Camera Manual and the Basics of Photography.

I was photographing an outdoor event on a hot, bright day a short time ago when another photographer walked up to me complaining that most shots were not turning out as hoped. This happened again at a wedding I was photographing last weekend. The guest had a perfectly good camera, but criticized it, and said he wished he had a better one because the backlighted couple we were photographing were being recorded as silhouettes.

Ending up with faulty photographs from time to time isn’t unusual, although not as much nowadays as when film was used. However, I think most faults occur because photographers haven’t taken the time to learn how their cameras work, and have a poor basic understanding of photography and techniques.

With digital technology it’s easy to determine what is going wrong by checking the camera’s LCD and the histogram. I doubt that either of those complaining photographers I talked to used the LCD for anything but reviewing pictures. They probably hadn’t gone through the camera’s menu and set it for the conditions under which they would shoot. Both had selected the auto, or program mode, and to add light to the bright, backlit environment were only using the camera’s tiny pop-up flash. They would have been much more successful if they had a mounted a hotshoe flash on their cameras and selected the “M” mode. I expect they will be relying on their images being saved by technicians at the local photo lab or hoping for some friend with PhotoShop wizardry.

I continually meet photographers that complain about how various big photo labs are failing to make their prints the way they think they should be. They rely on their camera’s preset programs, and I expect are of the belief that if the camera they have been using doesn’t make good pictures then they should change and upgrade to the manufacturer’s latest offering to make it so.

When I arrive at a location to photograph I immediately start making tests. I keep my camera in the manual exposure mode so I can quickly change the ISO, shutter, or the aperture to suit my shooting.  I continue to do that throughout the entire session, checking the histogram frequently, and leaving nothing to chance by lazily relying on the camera’s pre-programmed modes.

I begin by contemplating about the subject and its environment.  What is the background and how will that affect the subject? What is in the foreground that will interfere with that subject?   If one considers depth of field a decision must be made about how much will be “in focus”.  Sometimes in a portrait that includes a landscape, I’ll want everything from the foreground to the far-off distance to be crystal clear, and at other times I’ll want the background to be “out of focus”; whichever I select requires its own aperture setting.

What is the lighting like and will its direction be flattering on the subject? The sun and its direction are always very important when photographing people. I prefer to have it coming from behind my subject and like to use a flash for “fill” lighting to remove shadows and silhouettes.

I can do all this because I have taken the time to learn the basics of photography, and I have also taken the time to learn how my camera works. I don’t think either of those photographers that complained to me had done that. I expect they just got themselves ready for the event, grabbed their camera on the way out the door without reviewing their manual beforehand, recalled that the digital camera has a “P”, or auto mode, and believed the camera would make everything they photographed perfect.

Photographers using film used to say that it was all in the negative; that a properly exposed and developed negative gave the best possibilities of a fine quality print.  I still agree with that principle, only now it isn’t an image about to be developed on the negative, but an image about to be processed on the sensor.

I always appreciate comments, Thanks in advance.

The basics of photography and depth of field

One topic that I have discussed during many classes that I instruct, and defined to many people that have come to my shop when they think they have are lens or focus problems, and more than once written about is “depth of field”, but it still seems to be an elusive concept for many. 

 I pondered about this last Thursday when a local photographer showed me an 8×10 print from photographs he had made inside a church during a wedding the previous weekend.  He showed it to me proudly, but commented he wished that his lens was sharper at its wide-angle focal length.

 The print displayed a view down the central isle with church pews left and right, leading to a pulpit in the distant centre, likely about 30 feet from where the photographer was standing.  The overall exposure was fairly good, and he told me he had shot at an aperture of f/2.8.  However, the fact that his photograph wasn’t in focus, except for the pulpit, had very little to do with using his zoom lens at its wide-angle focal length.

 The definition of depth of field is “that area around the main subject, in front of and behind, that is in acceptably sharp focus”.  In application the wider the lens’ aperture is the less the depth of field, or that area of sharp focus, around the main subject will be.

 Wide aperture lenses are very popular these days and using a lens at a wide aperture like f/2.8 when making a portrait isolates the main subject and produces a soft, out-of-focus background by reducing the depth of field.

 Using a wide aperture can increase the exposure in limited lighting conditions, but along with the benefit of additional light reaching the camera’s sensor the resulting effect is reduced depth of field.  Creating a field of focus behind the subject of twelve inches or so might look really good when making a portrait, but in that photograph of the church isle with pews on both sides and the distant pulpit, everything in the foreground, from the photographer to the pulpit, looked out-of-focus.

 Many photographers unwittingly rely too much on their photography equipment to (magically?) make good images and blame faults in their photographs on that same equipment. Understanding the basic concept of depth of field would have made that photograph work easily. 

 I have photographed weddings in that same church and instead of relying on a wide aperture to bring the necessary light into the dim environment, I use a flash and an aperture opening that will give me lots of depth of field so the foreground as well as the background will have reasonable sharpness.

 Yes, subjects closer to the flash will be brighter and those further away will be darker, but I use an off-camera flash cord and hold the flash at arms-length above my head, and direct the light over and above the closer pews and onto more distant subjects. With film this technique is more hit and miss, but with digital technology I just check the camera’s LCD (liquid crystal display) and make any light intensity corrections on the flash menu. I can also make further corrections to the image in seconds in postproduction using PhotoShop.

 The smaller the lenses aperture is the more the area of focus, or depth of field, will be.  I prefer using a small aperture for scenic photography and, as in this instance, interiors.  In both types of photographs I am concerned with all elements in the photograph, front to back, of being sharp and in “acceptably sharp focus”.

 Assuming the lens isn’t sharp when the real problem is with photographic technique can get expensive if the photographer goes so far as replacing a lens. My recommendation is to spend time learning the basics of photography like depth of field instead of blaming equipment when problems occur.

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