Camera Settings – May 2011

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As the course you are doing is called “Beyond Point and Shoot”, I was pleased to see that most people made use of the workshop opportunity to do do exactly that. I am updating my workflow to cover and explain some of the problem issues.

This workflow may sound horribly complicated. Take it in steps as far as you can go, mastering one step at a time. We all went through this process and I am continuously trying to master new techniques and difficult shooting situations.
I am also available at the club and via e-mail, to go through camera settings and other difficulties with those who request it.

BUT: I don’t know all your cameras, your manual is a good place for you to start!
I will highlight some of the problems. Many of them arose from unfamiliarity with your camera. This can only be remedied by studying the manual and practice practice practice.


“Pose” the landscape by choosing your location, set up the tripod, choose a lens, mount the camera, level the horison (if you want), focus and lock if necessary, compose the image, connect the remote trigger cable if you have one, secure the camera. {Barney: Achieving a good focus is a problem with the lighting conditions that we encountered, so you will have to work on that. SHARP FOCUS IS VITAL! Sunrise, sunset and the twilight period yield the best images, but they are also the most difficult. I’ve spent a week of late nights trying to finish this image Yarra Footbridge Night as a 2.8×1.4m canvas. It looks like many more hours of midnight oil to burn in order to complete it}

Yarra_Footbridge_Night 2.8x1.4m Canvasprint

Lens focal length: The city is quite far away, that’s my point of interest, I would choose a longer focal length to frame it properly, say 100mm+. If you choose a wide angle you will also include a lot of foreground and the city will diminish into insignificance.

Camera Settings:
{Barney: FOCUS was one of the big problems stated by many people – please study this section and go back to the park and try again if you weren’t satisfied with your result. }
Focus: Auto or Manual? I framed my images to include a large part of the sky, with the city in the bottom of the frame. This requires Manual Focus as the lens cannot achieve focus on a uniform expanse of sky.
Some people have cameras without a manual focus ring. This means that you have to focus on the city, then lock the focus on manual. In fully automatic point and shoot cameras you have to do this by focusing then using the AFL (Auto Focus Lock) function. Look these up in your manual if applicable. {Barney: my little Canon IXUS870IS has no manual settings, but I can fool it by focusing on a specific object and then pressing AFL to lock the focus and AEL to lock the exposure. This even allows me to capture multiframe images for panoramas without having the focus and exposure change in every frame}
Don’t forget to adjust the dioptre setting on your viewfinder if you can’t get clear focus.
If it is dark, use the manual distance settings on the lens ring and set at infinity. {Barney: Many modern cameras have Live View with a magnifying function so that you can absolutely check and set the focus – also good for photographing the moon, which is very difficult to focus sharply. LOCK THE FOCUS AFTER SETTING IT!
More technical note for the fanatics: some modern cameras have microadjustment facilities to correct autofocus errors and register your lenses. I don’t use this as I don’t use autofocus and adjust my images pin sharp by looking through the viewfinder}
Focus on the city, that’s the object that we want sharp in this image. {Barney: You could always call your image an arty “soft-focus”? }
I won’t worry about hyperfocal distance except with a wide angle lens.

{Barney: another word about focus – if you are using a tripod to stabilise the camera and lens, it’s recommended that Image Stabilisation be switched OFF as it may blur your image}

Quality: RAW or JPEG? This is your choice, I use only RAW.
JPEG has the advantage that images are ready “out of the camera” and the disadvantage that the quality is low. Please use highest quality settings.
RAW has the advantage of highest quality capture, allowing you more post-processing leeway and the ability to upsize images. The disadvantage is that post-processing is required.
RAW+JPEG gives you both options.

White Balance?
Not relevant for RAW images, which gives you more leeway to adjust afterwards. RAW is the electronic data as generated by the photons landing on the sensor pixels.
Critical for JPEG as the camera’s computer processes the image. Try AWB. Not easy to adjust afterwards.

Exposure: Auto or Manual?
Personally I use only the Av and Manual modes

Metering Mode – Spot:

I use the spot metering mode and confirm the exposure by looking at the histogram, adjusting the shutter speed to get the correct histogram without clipping of highlights
{Barney: The cityscape had bright lights, a “light-ish” sky, darker buildings and a dark foreground. Don’t expect the camera lightmeter to get the exposure right. Camera lightmeters are calibrated to give you an average 18% Grey (middle Grey ) on every shot. That’s why photographers use “grey cards” for test shots. YOU have to decide what the output should look like and that means choosing an exposure manually which retains some detail “around” the highlights and captures the mid tones and some of the shadow. If you capture in RAW you have 4096 tonal levels to manipulate afterwards, as well as the colour balance. If you capture in JPEG you will have 256 levels total, 64 levels in the dark tones, 128 levels in the midtones and 64 in the bright tones. As this scene has only a few tonal levels in the highlights (RHS of histogram), adjustment is impossible in JPEG}

Aperture f/8:
Aperture controls depth of field. The city should be in sharp focus, the sky has no distinct character, the foreground bushes will be dark. I would use f/8 and set the focal point on the city, the bushes will not be perfectly in focus.
{Barney: Aperture also controls the “sharpness” of your image. Your lens can open to a much larger aperture but the image will not be as sharp. Find the “sweet spot” of your lens. Wide open apertures and quality images don’t go together, except on the most expensive professional lenses, and even the pros will stop their lenses down unless they need maximum light input for a handheld shot}

ISO or “Film” speed:
I chose 400. If I wanted a faster shutter speed, I would crank up the ISO. I’ve used up to very high ISO settings, but 1600 is fairly noise free with modern cameras. ISO 1600 film was very grainy by contrast.

Shutter Speed:
Not too critical as we are using a tripod and the subject is static. Slow exposures like 1/10s are acceptable but you will need faster speeds if there are moving subjects or you are handholding the camera. If you choose Av mode over Manual and take a shot, this will indicate the correct shutter speed for you, allowing you to switch to Manual and set the shutter speed.

Exposure Bracketing:
As the light is changing very quickly (well, in 15 minutes you’ll have a significant change), I like to bracket my shots. That gives me an underexposed and overexposed image which may look better than the one I exposed normally.

I would set the brackets to -1, 0, +1. The LCD display will show the Auto Exposure Bracketing mode indicator

I would then set the Drive Mode to Continuous, showing this indicator

When you press the shutter and hold it, the camera will capture a sequence of 3 bracketed shots.

Multi-Frame Overlapping Images for Panorama: {Barney: make sure that the exposure and focus and white balance are locked, otherwise stitching will be impossible and you will see joins at the edge of the frames where the images should seamlessly overlap. That said, seamlessly joining a flat expanse of sky is hugely difficult as there are slight tonal differences due to lens vignetting. Photoshop is unable to do it because it produces a sharp division. The images must be smoothly “blended” together. If anyone wants to take this further let me know and I will advise}
Turn the camera to portrait mode, recompose, use the exposure settings that you had before.
Preferably all settings should be Manual.
Shoot overlapping frames – give yourself 25- 50% overlap.

I know this sounds horribly complicated to those who haven’t done it before.
Try it in Av mode if you prefer, but why not also try it in fully Manual mode?

Once you get used to doing this you will be able to do it automatically and in the dark.
You will also be able to prepare the camera, put duct tape over the settings and go out and shoot images in nearly impossible situations and come back with a masterpiece.

You won’t know until you try – just remember – your camera is not restricting you, all these modern cameras are far better than 35mm film cameras.