Tag Archives: exposure compensation

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.

N00bism #3

Hello world! This the third post of the N00bism series. I hope that the previous articles made you think about your own approach to photography. As I have mentioned before, this series aims to discuss the common mistakes beginners, and to some extent, even experienced photographers fall into. These are the same issues that I have experienced and/or avoided and have observed in my constant interactions with photographers of different levels of expertise.

Without further ado, let me discuss “premature manual mode”.

I have already written an article about this macho manual mode, or M mode as most photographers call it. It’s ok if you shoot in “M mode only” but puhleeze, don’t brag about it. It’s not rocket science. You do not have to tell the world about it because those who actually know how to use it will find your bragging quite underwhelming or laughable.

Those of you who are just starting with this expensive hobby should avoid using M mode. Trust me. I have been there. Allow me to explain:

Firstly, you bought that very expensive camera for what? It’s expensive because it is intelligent enough to do most of the work for you. You are wasting your money if you do not put it to good use. It has full automatic mode for a reason. Even the most expensive of cameras have auto modes. Auto modes make your life easier so you can concentrate on things that matter.

For newbies, what matters most is making the shot. You can have the most perfectly exposed shot but if your composition sucks then your photo sucks. Period. Why burden yourself with the exposure when you can’t even get your horizon straight? Why fiddle with those buttons when your shot is so hopelessly cluttered? Why shoot in M when you do not even understand exposure in the first place?!!!

Do yourself a favour. Use that green square mode and learn about composition before anything else. If you can’t help touching those buttons then leave your multi-hundred dollar DSLR and use your mobile phone instead. Yes, even if the “image quality” is inferior. A clean, crisp, 36Mp crappy shot is still a crappy shot.

So when should you start using the M mode? If you think that a better exposure will improve a good shot. It follows that you know what a good shot is. It also follows that you know what exposure is. If you can’t get a good shot with your mobile phone, your DSLR won’t help either. Because a good shot does not depend on what camera you use. In fact, more complicated cameras would probably hinder you from making a good shot.

I won’t cover composition here. It’s not something that you learn by reading. Yes, there are pointers like rule of thirds. Google them.

I will skip to the topic of exposure because that’s all this crazy M mode does anyway. Sorry but I won’t even discuss the exposure triangle here. If you do not understand that concept then you should not even be thinking about M mode. There are millions of web articles that discuss it and I won’t bother repeating them.

How do you learn exposure? By understanding light. Understand that during high noon on a very clear day, you will have the greatest intensity of light that you would normally encounter. I said normally because you might want to shoot directly at the sun or capture an exploding atomic bomb. Anything else would just be varying intensities of lower magnitude. This high noon light is often called “sunny f16”. It simply means that the correct exposure for a subject under bright sunlight is f16, 1/ISO for a given ISO sensitivity. For example: f16, 1/100 at ISO 100. We usually “round off” the shutter speed to the nearest “whole stop”, which is 1/125 for the above example. An example of light with lower intensity is when your subject is hiding under a shade to avoid the harsh sunlight. In this instance, light intensity drops by at least 4 stops so your exposure would be f4, 1/125 at ISO 100. Sometimes I give it f2.8 just to be safe.

It’s not enough that you know the different light intensities. You should understand contrast as well. In the above example, if you want the subject in the shade to be properly exposed then everything outside that is lit by the sun will render as white. If you want to properly expose what’s outside then your subject will be barely visible under the shadows. In this example, no amount of screwing around with M mode will help you. The argumentative folks will probably say, yeah shoot at f8 then pull the highlights and push the shadows in Photoshop. Whatever.

You see that it’s not enough that you know shutter speed and aperture and ISO to warrant the use of M mode. Because if you do not undertand light you will end up screwing around with those knobs until your camera’s LCD tells you that you have lined up the exposure slider dead in the center. You are basically wasting your energy following what the camera is telling you. M mode has become the automatic mode for stupid people. M as in moron mode. Shoot in full auto instead.

So beginners, please learn to compose first before confusing your brain even more with M mode. And experts, there’s no need to brag about it especially if you are just lining up the sliders.

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ๐Ÿ™‚ 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.


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.

Choosing the Dark Side

Canon vs Nikon. They never end. Lucky Sony, Olympus, Pentax and other underdogs for not having to deal with the stupid arguments. But this post isn’t about brand wars.

Expose to the right (ETTR) is a common advice in digital photography. It simply means, try to make sure that you expose your shot with bias towards the right end of the histogram. Make it as bright as practically possible without blowing out the highlights. If you understand how digital photos are stored, this makes sense. You want to maximize every bit of those 12-14 bits.

There is danger in blindly following this advice since the linear profile of digital camera sensors is not very forgiving. Once you clip past a certain limit, no data is stored in the photograph. This is characterized by blown highlights. Unfortunately, it is a lot easier to blow the highlights than lose the shadows.
There is something I discovered just a few months ago that I would like to share with you: It is better to underexpose than expose to the right. Not just underexpose but severely underexpose especially if the dynamic range of the scene is too wide.
Have a look at this photo because I quite pushed the camera beyond its limits when I took the shot:

Very dark isn’t it? The exposure was ISO 400, f8, 30 seconds after +2.5 stops of exposure compensation from the metered reading. That’s pushing the sensor a bit too much. I could have opened up to f5.6 but my cheap lens is very soft at that aperture. Going ISO 800, on the other hand, will only introduce more noise.
Now have a look at the same photo after post processing:

That’s a world of difference! I just pushed the exposure by +1.35 stops and then pulled some of the shadows with fill light. I have managed to extract details in the shadows while preserving the highlights. There’s more: peep all you want but there is barely a trace of luminance or chroma noise even after brightening the shadows. Amazing!!!

The photo was captured with a Pentax K5. It’s really amazing how modern sensors have improved. I would expect the same performance in the Nikon D7000 and Sony A55 because all of them use the same Sony sensor (surprise?!!!).

This is not the only instance where I managed to salvage a seemingly hopeless exposure. I do a lot of HDR work when the scene is too contrasty and I normally bracket at -2,0,+2. Many times, I was able to scrap the HDR because I was able to extract enough information from the -2 frame. Single exposure shots are still way cleaner than HDR so I always try to pull the shadows if I can.

Experiment with your own camera and see how much you can extract from a severely underexposed image. Make sure you shoot RAW.

So who’s coming with me to the dark side?

My new iPad blogging software ruined the original post. Lesson for me: sticking to one buggy software is sometimes better than switching software.