Plugged In: Checking technique is always worth the shot

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Note to self: Reread this article whenever personal “shot discipline” slips.

Personal shot discipline simply means knowing what to do in order to get the best photo under different circumstances and then remembering to do so. Nearly everyone’s discipline lapses from time to time. When I promised in last week’s article to write about shot discipline, little did I know how forcefully I would be relearning those lessons myself during the interim.

Over past several days I’ve been going through an accumulation of recent photographs, editing out technically poor images. As a result, this week’s article became a personal reminder about what to keep in mind before pressing the shutter release. Every camera model acts a bit differently when used with factory settings, so the suggestions below are merely starting points for your own experience and testing.

  • Illustration 1

    Illustration 1

    Subject motion was an unexpected problem this summer. Many images taken along Cook Inlet bluffs on windy days were blurred despite seemingly fast shutter speeds. Tripods and image stabilization don’t work in these situations, only fast-enough shutter speeds. This week’s Illustration 1 compares two otherwise identical test images taken moments apart with the same lens. The left side is unusable as a result of motion blur, while the right-side image clearly and sharply resolves individual blades of grass. Avoiding motion blur requires balancing camera and exposure settings, with some trade-offs. We’ll discuss these next week.

  • Proper exposure is always important. Ideally, you’ll set your camera to meter the most important areas of an important shot, actually meter those areas and then know how to compensate your exposure if necessary to arrive at the best overall exposure setting. Try to preserve detail in both shadow and highlight areas, as well as attractive intermediate tones. Purists assert that a single disciplined exposure should be sufficient. While that’s a nice academic theory for purists, it’s rarely fail-safe in practice, even for seasoned professional photographers. Pros need to ensure that they bring back technically good images of every important shot or they won’t remain paid professionals for very long. That’s why they bracket all important shots. In the digital era of large memory cards and quick cameras capable of making eight to 10 exposures a second, bracketing is a no-brainer. Bracket exposures by setting the camera to take one shot at the camera-calculated exposure, then making one or more shots at +0.7 EV overexposure intervals, and one or more shots taken at -0.7 EV underexposure intervals. You can also bracket exposures manually with exposure compensation features. However, most decent digital cameras can be set to automatically bracket every shot, and that’s both faster and more reliable. Keep only the best exposures.
  • Even when automatic bracketing is enabled, there are situations where additional manual exposure compensation is important, such as giving more than the indicated amount of exposure for inherently bright subjects, like sunsets or sunny beaches. Otherwise, bright subjects will look dull and gray. Similarly, dark subjects need less than the indicated exposure to retain their dark look, if that’s what you want.
  • Enable and use any available histogram features to check important shots for correct exposure when you’re reviewing those shots after making them. Do this immediately after making any important shots so you can retake them if necessary. Trust the histogram rather than how the shot seems to look on the rear LCD panel. These often adjust their brightness to the ambient light and are unreliable indicators of proper exposure. You can think of a shot’s histogram as a visual exposure meter showing how dark and light tones are balanced in an image. As a rough rule for most routine photos, the histogram should be centered rather than crowded against either the left side (underexposure) or the right side (overexposure). The differences will be clear if you compare the histograms of sequentially bracketed shots of the same photo. Histograms are especially helpful with manual exposure compensation. The histogram of a bright subject should be biased toward the right side, rather than centered, while the histogram of a dark subject should be biased toward the left side.
  • Set your camera to save all images as both RAW and JPEG files if your camera has that option. Saving and using RAW files gives you far more leeway to correct any exposure and white balance problems later. Also saving an easily reviewed JPEG image provides a file that can be casually reviewed and used without later computer processing, although usually at a lower quality level.
  • As soon as you turn on your camera, check that all options are as you expected. I failed to take that elementary precaution a number of times this summer. For example, I took what should have been striking close-up photos of massed backlit lily pads in a pond near Seward. Only after I later reviewed the images at home did I realize that someone had used the camera, setting it to make low web-resolution JPEG images that can’t be usefully printed. Another time, I failed to reset a camera back to its base ISO sensitivity after using that camera in very dim light. As a result, the later landscape photos were essentially unusable because most of the necessary fine detail was lost in the noisy image.
  • For the same reason, reset your camera to your expected default settings immediately after use. My own default settings are saving files as RAW+JPEG, Aperture priority exposure mode, Auto White Balance and base ISO sensitivity.
  • Auto White Balance is probably the best default white-balance setting, especially if you’re saving files only as JPEG images, which “bake” the color balance irrevocably and uncorrectably into every JPEG image. While Auto White Balance is usually your best all-around choice, some cameras work better when set to their specific tungsten or florescent light settings in those circumstances, so test your own gear under those conditions. Remember to reset the white balance afterward. Incorrect white balance of RAW image files can be easily corrected later in software such as Adobe Lightroom.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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