Some Basic Stuff
Although we stopped at using the “P” mode and checking out all other modes on our DSLRs earlier, let us look at some more basic techniques to get stable, blur free shots. This is also the point where I will stop referring to P&S cameras. If you use your DSLR in fully automatic mode, then, it is only a big, heavy and expensive P&S.
Since I am using a Nikon camera currently, most of the terminology I use might be specific to Nikon, although, there will be Canon equivalents. For example, if I say VR, it means IS on Canon. Similarly we have focus, metering and other functions which have different “names”, but, are functionally similar. The camera manual has all these details regardless of which brand you are using.
Now, there are 2 basic points to keep in mind as we move on…
- Always shoot in raw
- Never to use the fully automatic/scene modes, excepting to learn from the settings the camera uses for them
The benefits will become more apparent as you get more familiar with the DSLR and start shooting and learning more about photography.
Most of us, including me, have come across statements like “Always use M mode”, or, “I use A mode 95% of the time” etc. These are essentially “religious” statements based on “beliefs” which are generally grounded in legacy or the equipment being used for a very specific purpose. There is no “ideal” mode for all. It will vary based on scenarios and the equipment you have.
There is another statement that seems to be common, goes as follows:
“It’s the photographer that makes the difference, not the equipment…”
Again, it’s only half the story. Try getting a 5x magnification on the cheap. No way that will happen anytime soon. Expensive, professional, equipment allows you a lot of freedom which you will not get with a basic DSLR and lens in the same class. The same applies to even a polarising filter, try getting a cheap one that works. A good one that works will cost about as much as a cheap lens.
These kind of statements should be taken with a pinch of salt. No, it’s not all about the “photographer” it’s almost equally about the equipment and the experience.
In my case, I made the mistake of purchasing the cheapest zoom lens I could get, the Tamron 70-300mm non VR. Initially, I was quite impressed with it since I did not know any better. Once I started looking at the images in detail, I found that it had heavy Chromatic Abberation (CA) in almost every image. Some were fixable/acceptable, but, most were not. I was shooting mostly in “P” mode and sometimes in “S” to make sure my shutter speed was fast enough to avoid blurring, or, to freeze motion. Printing most of these images was completely out of the question.
I went back to reading reviews of the lens and found that it performed best at f/8 in terms of sharpness and CA. So, I switched to “A” mode and started using f/8 most of the time. Shooting mostly under bright, sunny, conditions, I did not feel the difference excepting that the CA was reduced substantially and the images looked better. Then came cloudy days and I was struggling to keep the shutter speed high enough and use f/8 at the same time. Well…That’s when I finally realised that the lens reviews done on some of the more professional sites should be considered far more carefully. Effectively I landed up with a f/8 lens which was not quite good enough.
This brings us to another “religious” statement found on the net. Use a “fast” lens, f/2.8 or faster. This allows you to shoot in low light etc. Well, yes, a faster lens does allow you to shoot in low light, but, with a wide open aperture, the depth of field (DoF) also shrinks and not much of the subject will be in sharp focus. The smaller the focal length, the larger the DoF, but, it will still be quite shallow. This is assuming that you are still able to maintain a shutter speed high enough to avoid camera and subject movement. There remains a question of cost as well, faster lens are far more expensive.
As you can see, there is a lot to learn and practice before one can actually start using the true potential of a DSLR with relative comfort…This is only the beginning!
So, let’s get to the settings.
Most current cameras which are around 2-5 years old, will also have an auto ISO setting. This, coupled with the “P” mode will give you good exposures, in general. The only thing you need to watch out for is the shutter speed. If the shutter speed goes below the focal length, then, the chances of the image being blurred are greatly increased. Since we are talking about entry-level cameras, all of these have a cropped sensor. This implies that you need to multiply the focal length by the crop factor to get the “effective” focal length. For Canon cameras, the multiplier is 1.6 and for Nikon, its 1.5.
So, if we assume you are shooting at 55mm using the standard kit lens, the “effective” focal length would be 55×1.5 for Nikon. This is about 82.5mm and therefore the shutter speed should be at least 1/100th of a second. This takes care of the camera shake in this case. What about the subject movement? This is something that practice will tell you very soon. Okay, what about VR/IS? These allow shooting at speeds lower than the 1/F…? Well, yes and no. Most of these numbers are generated under restricted conditions and might not apply in your practical scenario. Also, the effect of VR/IS will shift with different camera bodies and lenses. You will just have to practice and figure out what works for your camera and lens.
Some of the more recent cameras allow you to set the minimum shutter speed as well as the ISO effectively making the “P” mode almost fully automatic and enhancing the automated functionality of the other creative modes.
In any case, you need to watch out for the shutter speed before actually shooting by pressing the shutter release button half-way. There is no point in pressing the release unless you have a reasonable shutter speed to avoid camera and subject movement since the image would not be usable anyway. Also keep in mind that the camera will increase the ISO in auto mode to arrive at a reasonable exposure for the scene. Increasing the ISO will also increase noise and consequently some loss in detail.
Most modern cameras handle higher ISO values reasonably well. Take some test shots of your typical scenarios and decide the maximum ISO level acceptable to you. You can set that to the highest that your camera will go in auto ISO mode. Bear in mind that the camera will drop the shutter speed once it has gone to the maximum allowable ISO which could result in blurry images.
One last detail about the “P” mode…On most newer cameras, the “P” mode is “Programmable” as well. What this means is that you can select between different “P” modes depending on your scenario. On the entry-level Nikon cameras, rotating the dial in one direction increases the f-value (decreases the aperture for more DoF) and the other side increases the shutter for more motion stopping power. The display on the LCD will change from “P” to “P*” indicating it is a modified “P” mode. The difference between the “P*” and “A” and “S” modes is that the “P*” mode will not change the aperture or the shutter speed unless there is enough light to get a good exposure. Effectively, in good light, the “P” mode can double as an “A” and “S” mode.
Cameras “See” Differently
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that the camera “sees” the world around us very differently than we do. There are things a camera can see that we cannot and vice-versa. Depending on the lens and the exposure time, a lot can change in an image.
The camera can see details at the same distance that we generally cannot. The camera can expose for a very low light scene, like the sky at night and come up with almost a daylight kind of effect. We cannot do that either. At the same time, we see a far more range of colours and shades that the camera cannot. We can see far better in the dark as well.
HDR is the cameras’ answer to the dynamic range that we can see but the camera needs some help to re-produce.
The way the camera sensors are constructed has a lot of details in the brighter part of the image compared to the darker areas. A technique called “Exposing To The Right” or ETTR can be very useful in a variety of scenarios, but, takes time, practice and experience to use effectively.
We will get into all of this, and more, later. For now, it’s just something to keep in mind.
Watch the Shutter Speed!
Once again, keep an eye on the shutter speed while shooting. Everything else will come later. In one of my typical scenarios where I am shooting birds, I like to have as much detail as possible. In this case, I generally keep to ISO 100, the lowest on my camera, and if there is direct light on the subject, I might even go up to a maximum of ISO 200. After ISO 200, my camera starts losing details that I would want to keep. Since I cannot get those details after a certain point, I do not shoot. Sure, I can bump the ISO to 12800 or more and get good-looking shots even in low light, but, I already know that I will get no details. If I drop the shutter speed, then the camera and subject movement come into play and will generally result in a blurry image. This is entirely a matter of personal taste. I used auto ISO for quite some time and then started seeing the difference. Then I restricted the ISO for this scenario where I wanted details. I don’t mind losing detail and going to a much higher ISO if the shot is about an activity, for example, one bird pecking another, or, birds in flight where I would want to see the wing spread rather than the wing details.
Another technique to avoid blurring is to use the continuous high-speed shooting (burst) on your camera. In this mode, the camera keeps shooting as long as you have the shutter button pressed. Generally, this would vary from 3-5 shots per second in most entry-level cameras. There is always a possibility that the continuous shooting of around 3-5 images might land you with one good, blur free image in between. Continuous shooting is also useful in group photos. People in a group might be looking in different directions or some might have their eyes shut for a moment etc. A burst of shots of a group increases the likelihood of getting one image that is acceptable and free from the conditions just mentioned. It is also easier to edit and replace parts of an image in post processing since the group and exposure remains the same.
There is another advantage to using high-speed shooting. You can actually shoot at slower shutter speeds and possibly get a blur free image from a continuous shoot of a scene. This is iffy, but, can be quite handy at times. Do not depend on this to happen all the time.
What Do I Use?
Well…It depends. I started with “P” and auto ISO and then added auto shutter speed when I got the Nikon. I occasional switched to “S” mode for butterflies to freeze their motion and for water to get the flow and not freeze it. Then I used “A” for quite some time ’cause of the lens issue that I already mentioned earlier.
Since I now have a lot of practice with my camera and lens, I tend to meter the light using the camera and use the “M” mode more often than not. In good light conditions and general bird shooting, I tend to use the “P” mode with a restricted ISO, especially in the late evening since the light drops fast. Macro (high magnification) shooting, which we will get into later, is done exclusively in manual mode. I rarely use the “A” or “S” modes now since I can get better results with manual mode and it’s equally fast for me to use that. I always take a test shot or two to make sure the camera metering “sees” I what I want.
Although a bit early to get into this one, it might be a good idea to keep in mind that what you see as a preview on the LCD screen can be radically different from the actual raw image. The image that you see on the LCD is a processed jpg of a part of the actual on a very low resolution screen when compared to the real image resolution. This will become even more noticeable when using a flash/speedlite. Once again, practice with your equipment and experience will tell you how to account for these anomalies.
The one detail that will become important is histograms. All cameras will display the image histogram in some way. The higher end cameras might display it in real-time. A histogram will tell you a story about your image and is far more useful than the preview of the image on the LCD. I would encourage you to search around on Google and YouTube and find out more on histograms and start looking at them for reference. With some practice and experience, you will figure out how to utilise them to your advantage in getting better exposures.