Monday, March 30, 2009

By Request: What do I do before my first photo of the day?

This article is most applicable for those using digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR), but if you're using a Point and Shoot camera, or a film SLR camera, there are many relevant ideas in the article which apply to your camera too.

Nikon D200Before I use my DSLR, during a trip, or otherwise, I assume its settings are incorrect for the first shot of the day. I go through a 11 point checklist before I start each day's shooting, when I travel, or anytime I'm taking photographs.

Before I started this procedure I can't tell you how many great photos I thought I took before realizing that my meter method was wrong causing dark photos, or my ISO was too high causing graining photos unnecessarily.

You often don't get a second chance in photography, so you've got to take advantage of your opportunities when you get them.

Before running through the checklist, I do two additional things. The evening before, I recharge my camera's batteries (I use a vertical grip on my camera which uses two rechargeable batteries.) as well as my spare batteries. Next, I check my camera's sensor, to see if it's grimy, and clean it, if necessary. Don't wait to the last minute to check your sensor. Cleaning can take time. Moreover, since it's possible to damage your sensor during cleaning, you don't want rush the process.

When traveling I always take my cleaning kit. Zoom lenses draw air into DSLRs when the are zoomed in and out. Some dirt and dust is in the air almost everywhere. When you change lenses on a DSLR, even if you take precautions, dirt and dust can enter the camera and lodge on the sensor. Take my word for it, if you use a DSLR long enough, eventually your sensor will get dirty. That dirt will show up on your photos, and while you can normally "fix" the photo, you're better off eliminating the need to fix it.

My cleaning kit consists of:
  • A Sensor Loupe which enables me to easily see any dirt and dust on the sensor.
  • A Giotto Rocket hand air blower which is the first device I use to clean the sensor.
  • An Arctic Butterfly brush which is the second item I use to clean the sensor, when necessary.
  • The correct size Sensor Swabs and Eclipse cleaning solution which I use to clean hard to remove grime on the sensor. I follow the general procedures of the Copper Hill Method of sensor cleaning when using these products.
Most of the time, just using the Giotto Rocket will take care of loose dirt or dust. During a trip, I check out my photos on my laptop nightly, not just to see the photos themselves, but to see if I have a grime problem.

With a clean sensor, and fully charged batteries, I'm just about ready for the day's shooting, but before I start, I have to make sure I didn't leave the camera set strangely when last used. That might even be the prior evening. Here's my checklist for my Nikon D200:
  1. Nikon D200 backMy Nikon DSLR has 4 available groups of custom settings. I make sure that I have set the camera to the group I want to use.
  2. I set the ISO setting to that desired, which is usually 100.
  3. I set the White Balance to the setting appropriate for current conditions.
  4. I double check that the image quality, size, and file type are correct.
  5. I make sure that the camera mode (aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, programmed auto) is set appropriately. I typically use aperture priority. I never use auto.
  6. I make sure that the metering method (3D color matrix, center weighted, spot) is set properly. I normally use 3D color matrix.
  7. I make sure that my exposure compensation setting (used to alter camera's suggested exposure according to conditions) is appropriate.
  8. I make sure that my auto focus (AF) area mode (single area, dynamic area, group dynamic, closest to subject priority) is set to the desired mode, which is generally group dynamic. I never use closest to subject priority mode.
  9. Nikon D200 topI make sure that the focus mode (single, continuous, manual) is set as desired. Most of the time I set it to single. On some DSLR/SLR lenses you must also set the focus mode, as it can override the camera setting.
  10. Many of my lenses have Vibration Reduction (VR). Some cameras use Image Stabilization. Both attempt to automatically compensate for camera shake. I make sure my lens VR settings are as desired. For example, the VR on my Nikkor 18mm-200mm lens can be turned on or off as desired, and either set to normal or active mode.
  11. Finally, I make sure my shooting mode (single frame, continuous low, continuous high, self timer) is set properly. Most of the time, it's set to single frame. For sports it's often set to one of the two continuous modes, so I can just hold the shutter release button down, and let it continuously take up to 5 photos per second.
Your camera may use different terminology, and have different settings, but I think you can easily use this checklist to develop your own.

Have a great trip and take lots of wonderful photos.

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