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!