Welcome back! – I hope you’re gaining something from this course and, if so, please let me know! Suggestions, criticism, and praise are all welcome.
I’ve been thinking a little about the previous post – and really that’s what this is all about – making me & you think about photography. On reflection, focus & composition are more linked than I had previously considered. Cartier-Bresson had it about right when he talked of “The decisive moment” (he didn’t actually say that – he said “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson)
This was later shortened to the much snappier “the decisive moment” which is from a quote made by a Cardinal Retz. I don’t know why the good Cardinal said it but I suspect it had nothing to do with photography. But it is true that the decisive moment must involve composition - the precise organisation of forms. So to capture, accurately, the decisive moment you must have all the other elements such as focus in place.
Now off we go with “My 3 most important photographs” or “why do I get grey snow photos?” I don’t get grey snow photos of course, and neither will you from now on.
I want you to set your camera to fully automatic – focus, exposure, white balance – the lot. Enjoy it for it ought to be the very last time that you use the dreaded “A” setting. Check that your camera chooses centre-weighted average or evaluative as its exposure model – don’t use spot or expanded spot for metering in this test.
Get 3 pieces of A4 card – one white, one mid-grey and one black. I use proper photo grey & white – the type used to establish the correct exposure & white balance but anything will do, providing it doesn’t have too many artificial whiteners in the white sheet, and the grey should be mid grey – 18% grey in photographic terms.
In the centre of one sheet, put a small brightly coloured flat object. I’ve used a postage stamp but, again, anything will do providing it isn’t too large – the background needs to predominate.
Fill your viewfinder with the background and focus on the coloured centre-piece and take a fully automatic photograph. Repeat for the other two backgrounds, keeping the lighting the same for all three.
You should end up with three images similar to those below which you should look at on your (calibrated? Well perhaps not, as yet) monitor.
You will find that the colours of the central object look dull and underexposed when photographed on the white background which will be less than a bright white itself, more of a light grey.
On the black background, the coloured central object will look washed out and over exposed and the background will not be a pure deep black (on-screen here there is not too much difference between the grey & the black images but, believe me, the black background was a pure, deep black).
On the grey background, both the central object and the background will look just as they should.
Your camera, whichever make & model, has far more computing power than the early space missions but it has a couple of drawbacks too:
It doesn’t know what you are photographing
It measures REFLECTED light, ie the light that is reflected from the image, to gauge the exposure
Its exposure meter is calibrated to around 18% grey (some people say it is actually 16% grey, but the difference is immaterial).
Once upon a time, when analogue cameras first had built-in exposure meters, the manufacturers decided that "18% grey" reflected about the same amount of light as did Caucasian skin, blue sky, green grass and similar colours, so if the exposure meter got the exposure correct for those colours then around 90% of photographers would get an acceptable exposure 90% of the time. The same is true today. An exposure meter calibrated to 18% grey will do for most subjects.
BUT – if you take a photo of a snow scene, the camera thinks all the white stuff is green grass, blue sky or whatever, which just has a LOT of light on it – so it reduces the exposure and you end up with underexposed, grey, snow. It can underexpose by as much as 2 full stops.
Similarly, it thinks the black background is 18% grey with very little light on it, so it increases the exposure, again by anything up to 2 stops. The result is that your photograph of a black dog or car are overexposed and look washed out.
The accidental photographer will probably just shrug their shoulders and accept the result because that’s what everyone’s photos on social media look like. But you know better now, and your camera is set to Manual or perhaps Av or Tv which lets you decide what exposure you need.
You can carry a small 18% grey card with you and check the exposure using that (you can also use it to set the white balance) providing the light on the card is the same as is on your subject, or use the palm of your hand at a pinch, with the same proviso.
I know that I said I would cover the hyperfocal distance in this post but I’m afraid that tempus has fugit-ed so that’s all for now – tune in again in two weeks
The second and third legs to the tripod that supports a great photograph
This means that both you and your camera know what you are taking a photo of; in addition, you should have an idea why you are taking it.
You need to be focussed, both mentally and physically.
Why am I taking this? If you’ve no idea then don’t clutter up your card/hard drive.
Where will it be used? Same as before.
If you do know where it will be used, then this might have considerable bearing on the file type and size. (only for social media = small jpg; big prints = largest possible RAW file). What’s a RAW file? – the easiest single way of improving your photography. More about using RAW later in the series.
I only ever use RAW which are post-processed then saved as JPGS. I used to save them as TIFF files but photo agencies, publishers, stock sites only want jpgs.
What is the important element(s) in the scene before me? What depth of field should I look for, which means what aperture should I use? Which means what ISO is needed?
What will it look like as a print? Can I visualise the image, cropped or full, framed and on my wall?
If this is starting to sound complicated, that’s because it is – but like a lot of complex tasks, once mastered it stays with you forever.
If you’re ever stuck, then you can fall back on the “sunny 16 rule”.
In the early days of film photography, most cameras lacked even a basic exposure meter so your film came with a handy little info sheet to help you judge the exposure.
The film had a speed rating of 25, 125, 400 ISO (or ASA in those days) or whatever and the trick was that you set the shutter speed to the same number as the ISO. So if you had a 400 ISO then you set 1/400th second shutter speed. You then only had to calculate the aperture setting which started off at f16 for bright sunlight, moved through f8 & f11 for varying degrees of cloud cover, and ended up at f5.6, f4, f3.5 for really dull situations. It isn’t perfect and takes no account of depth of field, but it will get you in the ballpark, and more importantly, encourage you to think about the light.
Google the “sunny 16 rule” – there are many articles out there which will explain this in greater detail.
Now you are mentally focussed, let’s get physical!
You are, or should be, aware of the basics:
Firm grip, elbows in to your ribs, hold your breath & squeeze the trigger – sorry, shutter button.
That’s about as far as most accidental photographers get, or need to get. But if you end up covering major sports, events, news, etc then you will need to develop an unerring sense of spatial awareness, knowing exactly where you are in relation to the action, other photographers, danger or whatever.
I think that the perceived wisdom is to look through the viewfinder with your strongest eye and close the other one. I don’t. I generally look through the viewfinder with my left eye and keep my right eye open. I press just the brow of my left eye against the camera and thus keep my viewing eye a few millimetres back from the viewfinder. This gives me peripheral vision to my left and right – the viewfinder is a little window in the overall scene and I can see out of the corner of each eye when someone is going to walk in front of me (photographers: don’t EVER walk in front of another photographer at an event. He’s just trying to get the shot, same as you are and if you block him, he will remember and block you later on) or when a break in foot or vehicular traffic will give me that unobstructed shot across the street. I can’t always shoot like this as sometimes there’s too much light to see the numbers in the viewfinder – but when I can, I do.
Being mentally focussed might also involve a little research beforehand, particularly if shooting a fast-moving sport that you are not familiar with. In 2016 I photographed a pro-handball match in Berlin. It was very, very fast and I had not the slightest idea what was going on, which made getting even half-decent photos problematic.
So, be aware of yourself, your surroundings, and your objectives. Know, instinctively, how & when to change settings on your camera. Above all, respect your subject, other photographers, curious passers-by, the environment, and local rules, customs, and law.
My partner & I were having a long week-end break in Prague and our visit in 2016 coincided with a state visit by President Xi of China. The protesters were out in force, as were the riot police. We asked a police liaison officer if it was OK to photograph the police and it was so we did. Better to ask than end up in a cell with your camera mysteriously lost or broken.
I’ve recently bought the Canon 7D MK2 for which Canon have produced a separate 50 page manual purely covering the focussing options on a very capable camera.
I’ve no intention of going into that level of detail here – it would be pointless anyway as every camera is different: I have 3 Canon DSLR bodies and they each have different focussing options. This is where you, gentle reader, have to sit down with your camera & owner’s manual, and learn some of the options.
Also, I will not cover manual focussing as it's pretty self-explanatory. The only point about MF that I will make is that you MUST check if your lens has "Full Time Manual Focus" or FTM. If it DOES then you can leave the lens switched to AF, but manually tweak the focus if you wish - perhaps to quickly fre-focuss on another point of interest. If your lens DOES NOT have FTM then you have to physically flip the switch from AF to MF. If you leave the lens set to AF and try to manually refocus then you will eventually ruin the lens' focussing mechanism.
I tend to use the single, centre focus point most of the time. It works for me usually, and I find that sometimes the "expanded" or "zone" focussing options don't always get the bit you want sharp really sharp. But once you’ve decided what option/focus point is best for you, then you need to be able to change options without taking the camera from your eye – practice, practice, practice. It’s also sometimes useful if you can set your camera to use a different focus point automatically when you are holding the camera horizontally or vertically (landscape or portrait).
I’ve also set my cameras to use a “back button” for focussing which means that the shutter release button plays no part in focussing the camera/lens. The back button is convenient for my right thumb and I can remain locked onto a subject (or unlocked if an obstruction intervenes) and shoot with my right index finger. Back-button focus takes a little while to get used to but it is worth the effort.
Again, there are articles and forums on the web which will explain how to set up back-button focus on your make & model of camera. If you get stuck then feel free to email me.
Linked to focus is the Drive option. I have 3 options on my Canons:
1 One shot – for shooting when neither you nor the subject will move;
2 A1 Servo – for shooting when you or the subject will move;
3 A1 Focus – for all other scenarios
I tend to use A1 Servo most of the time as it tracks moving subjects so long as the focus button is pressed and is thus very useful (essential) for sports, birds in flight, etc, and is useful too in macro photography.
Camera and post-processing technology has improved by leaps & bounds in the last decade but, at the time of writing, I don’t know of any means to save an out of focus shot so it’s important to understand focussing and to get it right.
The 3rd leg is aesthetics, composition, art – call it what you will. It’s impossible (for me) to teach you how to be artistic other than to say “think like a woman”. I find that most women photographers just have a better eye for what makes a photo work than men do. Compassion? Gentleness? Observant?
Men tend to be more concerned with the technical aspects of photography with the result that I have 1,000s of technically great but boring and un-artistic photographs.
There are, of course, “rules” regarding photographic composition. The “rule of thirds”, the “golden mean (aka the golden ratio)” – by all means read them and apply them to your photography. They will work for a lot of people, but don’t become restricted by them. I’ve found over the years that I tend to make sure that I get a technically good shot then, either coincidentally or subconsciously, I crop to a fair approximation of the rule of thirds. But the only rule when I’m shooting is that there are no rules, except don’t obstruct another photographer!
Next time, we’ll look at my 3 “most important photographs”, the hyperfocal distance, and how to combine the hyperfocal distance with the sunny 16 rule for a day of effortless photography!
I was going to save this post until nearer the end, but decided that the question of storing & preserving your work needs a little thought, which is better done sooner rather than later. It’s a fairly short post – nothing too technical just thought-provoking.
Storage – what happened to the shoe-box under the bed?
Old family photographs are great! They’re not just a record of you & your family but, collectively, they show how previous generations lived & worked. They’re a record of how our towns looked, the clothes we wore and the cars we drove. They are important.
I worry that, in the digital age where taking 1,000 images in a weekend is the norm for many photographers, a lot of this history is lost via the delete button. Also, how will future generations actually look at your work? I have a camera bought in 2011 that uses a CF card. My latest laptop, bought in 2015, doesn’t have a CF slot.
My first computer, bought in the mid 90s, had 16mb RAM and a 1Gb hard drive. Plus a floppy-disc slot. Windows came on 20 or 30 floppy disks that had to be loaded one after the other. Technology advances very quickly.
So how does a photographer with an archive of 20,000 or more images ensure that they can be viewed in 50 years’ time? CDs? DVDs? Even if they haven’t degraded over time, (and they do degrade – some sources are recommending that you re-burn your archive of CDs & DVDs every few years) they might be as quaint then as a VHS tape is now.
Yet I have black & white photographs that were taken 50, 60 years ago that I can look at now without any technology (apart from glasses!). I know that my ex-wife still has photographs on her mantelpiece that I took & processed over 40 years ago, and I have photographs of me as a child with long-dead grandparents.
I’m not seriously suggesting that anyone should print 20,000 or more images on the off-chance that they might be of some use to someone, someday but it does make you think. I know that Cloud storage is currently flavour of the month but, again, will the suppliers still be around in the future? Will we still have the internet as we know it today?
I don’t know the answers. If you think your work is (or likely to be) important – news stories, fashion, landmark buildings, disasters, major events etc – then you should think about preserving it in a technology-proof way. Suggestions on a postcard please – all I can think of is to take the absolute best of your best and print them to A4. Then interleave the prints and store them in black photographic box labelled with the year and subject. Stick a DVD of the images in there too, it can’t hurt. Seal the box and the prints should still be ok in 100 years.
I think that current recommendations amongst serious photographers are three copies of your “best”, at least one of which is stored off-site. I’ve heard of one photographer who rents a bank safe-deposit box for the DVDs of his work …
Don’t forget that if you aim to be a professional photographer then it is as much, if not more, about being a business man first. A good business plan should have some form of disaster prevention measures to it, and I think losing the whole of your archive would count as a disaster!
As an added bonus, a few thoughts on exhibitions …
I don’t have a gallery, nor easy access to one, so if you’re in the same boat then you have to be a little adventurous.
I’ve suspended weighted sheets from beams and walls to stick photos on and, just last week, my partner & I hosted a joint exhibition in the holiday house that we let out. It’s a very nice house but doesn’t easily lend itself to exhibiting photographs, particularly as we have redecorated the place and didn’t want to make holes in the walls.
In the end, I printed some 70 photographs that ranged in size from A4 to borderless A2, and bought a lot of blue-tac which we used to stick the unframed and unmounted photos to the walls, wardrobes, and cupboard doors. A couple of shots are below!
We’re off to Narvik in Norway tomorrow morning for a few days, so there should be some photographs to show you next time round, when we’ll get back on track with the promised follow-on post to Exposure
A really good photograph is one which makes another photographer think “I wish I’d taken that”; a great photograph is one that makes him think that, then buy a print from you to put on his wall.
A good photograph has three elements that harmonise and thus set it apart from the rest of the field. We’ll look at the first element today, Exposure, which is difficult to get right.
There are three elements to be considered when calculating exposure:
Aperture (the tap)
Shutter speed (the sluice-gate)
ISO (the hifi volume control)
I mentioned in a previous post that aperture & shutter speed do “other things” as well as control the volume and duration of the light reaching the sensor, and now is the time for you to become aware of those functions.
Aperture also controls the “depth of field” (DoF) which is the distance range over which objects in the photograph will appear to be “acceptably sharp”. We’ll cover this in more detail in the post on the hyperfocal distance.
A small aperture (large f/No.) such as f/8, f/11, f/22 give a larger depth of field and, conversely, a large aperture (small f/No) f/4, f/2.8, f/1.4 give a smaller depth of field.
It gets more complicated by the fact that the depth of field varies with both the focal length of the lens and the camera to subject distance.
In the days of film, a photographer who needed info on the DoF had to have access to DoF tables – nowadays you can download a free app for your smartphone (mine also calculates the hyperfocal distance).
I spent many years ignoring the hyperfocal distance (as most photographers do) but once you grasp the concept, you can take certain types of photographs all day, without ever focussing your camera!
Shutter speed A slow shutter speed 1/25, 1/8 can result in camera shake or visible subject movement, both of which are a bad thing. A faster shutter speed will freeze movement but at the expense of a higher ISO or wider aperture,
ISO Low ISO (100, 200) gives a cleaner image than a high ISO. A lot of camera sensors will give “noise” in the image (visual equivalent to white noise, or distorted sound if you rack the hifi to 11) from ISO 800. Visible colour noise in an image is also a bad thing. Camera manufacturers often boast of their camera’s high ISO of perhaps 12800, 25600 or higher. Good luck in using it. It is possible, but involves a good bit of post-processing and you really do have to avoid any hint of underexposure. Noise is more noticeable in the shadows so, if you have to add a bit of exposure to the shadows then you will amplify the noise.
If I correctly expose an image (no underexposing) I can use ISO 6400 on my Canon 6D without a problem. Anything much higher than that is reserved for the day that Martians land in my garden at dusk.
I know that I promised you "no charts, tables etc" but this one isn't too complicated and it does have an important messge.
The really important point in this table is that:
For the same scene, ALL of the above combinations of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed give the same exposure.
ISO200 – f/8 – 1/60 puts exactly the same amount of light in the bucket as does
ISO400 – f/11 – 1/60 which is exactly the same as ISO1600 – f/16 – 1/125.
Go and try it out! Set your camera to “M” for manual, choose a nice well-lit subject that isn’t going to move about, and take a few shots at various combinations.
So why chose one setting over another?
We’ve already mentioned that a low ISO gives better image quality and a High ISO allows picture taking in lower light at the expense of colour noise. The considerations for the other two elements are:
A big lens aperture, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, means a more expensive & heavier lens; it also means a very shallow DEPTH of FIELD – ie the parts of the photograph that appear acceptably sharp fall in a very narrow band. At f/1.4 focussing on an object 50cm away the depth of field might only be 1cm. Anything closer than 49cm or further than 51cm will not be acceptably sharp.
This can be a good thing – to blur backgrounds & foregrounds – and thus put emphasis on a certain point but you have to be aware of it.
A smaller maximum aperture, f/4, or f/5.6 will generally mean a lighter & cheaper lens but one that will let in less light. This in turn means a Higher ISO (colour noise?) or a slower shutter speed.
A slower shutter speed, say 1/60 at f/4 instead of 1/250 at f/2 might mean camera shake (never acceptable) or some blurring due to subject movement. This can be acceptable, depending on what you want to capture.
Lenses come in a variety of FOCAL LENGTHS from perhaps 17mm (or smaller) which is a WIDE-ANGLE lens to 200mm (or larger) which is a TELEPHOTO lens. The longer the focal length, the harder it is to avoid camera shake (never ever acceptable). As a general rule of thumb, most people can avoid camera shake by using a shutter speed equal to the focal length of the lens ie 1/50 for a 50mm lens, 1/200 for a 200mm lens.
Image stabilisers/optical stabilisers (IS/OS) are a great help but add to the cost & weight of the lens. With a good IS system you might be able to hand-hold a 200mm lens at 1/50.
So you set the ISO, choose a suitable shutter speed/aperture and let the camera’s metering system choose the matching aperture/shutter speed. Er, no. It’s not quite that simple.Yo ur camera has more computing power than was available to the first manned space flights but it has no idea of what you are taking a picture.
Ok, Martians haven't landed but a new Canon 7d Mk2 has and. in the process of putting it & me to the test I tried a couple of hand-held shots at ISO 16,000 and one of them is reproduced below. It's OK-ish if a little plasticy.
Tune in in another couple of weeks to learn about the other two legs that support a great photograph plus: