Okay, here I’m going to talk a little about how to get the best from your DSLR or mirrorless camera, and start to unlock some of the latent potential, a couple in-camera and a couple out… It’s all too easy to flick it onto the green square mode, let the camera take control and click away, but you will never get the best that your camera can give, and even an entry model DSLR is capable of great things if you give it the right instructions! This is teaching some of you to suck eggs I know but bear with me!
Camera settings: 50mm, F2, 5 sec, ISO640
Another low light shot where the camera’s autofocus couldn’t make the right decision. In this case I wanted Bastl and the foreground in focus.
Manual focus and focus zoom
There are times when even the best camera’s Autofocus struggles. There are also times when you want to choose manually what is in focus. This could be when you are taking long exposures at night, or perhaps shooting through a busy foreground that the autofocus can’t deal with. Again, it is about telling the camera what you want, not sticking it in autopilot and hoping for the best.
Focussing manually can be a bit hit and miss, but pretty much all cameras have a live view function and also a focus zoom, that magnifies the image up to 10 times allowing you to see a small section close up and check for proper focus. Doing this quickly enough to capture live action can be the tricky bit but I actually went the whole hog when Alan and I went to Europe last year for EB2, shooting pretty much the entire trip manually focussed on a Sony A72 with my Canon lenses. Many of the pictures you will have already seen over the past few issues and on social media. It is hit and miss, and many potentially nice images didn’t make the cut, but it is rewarding when you get it right! It really makes you think about each picture even more carefully as it takes that bit longer to line it up. Give it a try, challenge yourself to shoot for a day using only manual focus.
P/AV/TV modes and how they can help you make the leap to shooting manual
It can be daunting trying to shoot fully manual, but there are a couple of modes that can be useful to help you quickly find the right settings for the light levels if you are struggling to expose the image properly. Program, or P mode is a semi-auto mode and can be a good alternative to green square. Flicking the dial to P, and half depressing the shutter button will show you the shutter and aperture settings that the camera thinks is right. It may not be absolutely right, but by flicking back to M mode and choosing those same shutter and aperture settings you should be in the ballpark and a couple more test shots will allow you to fine-tune the exposure either way.
Likewise, AV or aperture priority mode can be used to find the right settings for a trophy shot. By setting your aperture to the desired number, the camera will show you the shutter speed it needs to correctly expose the picture. You can then flick back to manual and replicate those settings and from there it is easy to adjust the shutter speed a stop either way for that perfect trophy shot.
JPEG and RAW
I here the phrase ‘straight out of the camera’ being bandied around like a badge of honour. What it means to me is ‘could have been better’… The biggest single improvement you can make to your photography is to begin shooting in RAW. Most bridge and all DSLR’s will capture RAW files as well as JPEG. Many people shy away from shooting RAW or see it as cheating, as did I initially, but I couldn’t ignore it!
The problem with JPEGS is that when you take a picture your camera produces a JPEG file, and it is the camera itself that applies contrast, saturation, sharpness and when it creates that JPEG it also discards information that the sensor has captured in the highlights and the shadows. Once that JPEG has been created that data is lost forever, and when you try to make changes to that image as many do, those changes are destructive to the image quality, whether they be adjusting the colour or attempting to sharpen them.
A RAW file contains all that information that would have been discarded, and no camera settings are applied to that image, the result being that you have much more flexibility to make changes. As a quick comparison it’s the difference between sending your old film off to Truprint to be developed or doing it yourself in your own darkroom which any photographer worth his salt would do. Processing a RAW file in programs such as Adobe Lightroom and subsequently creating your own JPEG is the digital equivalent. What this process gives you is control over how your image looks, and how you apply the settings of contrast, saturation and sharpness, along with the ability to retrieve all the shadow and highlights that the camera would have otherwise thrown away. This increases the dynamic range, and allows you to alter how the image looks in a non-destructive way.
All this control comes at a price however. The process involved takes time, and the more pictures you take, the more time it takes. RAW files can also be massive, especially with full frame cameras. Some of the RAW files I shoot of particularly detailed scenes can be up to 90 megabytes. That’s only 11 pictures to a gigabyte! As a result you need massive (fast) cards, and hard drives to cope. You can shrink them when you create your JPEG but it’s all very data and time intensive. Quality comes at a price unfortunately, but once you have control it is very hard to give it back!
So you have your RAW file, what next? You will need a program such as Lightroom to process it. There are also free programs out there that will allow you to do the same thing, as will iPhoto. Once it is imported you can start to make changes. Here are the main and most useful sliders. Although the changes are non-destructive, if you push things too far the image can be adversely affected and look unnatural – which is fine if that’s the effect you are going for… It’s your choice! There are many different setttings and ways to affect your images but here are the main and most useful:
Exposure: Make the image darker or lighter. It is always best to slightly under-expose as this is easier to correct.
White balance: Alter the colour temperature of the picture non-destructively.
Shadows: Use the slider to retrieve the detail in the darker areas of the image.
Highlights: Use the slider to retrieve the blown detail in the lighter areas of the image.
Contrast: Add contrast to the image.
Saturation: Increase or reduce the colour saturation.
Sharpening: Make the image appear sharper. It’s worth noting that if it’s blurred or out of focus, no amount of sharpening will save it!
Noise reduction: Remove long exposure and high ISO noise from the image.
Camera settings: 85mm, F2, 1/2000, ISO64
In order not to blow out the sun and sky completely I had to massively underexpose this shot and then bring out the shadows to reveal the detail that was still retained.
Camera settings: 24mm, F4, 1 sec, ISO320
There isn’t so much shadow detail to recover here, but there is detail lost in the highlights that I have recovered in post. You can now see there is less blown highlights in the windows of the office.
Camera settings: 24mm, F7.1, 1/100, ISO320
This is an example of the increased dynamic range available shooting in RAW. There are no blacks in this picture, nor whites. All of the detail has been retained in a contrasty situation.
Camera settings: 24mm, F1.7, 1/10, ISO640
With such a shallow depth of field in low light, I needed to ensure the right bit was in focus so focussed by eye. This is handheld, and the shutter is much slower than I would ideally like but with a wide lens you can get away with a slower shutter without visible camera shake.
Camera settings: 24mm, F2.2, 1/2500, ISO50
Walking round Bled we bumped into some of the locals and I managed to capture this encounter on camera. These shots are hit and miss focussing manually, but when they work it is very satisfying.
Camera settings: 100mm, F9, 1/1250, ISO640
Autofocus just won’t cut it sometimes and here is a case in point. I had to manually pick a slice of focus approximately
2ft from the lens, retaining enough DOF in the settings to ensure that some of the flies
Camera settings: 85mm, F2.8, 1/100,ISO640
Alan’s last fish from Bled. Between us, we managed not to actually film it (don’t ask) but luckily the manually focussed photographs were on point to cover it up!
Camera settings: 115mm, F4, 1/1000, ISO640
Photographing these long tailed tits constructing their nest was impossible using the autofocus with all the brambles in between the lens and bird.
Camera settings: 85mm, F1.7, 25 sec, ISO50
Manual focus assist is a must for fine focussing long exposure night shots. Here live view and the 10x zoom function allowed me to ensure the isotopes were pin sharp.
Camera settings: 24mm, F8, 1/100, ISO50
Manually focussing ensured that I got the focus spot-on. Too shallow a DOF wouldn’t have worked either, as the background needed to be recognisable to add context.