The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achive sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Camera Pixels App Review: A great concept but still needs work

I’ve posted repeatedly about the importance of understanding how to take manual control of your camera in order to make images that are properly exposed and focused.  Whether you are using a professional DSLR, an advanced full-frame mirrorless ILC, a compact point-and-shoot, or the camera built into your smart phone, there is no way you will get consistently acceptable results if you leave the camera’s settings to its auto mode.  See this post for an overview: Post on Beyond the Auto Mode.

For the past two days I have been testing an iPhone app called “Camera Pixels”.  Full Disclosure: The developer of Camera Pixels requested I test their new app and offered me a free download for trial, but to preserve my independence I paid for the download myself.

Like the “Manual” camera app that I’ve been using for years and the “ProCam 4” app that has been my go-to camera control app for the past several months, the new “Camera Pixels” app allows the manual selection of ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, and focus distance (note that the iPhone camera’s lens has a fixed aperture, so F-stop cannot be manually set).  Also like the Manual app, ProCam 4 allows images to be captured using RAW mode, which has a great many advantages over capture in JPEG format (see this post for more information: Post on RAW Capture).  And all three of these camera apps display a histogram to assist in setting exposure properly.  

In addition, both Camera Pixels and ProCam 4 (but not Manual) offer some very useful advanced camera control capabilities, including the following:

  • Shutter Priority: You can choose an exposure mode in which you select the shutter speed first and the app will set the appropriate ISO.
  • Exposure Bracketing: You can shoot a series of four shots at different exposures to increase the likelihood that one of them will be at the best exposure for the lighting conditions.  The series of shots can also be combined using HDR tools found in Lightroom, Photoshop, and other editing software into a single image with a higher range of tones from very dark to very bright.
  • White Balance: You can adjust white balance in the app, which is often preferable to having to adjust it in your RAW files during post-processing.
  • Virtual Horizon: The display can show you when the horizon is level.
  • Slow Shutter Options: You can select long fixed shutter speeds as well as bulb mode to keep the shutter open for as long as you’d like.
  • RAW+JPEG: You can choose to store the image in both RAW and JPEG formats.

With all this incremental functionality, your little phone’s camera begins to behave a lot like a more advanced standalone camera.  While the iPhone’s camera, with its small sensor and its tiny fixed-aperture non-interchangeable lens, still cannot compare to a professional or enthusiast DSLR or ILC camera, the results using an advanced manual camera control app such as Camera Pixels or ProCam 4 are vastly improved compared to using the phone’s native camera app.  At iTunes Store pricing of $3.99 for Camera Pixels or $4.99 for ProCam 4, either of these apps is a great buy and a serious enhancement to the iPhone’s built-in camera.

There are some significant differences between Camera Pixels and ProCam 4.  ProCam 4 offers advanced image editing capabilities, while Camera Pixels does not.  However, Camera Pixels offers more flexible exposure bracketing options, the ability to separate exposure point from focus point, a better histogram, and more advanced RAW and video shooting options.  And a significant advantage of the new Camera Pixels app over ProCam 4 is its user interface for setting and resetting the manual camera control features such as exposure compensation, shutter priority, and ISO priority.  In fact, the Camera Pixels app comes the closest I’ve ever found to the user interface of an advanced DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Unfortunately, in its current state I cannot unreservedly recommend the Camera Pixels app.  I encountered too many glitches during my brief testing to be able to give this app a glowing review at this time.  Here are a few of the issues I noted:

  • The “viewfinder” (image preview on the screen) flickers intermittently, which can be very distracting when trying to compose images.
  • The bracketing exposure settings are sometimes incorrectly spaced, i.e., instead of being exposed at -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, and +3; the sequence may be exposed at -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +1, and +1.
  • It can be hard to tell if manual overrides are set, leading to incorrect exposures.
  • The very useful feature to separate the exposure point from the focus point doesn’t always work.

In summary, the new Camera Pixels app is a great concept that comes closest of any camera control app I’ve found to the look-and-feel of an advanced standalone camera; however, there are significant bugs in the current version that hamper the shooting experience.  With further development to fix the problems, Camera Pixels could become an excellent option for iPhone users wishing to control the phone’s built-in camera like an advanced DSLR or mirrorless standalone camera.  I will eagerly await the next revision of this app.

Here’s the link to the Camera Pixels app on the Apple App Store: Camera Pixels app.

You can find the ProCam 4 app here: ProCam 4 app.

What app do you use to control your phone’s camera?  What do you like and dislike about it?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photography gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Camera Pixels App Review: A great concept but still needs work

 

I’ve posted repeatedly about the importance of understanding how to take manual control of your camera in order to make images that are properly exposed and focused.  Whether you are using a professional DSLR, an advanced full-frame mirrorless ILC, a compact point-and-shoot, or the camera built into your smart phone, there is no way you will get consistently acceptable results if you leave the camera’s settings to its auto mode.  See this post for an overview: Post on Beyond the Auto Mode.

For the past two days I have been testing an iPhone app called “Camera Pixels”.  Full Disclosure: The developer of Camera Pixels requested I test their new app and offered me a free download for trial, but to preserve my independence I paid for the download myself.

Like the “Manual” camera app that I’ve been using for years and the “ProCam 4” app that has been my go-to camera control app for the past several months, the new “Camera Pixels” app allows the manual selection of ISO, shutter speed, exposure compensation, and focus distance (note that the iPhone camera’s lens has a fixed aperture, so F-stop cannot be manually set).  Also like the Manual app, ProCam 4 allows images to be captured using RAW mode, which has a great many advantages over capture in JPEG format (see this post for more information: Post on RAW Capture).  And all three of these camera apps display a histogram to assist in setting exposure properly.  

In addition, both Camera Pixels and ProCam 4 (but not Manual) offer some very useful advanced camera control capabilities, including the following:

  • Shutter Priority: You can choose an exposure mode in which you select the shutter speed first and the app will set the appropriate ISO.
  • Exposure Bracketing: You can shoot a series of four shots at different exposures to increase the likelihood that one of them will be at the best exposure for the lighting conditions.  The series of shots can also be combined using HDR tools found in Lightroom, Photoshop, and other editing software into a single image with a higher range of tones from very dark to very bright.
  • White Balance: You can adjust white balance in the app, which is often preferable to having to adjust it in your RAW files during post-processing.
  • Virtual Horizon: The display can show you when the horizon is level.
  • Slow Shutter Options: You can select long fixed shutter speeds as well as bulb mode to keep the shutter open for as long as you’d like.
  • RAW+JPEG: You can choose to store the image in both RAW and JPEG formats.

With all this incremental functionality, your little phone’s camera begins to behave a lot like a more advanced standalone camera.  While the iPhone’s camera, with its small sensor and its tiny fixed-aperture non-interchangeable lens, still cannot compare to a professional or enthusiast DSLR or ILC camera, the results using an advanced manual camera control app such as Camera Pixels or ProCam 4 are vastly improved compared to using the phone’s native camera app.  At iTunes Store pricing of $3.99 for Camera Pixels or $4.99 for ProCam 4, either of these apps is a great buy and a serious enhancement to the iPhone’s built-in camera.

There are some significant differences between Camera Pixels and ProCam 4.  ProCam 4 offers advanced image editing capabilities, while Camera Pixels does not.  However, Camera Pixels offers more flexible exposure bracketing options, the ability to separate exposure point from focus point, a better histogram, and more advanced RAW and video shooting options.  And a significant advantage of the new Camera Pixels app over ProCam 4 is its user interface for setting and resetting the manual camera control features such as exposure compensation, shutter priority, and ISO priority.  In fact, the Camera Pixels app comes the closest I’ve ever found to the user interface of an advanced DSLR or mirrorless camera.

Unfortunately, in its current state I cannot unreservedly recommend the Camera Pixels app.  I encountered too many glitches during my brief testing to be able to give this app a glowing review at this time.  Here are a few of the issues I noted:

  • The “viewfinder” (image preview on the screen) flickers intermittently, which can be very distracting when trying to compose images.
  • The bracketing exposure settings are sometimes incorrectly spaced, i.e., instead of being exposed at -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, and +3; the sequence may be exposed at -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +1, and +1.
  • It can be hard to tell if manual overrides are set, leading to incorrect exposures.
  • The very useful feature to separate the exposure point from the focus point doesn’t always work.

In summary, the new Camera Pixels app is a great concept that comes closest of any camera control app I’ve found to the look-and-feel of an advanced standalone camera; however, there are significant bugs in the current version that hamper the shooting experience.  With further development to fix the problems, Camera Pixels could become an excellent option for iPhone users wishing to control the phone’s built-in camera like an advanced DSLR or mirrorless standalone camera.  I will eagerly await the next revision of this app.

Here’s the link to the Camera Pixels app on the Apple App Store: Camera Pixels app.

You can find the ProCam 4 app here: ProCam 4 app.

What app do you use to control your phone’s camera?  What do you like and dislike about it?  Please share your thoughts here.

Want to read more posts about photography gear?  Find them all here: Posts on Gear.

Beyond the Auto Mode [Encore Publication]: Take control of your images by learning to manually set exposure, focus, and more

Travel photography is so exciting and satisfying in part because it requires us to capture every kind of image in all kinds of shooting environments.  You could be heading out to shoot landscapes when suddenly a rare sighting of an animal transforms your activity into a wildlife shoot.  Or you may be on the road for your next destination when you stumble upon a colorful local festival, and now you’re shooting portraits of the revelers.  This rich diversity of subjects also creates one of the biggest challenges for travel photographers: how to be prepared for anything that comes our way.  For beginning photographers there is some comfort in using the Auto mode that nearly every camera offers.  After all, we’re more likely to get an acceptable shot this way, when the subject turns quickly from fast action to landscapes to the low light of evening, or to an indoor performance.  But in most cases, your camera’s Auto mode, which attempts to make its best guesses as to what settings to use given existing conditions, will yield only acceptable photos and not the striking and memorable images we’re after.

There is a better way.  Take control of your images by learning how to manually set your exposure, focus, and other aspects of your photo.  All advanced point-and-shoot cameras and all mirrorless and DSLR cameras allow you to set most functions manually.  Even some basic point-and-shoot models have a way to go manual, but often this will involve options buried deep in a menu somewhere.  And there are apps available for both iOS and Android smart phones that allow you to take manual control over your phone’s camera.  I use an iPhone 6S, and I’ve found the “ProCam 4” app to work very nicely for providing control over the phone’s camera setting for exposure, focus, and flash.  You can find it for less than $5 on the Apple App Store: ProCam 4 App.  Even without using an app, most smart phone cameras do allow you to override the automatic settings by clicking on the part of the image you want to be in focus and used for the exposure setting; usually you can also set the exposure based on a different area of the image from the area that you want to be in focus.  But the dedicated apps will give you greater control, as they allow you to choose the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for each shot.

For this image of a whirling dervish in Goreme, Turkey, I wanted to blur the dancer so as to give a sense of the continual turning motion in the ceremony, so I used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode and selected a slower shutter speed.  Buy this photo

The key to successfully using your camera’s manual settings is to learn how they work and to practice at home, long before you actually take a trip.  Like anything else, selecting the settings we want on a camera takes practice.  In this digital era, it’s easier to learn because you can see the results of each setting immediately on your camera’s screen.  So dig out that camera user guide, or find it online, or search for a good tutorial.  But do learn how to adjust the key settings manually.

The first manual setting every photographer should learn is how to turn off your camera’s flash.  This sounds very basic, but I’m always amazed to see so many flashes going off in inappropriate places: museums that don’t allow flash photography, cultural performances, sports stadiums where the subject is thousands of feet away from the camera (the flash will only provide acceptable lighting for a few dozen feet, at most), and even the shy octopus exhibit at our local aquarium.  Believe me, you do not want to flash the octopus.  So learn how to turn your flash off, and be sure you actually do turn it off when you’re in a venue where flash is inappropriate or won’t help your image be better exposed.  Remember that glass reflects light, so you don’t want your flash on when shooting through windows of a vehicle or the glass windows of animal enclosures at zoos or aquariums.

Next, learn how to set your camera’s exposure manually.  The light meters built into today’s cameras are very smart, but they are also easily fooled by tricky lighting conditions.  The most common problem is backlighting.  If your subject is lit from behind, as many outdoor subjects are, your camera’s auto mode will likely expose for the brighter background and will leave your main subject underexposed.  You can adjust for this is several ways.  It may be good enough to just use your camera’s exposure compensation button to dial in, say, one extra stop of exposure.  Use your camera’s LCD screen and (if it has one) the histogram, to see how the subject is exposed with varying levels of compensation.  In some cases, you can use fill flash to fix backlighting problems.  To do so, manually turn on your camera’s flash, or attach a separate flash unit, and choose the setting for “fill flash” or “balanced TTL” (through the lens) flash mode.  Again, check exposure using your camera’s screen and histogram.  I find I usually get good results in tricky lighting conditions by using my camera’s spot metering mode, which tells the camera’s meter to use only the very center (or whatever area I select) of the image when choosing the exposure.

Other than allowing you to properly expose your main subject, manually setting the exposure also gives you control over what combination of shutter speed (how long the exposure lasts), aperture (how wide the lens is open), and ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light) you want for each shot.  If you’re shooting fast moving action like sports or wildlife, you will likely want to choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion (unless you want a blur effect as an artistic choice).  If you’re photographing a waterfall or sky and want to get some nice blurring of the water and/or clouds, you will probably want to choose a slower shutter speed.  Many times you want only certain parts of the image to be in focus.  A wide aperture (low F-stop number such as f/1.8) will give you a shallow depth-of-field, allowing only one part of the image to be in focus and blurring the other parts.  Conversely, a narrow aperture (high F-stop number such as f/16) will allow all parts of the photo to be in focus.  The final element determining exposure is the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor, measured by an ISO number.  Select a higher ISO (such as 1600 or above) only when you really need the extra sensitivity for very low-light subjects when a longer shutter speed or wider aperture is not suitable.  When you use very high ISO settings, the image will tend to have a lot of noise.  Today’s cameras are getting better at limiting noise at high ISO settings, and there are ways to reduce some of the effects of the noise using post-processing software, so my approach is to use as high an ISO as is required after considering the range of available shutter speeds and apertures.

To capture these professional beach volleyball players in sharp focus and to freeze the moment, I selected single-focus-point focus mode and chose the exact spot in the viewfinder where the players would be positioned, and also used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode to select a very fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

The other major type of manual setting that you need to know how to use is focus.  Most cameras today do a pretty good job of choosing the right part of the image to focus on, but they often need some help from the photographer.  From simple smart phone cameras through professional DSLRs, the autofocus function almost always lets the photographer select what part of the image they want to be in focus.  If you keep your camera in fully autofocus mode and don’t help by selecting where your main subject is, it may very well guess incorrectly and put another part of the image as the center of focus.  So, learn how to select the focus point even while letting your camera’s autofocus mechanism actually choose the focus distance.  Sometimes a camera’s autofocus capability may not work for the conditions under which you’re shooting, and in these cases you need to turn off autofocus completely, and focus in manual mode.  Some instances when this is necessary are when shooting in very low light conditions, or when shooting in poor contrast environments (for example, your subject’s texture looks a lot like that of its background, or you’re shooting into the bright sun).  In these cases, turn off the autofocus function and adjust focus manually until the subject looks sharp.

It’s still fine to walk around during your travels with your camera set in fully Auto mode, just in case something very unexpected comes up.  But do know how to set the main functions manually so you’ll get the best possible images in the 95% of the shooting situations when you do have time to set up first.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

Do you have tips and tricks you can share on manually adjusting the camera’s settings to get great shots?  How about a time you kept the camera on Auto mode and got disappointing results?  Please share your thoughts using the comment box at the end of this post.

The Sharpest Tack in the Box [Encore Publication]: How to achive sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Beyond the Auto Mode: Take control of your images by learning to manually set exposure, focus, and more [Encore Publication]

Travel photography is so exciting and satisfying in part because it requires us to capture every kind of image in all kinds of shooting environments.  You could be heading out to shoot landscapes when suddenly a rare sighting of an animal transforms your activity into a wildlife shoot.  Or you may be on the road for your next destination when you stumble upon a colorful local festival, and now you’re shooting portraits of the revelers.  This rich diversity of subjects also creates one of the biggest challenges for travel photographers: how to be prepared for anything that comes our way.  For beginning photographers there is some comfort in using the Auto mode that nearly every camera offers.  After all, we’re more likely to get an acceptable shot this way, when the subject turns quickly from fast action to landscapes to the low light of evening, or to an indoor performance.  But in most cases, your camera’s Auto mode, which attempts to make its best guesses as to what settings to use given existing conditions, will yield only acceptable photos and not the striking and memorable images we’re after.

There is a better way.  Take control of your images by learning how to manually set your exposure, focus, and other aspects of your photo.  All advanced point-and-shoot cameras and all mirrorless and DSLR cameras allow you to set most functions manually.  Even some basic point-and-shoot models have a way to go manual, but often this will involve options buried deep in a menu somewhere.  And there are apps available for both iOS and Android smart phones that allow you to take manual control over your phone’s camera.  I use an iPhone 6S, and I’ve found the “Manual” app to work very nicely for providing control over the phone’s camera setting for exposure, focus, and flash.  You can find it for less than $2 on the Apple App Store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/manual-custom-exposure-camera/id917146276?mt=8.  Even without using an app, most smart phone cameras do allow you to override the automatic settings by clicking on the part of the image you want to be in focus and used for the exposure setting; usually you can also set the exposure based on a different area of the image from the area that you want to be in focus.  But the dedicated apps will give you greater control, as they allow you to choose the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for each shot.

For this image of a whirling dervish in Goreme, Turkey, I wanted to blur the dancer so as to give a sense of the continual turning motion in the ceremony, so I used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode and selected a slower shutter speed.  Buy this photo

The key to successfully using your camera’s manual settings is to learn how they work and to practice at home, long before you actually take a trip.  Like anything else, selecting the settings we want on a camera takes practice.  In this digital era, it’s easier to learn because you can see the results of each setting immediately on your camera’s screen.  So dig out that camera user guide, or find it online, or search for a good tutorial.  But do learn how to adjust the key settings manually.

The first manual setting every photographer should learn is how to turn off your camera’s flash.  This sounds very basic, but I’m always amazed to see so many flashes going off in inappropriate places: museums that don’t allow flash photography, cultural performances, sports stadiums where the subject is thousands of feet away from the camera (the flash will only provide acceptable lighting for a few dozen feet, at most), and even the shy octopus exhibit at our local aquarium.  Believe me, you do not want to flash the octopus.  So learn how to turn your flash off, and be sure you actually do turn it off when you’re in a venue where flash is inappropriate or won’t help your image be better exposed.  Remember that glass reflects light, so you don’t want your flash on when shooting through windows of a vehicle or the glass windows of animal enclosures at zoos or aquariums.

Next, learn how to set your camera’s exposure manually.  The light meters built into today’s cameras are very smart, but they are also easily fooled by tricky lighting conditions.  The most common problem is backlighting.  If your subject is lit from behind, as many outdoor subjects are, your camera’s auto mode will likely expose for the brighter background and will leave your main subject underexposed.  You can adjust for this is several ways.  It may be good enough to just use your camera’s exposure compensation button to dial in, say, one extra stop of exposure.  Use your camera’s LCD screen and (if it has one) the histogram, to see how the subject is exposed with varying levels of compensation.  In some cases, you can use fill flash to fix backlighting problems.  To do so, manually turn on your camera’s flash, or attach a separate flash unit, and choose the setting for “fill flash” or “balanced TTL” (through the lens) flash mode.  Again, check exposure using your camera’s screen and histogram.  I find I usually get good results in tricky lighting conditions by using my camera’s spot metering mode, which tells the camera’s meter to use only the very center (or whatever area I select) of the image when choosing the exposure.

Other than allowing you to properly expose your main subject, manually setting the exposure also gives you control over what combination of shutter speed (how long the exposure lasts), aperture (how wide the lens is open), and ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light) you want for each shot.  If you’re shooting fast moving action like sports or wildlife, you will likely want to choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion (unless you want a blur effect as an artistic choice).  If you’re photographing a waterfall or sky and want to get some nice blurring of the water and/or clouds, you will probably want to choose a slower shutter speed.  Many times you want only certain parts of the image to be in focus.  A wide aperture (low F-stop number such as f/1.8) will give you a shallow depth-of-field, allowing only one part of the image to be in focus and blurring the other parts.  Conversely, a narrow aperture (high F-stop number such as f/16) will allow all parts of the photo to be in focus.  The final element determining exposure is the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor, measured by an ISO number.  Select a higher ISO (such as 1600 or above) only when you really need the extra sensitivity for very low-light subjects when a longer shutter speed or wider aperture is not suitable.  When you use very high ISO settings, the image will tend to have a lot of noise.  Today’s cameras are getting better at limiting noise at high ISO settings, and there are ways to reduce some of the effects of the noise using post-processing software, so my approach is to use as high an ISO as is required after considering the range of available shutter speeds and apertures.

To capture these professional beach volleyball players in sharp focus and to freeze the moment, I selected single-focus-point focus mode and chose the exact spot in the viewfinder where the players would be positioned, and also used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode to select a very fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo

The other major type of manual setting that you need to know how to use is focus.  Most cameras today do a pretty good job of choosing the right part of the image to focus on, but they often need some help from the photographer.  From simple smart phone cameras through professional DSLRs, the autofocus function almost always lets the photographer select what part of the image they want to be in focus.  If you keep your camera in fully autofocus mode and don’t help by selecting where your main subject is, it may very well guess incorrectly and put another part of the image as the center of focus.  So, learn how to select the focus point even while letting your camera’s autofocus mechanism actually choose the focus distance.  Sometimes a camera’s autofocus capability may not work for the conditions under which you’re shooting, and in these cases you need to turn off autofocus completely, and focus in manual mode.  Some instances when this is necessary are when shooting in very low light conditions, or when shooting in poor contrast environments (for example, your subject’s texture looks a lot like that of its background, or you’re shooting into the bright sun).  In these cases, turn off the autofocus function and adjust focus manually until the subject looks sharp.

It’s still fine to walk around during your travels with your camera set in fully Auto mode, just in case something very unexpected comes up.  But do know how to set the main functions manually so you’ll get the best possible images in the 95% of the shooting situations when you do have time to set up first.

Want to read other posts about photographic techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/

Do you have tips and tricks you can share on manually adjusting the camera’s settings to get great shots?  How about a time you kept the camera on Auto mode and got disappointing results?  Please share your thoughts using the comment box at the end of this post.

The Sharpest Tack in the Box: How to achive sharp focus in tricky shooting situations

One of the most important elements of an image is focus, and even an untrained viewer can tell immediately when a key part of the image is not in sharp focus.  The stakes are even higher when we consider that poor focus is nearly impossible to correct in post-processing.  Most of us rely on our camera’s autofocus functionality to help us achieve tack-sharp focus while shooting, but as with every other automated system in a camera, even very sophisticated autofocus mechanisms can go awry, especially when we’re faced with tricky shooting situations.  Here’s a quick guide to minimizing focus problems and achieving sharp focus in nearly every shot.

Scenes with low contrast, such as in this image of ice floes on the Barents Sea in Svalbard after sunset, can fool even sophisticated autofocus systems.  Override your camera’s autofocus system and instead shoot manually in these conditions.  Buy this photo

  1. Make sure to select the part of your image that you want to be in sharp focus.  It sounds like a no-brainer, but surprisingly frequently the reason an image’s main subject is not in focus is because the photographer never told the camera’s autofocus system what to focus on.  Remember that as with any assistive technology, a camera’s autofocus system is just a collection of hardware and software designed to make a best guess about what the user wants.  If you leave your camera set to full autofocus mode, it does its best to identify what its software determines is likely to be your intended subject.  A human face, for example, is likely to be what you want to have in sharp focus, so the camera focuses on that.  But often the camera does not guess correctly.  Nearly every camera, including the one in your smartphone, allows you to manually select your desired focus point, often by simply touching the desired part of the image on the screen.  Be sure to check what your camera is doing and correct it by manually selecting the focus point if it guesses wrong.
  2. Recognize that your camera’s autofocus system will likely not work in certain tricky conditions. Most autofocus systems work by looking for areas of the image where the contrast is changing, such as at the outlines of a person or a building.  But in very dim lighting, or when the main subject is badly backlit, or in scenes with very low contrast (think of a stormy sky or the waves of an ocean), the autofocus does not work.  Recognize these deficiencies and be prepared when shooting in these conditions to take manual control.  Every camera has a mechanism to manually select focus, and you need to know how to use that feature.
  3. Choose the autofocus method best suited to your shooting needs.   Most advanced or professional cameras allow you to choose among several different types of autofocus methods.  Often, the first choice is between single-focus mode or continuous-focus mode.  Choose single-focus mode when your subject is relatively stationary and you must have precise focus achieved before releasing the shutter.  For subjects that are moving quickly or where you need to time your shot exactly, even at the expense of not yet having perfect focus, you should choose continuous-focus mode.  Within each of these modes, your camera may offer sub-choices, such as letting you manually choose the exact focus point you want or choosing a range of points from which the camera selects focus based on the motion of the subject.  This is rocket-science technology, but fortunately it is pretty straightforward to choose the desired method once you understand what each one does.  Read your camera’s manual and always practice in the different focus modes before going on any important shoots, especially on a major trip.
  4. Circumvent the whole problem by choosing a wide depth of field.  Sometimes the best artistic choice requires a narrow depth of field so that only the main subject is in sharp focus, and sometimes the light is too dim to choose a narrow aperture, but if you can make the shot work with a wide depth of field (in other words, using a small aperture, represented by a high f-stop number), then you don’t have to worry about focus at all.  In most situations, universal focus from several feet away from your lens through infinity is achieved at apertures of about f/16 or smaller.

Capturing tack-sharp images of fast-moving wildlife like the cheetah requires selection of an autofocus mode capable of dynamically refocusing on the moving subject.  For this shot of a cheetah in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, there was the added challenge of having low contrast between the animal and the background.  I chose my camera’s continuous-focus mode with predictive focus so the camera would anticipate where the cheetah was moving and focus ahead of the shutter.  Buy this photo

By using these tips, you can achieve tack-sharp focus where you want it in nearly all of your images, whether you’re shooting with a simple point-and-shoot or phone camera, or the most advanced professional camera.  Any camera frequently makes the wrong guess about where the focus point should be, so do not rely blindly on autofocus.  It’s worth investing some time to learn how to configure autofocus appropriately for any shooting situation, and how to turn it off and instead focus manually when required.  Happy shooting!

How do you achieve sharp focus in tricky conditions?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this post.

Want to see more articles about techniques?  Find them all here: http://www.to-travel-hopefully.com/category/techniques/.

Beyond the Auto Mode: Take control of your images by learning to manually set exposure, focus, and more

Travel photography is so exciting and satisfying in part because it requires us to capture every kind of image in all kinds of shooting environments.  You could be heading out to shoot landscapes when suddenly a rare sighting of an animal transforms your activity into a wildlife shoot.  Or you may be on the road for your next destination when you stumble upon a colorful local festival, and now you’re shooting portraits of the revelers.  This rich diversity of subjects also creates one of the biggest challenges for travel photographers: how to be prepared for anything that comes our way.  For beginning photographers there is some comfort in using the Auto mode that nearly every camera offers.  After all, we’re more likely to get an acceptable shot this way, when the subject turns quickly from fast action to landscapes to the low light of evening, or to an indoor performance.  But in most cases, your camera’s Auto mode, which attempts to make its best guesses as to what settings to use given existing conditions, will yield only acceptable photos and not the striking and memorable images we’re after.

There is a better way.  Take control of your images by learning how to manually set your exposure, focus, and other aspects of your photo.  All advanced point-and-shoot cameras and all mirrorless and DSLR cameras allow you to set most functions manually.  Even some basic point-and-shoot models have a way to go manual, but often this will involve options buried deep in a menu somewhere.  And there are apps available for both iOS and Android smart phones that allow you to take manual control over your phone’s camera.  I use an iPhone 6S, and I’ve found the “Manual” app to work very nicely for providing control over the phone’s camera setting for exposure, focus, and flash.  You can find it for less than $2 on the Apple App Store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/manual-custom-exposure-camera/id917146276?mt=8.  Even without using an app, most smart phone cameras do allow you to override the automatic settings by clicking on the part of the image you want to be in focus and used for the exposure setting; usually you can also set the exposure based on a different area of the image from the area that you want to be in focus.  But the dedicated apps will give you greater control, as they allow you to choose the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for each shot.

For this image of a whirling dervish in Goreme, Turkey, I wanted to blur the dancer so as to give a sense of the continual turning motion in the ceremony, so I used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode and selected a slower shutter speed.  Buy this photo on my website

The key to successfully using your camera’s manual settings is to learn how they work and to practice at home, long before you actually take a trip.  Like anything else, selecting the settings we want on a camera takes practice.  In this digital era, it’s easier to learn because you can see the results of each setting immediately on your camera’s screen.  So dig out that camera user guide, or find it online, or search for a good tutorial.  But do learn how to adjust the key settings manually.

The first manual setting every photographer should learn is how to turn off your camera’s flash.  This sounds very basic, but I’m always amazed to see so many flashes going off in inappropriate places: museums that don’t allow flash photography, cultural performances, sports stadiums where the subject is thousands of feet away from the camera (the flash will only provide acceptable lighting for a few dozen feet, at most), and even the shy octopus exhibit at our local aquarium.  Believe me, you do not want to flash the octopus.  So learn how to turn your flash off, and be sure you actually do turn it off when you’re in a venue where flash is inappropriate or won’t help your image be better exposed.  Remember that glass reflects light, so you don’t want your flash on when shooting through windows of a vehicle or the glass windows of animal enclosures at zoos or aquariums.

Next, learn how to set your camera’s exposure manually.  The light meters built into today’s cameras are very smart, but they are also easily fooled by tricky lighting conditions.  The most common problem is backlighting.  If your subject is lit from behind, as many outdoor subjects are, your camera’s auto mode will likely expose for the brighter background and will leave your main subject underexposed.  You can adjust for this is several ways.  It may be good enough to just use your camera’s exposure compensation button to dial in, say, one extra stop of exposure.  Use your camera’s LCD screen and (if it has one) the histogram, to see how the subject is exposed with varying levels of compensation.  In some cases, you can use fill flash to fix backlighting problems.  To do so, manually turn on your camera’s flash, or attach a separate flash unit, and choose the setting for “fill flash” or “balanced TTL” (through the lens) flash mode.  Again, check exposure using your camera’s screen and histogram.  I find I usually get good results in tricky lighting conditions by using my camera’s spot metering mode, which tells the camera’s meter to use only the very center (or whatever area I select) of the image when choosing the exposure.

Other than allowing you to properly expose your main subject, manually setting the exposure also gives you control over what combination of shutter speed (how long the exposure lasts), aperture (how wide the lens is open), and ISO (how sensitive the camera is to light) you want for each shot.  If you’re shooting fast moving action like sports or wildlife, you will likely want to choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion (unless you want a blur effect as an artistic choice).  If you’re photographing a waterfall or sky and want to get some nice blurring of the water and/or clouds, you will probably want to choose a slower shutter speed.  Many times you want only certain parts of the image to be in focus.  A wide aperture (low F-stop number such as f/1.8) will give you a shallow depth-of-field, allowing only one part of the image to be in focus and blurring the other parts.  Conversely, a narrow aperture (high F-stop number such as f/16) will allow all parts of the photo to be in focus.  The final element determining exposure is the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor, measured by an ISO number.  Select a higher ISO (such as 1600 or above) only when you really need the extra sensitivity for very low-light subjects when a longer shutter speed or wider aperture is not suitable.  When you use very high ISO settings, the image will tend to have a lot of noise.  Today’s cameras are getting better at limiting noise at high ISO settings, and there are ways to reduce some of the effects of the noise using post-processing software, so my approach is to use as high an ISO as is required after considering the range of available shutter speeds and apertures.

To capture these professional beach volleyball players in sharp focus and to freeze the moment, I selected single-focus-point focus mode and chose the exact spot in the viewfinder where the players would be positioned, and also used my camera’s shutter-priority exposure mode to select a very fast shutter speed.  Buy this photo on my website

The other major type of manual setting that you need to know how to use is focus.  Most cameras today do a pretty good job of choosing the right part of the image to focus on, but they often need some help from the photographer.  From simple smart phone cameras through professional DSLRs, the autofocus function almost always lets the photographer select what part of the image they want to be in focus.  If you keep your camera in fully autofocus mode and don’t help by selecting where your main subject is, it may very well guess incorrectly and put another part of the image as the center of focus.  So, learn how to select the focus point even while letting your camera’s autofocus mechanism actually choose the focus distance.  Sometimes a camera’s autofocus capability may not work for the conditions under which you’re shooting, and in these cases you need to turn off autofocus completely, and focus in manual mode.  Some instances when this is necessary are when shooting in very low light conditions, or when shooting in poor contrast environments (for example, your subject’s texture looks a lot like that of its background, or you’re shooting into the bright sun).  In these cases, turn off the autofocus function and adjust focus manually until the subject looks sharp.

It’s still fine to walk around during your travels with your camera set in fully Auto mode, just in case something very unexpected comes up.  But do know how to set the main functions manually so you’ll get the best possible images in the 95% of the shooting situations when you do have time to set up first.

Do you have tips and tricks you can share on manually adjusting the camera’s settings to get great shots?  How about a time you kept the camera on Auto mode and got disappointing results?  Please share your thoughts using the comment box at the end of this post.