermined length of time, only shoot in that focal length. You want more of the scene in the frame? Take a step or two back. If, on the other hand, you want to emphasize a detail, walk toward it. As you do so, you may find yourself coming up against certain obstacles. Maybe you can’t step back as far as you’d like, your subject is significantly above you (as it is in Example 3) or maybe getting as close as you’d like means you’re casting a shadow on your subject.

Whatever the case, get creative. Re-frame the shot, either by changing your angle, or physically walking around the subject. As you do so, it isn’t uncommon to see other shots present themselves, or you may decide that the shot wasn’t as interesting as it seemed now that you’re seeing your subject up close.

Understandably, this isn’t always practical. Sometimes a couple of steps in one direction or another means the difference between going over the edge of a cliff or not. In those instances, zoom all you’d like. Otherwise, try resorting to your feet instead of your zoom from time to time. It can make an enormous difference in the composition and overall appearance of your shots.

*There’s a much smaller price difference when it comes to short, fast primes (24-50mm). You should also be aware that a prime lens affords other advantages, beyond cost, that zooms typically do not. We’ll be taking those up another time.