The Right Way to Shoot Full Auto (or, “The Lady in the Hat”)

Yes, that's a firework, and not the result of a space kitten horking up a hairball.

For those of you who haven’t read the “About Us” page, I promised that I’d include my mistakes in here along with the usual tips, advice, and everything else. Well, this is as good a time and place as any to start sharing those bloopers.

A couple of weeks ago, I’m sitting on the beach in Point Pleasant with my wife, waiting for the July 4th fireworks to start. A short distance away, I happen to see a woman sitting in her beach chair. She’s got her SLR, and the Nikon logo’s clearly visible on the neck strap. So I think to myself, “Y’know, I should ask her what settings she’s going to be using tonight.” And since her camera was in the same family as mine, in a manner of speaking, I wouldn’t get lost if she had to guide me through the menus.

Armed with my plan, I trudged across the sand, camera in hand. “Excuse me. What settings did you plan on using for the fireworks tonight?” She looked at me a bit quizzically.

“On the camera. Which settings were you using?”

“Oh, that!” She smiled. “I usually either put it on no flash, or the lady with the hat.”

This conversation already wasn’t quite as informative as I’d hoped, or so I thought. I thanked her for her time, trudged back to my wife and my beach chair, checked my gear, dialed in the settings I planned to use, and settled in. Half an hour later, the fireworks started, and I dutifully snapped away.

Several hours later (I think the locals all decided to use the same back roads to avoid the tourists), I downloaded my photos, browsed, and started to feel more than a bit deflated. You know those beds they used to have in motel rooms where you’d get a “massage” if you dropped in a quarter? My fireworks photos all looked like they’d been made while the camera was sitting on one of those beds.

There were two reasons for this: first of all, I’d ignored my own advice to use a tripod, and shot handheld the whole night, figuring it’d be easier to follow the fireworks as they arced through the sky. It was, but I don’t care if you’ve got a better grip than Joe McNally, if you’re shooting with shutter speeds at or approaching a full second, you’re going to get blur and jiggles. Second, I didn’t realize exactly how much I’d blurred and jiggled; too worried I’d miss a good shot, I never once checked to see how my photos were coming out. All of a sudden, “the lady in the hat” was looking pretty good.

The conventional wisdom among a lot of SLR users – which, like all conventional wisdom, tends to be more convention than wisdom – is that you don’t buy a big, expensive camera just to shoot it in full Auto; that’s what fully automatic compacts are for. Screw the conventional wisdom. Yes, if the camera gives you control over ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, learn and use those controls. But shooting in Automatic can be useful if used right – as a teacher rather than a crutch – and comes in handy if you’re unsure of the controls, or of yourself, in a given shooting situation.

Familiarize yourself with your camera’s quirks in Automatic, since some of them will give you an idea of how you want to change your settings. In low light, for instance, most cameras will default to the brightest aperture available, alongside an ISO boost and a slow shutter speed. Also pay attention to your camera’s Scene modes (“the lady in the hat,” incidentally, is the icon most cameras use for Portrait mode). The most common will be Portrait, Sports, Beach/Snow, a low light setting, Sunset, Landscape, and Child, with each camera adding other options (Macro, Document, et al.) depending on the camera’s capabilities and the whims of the manufacturer. These will also help to familiarize you with the things you do, or don’t, want to do in a given situation.

Your camera, and most photo viewers used on your computer, should give you the option to view the data, known as EXIF data, associated with the photo. At a bare minimum, the file name, date, time, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO should all be listed; many cameras will also display histogram data, resolution, focal length, exposure compensation, and other data.* Make use of that data, since you can not only see what the camera “picked,” but you’re now free to tweak your settings if you and the camera have different ideas about how the scene should look. You can also do this on the fly if you’re not sure of your settings and you want to be in the ballpark with a bit less trial and error; take a quick shot on Auto, and then change either your shutter speed or aperture as needed for a bit more control.

Well, there you have it. I make the mistakes so you don’t have to. Hopefully you’ve learned something from all this. If it’s taught you nothing else, of course, at least take away the value of checking out your shots from time to time, as this will save you vast amounts of money on aspirin later. But also don’t let yourself be intimidated by all the buttons, menu options, and other crap with which the manufacturer has so thoughtfully festooned your camera. In the weeks ahead, we’ll talk more about using the A, S, P, and M modes; meantime, get out there and keep making photos!

*What the EXIF data won’t tell you is some of the other in-camera adjustments made by the scene modes. Some scene modes adjust your camera’s white balance. Many will boost the saturation of one color or another to warm skin tone, bring out the blue in the sky, the green in a landscape, or the red-through-orange part of the spectrum for autumn leaves.

A Quick Guide to Candid Photography

Come to think of it, don't go sneaking up behind people and popping paper bags, either.

Want to kill the mood and momentum at a party? Well, for starters, you could put Stockhausen on the stereo. Or you could walk around with your camera, and every time you see people in conversation, laughing, popping coconut shrimp into their mouths, or just standing pensively by the punch bowl, say, “Say cheese!” And of course, if the party’s noisy enough, you may find yourself saying it loudly and often enough (to the same person, no less) that people are shooting you uncomfortable glances. Capturing a smile on camera is one thing… capturing a rictus of surprise and displeasure that’s better suited to a Victorian death mask? Well, let’s just say those won’t be keepers.

The candid photograph is the antithesis of the forced or posed photo. What you’re doing instead is observing, waiting for the right time to get the right shot. Henri Cartier-Bresson (yes, him again) called it the “decisive moment,” that split second when a series of seemingly random things (people, their activities, their surroundings) converge at one photogenic point in time. As he put it to an interviewer, “Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

While we can pose our subjects, in effect creating those moments, the end result isn’t going to have the same panache or spontaneity as it would if we caught it on the fly. And really, Cartier-Bresson was far from being the only practitioner of spontaneous photography. Robert Frank, Robert Doisneu, Arthur Fellig (better known as Weegee) and a host of others have proven that some of the best photography comes from being on the periphery of the action, rather than inserting one’s self in the middle of it all.

As befits a style that’s rooted in spontaneity and simplicity, the techniques for good candids are uncomplicated.

  • Be unobtrusive: one more reason to always have your camera: the more often people, whether they’re in your family or in your neighborhood, see you with your gear, the more they get used to it and the less they think of it. You don’t have to hide in a duck blind to get good candids, you just have to blend in enough that your subjects aren’t self-conscious about the camera.
  • Travel light. A small camera helps, since you’ll look more like a tourist than a photographer. If you’re going to use an SLR, prime lenses help keep your kit light; barring that, use a smallish zoom. Likewise, carry your gear in something that doesn’t scream, “LOOK AT ALL MY EQUIPMENT!”
  • Shoot from the hip. If you’re using a lens that covers various focal lengths, there are two different ways to go; either to the “wide” end (18-24mm) to catch as much of the scene as possible, or “normal”* (40-50mm), which captures less breadth, but more detail. If you’re not going to be keeping an eye on your viewfinder or LCD, shoot multiples, since you’ll improve your chances of getting something worth keeping.
  • Check settings, making sure not only that your ISO/shutter/aperture are appropriate to where and what you’re shooting, but also that your camera’s onboard flash is turned off, and the camera’s sounds are either muted or quieted (you don’t need the autofocus beep, or the “shutter” sound that some manufacturers add to let you know that you have, in fact, taken a picture). If your camera has a quiet mode, use it.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings, not only for the scenery, but also for safety. If you’re getting nasty looks or a bad vibe, get the heck outta Dodge.
  • Get shots of people doing things. Whether they’re gutting fish, busking, talking and laughing, or even just reading, people look the most natural when they’re just in their element, being themselves and doing their own thing.
  • You’re trying to capture the essence of the moment, not prettify it. Resist the urge to start rearranging things. If something in the scene doesn’t work – the lighting’s “off,” the background’s distracting, the level of excitement isn’t what you’d like – move along.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also pause for a second to address the ethics of candid photography. For starters, be honest (they’re not called “Candids” for nothing). It’s one thing to blend in and be stealthy, but it’s something else altogether to be flat-out dishonest if someone asks what you’re doing. On a related note, don’t stalk people. Be extra careful shooting kids, or even shooting around them. If you’re not sure about your subject, regardless of age or circumstances, ask permission, and honor whatever answer you get. Be aware of local customs and attitudes; if you’re somewhere very unfamiliar, travel with someone who knows the lay of the land and can not only advise you, but also make introductions if that’d be helpful. Most of all, don’t be “That creep with the camera.”

To make photos that get attention, sometimes the last thing you want or need to do is to draw attention to yourself. Let your vision shine through in your photos, but be mindful of the fact that sometimes, the harder you work to get the scene to conform to what you’d like it to be, your photos end up being more about you than they are about what you’re photographing. Let the events and people be what they will; be present, observe, and let the pics fall where they may.

*A “Normal Lens” is called that because its field of vision closely approximates what the human eye sees. This is about 40mm on a 35mm (or Full Frame) camera. 50mm lenses also tend to be lumped into this category. On an APS-C camera (a.k.a. a “cropped sensor,” because its sensor size is smaller than a frame of 35mm film), your lens behaves as though it’s got a magnification factor of about 1.5 times (Nikon, Pentax, Sony) or 1.6 times (Canon), so 28mm acts like 40mm, and 35mm acts closer to 5omm. This is great at the “long” end of a telephoto (at 300mm, you’re getting what amounts to 450mm), but it’s a pain in the ass if you’re trying to shoot wide-angle, since 18mm (where most kit lenses, and even some of the more expensive ones, start) is effectively 24mm, which is wide, but not that wide. On the off chance that this all sounds like gobbledeygook and your head’s starting to hurt, the easiest things to do would be either a: go to your local camera shop, try out the lenses, and see what works for you, or b: try your kit lens at different focal lengths, and get used to what each does to your photos. I’ll be covering lenses in a later post.

Taking Better Self-Portraits

"Don't" #4: Don't go cutting your ear off, either. (Image: Public Domain)

You can take self-portraits for any number of reasons. Maybe you want something to put up on your Facebook or Twitter profile, maybe you want a good shot for that online dating site, or maybe you’re just some kind of narciss—never mind. Anyway, the point is, sometimes you need a picture of yourself, and there’s nobody else around to do the job. Today, I’ll be going over some very simple do’s and don’ts for better self-portraits.

  1. No “Arm’s Length” shots. All this does is add  foreshortening and make it look as though you’ve got ridiculously long arms. Needless to say, not a good look. You’re not a knuckle-dragger!
  2. No duckface. I don’t know what triggered the duckface epidemic, but suffice to say, it doesn’t look sexy, pouty, or attractive in any way. It just makes you look as though you’ve been lunching on lemons.
  3. No mirrors. Besides being a cliché, this is something that’s really better left to disgraced Congressmen.

Okay, so that’s the don’ts. Now the dos:

  1. Find a support. If you’re using an automatic compact (a.k.a. “point and shoot”), you can find a collapsible, highly portable tripod for about ten bucks. It’s not quite sturdy enough for an SLR, but it does fine for smaller cameras. In the absence of a tripod, set the camera on something else that’s flat, level, and not prone to falling over.
  2. Compose your shot. Pay attention to what’s going to be in the frame with you, keeping the background free of distractions. Set the camera either at eye level, or slightly above, since shooting from a low angle will give you multiple chins (whereas shooting from a high angle is handy if you’re trying to camouflage chins). Putting a mirror behind your camera’s LCD display can also give you a good idea of what everything’s going to look like in the frame before the photo’s made (hat tip: Photodoto).
  3. Use the camera’s timer function, set to a long interval (ten seconds or more) so you have time to get into position without looking rushed, or so the camera’s not taking multiple exposures of bits and pieces of you. If, on the other hand, the camera has a remote shutter release or cable release, use that for a greater degree of control.
  4. Focus. Try one shot from behind the camera using whatever method you’ll be using from step three to see how your camera focuses. If it needs to be done manually, put something where you’ll be sitting/standing as a reference; if the camera will autofocus, make sure the face recognition feature’s turned on (if your camera has one; most do these days) and let ‘er rip.
  5. If you’re shooting with a camera that allows control over aperture and shutter speed, make sure you’ve set an aperture that gives you enough depth of field that your whole face is in focus (otherwise you’ll have a sharp nose and the rest of you will be blurry) and a fast enough shutter speed that you won’t be a blurry mess if you happen to move at all as you’re taking the shot.
  6. Have fun. It’s not every day that you have a subject who’ll gladly submit to your every whim, is happy to experiment, and doesn’t mind taking a few dozen shots at a clip just to get that one “right” photo. Take full advantage!
  7. If all else fails, just have someone else take the darn picture.

 More don’ts: Lamebook

Tips: Photographing Fireworks

I know what you’re thinking. “I just started reading this thing yesterday. You want me to shoot fireworks already?” Relax. It’s not (bottle)rocket science. Everybody loves a good fireworks display. They also love ooh-ing and aah-ing over good fireworks pictures. So let’s run down the top ten tips for taking better fireworks photos.

  1. Test your equipment ahead of time. This is a best practice no matter what, or when, you shoot. If something’s wrong with your gear, or if it doesn’t work as advertised, you’re better off finding out before the main event than during, right?
  2. Scout your location ahead of time. You’ll want good lines of sight, but you also want to pay attention to what else will be in the frame depending on where you aim your camera. If you’re a good distance from where the fireworks are going off, you’re likely to have a flatter angle of view, meaning the potential for more clutter in your photos from surrounding buildings, people, etc. If you’re closer, you’ll have the option of shooting from a low angle, leading to fewer visual distractions.
  3. Turn off your flash. The only thing your flash will do when you’re taking fireworks photos is annoy the people sitting around you, and override your camera’s shutter speed settings, resulting in an empty black frame (I’m talking from experience here).
  4. Use a support. Full-automatic cameras (your trusty point-and-shoot, or the camera in your cellular phone) will tend to default to a longer shutter speed because it’s dark out, which means that every last vibration and jiggle will translate to fireworks that look… well, more like space creatures than fireworks. Even a camera that allows you to dial in settings will get better photos if it’s on a tripod than it will if you’re trying to handhold. Just make sure that the tripod head (that’s the bit at the top connected to the bottom of your camera) has a bit of give to it so you can pan easily to point your lens where the action is.
  5. If you have a remote or a cable release, use it. If you’re using (or just stuck with) a long shutter speed, camera motion from pushing down the shutter button can still register in the photo if you’re not careful. Using the remote eliminates the need to press the shutter button, eliminating with it one more source of camera shake. Test your remote ahead of time, both to make sure it’s working, and also to see where you need to be in relation to the camera for it to work.
  6. Use a zoom lens. Primes are great for a whole host of things, but this is one of those times when the flexibility of varied focal distances comes in handy when it comes time to frame your shot. Shoot wider (zoomed out) rather than tighter (zoomed in) at first, since it can be hard enough predicting where the action will be without adding to your troubles by shooting long. Once you’ve got a better idea of where everything’s going to be, you can zoom in tighter. Besides, you can always crop later, if need be.
  7. Use the lowest ISO setting possible. Yes, I know, you spent extra on a camera that’d give you lovely low-light pictures at a higher ISO. Good on you. But you won’t need that here, since you’re taking pictures of a light source rather than trying to pick up on what little reflected light may be available. Boosting your ISO is likely to boost chromatic noise and grain.
  8. Use your camera’s burst setting, if it has one. The first shot you get may not show the fireworks in full bloom, or may not get everything that’s exploded if a few fireworks have been set off at once. With a burst shot, you can pick and choose your best shots. A caveat here: depending on your camera’s write speed, buffer size, and the class of memory card you’re using, shooting a burst can result in long lag times between shots. The first burst may come off just fine, but the next burst might come 30-45 seconds later, and may not be a full burst (you may get one or two shots off if you’re lucky). Rather than being disappointed by missed shots on the big night, try your camera out in burst mode right now, paying attention to how many shots it takes in a single burst, and how long it takes before it can take another full burst. If you find yourself gritting your teeth between shots, skip this step.
  9. Shoot manually if your camera allows it and you’re comfortable doing so. If you can’t, or you don’t feel comfortable, don’t. If your camera has a fireworks setting, you can use that. Night Mode is also an option, though not necessarily your best one; you’ll get a longer shutter speed, true, but it also tends to boost the camera’s ISO (see number 6, above). If it doesn’t (or you’d prefer not to use it), do this instead: set your camera to 100-200 ISO, f/8 to f/16 (no higher, since some lenses are fuzzy at higher f/ numbers), a long shutter speed, focus set to infinity.
  10. Chimp. “Chimping” is the practice of checking your camera’s LCD to see how the last photo came out. You don’t want to overdo it (nothing’s worse than missing the next shot ’cause you were looking at the last one), but checking your shots from time to time will give you an idea of whether you need to tweak either your settings or your technique.

If you’ve done all of the above, or at least as much as your gear will allow, you may still have blurring, noise, or other issues. If that’s the case, don’t despair; see what you can do to work with your camera’s quirks to make photos that are interesting in their own right.

Hopefully this demystifies the process of photographing fireworks. Have any other tips to share? Pass them along!