Today we’re going to look at a feature that is on most cameras but often overlooked, and that is the Custom Shooting Modes, which enable you to quickly change many of the settings of your camera with the flick of a switch.
In last week’s episode, I touched on the importance of not fumbling with your camera and overthinking the technical details in order to be more in the moment as you make your photographs. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that technical accuracy and being deliberate is important, but we have to get so comfortable with how our cameras work and how to quickly change settings that are ideally second nature to us by the time we need to start thinking about them.
If you’ve been following my antics for a while, you’ll probably recall that I’m most comfortable shooting in Manual exposure mode. I shoot using a technique called ETTR or Expose to the Right, and this requires me to fine tune the exposure, and I find exposure compensation too much work, so I generally just set my exposure manually and I’ve been doing this so long it’s much easier for me than using any of the automatic exposure modes.
Having said that, there are times when the light changes by the second, and it helps me to be able to use a certain set of automatic settings, and I find the easiest way to quickly enable all of these settings is to register them to a Custom Shooting Mode on my Canon camera, and then I can access them by rotating the Mode Dial on the top of the camera (below) literally like flicking one switch.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Mode Dial
This feature or something similar is available on most cameras I’ve seen, and I think it is often overlooked because people don’t realize just how many settings can be changed, and saved, and also it’s one extra thing to think about, so it’s probably one of those things that you’ll experiment with once you’ve become more comfortable with your camera.
What is Registered?
Let’s look at which settings are registered first to hopefully make it more obvious that this can be a very useful feature. This will change depending on what system you use, but my Canon 5Ds R registers the Shooting Mode, meaning Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual etc. Also, the shutter speed, aperture, ISO speed and many of the auto-focus settings, including the AF area selection modes and selected AF points are registered. The drive mode, metering mode and exposure and flash compensation amounts are also registered.
There is also a long list of customisable settings such as image quality, image review time, white balance and color space. Picture Style settings are also saved. Your interval timer and bulb time settings and live view shooting AF method, grid display, and exposure simulation settings are saved too, to name just a few. I won’t go into all of the settings, but basically, pretty much everything that you can configure that is related to shooting is registered.
Think About Your Shooting Scenarios
We’ll get into how you register the settings in a moment, but before we talk about that, let’s discuss the various scenarios that I sometimes use this neat little feature for. It’s important to think this through first so that you can set up your camera the way you want it, before committing those settings to one of your available Custom Shooting Modes. These can be easily updated though, and even automatically updated if you prefer, but we need to set the camera up how we want it to enable us to register those settings initially to get started.
As I mentioned earlier, for much of my work, I use Manual mode, but as comfortable as I am changing my exposure very quickly as the scene dictates, there are times when I do need to just jump into an automatic mode. Before Manual mode, I used Aperture Priority as my main shooting mode. For my photography I generally use my aperture setting as the base for my exposure, then I set my shutter speed depending on how much I want to freeze the subject movement, or conversely use a slower shutter to capture its movement.
Once I’ve set my aperture and shutter speed, I adjust my exposure with my ISO. In darker situations, I might compromise a little and adjust my aperture and shutter speed to get a brighter exposure, but generally, ISO is where I do most of my adjustment as it affects how the scene or subject is captured the least.
Aperture Priority Base
Because of this, for me, when I’m going to use an automated exposure mode, it’s generally Aperture Priority, even if I need to control my minimum shutter speed etc. which we’ll also touch on shortly. Keep in mind though that I’m just walking you through my thinking to help explain the process, and I’m not necessarily saying that you have to use Aperture Priority. You will need to decide what you want to register, and you have three sets of Custom Shooting modes, so you can register different settings for different scenarios.
So, my first step is selecting Av for Aperture Priority on the camera’s Mode Dial. Just being in Aperture Priority alone though won’t help me to quickly start shooting. By default, Aperture Priority enables you to set the aperture, and the camera starts to select the shutter speed by itself, but it relies only on the shutter speed, which means if the light is low, the shutter speed can get too low, and depending on what I’m shooting, that may not be what I want.
For example, say I’m out and about in Tokyo, and the light is streaming down nicely on the main street, but there are side-streets in the shade that require a much lower shutter speed. If there are people walking around, they’d be all blurry if I let the shutter speed get too low.
So as this feature has become more useful over the years when I’m in Aperture Priority, I pretty much always use Auto ISO. On my Canon camera, to access Auto ISO you simply press the ISO button and continue to rotate the Main dial just behind the shutter button, down past ISO 100 and L if you have the Low ISO setting enabled until you see an A instead of the ISO number. You are now in Auto ISO mode.
Canon EOS 5Ds R in Auto ISO Mode
Set Auto ISO Range
To ensure that the ISO on my 5Ds R camera doesn’t get too high I adjust the ISO speed settings under the SHOOT2 menu. Under ISO speed settings there is an option called Auto ISO range, inside which you can select the range to use. I generally select ISO 100 as my minimum and 6400 as my maximum. I’ve no problem with going to ISO 6400 if the scene dictates, but you’ll need to set this to whatever you are comfortable with.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Auto ISO Range
Minimum Shutter Speed
The next setting to check is Minimum shutter speed, just below the Auto ISO range setting. You can select Manual, and select a shutter speed. For example, if you just want to capture people walking around, 1/125 or 1/250 of a second is a good zone to use, but if you are shooting a fast moving subject, you might want to select 1/500 or 1/1000 of a second or even faster. Keep in mind though that to reach these faster shutter speeds the camera will start to increase your ISO, and you need to be comfortable with that.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Minimum Shutter Speed
The other option is to set the Minimum shutter speed setting to Auto, and if you leave the slider set to zero the camera will use the focal length as the denominator in the shutter speed fraction. That means if you are shooting at 50mm the camera will use 1/50 of a second as the slowest shutter speed, and if you change to 100mm, the camera will use 1/100 of a second as the slowest shutter speed.
This is the rule of thumb that I’m sure you are familiar with, just implemented automatically in the camera. If you want to rely on your image stabilization a little more, you can change the slider to slower. Each notch on the slider is equivalent to one stop of light, so if you select -1 at a focal length of 100mm the camera will use 1/50 of a second as its minimum shutter speed, not 1/100 of a second. At -2 it will use 1/25 of a second, and at -3 it will use 1/13 of a second.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Minimum Shutter Speed – Auto
Of course, increasing the slider into the positive has the reverse effect, so for +1 you’d be at 1/200 of a second, and +2 and +3 would take you to 1/400 and 1/800 of a second respectively. This is useful if you want to avoid camera shake, but again, as your shutter speed goes up, you’ll also see your ISO go up when shooting in darker environments.
Save Your Custom Shooting Mode
Because there are so many other settings that get saved, it’s worth just having a think about things such as your autofocus mode and metering settings. I generally leave my Metering mode set to Evaluative, but you could change this to Center Weighted or Spot metering if you wanted to, and this would be saved in your Custom Shooting mode.
Once you are ready to save your settings, on a Canon camera, navigate to the Set Up menu and find the Custom shooting mode option. On my 5Ds R it’s under SET UP4, then select Register settings. I always register my Aperture Priority mode to C3, because this is the last mode of the dial, so if I need to quickly access my Aperture Priority and Auto ISO settings, I just crank the Mode dial all the way to the end. So, decide which mode you want to register your settings to and press OK.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Registering Custom Settings
One other decision to make is whether or not to have the camera automatically update these settings as you change them while using a particular Custom Shooting mode. There are merits and demerits to consider for either scenario.
For example, say you want to automatically return your aperture setting to f/8 whenever you leave your Custom Shooting mode, you’d need to either leave the automatic update turned off, or remember to manually return your aperture setting back to f/8 whenever you leave that mode. If you leave automatic update turned off, the aperture would automatically reset to f/8 every time you leave that mode, but if you leave automatic update turned on, and change to say f/11, the next time you switch to that Custom Shooting mode, the aperture would still be set to f/11.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Custom Settings Auto Update
The same goes for any other setting if you decide to turn on auto update, so give this some thought. Of course, it’s only a setting, and you can turn it on or off with a few button presses, so you can change this later as necessary.
Quickly Switching Autofocus Settings
Even when using Manual mode, I register one or two Custom Shooting Modes, to enable me to quickly change my Autofocus settings if necessary. For example, I might have one set with One Shot autofocus selected and another set with AI Servo selected. I will also perhaps have my AI Servo settings set up to use all of my AF points, but for the other Manual setting Custom Shooting mode, I might have just the center focus point selected.
Another way that I use C1 and C2 is to quickly adjust between two extremes of light. Say for example when I’m photographing the Snow Monkeys if something is happening in the snow at the side of the hot spring pool, I might be using a shutter speed of say 1/800 of a second to freeze the action, and an ISO of say 400. But then when I go down to the pool, it a couple of stops darker, so might increase my ISO to say 800 or 1000, and also change my shutter speed to around 1/250 of a second. I also tend to use One Shot autofocus a little more around the pool, so I might also set that in one of my Custom Shooting modes.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Both Manual Modes
If it was just one setting to change, it would be easier to just stay in Manual mode and just change the one setting, but for multiple settings, it’s easier to just turn the Mode dial. Another thing that I often do while shooting with the Black Rapid straps, as I do at the Snow Monkeys, is to turn on the Lock switch on the back of the camera. I have this set up to lock both my Main dial and the Quick Control dial on the back of the camera.
I do this because the camera hangs upside-down on the Black Rapid strap, and I find that I sometimes catch these dials and change my aperture or shutter speed unintentionally. Although I check my settings regularly there have been times when something cool has happened and I’ve shot it way under or over exposed because my settings have changed and I didn’t notice, but locking the dials as I now do prevents this.
The great thing about the Custom Shooting modes is that they remember the two different aperture and shutter speeds that I dial in, so I can also quickly change these with the Mode dial rather than unlocking the camera to change them. It’s just a way to make life easier and prevent myself from making stupid mistakes.
Info Button to Check Registered Modes
Another tip is that if you forget what you’ve registered to your Custom Shooting modes, you can press the Info button on the back of the camera to see a screen that displays the modes you’ve registered at the top of the LCD display. This is useful for a quick check, although you can’t see the settings for each mode, which would be nice.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Info Display
Auto ISO in Manual Mode
One last thing that I’d like to mention before we start to wrap up this episode, is that I also sometimes use Auto ISO in Manual Mode. I know that this might sound counterintuitive, but there are times when handing over the ISO controls to the camera provide just enough automation while enabling me to still have full control over both the aperture and shutter speed settings.
Although I generally like to maintain full control, for example when photographing the sea eagles at dawn on my Hokkaido Tours, one moment I can be photographing an eagle over the sea away from the sun, and the next moment shooting directly into the sunrise. To enable me to work in these extremes I will either use the Aperture Priority settings I mentioned earlier, setting a higher minimum shutter speed of say 1/500 of a second, or simply stay in Manual mode and enable Auto ISO.
Steller’s Sea Eagles at Dawn
Exposure Compensation with Auto ISO
The final setting that is sometimes useful and that has been added to the last few generations of Canon camera is being able to use Exposure Compensation with Auto ISO. Usually, in Manual exposure mode, there is no concept of Exposure Compensation, because you have full control of the exposure. However, Auto ISO hands some of that control back to the camera, and that means that it is error prone.
To overcome this, on the latest cameras, you can now set Exposure Compensation for Auto ISO in Manual mode. To set this on my 5Ds R, hit the Q button on the back of the camera, to enter the Quick Control screen. If Exposure Compensation isn’t selected, indicated by the orange border (below) use the Multi-controller to the top right of the LCD screen to select it, then press the SET button in the middle of the Quick Control dial.
Canon EOS 5Ds R Auto ISO Exposure Compensation
As long as you have the camera set to Auto ISO, you should be able to rotate the Quick Control dial to adjust the Exposure Compensation and rotating the Main dial will adjust Auto Exposure Bracketing settings.
If that’s too cumbersome and you find yourself using Exposure Compensation in Manual a lot, you could change the Set button to adjust the Expo Comp in the Custom Controls of the camera, but I don’t do that. I always use the Set button to magnify my image in Live View or when previewing an image I’ve already shot. This is because the older Canon cameras used to have the Magnify button on the right side, closer to your thumb, and I never got used to using it in the new location along the left side of the back of the camera, so I always just assign this to the Set button.
OK, so I hope that was useful. I don’t want to make it sound like I use these Custom Shooting modes all the time. In truth, I use them for specific purposes, and although I do switch to C3 for my fully automated Aperture Priority settings from time to time, it’s still only a very small part of my photography. I simply prefer to use Manual mode, and I’m so used to it that there aren’t that many times that I switch to these Custom Shooting modes.
Having said that, when I am in the few scenarios that I’ve touched on today, and a few others, I am happy to have this feature, and it does make life easier when the need arises, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on this with you today. If you think it might be useful for you too, do check your manual and see what comparative features your camera might have.
Podcast Reaches 12 Years Old!
Before we finish, I’d like to just mention that this podcast turned 12 years old on September 1st (2017). It’s hard to believe that we’ve been going for 12 years now. I was the third person to register a photography podcast in iTunes, beaten only by Chris Marquardt of Tips from the Top Floor and Brooks Jensen with his Lenswork podcast. These two podcasts were a great source of inspiration a s I decided to start my own podcast.
I’ve seen many podcasts come and go since, and I’ve developed some favorites of my own over the years, namely, Ibarionex Perello’s The Candid Frame, Sharky James’ Petapixel Podcast and I still love to listen to Brook’s philosophical outlook on the photography world in his Lenswork Podcast. I’m also happy to have become friend’s with Ibarionex and Sharky, as well as many other podcasters, and of course, this podcast has enabled me to totally change my life, as I incorporated Martin Bailey Photography K.K. in 2010 and started to make my living entirely from my photography related activities.
I have so much to be thankful for, but as we reach twelve years of mostly weekly episodes, I’d really like to thank each of you for continuing to listen and follow the blog. Without you listeners, none of this would mean anything, so thanks a million for being here, and I hope you’ll stick around because I certainly don’t intend to go anywhere.
Music by Martin Bailey
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Here are the two images that I talk about in Chris Marquardt’s Tips From the Top Floor Podcast this week. I talked about techniques I use and teach on my Snow Monkeys & Hokkaido Photography Tour and Workshop, to control exposure and ensure you capture beautiful whites, and blacks full of texture, regardless of the brightness or color of the background. My technique also enables you to switch between both scenes instantly without messing around with Exposure Compensation. Take a listen to learn a few simple but effective tricks.
Here’s the Tips From the Top Floor episode in which I appeared.
Tanchou Study #7
Soft Arched Wings
If you’d like to join us to from Feb 13-24 2012, to photograph the Snow Monkeys, Red-Crowned Cranes, Steller’s Sea Eagles, White-Tailed Eagles, Ezo Deer and Northern Fox, as well as some breathtaking winter landscapes, we do still have a open spaces. See full details or book your place on our Photography Tours page, or contact us if you have any questions.
Today, in the first Q&A episode for a year, I answer a question from a listener about shooting under a grey sky, and I also go into detail on why I use Manual Mode, especially in challenging exposure situations.
The question that I’m going to answer today is from Eric Vogt, from the States.
“Thanks for all your teaching and all the time you sacrifice for our hobby. I was at the beach in Oregon this past weekend where the skies were overcast. I was shooting the many pelicans there, but so many photos looked like the one attached here below. How would you approach shooting into an overcast sky?
Would you set exposure compensation to be overexposed a full stop or so? I was able to slowly get very close to these shorebirds, but was disappointed with lighting in the photos. Was it just a foul day for good photos of these birds? I’ve heard so many times that overcast days give great light, but is that just for portraits?”
Thanks very much for the great question Eric. My response is a bit long, as there’s a lot to cover here, but I’m sure you’re not the only person that has trouble with these sort of conditions, so let’s take a look at your shot and see what could have been done. The first thing I want to say is that the pelican itself is very sharp, so congratulations on your technique! I also like how you have not got the pelican dead-center, which is great.
Pelican (original) from Eric Vogt
For sure, an overcast day like this is not the most ideal for shots of birds in flight. We don’t always have the luxury of choosing the shooting conditions though, so I’ll explain what I’d bear in mind if I was shooting in these conditions.
On the exposure, you’re right. Had you used exposure compensation, this would have improved the shot greatly. I’d say you could have gone to around plus one and a third or one and a half stops, depending on how your camera is set up, and you’d have gotten the pelican perfectly exposed, and the sky would still not have been blown out.
Pelican by Eric Vogt (with +1.33 Exposure added in Lightroom)
We can also see here that I took the image into Lightroom and made a few minor adjustments to see what could have been achieved with exposure compensation. To get to the optimal exposure for this shot, I added 1.33 stops exposure in Lightroom to bring out the details in the pelican. You can also see that the sky is almost white now, which is what Eric probably saw, not quite as grey as in the original. The sky in Eric’s shot is almost a perfect grey card, which is exactly what the camera wants to do to every image you shoot. That is, turn it into an 18% grey.
Overcast skies can be great, and I personally prefer an overcast sky for many subjects, including flowers and landscapes in many situations. For this sort of bird photography though, it does pose a challenge to get nice flight shots. My suggestion if you are to shoot in conditions like this is just to get as close as possible, filling the frame with the bird and reduce the amount of sky around it. Notice also that in my version I cropped the line of trees out as well. I don’t think they add anything to the shot, and we basically want to try to compose to avoid things that don’t add anything, kind of like editing in camera.
I know that there are limitations on how close you can get, either physically, or with your longest lens. I see that Eric shot this with a 200mm focal length, and found out in follow up communication that Eric was using the 70-200mm F4 IS lens, which is a wonderful piece of glass. Eric also tells me that although he had a 1.4X Extender, which is what Canon calls a tele-converter, but he didn’t use it because he wanted to get some shots of some friends childer on the beach. This is a worthy reason to leave off the extender, but quite often, we have to make a decision on which subject to go for. If getting a good shot of the pelican is important to you, then you could drop the extender on for a while, at least until you get your shot, then take it off and go back to shooting the kids. Trying to do more than one thing in photography can often end up in you not getting your shot, or any shot at all.
Realistically though, for bird photography, even with something as big as a pelican, you need something a bit longer, even than 280mm, which is what the 70-200 would reach with the 1.4X extender fitted. Although I should note that Eric was using a Canon Rebel XT, which has a 1.6 crop factor, so Eric was actually shooting at 320mm, and that would become 450mm with a 1.4X Extender, which is pretty good and would have made for a nicely framed image of the pelican.
Ideally though, especially if you are going to shoot smaller birds, it would be nice to get something a little longer. I really enjoyed the 100-400mm lens from Canon for a number of years, especially when I was just starting out. The 100-400mm is a little on the soft side, but you can’t beat it for versatility. You could also consider something like the 150-500mm from Sigma, which would be great for birding, but it is a little dark at F5.0, going to F6.3 as you zoom to towards 500mm. Still, it’s not an incredibly expensive lens for the reach, and probably worth thinking about.
Again, in follow up communication, Eric also mentioned the 300mm f4 with the tele-converter or the 400mm f5.6 prime lenses, which shows that Eric is definitely a discerning photographer when it comes to sharpness. My advice here is that if you can handle the fact that you will miss some shots because of the inability to zoom, then for sure, these prime lenses will give you sharper images. I myself use the 300mm F2.8 sometimes with, and sometimes without the 1.4X extender, and I am getting incredibly sharp bird shots, even hand-held with this combination, but I do miss shots sometimes. I clip the wings tips off, or even just cannot get the bird in the frame as they come closer towards me sometimes.
I do of course use a second body with something like the 70-200mm F2.8 L lens sometimes as well, when I’m shooting big birds like the Red-Crowned cranes that can sometimes fly overhead, requiring a much shorter focal length to fit in the frame. I’m happy with my decisions now, and am enjoying nice sharp images, but I do sometimes miss the versatility of the 100-400mm.
My point here is that for serious bird photography, you really can’t avoid getting a long lens. I also use the 600mm F4 L Lens, and put the 1.4X extender on it when I need that extra reach. I may pick up the Sigma 300-800mm lens too, as I’m hearing a lot of good things about that lens, and the versatility, along with that reach, is something not to be sniffed at. It also has a constant aperture of F5.6, which isn’t that bad for a lens of this focal length. We are talking about a $7,000 to $8,000 lens hear though, and I realize that most people aren’t going to pay this amount for what is essentially a hobby.
I’m certainly not saying that Eric needs to buy an $8,000 lens, but had he managed to fill the frame with the pelican, not only would the camera’s meter have gotten a better exposure reading, because of the darker subject filling more of the frame, it would have enabled Eric to get rid of much more of the sky. Again, if something doesn’t add to the shot, try to get rid of it. I should note though, with regards to composition, even when cropping tightly, I would still leave a little room to the right to give the impression that the pelican has some space to fly into. Rules are made to be broken of course, but in general, you want to give our subjects room to move. Putting it right up against the side that it’s moving towards can give a sense of drama, but more often than not, it just looks like bad composition.
With camera’s having more and more pixels each year, you can of course consider cropping the image in post processing, but you don’t want to throw away too many pixels, if you think you might want to print the image pretty large at some point. If you only want to use the image on the Web or view it on the computer screen though, that would be fine.
Anyway, let’s get back to the exposure discussion, as although until now I have been replying to Eric’s question about using Exposure Compensation, another thing that comes up very often is shooting in Manual mode. In Eric’s situation, shooting up at a plain grey sky, Exposure Compensation would have been fine, unless the pelican flew across a much brighter or much darker background. If that’s the case, although this can be very daunting initially, I usually recommend using the cameras Manual mode. Whenever the subject is moving from a background that is sometimes brighter, then other times much darker than the subject, it really helps to not have to think about the background at all, and the only way you can do this is to use Manual mode.
This takes a lot of getting your head around if you haven’t tried this for yourself, but if you keep in mind that your subject’s color and luminosity will not change unless the lighting conditions do, it really doesn’t matter how bright or dark the background is, if you know that you have set your camera set to expose your main subject correctly.
I’ve spoken about this many times before, but the subject comes up quite often in the forums, so let’s look at a few example shots of my own to illustrate what I’m talking about. First, let’s look at image number 2115 (above right). Now, this image would probably have only required around plus 1/3 or so of a stop Exposure compensation, because although the main subject is predominantly white, the top half of the background is very dark, so it would have balanced itself out, only requiring a little bit of compensation. I can’t tell you exactly how much compensation I used, because I shot it in Manual mode, and that doesn’t leave a record of exposure compensation, because it’s not used.
Crane Preening 2009
Imagine though, that after I shot this image, I turned and saw the crane that we see in image number 2126 (right), preening himself, with a totally white background. Using evaluative metering, which now does tend to recognize a snow scene better than it used to, I’d probably need to add around one and a third stops of exposure compensation to tell the camera that this scene is predominantly white, and that I don’t need it to darken it down. Without this compensation, the camera would have tried to make this an 18% grey, which we all know is not the color of snow. I should note that it used to be common to need up to two stops of exposure compensation for bright snow, but the newer meters in evaluative mode do seem to recognize snow scenes better than they used to, and so are a little closer, requiring only one and a third of a stop much of the time now.
This scene lasted a little while, and I could probably have thought to change the exposure compensation if I was using Aperture Priority, imagine though, as I was buried deep into my viewfinder shooting the preening crane, what if I heard a honking coming from my right, and looked up to see the pair of cranes in image number 2107 (below)? They’d just come into site, and were perfectly in line like this. I then have to think, OK, so now I’m going from a perfectly white scene, to a shot with a very dark background. I’m probably going to have to go from plus one and a third of a stop, to minus one stop, or I’ll over-expose the two birds here. I start to turn the dial, while looking at the caret on the meter scale in the viewfinder, and by the time I’ve done the calculation, and made the change, the birds have landed. It only takes a few seconds, but that’s enough to miss the shot.
I was able to get this shot, in literally the conditions I mentioned here, because I was in Manual mode, and my exposure was set for optimal exposure of the cranes. It did not matter how dark the background was, because I had my exposure set for the cranes, no matter where they were.
Note that this is not the exact order that I really shot these crane images in. Although I shot the first two at F5.6 for 1/640 of a second at ISO 100, the light had changed for the last shot, and I was now at 1/2000 of a second at F4.5. I’m just trying to make a point here. This is certainly a scenario we’re faced with all the time when shooting wildlife like this.
Let’s talk a little about setting the exposure in the first place. Whether starting from scratch or with a hint from a priority mode, you will probably want to set your aperture initially, based on the artistic effect that you are looking for with the depth-of-field. For bird photography that’s usually close to wide open, though you might want to close the aperture down just a tad for larger birds, especially if they are not so far away, like Eric’s pelican. Note that Eric closed down to F5.6, and that’s probably about right, though Eric could also have gotten away with F4 at this range as well.
Once you have decided on your aperture, you can then adjust the shutter speed to something fast enough to avoid camera shake. Eric photographed the pelican at 1/1000 of a second, which will avoid camera shake, showing again that Eric is indeed a discerning photographer. If we think though that he needed to increase the exposure by around one and a third of a stop, he would have need to use a shutter speed of around 1/320 of a second with an aperture he was using, which was F5.6. For a sharp image of a bird in flight, 1/320th of a second might have been a little slow, although pelicans don’t flap their wings that fast, tending to soar more than flap.
Ideally you’re going to want at least 1/500 of a second for birds in flight, but really to a degree, the faster the better. If we want to show some movement in the wings, of course you can go much slower, as I’ve done myself many times, but that does reduce the success rate of your shots, and would require a bit more explanation to do the subject justice.
As you get close to what you think your exposure should be while looking at the caret on the exposure gauge in the viewfinder, you should also check your histogram. I find that with digital most of the time you will want to expose for the highlights, and that means that the right side of the histogram graph will be close to the right side of the histogram box, but not clipping. Clipping means that the histogram is touching the right shoulder of the histogram box. It’s OK to have a little if you know that it’s in a part of the image that you don’t care about, or for specular highlights, but if you severely overexpose any important areas, you may lose detail there, and there’s no way to get it back, even if you are shooting RAW. There are times when you will totally blow out a part of the scene, and there are times when you’ll expose for the shadows, if that is the most important thing to you at the time. I covered this in more detail in Episode 81 of this Podcast. As a general rule though, shoot for the highlights.
Opposite to our previous examples, and more in line with Eric’s questions about the relatively dark pelican, if you are shooting a dark bird against a bright background, you do need to be careful not to let the background become too bright. If you overexpose the background too much, the bright areas start to bleed into the bird or your main subject, making the edges soft and even reduce contrast in the subject itself. Ideally, you’ll want to make sure that the histogram is close to the right shoulder, but not touching it, and be able to see on the LCD that your main subject is well exposed. Unless the shadows contain detail that you really need to show, don’t worry about the left side of the histogram at all.
Whenever possible, I like to use the RGB histogram, as opposed to the standard black and white histogram. This is because you can actually blow out parts of one or two of the Red, Green or Blue channels, without this being indicated in the black and white histogram, as it only represents an average of all the light values.
If as you set your aperture, then your shutter speed you find that your shutter speed is too slow, the next thing to think about is raising that ISO. Eric shot at ISO 100, so to really remove the chance of blurring the bird after reducing the shutter speed to 1/320 of a second, if necessary, he could have used ISO 200 at F5.6 for a shutter speed of 1/640 of a second which may well have been much better to help avoid subject movement during the exposure. Remember that the longer the lens, the more you have to think about camera shake because longer focal lengths magnify the camera movement. The point here is that keeping ISO in mind as your third method to change exposure is very important and can be the difference between getting the shot, and not.
I should say that I don’t want people to think that Manual mode is plane sailing, especially on days with patchy cloud, when it can be difficult to keep up with the constantly changing light. I am forever checking my exposure. You will need to keep your eye on LCD and that histogram, and make sure that the subject is nicely exposed. If the light changes and you start to blow areas of the image out unintentionally, remember that most cameras have a flashing exposure warning, where the parts of the image that are overexposed flash. Exposure warning is often turned on by default, but if it isn’t, look for exposure warning in your camera’s manual, and turn it on.
As you shoot, you can often locate a reference object to check your exposure on while waiting for the action to start again. This might be a mid tone rock or a wall or something. My trick for doing this in snow is to point the camera down to totally fill the frame with the snow and adjusting the exposure so that I’m around one and one third of a stop above zero. Remember that even in Manual mode you still see the exposure indicators in the viewfinder, so you are not alone, and also remember that meters are better these days, so in general you can forget the old two full stops for snow advice if you use evaluative metering. It’s around 1 and 1/3 of a stop now. Just make sure that the caret is where you need it to be and then wait for the action to start again.
So, after all that, let’s quickly get back to the second part of Eric’s question. Yes, overcast days are nice for portraits, because the sky acts as a large soft box, but when your subject is flying and the light is coming from above the only way that will actually help is if there is something underneath the bird to bounce some light back up into the subject. A field of snow like what I had in my earlier example photos is great for this. It’s much easier to get a well exposed bird in flight if there is light being bounced back up at the bird. In general though, for a bird flying in the sky on an overcast day, without a reflective surface below it, if the contrast between the bird and the sky is simply too great, the only remaining option that I’m aware of, is to use something like a Better Beamer flash attachment for this, which would enable you to bounce some flash into the bottom of the bird from a distance. In Eric’s case though, I don’t think the contrast was that great, so although the grey sky was never going to be that exciting, it would not have blown out with one and a third stop of exposure compensation, or by using Manual mode and exposing for the bird.
Note that I haven’t gotten into using the spot meter on your camera today, because not all camera’s have spot metering, and to be honest, if you follow the steps I mentioned to set your exposure, you shouldn’t need spot metering.
Finally, I also suggest shooting in RAW, especially in conditions where exposure is challenging. Not only does RAW give you the ability to more easily change things like White Balance in post processing, it gives you a much wider dynamic range, allowing you to save more detail in the highlights areas that you might blow out, it also enables you to bring out more details from the shadow areas of your subject during post processing. JPEG will throw away much of this detail before it writes the image to your memory card.
Anyway, that was very long to answer fundamentally one question. Granted, I tagged on the Manual mode stuff myself, because it comes up so often. I hope that you have found this episode useful though. I can assure you though, most people that start out on my Workshops thinking that they don’t need Manual mode, usual become converts by the end of the first day’s shooting. In that kind of environment, this is far from photographic snobbery. It’s more like photographic survival, and taking control to get the shots that you might not be able to get otherwise. If are never in situations where you need Manual mode, then don’t worry about this. Beware though. I’ve heard lots of people say that they don’t need Manual mode, when the truth is that they just don’t understand why they need it.
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Hello and welcome to episode ten. First, I want to announce the winner of October’s prize for members active in the forum. Congratulations to Marisa Firpi. An original print of the photograph you chose, which was “Distant Tokachi Mountain”, is in the post on its way to you. This is photo number 663 if anyone would like to take a look. The print was creating with an Epson PM-4000PX printer, which I believe is the Stylus Photo 2200 in the US. This printer uses pigment or archival ink, and I am using compatible paper, so you can expect your print to last longer than a standard photograph under the same conditions.
So, on to this week’s main topic… Today I’m going to talk about Exposure, Exposure Compensation and the times that I switch to Manual mode when shooting. There’s a lot to take in, so you might need to concentrate a little if you are not entirely confident in these areas.
Typically I use Aperture priority mode, but under certain condition I switch to manual mode and set the aperture and priority myself. I’ll explain more about that in a moment, but first, let me explain briefly about the relationship between the aperture size, the shutter speed and the ISO settings. For some of you this will just be a recap, but I’m sure some listeners will benefit from a brief recap.
When we talk about the aperture size, we often use the term f-stop. The f here stands for factorable. Basically, your camera will have a series of aperture values which you can set. The smallest number such as F1.4, F2.8 or F4 etc represents the largest aperture size, and the largest numbers, such as F22 or F32 represent the smallest aperture size. I know it’s weird to have the smallest number equaling the largest aperture and visa versa, but it would make this Podcast too long to go into the reasons why. Let’s just remember it this way.
The key aperture settings are F1, F1.4, F2, F2.8, F4, F5.6, F8, F11, F16, F22 and F32. Some lenses will go smaller than F32 to F45 or even F64, but they are not so common. With each stop, counting down from the smallest number, or largest aperture, we are effectively halving the size of the hole that lets light into your camera. Depending on your camera, you may also have half or third stops, but the numbers I just gave are the primary stop values, so let’s concentrate on them, and if you can, it will help you greatly when shooting in manual mode to memorize them.
Now, to help us to change these settings while shooting with some simple mental arithmetic, we should remember that there is a direct relationship between the Aperture values and the shutter speed and the ISO. To illustrate this, if you have your camera available you could try it right now, if not, just keep on listening. This will work on a digital camera or a film camera that allows manual setting of the ISO and see the aperture and shutter speed settings. First set your camera to aperture mode. Next set your ISO to 100 and aim your camera at a scene that you know will have constant light for a while, then half press the shutter button to have the camera meter the scene and show you the aperture and shutter speeds. Make a note of the aperture and shutter speeds. For the sake of this example, let’s say that you have set your aperture to F8, and the camera is giving you a shutter speed of one 250th of a second. If you then change the ISO to 200, you will now see that the shutter speed changes to a 500th of a second. Change the ISO again 400 and you’ll see that the shutter speed changes to one 1000th of a second. So we see that changing the ISO is doubling the sensitivity and therefore halving the time needed to make the same image exposure.
Now, let’s return the camera’s ISO settings to ISO 100, and you’ll be back to F8 at 250th of a second. This time, let’s change the camera’s aperture setting. Remember that F5.6 is one f-stop larger than F8, so obviously, when we change the aperture from F8 to F5.6, we’ll be letting in twice as much light. So what’s going to happen to the shutter speed? That’s right! It will be halved to one 500th of a second. This is the same as changing the ISO from 100 to 200, and doubling the sensitivity of the film or sensor. To make the point, let’s make the aperture smaller by stopping down to F11. Now you’ll see that the shutter speed changes from one 500th of a second at F5.6 through the original 250th of a second at F8 to 125th of a second at F11. If you stop down further to F16 you’ll again halve 125th of a second to on 60th. I know that half of 125 is actually 62.5, but your camera will display one 60th. Again, let’s just remember this as it is.
Of course, if you were to set your camera to shutter priority, you could do a similar thing by setting the shutter speed to 1/250th of a second, and the camera would select F8 for you. If you change the shutter speed to 1/60th of a second it would change the aperture to F11 for you. It’s all relational.
If by the way you are getting inconsistent reading while trying this, maybe you could try this at night under artificial lighting, such as the light bulb in your living room. You might also want to put your camera on the table or even on a tripod to keep it steady during the operation, so that the readings will be constant.
If you own a hand-held light meter, you can also play around with that in a similar way to get an idea of the relationship between these three settings.
Anyway, I think you get the picture. By changing any combination of the aperture, shutter speed or ISO we can change the amount of light that hits the film or digital sensor and change the exposure. Now that we know that a properly exposed image can be obtained by any combination, let’s talk briefly about EV or Exposure Value. Exposure Value is a unit used to describe the amount of light for any given exposure. For example, the starting point for the example given earlier, which is F8 for 1/250 of a second at ISO 100, has an Exposure Value, or EV of 14. And so do F16 at 1/60 of a second and F5.6 at 1/500 of a second and F2.8 for 1/2000 of a second. All of these settings will give us the same exposure as the same amount of light will hit the film or sensor. It may be easier to understand the relationship between the EV values and the shutter speed and aperture settings by look at a table I posted in my forum some time ago. I’ll include a link to this post in this episode’s notes.
Obviously being able to obtain the same exposure using different combinations of aperture and shutter speed, gives us the ability to make artistic decisions about the resulting image. That is because the size of the aperture will affect the depth of field. If we want the whole scene in focus, what we call pan-focus, we must select a small aperture such as F16 or F22 or smaller, though this also depends on the focal length of the lens and the distance from your camera to the subject on which you focus. Talking about this today though would make this Podcast a little too long, so we’ll leave that for another day. Anyway, pan-focus is often something that we want to achieve in Landscape photography to ensure that the whole scene is sharp for our eyes to explore.
If however, we want a very shallow depth of field, say for a portrait or wildlife shot in which a sharp background would detract from the main subject, we would need to select a wider aperture. So we may decide to go for an F2.8, F4 or even F5.6 aperture with longer focal length lenses.
Now, before we move on to some real-world examples, let’s talk briefly about exposure compensation. As I mentioned in last week’s Podcast, your camera will almost always try to render your scene in neutral brightness, similar to that of an 18% gray card. Now if the scene is actually very dark, say it contains a lot of black objects, or such as some of the images attached to last week’s episode, the camera will try to brighten them up and over-expose your image, so you have to under-expose to ensure that the scene is recorded accurately. Likewise, in daylight, if the scene is very bright, the camera will try to make it a neutral brightness, and therefore will under-expose the shot. So you have to over expose it to make it accurate. This practice is called Exposure-Compensation and most cameras except for the basic, fully automatic models will have the ability to compensate exposure quite easily. It’s usually as simple as turning a dial. You also need to know by how much to turn the dial of course, which I have some practical advice on.
So let’s talk about a practical application, now that we can do these exposure calculations easily in our heads. This will also illustrate the reasons why we might want to go to manual mode on occasion.
In February 2004 I went to Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan, to shoot wildlife. Hokkaido in February means snow, and lots of it. Snow will generally fool your camera’s meter into under exposing by around 1 to 1 and 1/3 of a stop in overcast conditions, or up to two stops in bright conditions. If you were to rely on your camera’s meter you would end up with gray snow, which I’m sure you’ll agree would not look very nice.
To make snow look white, you can compensate by moving your exposure compensation dial to plus one and 1/3, one and a half or more in brighter conditions. If the entire scene is going to be snow with no darker patches you need not worry about switching to manual mode, as the metering will be constant, so the amount of exposure compensation needed will also be constant. However, if the scene will be made up of very light patches, such as snow or light coloured sand, and dark patches, such as wet rocks or trees, depending of the metering mode you are using and where your main subject is in the frame, you camera can make all sorts of mistakes. It is under this kind of conditions that I would switch to manual mode and set both the aperture and shutter speeds myself.
Wassup!! – Japanese Crane
Let’s take a look at the first photo on today’s Podcast. This is number 287, which was shot at F5.6 at 1/800 of a second. You can view the photos in iTunes or on my Podcast page which is linked to the top page of martinbaileyphotography.com. You’ll see a number of Japanese Red-Crowned Cranes on a field of snow and a dark forest in the background. I had l metered from the snow which although I don’t recall exactly, was probably giving me a reading of around 1/2500 of a second at F5.6. The camera was remember trying to give me a nice medium gray coloured snow, so this was far too fast a shutter speed. It was a hazy sunshine on that day, not full sunlight, so I didn’t need to compensate by a two full stops. To find the correct exposure, I first took a shot of the snow, with nothing else in the frame, then compensated by adding around 1 and 2/3 of a stop.
To calculate this, you can either count up two thirds from plus one stop, or down from plus two stops. To count up from one stop, start with 1/2500 and then double the shutter speed to 1/1250 of a second. Then click twice more on your shutter adjustment to go past 1/1000 of a second to 1/800. To drop back by a third from two full stops, double the speed first to 1/1250 as before, then double it again, which will give you 1/640 of a second, which is two stops. Then click back one to 1/800. You don’t have to do the mental arithmetic to find out exactly what a third is, as you know that there are three clicks per stop. Your camera will help with the finer adjustments. In actual fact, if you don’t want to remember all this about doubling the times you can just think that 1 and 2/3 is actually 5/3, so you can just click five times after what the camera is initially telling you.
If you have your camera set to use half stops and not thirds you will have just one click between stops. You will probably also have different numbers to play with to start from. This makes the example a little confusing, but I can’t go back to February 2004 and take my shots again, so I’ll just quickly mention that when I set my Canon EOS 5D to use 1/5 stops, in manual mode I have the options of 1/750, 1/1000, 1/1500, 1/2000 and 1/3000 etc. If you are using a similar scale you need to set the shutter speed to 1/750, which would be one and a half stops more than what your meter reading gave you, which would probably have been around 1/2000 of a second.
One important additional piece of advice here is that if you are using a digital SLR, it is very important to check that you are not blowing out your whites. Take another practice shot and check the histogram. If you have a spike on the far right hand side it means there are areas of your shot that are too bright. With a very white scene you should see the peak of the histogram weighted to the right side, but not right up against it. Some digital SLRs also have a flashing warning when the white is close to or actually blown out. If you see either of these warning signs, drop down by a 1/3 or 1/2 a stop and take another practice shot. Repeat this until the histogram looks good or there are no or very little areas of the image flashing the over-exposure warning. This way you should be able to ensure that your whites are white, but not blown out.
Let’s also take a look at the second shot attached to this episode, which is number 297. This time the white cranes, which are obviously the same colour and luminosity and when they are standing on the snow, are now flying against a totally dark background. I shot them in manual mode at exactly the same settings, F5.6 at 1/800 of a second. Had I left this to my camera’s meter, it would have over-exposed to brighten the dark background, and the birds would have been so blown out that there would have been absolutely no detail in the white what so ever. The shot would have been useless. Instead, you can make out detail of the feathers and the background is dark as it actually was. Another interesting thing is that even when the birds were shot flying overhead at the same F5.6 at 1/800 of a second, as in shot 280, they were still perfectly exposed. This is another scene that would have fooled the camera’s meter and again ruined the shot.
Of course there are numerous ways to ensure good exposure in high contrast scenes, such as using spot metering on your camera and using hand-held light meters etc. but getting into this right now would make this Podcast way too long, and I still have some weekend left to enjoy, so let’s leave it there for now.
For some examples of when you might want to do some negative exposure compensation to ensure a dark scene stays dark, take a listen to episode nine and look at the examples. I introduced a number of dark shots from a trip to India.
This Podcast was a little heavy going, but if you are not familiar with Exposure Values, F-stops and exposure compensation, you might want to listen to it a few times until you come to grips with this theory and the practical applications. If you have any questions, I’ll try to answer them in the forum at martinbaileyphotography.com and if I can’t, I’m sure someone will be able to.
The Music in the first 28 Podcasts is copyright of William Cushman © 2005, used with kind permission.
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