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

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.

ISO Explained


Figure 1

Stripped to its basics, photography’s all about light: how much, how long, and at what intensity. The aperture, which we covered earlier in the week, controls “how much.” The shutter, which we’ll be taking up next Tuesday, controls “how long.” That leaves the intensity of, or more accurately,
your camera’s sensitivity to, light, which is controlled by its ISO settings.

Let’s get the jargon out of the way first, shall we? ISO simply stands for International Organization for Standardization, a body that sets standards for film speed and sensor sensitivity. ISO actually carries over from the film days (and the numbers correspond to ASA numbers, from the system that ISO replaced). Time was, if you were shooting outdoors, you’d buy ISO 100 or 200, use 400 for indoors, and use 800 or 1600 for low light or situations when you wanted to shoot at a much higher shutter speed in broad daylight.

Just the same as low-ISO film had a very fine grain, the “grain” in digital (more often referred to as “noise”) is much less noticeable at a low ISO than it is when you “push” the ISO, using the upper reaches of your camera’s ISO capability. The reason for this is that you’re increasing the sensor’s sensitivity to input in general; not only does light get picked up, but the sensor is also “reading” stray electrical impulses and incorporating those into your image.

Of course, as with any other feature or setting on your camera, a little experimentation is in order. You always want to know what a setting will do not only for, but also to, your photos. Higher ISO settings, as previously mentioned, introduce varying levels of noise, and loss of detail, into your photos. Whether you’re using specialized software, or just your camera’s native noise reduction, you can keep a lid on the noise to some degree, but you can’t recover lost detail. It’s up to you, therefore, to see how your camera behaves at about 1,000 and above, and to decide whether these are tradeoffs you’re willing to make.

Figure 3

Let me give you an example. Noise is generally going to show in darker areas of the photo, though if the ISO’s set high enough, it’ll be noticeable throughout the photo. Figure 1 was shot in Aperture priority at ISO 400, since I wanted an f/16 aperture to make sure the church’s steeple would be as sharp as the rose window and other parts closer to me. The shot’s reasonably clear of noise. As you’ll see if you peek at the EXIF data, the camera chose a shutter speed of 13 seconds. I happened to have the camera on a tripod at the time, so for me, that was an acceptable shutter speed. But suppose you don’t own a tripod, or don’t have it with you? A higher shutter speed is going to be necessary to reduce motion blur, but if I try a higher shutter speed at f/16, my photo’s going to be terribly underexposed. The compromise lies in our ISO settings. There’s a dizzying array of ISO numbers on your camera, with some cameras starting as low as 50, and going as high as 25,600. Here’s all you need to remember: with each doubling of your ISO number, you’re also doubling your sensor’s sensitivity to light. So going from ISO 800 to ISO 1600, for instance, is one full stop of light; in other words, I’ve got twice the light sensitivity I had before.

Figure 4

So. I’m not willing to compromise on aperture because I don’t want to sacrifice my depth of field. I probably can’t squeeze more than a third of a stop out of my shutter speed without the photo being underexposed. The solution, therefore, is to boost the ISO. We’ll try going up two stops, to ISO 1600 (figure 2). Notice that the aperture stays the same, but the shutter speed has been “sped up” to 8/10ths of a second. If I want to go faster still (maybe it’s cold out and my hands are shaky; it’s not like I have to worry about the church scuttling off), I can push to ISO 3200 (Figure 3, ½ second). Or maybe my subject isn’t quite as well-lit as this church, and I have no tripod (I know I already said I had one… play along for a minute). I can push my ISO all the way up to 25,600, and, hey presto, my subject is there in the frame, plain as day (Figure 4)… but I’ve sacrificed image quality for not much of a gain shutter speed.

Speaking of degradation, let’s take a closer look at the noise, shall we? Figure 5 shows a 100% crop (300×300 pixels) from a section of the shot in figure 4. Not a great look, is it?

Figure 5

Noise isn’t your friend. I’m also going to end on the assumption that if you’re making a photo of something, you want the end result to be reasonably close to what you’re seeing in front of you. Besides the noise and lost detail that higher ISO introduces, it also affects the look of the light in the scene, making the night look brighter, overall, than it actually is. Your best bet, therefore, is a support (a tripod, or, barring that, a monopod) with a nice, long shutter speed and the lowest-possible ISO. Being the realist that I am, I know you won’t always have a tripod. The next best thing is to push the ISO only as far as it needs to go, and shoot with as slow a shutter speed as your handholding technique will allow.

A note on sensor size and ISO: because a larger sensor can accommodate larger pixels, it’s possible to get higher, cleaner ISO performance out of a full-frame sensor than out of an APS-C sensor, while both of those will outperform a compact, and all three will beat the pants off your iPhone. It’s not uncommon for current cameras, like Nikon’s D7000 and Canon’s 60D, to be capable of up to a staggering 25,600 ISO, although the level of noise present in the photo (and the amount of detail that’s lost) makes it impractical. Realistically, newer cameras can be expected to give acceptable results up to about ISO 3200, with the caveat that your mileage may vary.

What Kind of Photographer Are You?

What kinda photographer shoots stuff like this, anyway?

At some point, you’ll find it useful to decide just what kind of photographer you are. Are you serious or casual? Plan on going professional, or content to remain an amateur? You’ve got money to burn, or you want/need to keep it on the cheap? Just as importantly, what do you want to shoot? Kids? Animals? Sports? Cars? Landscapes? Or do you have not even the remotest idea what kind of photographer you are?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions (far be it from me, the one-time English major…). They’re actually important for a number of reasons.

Not least of these is equipment. The requirements, usually in lenses, but sometimes also in bodies and accessories, will be much different for someone in the habit of shooting architecture than they’d be for someone who treks to the track every weekend for shots of the ponies or the stock cars.

But of course, gear only gets you so far. You’ll also need to do a fair amount of study and training. If you plan on being self-taught, your answers to these questions might guide you to one book or website over another; if you’re planning on learning from a human being, those same answers will guide you to taking certain types of classes, or in finding a photographer to shadow or take on as a mentor.

And even once you’ve got your gear and a fair amount of training/experience under your belt, you’re not done yet. There’s still the matter of developing your style. We’ll be taking up some tips on doing just that in the days ahead, but bear in mind that part of how we arrive at our own style, often as not, is by observing others who do what we’d like to be doing, and learning from them. So if you fancy yourself a fashion photographer, you might start with Herb Ritts; a street photographer, Gary Winograd; a photojournalist, Sebastiao Salgado. Others’ work can be an inspiration, a point of departure, or a series of object lessons in what we do or don’t want out of our photography.

Incidentally, if you’re not sure what kind of photographer you are or would like to be, or if you feel like assigning yourself a “category” is somehow pigeonholing yourself, know that that’s okay too. Just be aware that even being a Jack or Jill of all trades carries with it its own set of requirements, and sometimes even bigger challenges; you probably won’t be able to get away with having only one lens in your kit, for instance, and you may find it a bit more of a challenge figuring out from whom to learn. On the other hand, your options are limitless, since you’re free to just wander from day to day, pointing your camera wherever your eye leads you.

Regardless of where you fall on any of these criteria – and really, it’s got to be a plural, since all the different things we “are” as photographers end up looking like a really complicated Venn diagram with many, many points of intersection – don’t feel as though you need to explain, much less justify, it to anyone. This is for you, and you alone. Think of it as something that’s just one more thing in your mental toolkit. Your choices don’t make you a better photographer than the next person, but neither do they diminish you.

For a humorous take on this, check out Gordon Lewis’ What Type of Photographer Are You? on Shutterfinger (and check out the rest of his blog while you’re there… you’ll thank me later).

And by way of a postscript, what kind of photographer are you?

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.

Photography: Art or Craft?

The Soft Serve Sentry

Bear with me, as I’ll be spending a fair share of this entry essentially thinking out loud; the purpose of this post isn’t so much to issue the last word on something as it is to hopefully start a discussion.

To begin with, let’s establish the definitions from which we’re working. Art, according to the folks at Webster’s, is skill acquired by experience, study, or observation. It could also be loosely defined as the application of imagination to a chosen medium; some have also posited that anything created with artistic intent is, by definition, art. Whether the end result of those creative efforts is actually art, however, seems to be defined by a mixture of cultural consensus and historical perspective.

So it would seem that trying to pin down a definition of art itself (much less whether an individual piece is art or not) is a bit like trying to nail Jell-o to a wall. Let’s see if we have any better luck with Craft. Webster’s again: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill <the carpenter’s craft> <the craft of writing plays> <crafts such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing>. Well, at least we have some agreement between the two on the skill part.

Let’s put aside the dictionary for a bit, since that’s getting us nowhere. In popular culture, art tends to be seen as something inspired, while craft is somewhat looked down upon as something decidedly pedestrian. Craft has also often denoted something more practical or workmanlike (think of the Bauhaus emphasis on creating objects that might be pretty to look at, but had, above all, to be useful) if not downright kitschy (Martha Stewart, hot glue guns). While photography has its practical applications, those aren’t the first thing most of us would think of when we consider, much less enter, the medium.

Perhaps a more useful distinction can be drawn between art as the end result and craft as the process from which it comes. Ah, now I think we’re getting somewhere. If getting to “art” is somehow fleeting or ephemeral, then craft is the way we attempt to catch that lightning in a bottle. Put differently, anyone can get lucky and create one work of art. Craft is the process by which you take at least some of the chance out of the equation, devoting enough time, effort, and sheer repetition to the process – your process – that you can get the same results consistently.  

 Ansel Adams, who we discussed this time last week, once said “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.” Stop and think about that for a second: one photograph a month, if you’re lucky. And he didn’t mean, “Go outside once a month, take one photo, and you’re done.” If you get lucky, ten percent of your photos will be competent enough to be worth keeping; a much smaller percentage of those would be the ones that somebody besides you still wants to look at a year from now, ten years from now, or when you’re pushing up daisies. Getting even to the point that Adams is talking about – not a hundred significant photos a year, remember, just twelve – took years of practice on his part, and will take years of practice on your part, mine, or anyone else’s who really cares enough about their chosen medium to get it right. That means not just photography, but any other thing to which you care to apply yourself diligently enough to be any good at it, whether that something is photography, sculpture, writing, pottery, or knitting.

Unless you’re using your camera the same way you’d use a steno pad — strictly to document, giving no more thought to art than if you were making a shopping list or jotting down a phone message — at some point or another, each of us has the urge to capture something artistic. Paradoxically, it’s when we start paying more attention to the craft than the art, beginning to hone our vision and the technique with which we express it, that we increase the odds that we create art instead of having it just happen (or not) by chance.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments section.

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.