Tag Archives: aperture priority

Being One With Your Camera

I have written several topics in the past that have stirred more than just a bit of (heated) discussions in photography forums. Zoom vs prime, JPG vs RAW, manual mode vs auto, this brand vs that brand … the list goes on. Nobody wins. The reason was quite simple: I had my own choices and they had theirs.

And this brings me to the topic of being one with your camera. There are lots of cameras and lenses to choose from. The most important thing is that you should use the combination that will give you the most potential. The equipment should not get in the way of photography. It should do as you wanted it to do. There is no perfect camera or lens though so it is very important that you are truly familiar with your gear. Just because it’s the best in terms of specification does not mean it will work for you.

Let me give you an example and I have posted about this in the past. I dared to compare my full frame Nikon D700 and my not-so-famous Pentax K5 in this post. My choice wasn’t about the perceived superiority of the D700 because it is full frame and has hundreds of lenses to choose from but the fact that the K5 did exactly as I would have expected in a landscape camera. There is no point in arguing about image quality or some other magical ingredient of a particular camera when you are constantly wrestling with it. The camera should work for you. Not you working hard on your camera.

Allow me to give a more specific example of why familiarity with the equipment is very important. I have been doing a bit of street photography lately. Admittedly, this area of photography is something that I am not experienced with but I’m trying really hard to make sense of it. My camera of choice is my Olympus E-M5 because it is small which means I can bring it with me every day to work. When I have spare time during lunch break I go out and shoot. I use aperture priority mode — again, a deliberate choice. I refuse to use the macho manual mode unless necessary. I set the E-M5 to its native ISO 200 and set my aperture to f5.6. Why these settings you may ask. When I’m out shooting on the streets during lunch break the range of light intensity can only vary by 4 stops at most. Under very bright sunlight, the meter reading would give me a shutter speed of 1/2000s which is well within the limit of the E-M5’s max speed of 1/4000s. When the subject is under the shadows of buildings the recommended aperture is usually f4 but since I’m at f5.6 then my shutter speed would drop to 1/125s which is still a very comfortable speed for handheld shots and fast enough to capture the movement of people walking about. Notice that we have not really discussed the equipment yet. I have basically provided a starting point from which adjustments can take place. These settings are ideal when the light is good. It will change significantly even with just a simple cloud cover. When the sun is covered by clouds f4 will not be enough when the subject is under the shade. If I stay at f5.6 my shutter speed could drop to 1/60s or even less. I have two choices: open up to f4 or bump up the ISO to maintain a comfortable shutter speed. With my E-M5, this is very easy. I have customised my buttons in such a way that I could change my ISO without even looking at my camera. Press a button and one turn to the right brings me to ISO 400 all with one hand. I also know that two clicks counterclockwise with the front dial would bring me to f4. Now coming out from a shady area into the open with the sun still covered by clouds I know that I can safely compensate the exposure by +1EV without blowing up the highlights by turning the rear dial twice to the right. I can do all of these without the need to look at my camera’s LCD. I can concentrate on looking at potential targets instead of fumbling with my equipment.

The whole point of the above example is that by knowing your exposure values and by familiarising yourself with your camera you can become a more effective photographer. Just to provide some sort of example on why the wrong choice of camera could become problematic in the same situation: I try to avoid using my Nikon D700 in street photography for several reasons. Firstly, the D700’s exposure compensation is stupidly in reverse. Going left is positive and going right is negative — exactly the opposite of what a sane camera should be. You can reverse this behaviour in the menu but then that reverses everything which means if I turn the front dial counterclockwise the aperture closes instead of opening up. Not only that. Changing the ISO requires that I use both hands! When changing modes, you have 50/50 chances of getting it right because there is no mode dial but a button that needs to be pushed and a front dial that needs to be turned. So if you are in M mode and you want to go to A mode you will have to press a button and you won’t have any idea whether to turn the front dial left or right to get to your target mode. Going back from A to M is the same crap. If you miss the turn it means you will have to turn twice in the opposite direction to get to your intended mode. I have owned my D700 for more than three years now but I still have not mastered this very simple thing. It has always been a constant hit-or-miss that really annoys me.

Another important thing is choice of focal length. My favourite is 35mm in full frame or 24mm in APS-C or 17mm in m43. With this focal length I know exactly how my subject fits in the frame without even looking at the viewfinder. A lot of photographers recommend the 50mm full frame normal lens because they say it’s has the same field of view as the human eye. I can’t relate to this. For me, normal means 35mm. I find that 50mm is too tight and more suited to portraiture instead of daily walkabout type of shooting. I really like this focal length because it allows me to shoot people, architecture and landscape.

My point is, don’t just follow what you read in forums. Find your own thing.

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Welcome to My Playground


This is the title that I gave to the photograph which I posted in Flickr. I chose the word playground to portray fun and joy. For me, fun should always come first in photography.

But what does it take to capture such a simple photograph?

The main ingredient is light. Photography, afterall, means painting with light. Not just light intensity or brightness but the quality of light as well. In landscape photography, there are two choices: dawn or dusk. Anything in between is just a variation of the word CRAP. Dawn and dusk have different qualities of light. When you are in the east coast and facing east, dawn will give you a warm orange light while dusk gives a cooler magenta glow. If you are in the west, it’s the opposite. Depending on your location or the time of year, you can have both at the same time. The photo below was taken at dawn as well but notice the magenta tint:


Shooting at dawn has several advantages compared to dusk. People are generally too lazy to wake up early which means you have the entire spot all to yourself. No distractions. For those who have day jobs it means you can still shoot during weekdays especially during summer where a typical session ends around 5:30AM. You’ll be home before the rest of your household is awake.

Dusk sessions have advantages as well. You can shoot longer even up until blue hour kicks in and get nice long exposures. Cityscapes look fantastic when artificial lights turn on.

Anyway, let’s concentrate on the first photo. I woke up at around 3:30AM to prepare myself. My friend’s house is still a 20-minute drive to my place where we agreed to meet. While waiting for him, I started putting on my ski gear because it was just 6 degrees outside. I checked the weather report again to make sure that our target location is free of any weather disturbances. If we suspect heavy clouds then we may need to divert to Cedar Creek instead to capture the waterfalls. The day before, I already knew the tide pattern so Point Halloran was the perfect spot. The tide will be high enough to give us some reflections but low enough such that the small boats won’t move. Timing should be perfect. If the tide comes in too quick before sunrise then our plans are ruined.

My friend arrived around 4:20AM. That’s the advantage of shooting in winter. The sun rises at 6:30AM so we didn’t have to wake up that early. During summer we usually start driving at 3:00 AM for a 5:00AM sunrise. Anyway, we left for Point Halloran and arrived at around 5:45AM. Being on location 45 minutes before sunrise is just right. One hour would be ideal so that you can scout the area. Because we were “late”, we had to rush and start shooting whatever subject we could find.

Let’s talk about equipment. A tripod is essential. Don’t leave home without it. A torch is very handy so you can find your way in the dark. I also brought my gummy boots because I know that the location is quite muddy. My trusty Pentax K5 is fully charged with the initial ISO set to 200 and configured to capture RAW plus JPG. I only have one lens: a cheap Sigma 17-70 which you could buy brand new for a little over $300. I had a cheap 0.9 GND filter attached to a knock-off filter holder. Don’t bother using a UV filter; it’s the most useless accessory you could buy for your lens. Use a proper lens cover instead and a lens hood if you are concerned about scratching your lens. Now that I have enumerated my gear, the point is that ANY camera and kit lens will do. There is absolutely no need for expensive gear in landscape photography.

So what did actually happen when I captured this moment? I was taking photos of a boat that was docked along the muddy shore. I was shooting wide at 17mm, aperture set to f16 and manually focused to 7 feet with exposure compensation set to +1. I was about to change position when I saw my friend about 20 meters away taking photos along the edge of the water. I immediately recognized the photo opportunity. I quickly opened my aperture to f11 and zoomed in to 70mm which was the longest my lens could go. It was just long enough to get a nice compression. I also had to raise my tripod to avoid his silhouette from merging with the horizon. I immediately thought about my composition. I had him positioned on the left third of the frame with the silhouette of the shoreline going from the bottom of the frame towards the horizon. The horizon was placed high enough but also making sure that my friend’s reflection is positioned nicely along the lower third of the frame. I then set my camera to autofocus and shifted the focus sensor to point at my friend. This was the quickest way to focus at infinity. Unlike older lenses that lock into infinity, modern (crippled) lenses don’t do this. Instead they focus past infinity and completely ruin your shot. Knowing that it’s going to be a silhouette shot, I dialed exposure compensation down to -0.5 to make the colors pop and darken the darkest blacks. I did one last peek to check my shutter speed and noticed that it wasn’t fast enough. So I shouted at him “Wag kang gumalaw!”, which is Filipino for “Don’t move!”. I pressed the shutter and my timer automatically started the 2-second countdown. Just before the timer expired, the camera flipped the mirror into a lock up position before finally opening the shutter curtain to capture the image. All of these happened in about 15-20 seconds. I chimped to confirm that the camera did what it was supposed to do and told my friend that he can continue whatever he was doing…after thanking him of course for being a cooperative model 🙂

I would like to emphasize the importance of an inexpensive kit lens here. Had I used an ultrawide lens, I would not have been able to capture this shot. Those distant mountains would have disappeared in an ultrawide lens and the horizon would have merged with my subject unless I shot from a very high position. If I brought a prime lens, I may had to swap lenses thus totally missing the opportunity or walked very slowly in the mud towards or away from the subject just to frame him correctly. Your kit lens is good enough for just about anything.

We started packing up at around 7AM with several keepers safely stored in our cameras.

Post processing is easy when you have done the difficult part of capturing the moment. A simple curves adjustment to enhance the contrast was enough. I did not crop at all. This is how it showed up in the LCD. I softened the image a bit to avoid halos along the edges of high contrast portions of the image. This halo effect is an artifact of digital capture. All my digital cameras do this. If you want to avoid this artifact, shoot film.

What do I like about this shot? I like the silhouette figures. The silhouette of the shoreline added depth to an otherwise flattened image that was brought about by the mid telephoto zoom. The main subject of course is shown here in a position typical of landscape photographers; bent over holding a leash to make sure that their cameras don’t run away. The mix of warm colors and cool blue foreground was a welcome surprise. I liked it a lot so I put my stamp of approval on the lower right portion of the frame 🙂

Allow me to summarize this post:

1. Light is everything.
2. Shoot at dawn/sunrise or dusk/sunset. Anything in between is crap unless you have something very special in the frame.
3. Preparation will consume most of your time.
4. You have to think fast and react just as fast. Which means …
5. Know your camera. Pick one that does not get in the way. You should be able to operate it even in complete darkness.
6. You do not need expensive equipment for landscape photography.
7. Laziness will get you nowhere.

For lessons on lens compression and zoom factor please refer to my previous tutorials:

Understanding your lens

Zoom factor

Macho Manual Mode

Some photographers take pride in shooting purely in full manual mode. Anything less than M is not good enough for them. They feel superior to those who shoot in any other mode. I would like to clarify why I am against shooting in full manual especially if you are new to photography.

But first, let’s enumerate those few instances when you probably should shoot in M mode. Flash photography is one, for the reason that your camera would not be able to shoot faster than your sync speed which is typically 1/250s. Which means shooting in A mode would likely result in overexposure. Another instance is when stitching panoramas where you need to make sure that each frame would have the same exposure. Concert photography is also a good candidate because usually only the performers are properly lit while the rest of the stage is dark and the lighting effects are constantly changing. Your camera’s meter will go insane if you point it at the stage. Of course there are other instances when you might want to shoot in manual mode but those are rare occasions.

Now for those who shoot in M mode ONLY, let me guess how they are doing it. Point the camera, check the meter reading then line up the exposure slider. That’s really funny. If you are just lining up the sliders everytime you change your view, why the heck would you shoot in M mode?! Shoot in Auto, you know, that thing with the green square 🙂

Sorry, but again, if you can’t even set the proper exposure without checking the exposure slider then you have no reason to shoot in full manual. You will wear out your thumb wheel or your thumb, whichever comes first, really quick 🙂 Real macho photographers know the correct exposure just by looking at the scene. Real macho photographers know not to trust the camera meter. Matching the sliders is a joke.

What’s worse than shooting in M mode? Shooting in shutter priority mode or S mode. It usually means that the “photographer” does not understand depth of field, or worse, proper exposure.

So what’s the best mode? Yes, aperture priority mode or A mode. You have depth of field control and the camera can safely choose a wide range of shutter speeds between 1/8000s up to 30s. Compare with S mode where the camera can only choose between f1.8 to f22 and so much worse if you have a kit lens. Assuming that the ISO is constant, A mode is so much more flexible for the camera (18 stops for A vs 7 stops for S). And that is why S mode is a joke.

Now we know that the camera’s meter is not always correct. Do we have to use manual mode then? Nope, not yet. We have two arsenals at our disposal: 1) exposure locking, and 2) exposure compensation.

Let’s look at exposure locking first. Some cameras have dedicated buttons labeled AEL, for auto exposure lock. If yours doesn’t have it, the half click method should work. You basically point your camera directly on a neutral-colored object that is in the same focal distance to your intended subject, half click or press AEL, recompose then shoot. If you can’t find a neutral object, you could always meter off the back of your hand or a green leaf then press AEL while those that use the half click method will have to manually focus on their subject when they recompose.

Now let’s cover exposure compensation. Most cameras have a dedicated button labeled +/-. If yours doesn’t, throw it away because that means the camera is so dumb and the engineers are dumber. If your camera has two knobs, you could assign one of them to do exposure compensation. Exposure compensation usually has a visual slider that goes from -2 to +2. What this means is that if the camera meter reading is 1/250 at your chosen aperture and you compensate by +1 then the shutter drops to 1/125, -1 would be 1/500, +2 is 1/60 and so on. Cameras differ in the compensation steps. Some do it in steps of 1/3 stops and some in 1/2 stops.

Note to Nikon users: Nikon engineers failed in elementary math. They STILL think that the number line goes positive to the left and negative to the right. Smarter people change this behaviour in a setting hidden deep somewhere in the complicated menu. Be careful.

Here’s an example: Suppose you are taking photos at the beach. The camera will think that the scene is too bright and will underexpose and render the white sand as grey. Press +/- and set your exposure compensation to +1 or even +1.3 or +1.5, then shoot. You only have to do this once and can leave it at that setting for the entire shoot at the beach.

Another example: Candle light dinner date with your girlfriend in an expensive restaurant. You want to take a photo of her pretty face. Unfortunately the camera thinks it’s too dark and will overexpose and destroy the mood. Dial exposure comp to -1 then shoot.

Easy!

What’s the moral of the story? Not shooting in manual mode does not make you a lesser photographer. Don’t let the macho togs fool you into thinking that they are better. Watch how they do it and if they are just lining up the sliders then they are no better than those who shoot in Auto mode. Understanding exposure makes you a better photographer. Master aperture priority mode and use exposure compensation. It’s so much faster and it does make you think about proper exposure.

Go out and shoot in A mode and don’t forget to use that +/- button. You’ll thank me for saving your right thumb.

HDR Tutorial Part 1: Introduction

HDR or High Dynamic Range, is probably one of the most hyped aspect of digital photography at present. It is also one of the most abused technique. If you are reading this then you probably already know something about HDR. This tutorial will be broken down into several parts and will attempt to provide techniques of proper HDR photography. If you expect wacky, cartoonish photos in this tutorial then sorry to disappoint you but you will have to look elsewhere. Please visit my Flickr HDR gallery for examples of my work. Some of them are my early HDR attempts so you will find wacky photos in there as well.

Why HDR? There are countless “reasons” as to why someone would want to use this technique. Here’s some of mine:

  1. No camera is good enough to record what our eyes can see. Our eyes are way better than any camera sensor in terms of capturing levels of light intensity. It can record about 40 stops while the best cameras can only do about 11 to 12 stops. So really, to capture a high contrast scene you would need at least 5 shots of different exposures with a bit of overlap.
  2. There are ways to overcome the limitations of #1 and that’s with the help of filters. A GND filter for example will allow you to properly expose the foreground and sky. GND filters though are good only if you have an unobstructed horizon. To be honest, I don’t use any filters except for the standard UV filter that I use to “protect” my cheap lens.
  3. I want to add some “punch” to my photos if the lighting condition is a bit flat.

When should you NOT use HDR? I always consider the following:

  1. If I can capture the entire dynamic range of a scene with a single shot then I won’t even bother with HDR, granting that my main subject is properly exposed. Beaches are easy subjects because the reflectance of sand is almost equal that of the bright sky. As long as the main subject isn’t under a shade then a single exposure might do the trick. I find single exposure shots so much cleaner than those made with HDR. I’m sure others would argue about this.
  2. Portrait shots. If the subject isn’t properly exposed then you have bigger problems. Learn to use flash or reflectors. This is the best site to read about proper lighting techniques: http://www.strobist.blogspot.com/.

So the basic goal of HDR is proper exposure of your subject. The goal may also extend to the proper exposure of the entire scene. The latter is usually what most people aim for. So we define what it means by correct exposure. In simple terms:

  1. The main subject has the correct color rendition. If it is white then it should appear white, if it is dark then it should appear dark. Simple as it seems, this is one of the most overlooked aspect of photography. White clouds or snow that look gray, a red flower that appears washed out and so on. Even with advanced matrix metering systems, correct exposure compensation is essential.
  2. There are no deep shadows or blown up highlights. This is very difficult to achieve in high contrast scenes and this problem will be our main focus in this tutorial.

Let’s talk about tools.

A good tripod is essential especially for landscape shots. Use the camera’s timer or cable to trigger the shutter release to minimze shake. If a tripod is not available make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough. Rule of thumb is 1/f, where f is the focal length. For example, if you are shooting wide at 28mm then shutter speed should be 1/30s or faster. For me, this shutter speed is still tricky for handheld shots even with image stabilized lenses.

A camera with auto exposure bracketing (AEB) would be very nice although not necessary. AEB will automatically take 3 or more shots with variable shutter speeds in succession in a single press of the shutter. I like how my Canon 40D allows me to couple AEB with the timer.

HDR software. My tool of choice is Photomatix. Another excellent tool is EasyHDR. There are others that you can download for free. I will list some of the tools at the end of this tutorial.

Photo editing software. Nothing beats Photoshop but it’s not the only tool. Paintshop Pro is very good. The free open source tool called GIMP is also very capable although it’s still limited to 8-bit colors.

Now we discuss the real stuff, HDR photography.

Just to illustrate how limited the dynamic range of a camera sensor is, go inside a house and take random shots but make sure that the entire frame includes an open window or door. Preview your shot in your camera’s LCD and you will probably notice that most of whatever is outside that window is just pure white (photo #1). If the image does show what’s outside the window, almost anything inside the house will probably be hidden in deep shadows (photo #2).  The issue is that the scene has high contrast. Outside the house is very bright compared to what’s inside. No known camera sensor could handle this at all. Normally, we would be throwing away both shots. This is the problem that HDR attempts to address.

With HDR, we could still salvage that scene by using both the same “useless” shots shown above. In HDR photography, multiple shots of different exposures are merged into one.

I would like to discuss this tutorial as scientifically as possible which means we need to understand how to read the histogram of our shots. A histogram is a graph of (light) intensity distribution as recorded in the image. Allow me to explain: the histogram has left and right borders. To the extreme left is pure black or dark or deep shadows. To the extreme right is pure white or blown up highlights. You guessed it, the middle is grey. This means a properly exposed shot of a white sheet of paper would show points to the extreme right of the graph and nothing on the left. A properly exposed shot of a black cloth would be the opposite. Photo #1, above, would therefore have a histogram that is biased to the right while photo #2 will have lots of points to the extreme left. Our goal is to make sure that NONE of the image “points” or pixels lie in either extreme left or right. Everything has to be within the middle of our graph. A scene that has good exposure would be represented by a histogram that approximates a bell-like curve. Therefore, we need to always check our histogram. Make sure that you understand this part as it is very crucial to proper HDR technique.

Now let’s concentrate on how to take the shots that we need for HDR. Set your camera to aperture priority mode or full manual mode. Select your desired aperture value. For landscape shots, this is usually set to f8, f11, or f16. Then, take multiple shots of different exposures by varying the shutter speed. The first shot is what we call our EV0. This is the normal shot that the camera meter sets the shutter speed into if you are in aperture priority mode. In manual mode, this is the shutter speed that best exposes the scene. Let’s say our EV0 is f11 at 1/125. Look at the histogram display of this image in your camera. The graph will probably have lots of points to the extreme right and/or extreme left. If it doesn’t, then you are lucky because life would be so much easier. For those unlucky souls, we would need to expose for the shadows and highlights. In aperture priority mode use exposure compensation to adjust the shutter speed. Depending on the scene, you would normally compensate at -1 and +1 or -2 and +2. The compensated shots are your EV-1, EV+1, or EV-2, EV+2, respectively. In full manual mode, you will have to set the shutter speed by halving or doubling the values. So we have, EV0 at 1/125, EV-1 at 1/250, EV-2 at 1/500, EV+1 at 1/60 and EV+2 at 1/30. By the way, always shoot with RAW image quality otherwise you will also have to manually set your white balance. RAW allows you to change the white balance later which you can not do easily with JPEG shots.

What we have done basically was to make sure that any deep shadows in EV0 are correctly exposed by the EV+ shots and any blown up highlights are correctly exposed by the EV- shots. In the photos shown above, photo #1 is EV+ and photo #2 is EV-.

The procedure above sounds complicated to some people. That is why if you are serious about HDR photography, you will need to invest in a camera that does AEB. With AEB you just set your aperture then click and hold your shutter once and the camera automatically captures EV0, EV- and EV+ for you. Easy.

Now imagine if we can choose specific parts of the EV- and EV+ shots so that we don’t have deep shadows and no blown up highlights in our final image. This process is called tone mapping. You can actually do this manually using layering techniques in Photoshop but it is very tedious. A better way is to use an HDR software which will automatically merge all shots and perform advanced tone mapping for us. This is what I will cover in part 2 of this tutorial. We will look into merging our photos using Photomatix. Stay tuned and happy shooting!