Monday, September 14, 2009

Getting my camera ready for the day's travel photography

Nikon D200 DSLRWhile traveling, or for that matter, during any photo shoot, for a variety of reasons, photographers may vary any number of major camera settings which control exposure metering, focus, shutter mode, etc. By the end of the day, one’s camera’s settings may be significantly different than when the day began.

The next morning, it’s likely we won’t remember how the camera’s settings were left at the end of the prior day. That can result in  photographs which need extensive retouching and repair, totally blown shots which can only be discarded and missing great shots all together.

At some point this happens to everyone, but it is avoidable.

Nikon D200 - top LCD and controlsA young woman from New Zealand, emailed me this past summer. She told me she had been taking fireworks photos in New York, during her visit to the States, she used manual focus, following my suggestion. They turned out great, but the next morning it wasn’t until she took several dozen photos in Central Park that she realized she was still in manual focus, and her morning photographs were too blurry to salvage.

Last week, a friend on an Alaska cruise, asked me if I knew of some software which could salvage some of his photos taken in Denali. One evening he had been experimenting with some available light photography. His ISO setting was 1600. The next morning, before he realized it, he had taken many photos at Denali with the same high ISO setting of 1600. The photos were extremely noisy, and unsatisfactory. Fortunately, he will be able to substantially fix them in Photoshop, with a plug-in.

The way to avoid problems like those is very easy, but it takes discipline. You’ve got to go through a Pre-Shoot Checklist.

Nikon D200 show menu on rear LCD panelYou’ll need to develop your own Pre-Shoot Checklist, as every camera is different. You want your checklist to help you reset your camera’s settings to start off each shoot with your preferred settings, so that every setting is as you expect it to be. You don’t want any surprises which could kill a great photograph.

This is my Pre-Shoot Checklist for my DSLR, which you can use as the foundation for your own (some of these settings may have no meaning for you and your camera):
  • Check the batteries — You want to know how much capacity is left in them. You don’t want to be surprised while shooting.
  • Check to make sure there is a memory card in the camera and how much room it has left in it — You don’t want to be in the middle of shooting an event, and have to swap memory cards, only to miss a great photographic opportunity while you’re fiddling with your camera.
  • Check the ISO setting — I try to keep my ISO setting as low as possible to produce photographs with the highest quality possible. My starting point is set to 100 ISO.
  • Check the Quality (RAW-JPG– and any sub settings) settings — I rarely change this setting, but there are a few circumstances for which I do. I start the day in RAW, the highest quality setting for my DSLR.
  • Check the White Balance setting —  This is a setting I change often to accommodate the lighting conditions at the time. I start with white balance set to automatic, in case a photographic opportunity arises quickly, with no time to carefully set it. That way my white balance will be close enough that I can use Photoshop to fine tune it.
  • Check the Metering mode (Matrix, Spot, (I never use Center)) — Having the meter behaving differently than you expect can make it difficult to get the right exposure for your photograph.
  • Check the EV (Exposure Value) to make sure it's at its standard setting which for me is -0.3 — My meter generally needs to be dialed down a notch, but during the course of the day, I may alter my EV setting according to conditions.
  • Check the Focus mode (Single, Continuous, Manual) — Having focus set to manual, while you think it’s in an auto focus mode, is the most typical problem causing the first shots of the day to be ruined.
  • Check the Auto Focus Area (Single, Group Dynamic (I don't use the other settings)) — I start my focus area as a single focus.
  • Check the Shutter Mode (Single vs. Continuous) — I start in single mode.
  • Check the Camera Mode (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual (I don't use the other modes)) — I start with aperture priority.
Each night I make sure I offload my photos, then format my memory cards, and recharge all batteries so they all have a full charge. Each day I make sure I have my extra memory cards and spare batteries.


Jon said...

I could have used this checklist in Costa Rica last week Ned. It will be part of my regular travel routine.

Dennis said...

Now why didn't I think of this. It's really an elegant solution.

Sarah said...

I've copied the list and printed it on an index card which I've put into my camera case. I'll keep carrying it, until the list becomes habit with me.

Thanks. This will really help me.

Artie said...

Ned, I've got a Nikon D300. I've never changed the White Balance away from auto. My photos look pretty good. You mentioned in the article you change your white balance often. How come?

I really thought the different white balance settings were for persnickety photographers. From your articles, I don't think that's part of your photography philosophy, or am I wrong?



Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Artie,

I'm glad you asked that question. The effectiveness of Auto White Balance is misunderstood. First though, I think you're right about my philosophy. Most important to me is getting the shot. To get the photo, if speed is critical, which means the exposure might be somewhat off, I'm willing to take the time to correct it in my computer later. Many photographic opportunities don't last for a long enough time to get the exposure perfectly when taking the photo.

Even Ansel Adams, who died (1984) long before digital photography, believed in post processing. He said, “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

On to White Balance. Generally speaking Auto White Balance in most cameras today is effective from color temperatures between 4,200 and 7,000K. That means it can handle most fluorescent light (4,200K) to direct sun (5,200-5,500K), to cloudy skies (6,000K) to light shady conditions (7,000K). It can also handle electronic flash (5,000-5,500K). Please note that all these color temperatures are generalities. There can be significant variances of them according to a variety of factors.

So that's what Auto White Balance can handle. Frankly, most light situations which most photographers, especially amateurs handle, fall in that range, but there are many many other light source situations which are lighting wonderful photographic opportunities.

Here are some examples of light which is outside the White Balance capability of Auto White Balance: Candlelight (1,000-2,000K), Incandescent light (2,500-3,500K), Sunrise/Sunset (3,000-4,000K), Heavy Shade or Dark Stormy Overcast light (9,000-10,000K).

For those situations you need to set White Balance manually to get the right color in your photographs.

I think you can see why I'm not using Auto White Balance much of the time.

Richie said...

Ned, when do you shoot in RAW, vs. JPG?

Ned S. Levi said...

Richie, it's off topic, but I shoot in RAW, except for when I'm shooting in continuous mode at 5fps (frames per second) for extended bursts, such as at football games, or bicycle races. Since the file size is much smaller, I can shoot longer bursts of shots before my Nikon's memory cache is full, halting my shooting until it's written enough out to the memory card that I can take more photos.

Janice said...

As long as there are some off topic comments asking questions, how come you never set your camera's meter to center weighted mode?

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Janice,

As I expect to have an upcoming article(s) on metering and exposure, permit me to be brief, which is necessary in a comment anyway.

First you have to understand camera metering modes. My Nikon has three modes, Matrix, Center-Weighted and Spot.

Matrix could also be called "segment" or multi-pattern metering. In Matrix metering the camera measures light intensity at many points in the scene, and then combines the results to find the setting for the best exposure. How the points are combined, measured and calculated deviates from camera to camera.

In center-weighted metering the camera concentrates between 60 to 80 percent of the meter's sensitivity in the central part of the scene. The remainder of the reading is then "feathered" out to the edges of the scene.

In spot metering the camera will only measure a very small area of the scene; between 1-5% of the scene.

Frankly, many photographers use center-weighted metering because it's easy to understand and use. They don't have much clarity about how the camera reacts in certain situations when using matrix metering. The design concept behind multi-zone is to reduce the need to use exposure compensation, while they overuse EV.

To me center-weighted metering is two zone metering, while matrix metering covers far more zones to try to determine the best camera settings. I'm going with more zones, because I believe I'll get a better compromise.

When you get down to it, you can't expose each part of your scene differently in a single exposure, so your exposure is always a compromise. Fortunately, there are ways around the compromise, both at the camera, and in post processing, but you do need a place to start, and for me it's matrix metering which is accurate, in my opinion, about 90% of the time.

As to spot metering which I use about 10% of the time, there are scenes, such as when there is back-lighting, or when there is a larger dynamic range of luminances in the scene than the matrix meter can handle accurately.

There are even times when I don't use my camera's meter and instead use my Sekonic L-758DR DigitalMaster external hand held meter for either incident or reflective metering.

So, stay tuned for more information in the Blog in the future about metering.

Thanks for your comment Janice, and thanks for your readership.

Post a Comment