Tag Archives: shadows

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.

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It Has Never Been the Camera

The deeper I become involved in photography, the more I realize that equipment does not matter at all. Case in point, I have more fun photos captured with my iPhone than any of my other cameras combined.

Well actually gear does matter but not like most “photographers” would make you believe. The most important thing about equipment is that it should never get in the way of your creative vision. Also consider the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect tool. There will always be something that would tick you off and knowing the limitations is the first step in making the equipment work for you.

I would like to discuss a particular photograph wherein both the equipment and the photographer (me) were severely limited. The photograph I would like to talk about is this:


A bit of background on this shot: This photo was taken about a month after I started in photography, around May of 2009. My camera back then was a “heavy” Nikon D60 with a 18-55mm kit lens. I wish I brought that camera with me when I took this photo but instead I had my “pocket” Canon G10. Now the G10 is known for very poor low light performance because some moron in Canon engineering thought they could get away with cramming 14 megapixels into such a tiny sensor. At ISO 400 the output is so noisy that you are better off not taking the shot at all. But I did. Because I didn’t know any better. I looked at the EXIF data and it said I shot in auto mode, ISO 400, f2.8 at 1/8s. I am now very familiar with the G10 and I would say that, at that time, the camera was pushing real hard to capture the image as best as it could. It’s at its widest aperture of f2.8 and just enough shutter speed (1/8s) for the real focal length of about 6mm (28mm full frame equiv). If I remember correctly, I didn’t have a tripod. If I did then there’s no reason why I would not have used ISO 100 and get away with half a second exposure. I was a n00b but not completely dumb you know :-p

I don’t remember how I processed the photograph but there must have been some, if not too much, noise reduction applied. I probably didn’t bother correcting the white balance. After all, winter in Canberra is characterized by strong magenta tint in the sky during sunset and I have always wanted to capture that.

I would like to critic my composition as well. I used a combination of strong lead-in lines, rule of thirds in the vertical while using symmetry in the horizontal to capture the reflection. I think I framed it a bit too much to the left thus making the bridge feel like it wants to leave the view. That building visible on the left is nicely framed by the bridge and the shadows on the water. A bit underexposed for my taste but just enough so as not to blow up the highlights coming from the bridge lights that emphasize the lines leading towards the parliament house (that pointed structure at the end of the bridge). I really would like to brighten up the bridge and the building by just a few notches and tone down the bluish color cast. A touch of fill light should also improve the overall exposure without destroying the mood.

After all of that, the question remains: Why discuss this particular rookie shot? Because this rookie shot sold for $852!

So again, it’s never the gear. My expensive DLSRs have not made any significant sales yet but two of my point-and-shoot cameras have already paid up for themselves. Amazing! Granting that photo sales are subject to a huge amount of luck, people or corporations are willing to pay if they think that the photograph is worth it.

They say that the best camera is the one that’s with you. I say, the best camera is the one you can never afford. So make do with what you already have and resist the temptation to buy more gear. A lot of amateurs are getting crazy over the latest and greatest equipment and spend more time in rumours than actual photography. Stop that already.

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?

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