TIP #7 Four steps to take party shots in low light by Photo Fella

Ah yes - the indoor party shot.  It's a tough one isn't it?  Especially if you don't want to go around flashing in every face you see.  So what can you do? Ok, first off - some assumptions here.  I'm assuming low light (I'm assuming you don't have studio lighting).  I'm assuming you don't want to use the flash but I will cover some tips on using flash at the end of this blog.  Here's what to do:

Step One: Set the ISO high

First off set the ISO as high as you dare, or use the AutoISO function.  On the APS-C mirrorless cameras that I like to use you can go up to ISO 6400 without much 'noise' (mottling) affecting the image.  ISO6400 helps a lot.

Step Two: Select a 'fast' lens

Secondly choose a 'fast' lens - and pick the right one to attach.  As we described in Tip#1 the aperture affects the amount of light that comes in to the lens, so a fast wide open aperture brings in the maximum light - it's great if your lens goes really fast like F1.2 or F1.4 but even F2.8 is pretty good. Too bad if you only brought your zoom with you because it's a rare zoom that opens as fast as the dedicated prime lenses. Speaking of which the new Fujinon F1.2 56mm sounds like the best one to take to a night time party right? Well no, not really - it's a portrait style lens and since you are going to be indoors you will find you are not able to focus close enough for much of the action. So, what about the F2.8 27mm pancake lens then?  Yep - quite possibly.  A good little all rounder pancake is that lens.  Quite a lovely job.  But what about the F1.4 35mm lens?  Wouldn't that be ideal? Ahhh - sweet!  But wait, not so fast - it IS a lovely lens - but it has one big flaw for indoor party shots.  Unfortunately it is SLOW at focusing in dim light (Fuji are planning a new release of this lens next year which I guess will be fast at focusing).

So basically, you need to decide on which compromises you can live with, at least with the current Fujinon current lens catalog.  I tend to go for the sweet little pancake lens - it is only F2.8 but that's still faster than any of the zoom lenses and it focuses quite quickly, plus being a pancake style it's not in people's faces.  And the image view is pretty much what you eye sees without distortion effects of wide angle. So it's my indoor lens of choice.

Step Three: pick the shutter speed to be reasonably high - have it faster than 1/50 sec

Now if you are at ISO6400 and have a fast lens attached and you are in 'P' mode then the camera will open the aperture as wide as it can and you will be able to get reasonable shots in quite low light at shutter speeds that eliminate or at least reduce hand-shake or the movement of people.  The following shot was taken at ISO6400 at F2.8 with the pancake lens and shutter speed of 1/220 and it managed to take a photo similar to what you might take in a party in very low interior light.

F2.8 pancake lens on X-E1 at ISO6400.  Shutter speed: 1/220 Sec

F2.8 pancake lens on X-E1 at ISO6400.  Shutter speed: 1/220 Sec

If you shoot with a zoom lens attached then you might well get the additional benefit of OIS that will enable you to take a shot down to, say, 1/10 of a second without hand shake affecting the image.  But there are very few people that stay still enough for that to be useful at such a low speed - so save that lens for the birthday or wedding cake shot perhaps!

What about the flash?

Yes, the flash will help but there is a lot to discuss on using the flash at parties - and I've made most of the mistakes so I hope I can help you with this.  Here we go.

First off let's just get the basics right.  Flash is very white, bright, FAST light.  So fast that you can effectively freeze or stop motion with this light.  But this will be of little effect if you are shooting with a fairly slow shutter speed as well as using the flash because the movement of people can still be blurred in the image from the background light in the time it takes the shutter to open and shut - despite the flash being fast.  You must also select a high enough shutter speed to avoid the background blur of movement but not so high that the flash will actually catch your shutter mirror moving across the image.  Some cameras automatically match the shutter speed to what is needed by the flash but since some do not, here are some tips.  So without getting technical this means no higher than 1/180 second for the Fuji X-A1/M1 and X-PRO1 and X-E1 cameras.  Yes, all you smarty pants X100 owners can smile - your shutter is very different and you can go way faster.  But let's just agree on this blog that a speed of 1/125 (which is what can be set easily on all these cameras) will avoid most background movement AND avoid any hassles with the flash catching the shutter curtain as it moves.  So it's a nice safe speed to set (you might get away with 1/250 Sec but at this speed or faster you will sometimes see a black edge cutting off your image  where you have caught the curtain itself moving across).  On the little X-M1/A1 cameras you select the desired speed by turning the dial around to 'S' shutter mode and choosing the speed of 1/125 by turning the knurled knob. On the X-E1 or X-Pro1 you just turn the shutter speed dial which I just love - this is so great.

Next, we need to tell the flash to shoot according to the requirements of the scene.  Now whole books can be written on this topic, but I can recommend the second curtain mode which the Fuji cameras support.  What this means is that the camera uses the ambient light for most of the shutter 'click' but just before the shot ends, it calculates how much more light is still required and dials that into the flash and bang - pushes that light out.  It's incredible really.  The camera does all this so fast - and what it means is that you can take shots that don't have motion blur, that in fact will have some nice ambient light in them and will still be filled in a bit more with the flash.  Here's the little Buddha with this mode on:

Shot taken at 1/125 Sec with second curtain flash to provide additional light

Shot taken at 1/125 Sec with second curtain flash to provide additional light

Of course this image shows some negative aspects of flash - harsh shadows being one (look behind the arms).  Anyway without a lot of effort this is what flash gives - additional light, but it comes at a cost.  I try and avoid it, but I still have lots to learn and no doubt some kind soul will give me some tips to help me with this quite difficult field.

Paul

TIP#6 Five ways to get sharp holiday snaps by Photo Fella

A colleague asked me a question at work recently - I have a nice camera, why aren't I getting sharp photos?

Well I had this problem quite frequently and then I found a pattern of things that resulted in the photos not being as 'crisp' as I would have liked.

Reason One: The focus appears not to be sharp

Resolution: In most modern digital cameras the camera starts to focus as you gently press the shutter, and the camera will give a quick little bleep to let you know it is focussed.  Then as you keep pressing the shutter button all the way down the camera then proceeds to take the shot.  

If you simply press the shutter button quickly all the way down in one fast motion (which a lot of people do) then there isn't time for the camera to focus.  Result? The camera does its best, but basically it will be hit and miss. Instead, why not try and practice a two step shutter pressing motion - first a gentle squeeze until you hear the bleep or the green rectangle of focus, then you keep pressing all the way down.  Hey presto! The shot is in focus.  

Most of the Fuji X series are generally slow to focus because of the technology they use (which is accurate but slow, especially in low light) so you will need to practice. In contrast, the Olympus OMD is so fast you don't need to worry at all.  In other words you need to get to know how your camera performs, but always safe to use the two step motion on the shutter.

You can help the situation by using a smaller aperture (bigger F number) which gives you some focus wriggle room (see previous Top #2 on taking action shots for more on this). 

Reason Two: The camera is actually focussed on the background and not the subject

All  cameras have different modes for focusing and the default is often called 'Multi' where the camera will try and figure out the subject of interest by dividing the scene into small grids and trying to figure out the subject.  Sometimes (often?) it gets this wrong. This is a whole topic in itself, but one tip is that you can use face detect mode to get the camera to try and focus on faces if that's what you want.  Note that X-M1 and X-A1 support face detect but the more 'professional' level cameras which do not generally have scene modes do not. But basically, you do have to learn a bit about the focus modes of your camera to get this right.

Of course, you can always manually focus and deliberately set the subject foreground or background into focus as you wish (see further below on this).

Reason Three: The camera or lens is shaking

Resolution: All cameras and lenses can blur the images if you are hand holding especially if you are in a bouncing car, or holding the camera at arms length (for example).  But many cameras support  Image Stabilization in the lens or via the camera itself so please ensure that this is turned ON.  A travel colleague went through Myanmar with us but didn't get the crisp shots she wanted.  When I checked her camera I found the OIS was turned off.  A friend apparently had told her to turn off the OIS function on her zoom lens.  I think the friend was trying to say turn off the function if you are using a tripod (which is true) - but if you are using hand held then leave it ON - it's a blessing.  

In the case of the Fuji X cameras, this is a function of the lens and not the camera.  The Fuji metal casing zooms have a little switch on the base of the lens marked OIS (the plastic casing zooms do not have a switch).  

You can see the switch for Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) here - turn it on and things will be great! Thanks to EPhotozine for the pic: http://ht.ly/z7td3

You can see the switch for Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) here - turn it on and things will be great! Thanks to EPhotozine for the pic: http://ht.ly/z7td3

Turn the switch ON or if your lens does not have a switch check it is on via the Menu.

Many of the Fuji lenses such as the 27mm pancake lens do NOT have stabilisation.  Regardless of OIS or not, all cameras will try and give you a warning symbol to show if the shot is likely to blur from hand shake.  On the Fujifilm cameras it's a little yellow symbol with little wings.

If you pick a higher shutter speed  the warning will go away. Or if your camera supports scenes you can simply use the dial to select the fast action scene mode (usually a running person icon) - see previous blog TIP#5 for more on this. Or you could try the flash.

Reason Four: the subject is fast moving and you are finding motion blur

Check out my previous posting for TIP #5 on taking action shots - basically you need to select a faster shutter speed.

Reason Five: you are finding a graininess or grittiness in the photos 

This is a function of the electronic 'noise' that creeps into photo when the ISO is pushed too high.  This is a whole topic and I have covered that one in my earlier blog TIP #3

Paul

 

TIP#5 Four tips for taking sports action shots (esp. with the Fujifilm cameras?) by Photo Fella

The X series cameras have not been known for their focusing speed until recently. A very recent fast focusing camera is the fixed lens X-20 that has a hybrid sensor combines contrast and phase detection, plus a really fast processor to enables very quick focusing and operation - see: http://ht.ly/yIjoD However, for those of us with the X-A1, X-M1, X-E1, X-PRO1, we must live with the relatively slow focusing performance of these cameras - especially in low light.  Various firmware upgrades have sped up the focusing, (if you haven't upgraded the firmware, then please go to this site:  http://ht.ly/yIkg0 However even after the upgrades to both the cameras and the lenses, the speed of focusing is still not as good as many other cameras in the market. This particularly impacts when you try and take action shots.  But it certainly can be done. Check out this great blog with some amazing photos if you want convincing: http://ht.ly/yIl2B 

Here's a photo I took recently with the X-E1:

X-E1 ISO 640 f3.5 1/2000 Sec taken with 55-200mm zoom (some vignetting applied to highlight the action)

X-E1 ISO 640 f3.5 1/2000 Sec taken with 55-200mm zoom (some vignetting applied to highlight the action)

Tip One: use a high shutter speed

Of course this has nothing to do with focus, but a high shutter speed will certainly capture the image of fast moving people or pets.  Go for the fastest speed you can.  If you have the X-E1 or X-PRO1 then you can select the speed on the dial.  If you have the X-M1 or X-A1 cameras then you can just turn the knob to the setting with the icon of the running person. See pic below:

Turn the knob to the running person icon (just under the SP setting) then the camera will select high shutter speed

Turn the knob to the running person icon (just under the SP setting) then the camera will select high shutter speed

In the running person setting, the camera will  select the highest shutter speed that the lighting will support. But you still have to  focus quickly and that can be hard to do sometimes with these Fuji cameras which are not brilliant at this (Sony and Olympus mirrorless high end compact cameras in particular are known for really fast focusing).  But there are some things that help.

Tip Two: use manual focusing

Manual focusing on the Fuji X series is assisted by what is called 'focus peaking'.  What this means is that the LCD or viewfinder will show you the object and as it moves into focus the outline of the object will shimmer when it is in focus.  It is a tremendous assist.  It was introduced to the X-PRO1 and the X-E1 in later firmware so that's another reason to upgrade the firmware on those cameras. The little cameras came with it built in which is great. For the X-M1/A1 cameras the manual focusing takes a couple of presses to setup. Here's a quick way: press the Q button and the camera will kindly highlight the focus mode on the menu.  Rotate the back knurl knob to MF and press the central MenuOK button.  Now you can focus with the lens ring.  if you press DOWN the knurled knob (I mean vertically down) it provides a magnified view and this gives you a clearer peak assist for focusing.  Pressing the knob directly down again, toggles it back.  OK, we can now manually focus.  That's how I took the skateboarders: I manually focussed on the ramp and then I could click away without the camera needing to focus each shot.  By the way, when you want to go back to normal focus, press Q and then select the focus mode back to your preferred mode.  The default AF mode is an icon with of a square with another square centrally inside it. But the other mode is AF-C where the camera will try and keep things in focus wherever you are pointing it.  It works ok but it sure chews up the battery - be warned! Here's another example where I manually pre-focussed first. (I also used changed the drive setting to make the camera take several shots a second while the feather was dropping - I will cover that tip as well here):

A feather at the beach - I set the lens to manual focus and used high shutter speed and burst mode

A feather at the beach - I set the lens to manual focus and used high shutter speed and burst mode

Tip Three: Try and use a smaller aperture and set up a zone range of focus

This technique is called range focusing and what it means is that the image will be in focus in a zone back a little from the subject and again remain in focus from the subject towards the camera as well.  How big that zone is depends on the lens itself and the aperture you select. One of the great Fujinon lenses for zone work is the 14mm wide angle - it has a great range of focus especially once you get the aperture smaller than F4.  In fact you can set it to F8 and be totally  confident that all shots you take will be in focus. Check out:  http://ht.ly/yL6wp 

For other lenses such as the fixed prime lenses or extreme telephoto lenses, the zone of focus that you can achieve is more restricted and especially when you get to use a telephoto or wide aperture (e.g F1.8 or wider). So what can you do?  First tip is to use a smaller aperture to gain a useful zone, such as F8.  Then you've got some wriggle room.  The downside is that the camera will tend to keep the background in focus and that may not be to your liking.  Plus it cuts down light so you need to have good outdoor lighting. 

Tip Four: If you are trying to take an action shot, then consider using the Burst Drive setting to take several shots a second

The feather shot was actually taken with a fixed focus (manual focus) and then I put the camera into the mode where it takes a burst of shots each time you press the shutter button.

On the back panel the bottom of the central buttons controls the Drive mode

On the back panel the bottom of the central buttons controls the Drive mode

You set the camera into burst mode by pressing the button just under the MenuOK button.  You will see a few choices, I tend to use the maximum the camera allows which in the case of the X-A1/M1 is 5.6 frames per second. Just be aware that this mode requires a pretty fast SD card to use effectively - try and get a card that supports Class 10 speeds if you can.  They are not super expensive these days.

I used this mode together with the fixed manual focus and very high shutter speeds to take the shots of the feather and the skateboarders.

Have fun with sports shooting - it can be done with the Fuji cameras with a little bit of practice.

Paul

TIP#4 How can I take nice shots of sunsets? by Photo Fella

One thing I have played around with is taking sunsets...there is something wonderful about a nice sunset isn't there?  Let me share one I like from Myanmar:

Myanmar sunset X-PRO1 60mm F2.4 ISO 400 1/110Sec at -1 exposure

Myanmar sunset X-PRO1 60mm F2.4 ISO 400 1/110Sec at -1 exposure

It turns out that sunsets are particularly tricky for a number of reasons.  Let's go through the main reasons and cover off what you can do to still get reasonable results.

Issue One: As the sun goes down our eyes colour adapt - but they do this differently to your camera and so your camera won't see things the way you do.

I guess we have all experienced the fact that our eyes do an amazing job of colour adapting as the sky changes colour during sunset - right up until the sun goes down we see colours pretty much as we expect to see them.  But there is a point of inevitable reddening of the sky and our eyes and brain cannot overcome the lack of other colours and so we experience the redness in everything.  Usually this is very pleasing.  Here's a further example of how this can be a nice effect:

Burmese girl in the sunset - showing the effect of most colour being red shifted

Burmese girl in the sunset - showing the effect of most colour being red shifted

The issue that most concerns is that digital cameras often try and colour balance too much as the sun goes down.  Digital cameras do not have our eyes or brains and they will work their hardest to keep the colour balanced to a white point that can make the image look quite different to how your eyes (even your adapted eyes) see the sky. They will try and punch up the brightness too much in an effort to get a 'properly exposed shot'.  By default the camera will work hard to bring up the brightness and this will mean a false looking overbright sky that also has a lot of digital noise.  Check out this quite poor example from a very cheap compact camera I once had:

Over white balanced and brightened digital camera sunset

Over white balanced and brightened digital camera sunset

Issue Two: Sunsets are hugely contrasty in nature and the digital camera cannot cope with this. The result is usually too much black with bleached out white areas or the reverse.

What can be done?  The first thing is to take control of Dynamic Contrast - dial it up to the maximum (e.g. 400%) and that will give you camera a good chance of getting a reasonable range of light to dark.

The SECRET!!

The biggest tip I can pass on (I read this one and it is so easy) is to dial down the exposure by at least one stop.  On the Fuji cameras if you are in 'P' mode then you can just twirl the knob on the top right of the camera and under expose as you like.  This will automatically give you a much better sunset and this is how I did the first shot of the Myanmar skyline.

Of course you can try and fiddle with colour balance by turning off the auto white balance, but to be honest, I have found that dialling down the exposure just about always does the trick without any further fiddling.  Here's one I took in Cuba as another example of how this simple technique works:

Cuba sunset - underexposed without any colour balancing

Cuba sunset - underexposed without any colour balancing

I did not do any colour balancing with any of these shots - just underexposed.

If you have a tripod then you can take a series of shots in succession with underexposing by say three stops and then progressively take shots and move up the exposure on each one all the way up to a bit past normal exposure (take six shots).  You use the tripod to make sure you take the images without movement.  You can then use a product like Photomatix http://www.hdrsoft.com/ to combine them to get an even better result than one shot can provide.

Honestly, for the most part I don't bother.  I especially don't bother with the specialized 'sunset' scene modes in the cameras.  I may be unlucky but I haven't found that they have taken as good a result as just underexposing.

Oh - by the way - this technique works for sunrises as well of course:

Mildura at sunrise X-E1 at ISO800 F18 1/500s with -0.33 exposure

Mildura at sunrise X-E1 at ISO800 F18 1/500s with -0.33 exposure

If you have good tips to share on sunsets and sunrises I'd love to hear them

Paul

 

 

 

 

TIP#3 “What’s all this ISO stuff about? And how does it link with shutter speed?” by Photo Fella

ISO

Back in the days of film, every canister had a number on it that defined how sensitive the film was to light.  The technicalities of the scale don’t matter here – the main point is that the higher the number the more sensitive the film was.  Usually the range was from 50 (not very sensitive) to 400 (moderate sensitivity). The low speed film was capable of producing nice rich colours while the higher speed film was good at catching sports and moving images more easily. Here’s an example from a building in Melbourne that used to sell such film! This film would have been ISO100 – a medium speed general purpose film.

The number 100 refers to the speed of the film - and the same concept applies to digital cameras

The number 100 refers to the speed of the film - and the same concept applies to digital cameras

Nowadays most modern digital cameras are pretty sensitive to light compared to film. Usually they are inherently set to about ISO200 which equates to quite a fast film compared to the early days of cameras.  That’s one reason why photographers today have so much more flexibility for taking photos in low light. But there is still the same relationship – the lower you set the ISO the better the image quality and the more light you are going to need to take a given image.  If you are shooting outdoors in plenty of light then you can easily get by with a lower ISO, but once you move inside then your camera will struggle to take a good shot unless you choose a higher ISO mode. The ‘P’ mode and Auto modes take care of a lot of this for you.  But there are benefits in understanding and sometimes directly controlling the ISO on your camera. Let me explain.

The concept of noise

First off let’s look at why high ISO can cause image problems.  This has to do with ‘noise’ and this word can be confusing terminology for people.  It’s nothing to do with the sound.  It’s actually all to do with how light is captured by the sensor.  Every sensor has a base sensitivity (just like film used to) – going up higher in number means that the camera is not allowing as much light to hit the sensor before declaring an end to the shot.  Why would you want to do that? Well, setting a high ISO will enable you to take very fast shots – or you can take a shot in less light without the camera movement wrecking the image so this can be useful when shooting kids or sports for example.

But there is a price to be paid.  The electronics is being asked to do the work of managing on less light hitting the sensor and it does this by amplifying the signal so that the image still looks properly exposed.  The price to be paid is a series of small artefacts that cause a strange blotchiness or a kind of dottiness or ‘pixelation’ of sorts in the image.  Check out what I mean below.  If you take shots at dusk or night time then you might find the effect very noticeable and a bit unpleasant.

Noise blotchiness in early morning photo over railway station

Noise blotchiness in early morning photo over railway station


The noise blotchiness can be seen more easily in this crop

The noise blotchiness can be seen more easily in this crop

There are a variety of special ways to reduce the ‘noise’ effects and some do a pretty good job.  Shooting in RAW mode also gives you much more control over noise.  (Remember that you can often shoot in RAW+JPG mode so you can have the best of both worlds – at the expense of increased storage on your chip.) Reducing noise in images is a very technical area and I won’t go into that here.  The key point is that setting a high ISO mode and shooting in low light means you will run the risk of noise in the image.  But of course you might still be able to take the shot and that might be good enough for the purpose.

So what I am trying to say here is that in general you should try and go for an ISO that is low as possible to enable you to take the required photo.  

Shutter Speed and ISO

The shutter speed comes into play in all this: by choosing higher ISO settings you can get away with a higher shutter speed while still getting a pretty good exposure and this gives you great flexibility.  A fast shutter speed means there is less possibility of the camera shaking in your hand and blurring the image.  For most hand held cameras a shutter speed needs to be reasonably high (at least compared to if you are using a tripod).  Many cameras have image stabilised capabilities and they work pretty well.  But for a rule of thumb you will want to stay at a shutter speed higher than 1 / 20th of a second if you are hand holding a camera.  But even this speed is way too slow if you are shooting street images of people, kids or pets. You will want to use about 1 / 125 or even 1 / 500 to capture people without their movement being visible in the image. To get such a high shutter speed means in turn that you will need a reasonably high ISO selected much of the time. 

For street photography what I find best is to use a moderately fast ISO (say 800) which enables me to keep the shutter speed high (say at 1 / 500 of a second).  Constantly walking between bright sunlight and shadows is an additional challenge for street photography.  The moderately fast ISO will mean your camera might be overwhelmed with light in bright sunlight and on the other hand the shutter speed might be still too fast to take a proper shot when you walk into a shadow of a building.

When I started out taking street shots I was frustrated at over-exposing or underexposing my shots or getting blurred shots due to this complexity of how the light changes dramatically just walking along a street.  Finally what I found really useful was the AutoISO mode.  This mode can work differently on different cameras, but the essence is that the camera will shift the ISO speed up and down as required to keep the shutter speed within a range and this gives you enormous flexibility.  For example, when you take a shot in good light the camera will lower the ISO because there’s plenty of light and the camera can ramp up to a high shutter speed.  Then when you walk into shadow, the ISO will automatically ramp up to the level required to keep to the minimum shutter speed you set (I usually go for 1 / 125 second).  It works well – except that in the case of Fujifilm this mode disables the ‘P’ shifting mode (I blogged about this previously.)

If your camera enables AutoISO then I can recommend it as it is a great thing and has enabled me to enjoy street photography much more.  Here’s a couple I took recently:

Image taken at ISO 3200 F1.8 1/140 sec

Image taken at ISO 3200 F1.8 1/140 sec

This image was taken in very low light, hand held, walking along the street.  The high ISO didn’t affect the image too much fortunately.  I have found it depends a bit on the kind of photo.  The second image was again hand-held but this time in good light and a relatively low ISO was selected by the camera.  In both cases the AutoISO mode was used.

Image taken in good light: ISO 400 F5.6 1/350 sec

Image taken in good light: ISO 400 F5.6 1/350 sec

The Three Steps to ISO control

  1. If your camera has AutoISO mode then first set this up to enable your camera to be able to choose the best values for shutter speed and ISO and aperture while working within the limits you set. I currently use these settings: AutoISO: max ISO 3200, min shutter 1/125 and min ISO 200.  These settings mean that the camera will try and keep to above the minimum shutter speed and will ramp ISO up and down within the two limits I have set while also varying aperture to enable the right exposure.  All this is within the limits of the camera and nature of course – a scene that is too dark or too bright will not work well.  Of course you can manually set the aperture and AutoISO mode will still work – it is just that you will have then given the camera one less variable to enable it to work its magic, but in return you will be able to control the aperture you want which is useful for achieving background focus effects (see previous blog.)
  2. Now set the shutter speed to a value above the speed where camera shake or movement of people will be a problem (e.g. faster than 1 / 125 of a second will generally avoid problems)
  3. Next set the aperture that you want or choose ‘P’ mode to enable the camera to do this for you (in 'P' mode you can shift the exposure and aperture/speed settings up or down from the initial point if you want more fine control – see previous blog on how to do that.)

A final tip

I want to share a final very useful tip I learned. In street photography try to shoot in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the harsh contrasting light.  The shots of people’s faces will be much better and you will be pleased with the results – but of course you will have less light at these points of the day so the camera may need to ramp up the ISO – and there is the risk of a bit of noise creeping in to the photos.

Photography is really all about compromises and this is one of them.  Next blog on wide angle and macro modes.

@photofella 2014 


TIP #2 How do I…get the exposure right on my subjects? by Photo Fella

How to use the ‘Program shift’ and metering modes & bracketing for optimal exposure

Exposure adjustment

Have you ever tried to take a photo of someone and then found that their image was too dark?  Like this image…

Dark image with sunset backlighting

Dark image with sunset backlighting

A common issue is taking a photo where the light is mostly behind the subject – that’s the issue known as ‘backlighting’.  The issue arises with digital cameras because they cannot yet match the ability of the human eye to cope with very light or very dark areas of an image – at the same time.  This range of light to dark is ‘dynamic range’ and on the better cameras is able to be played with to some extent to force the camera to do the job a bit better (but at the risk of introducing some visual spotty artefacts into the picture known as ‘noise’).  We won’t cover dynamic range extending in this blog (because it’s quite technical) but if you are interested check out: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/dynamic-range.htm and also: http://www.fujirumors.com/how-to-expand-dynamic-range/  

Apart from forcing the camera to use more dynamic range, we have some other options.  We can put more light onto the subject (e.g. with floodlighting or with flash) or perhaps we can take a series of pictures that range from under exposed to slightly overexposed (this is called ‘bracketing’) and then process them later to create a single image that captures both dark and light (this is the so-called High Dynamic Range or HDR processing and again this technical and we won’t cover it here).  HDR only works well if the subject is not moving and is best done using a tripod.  I use a program called Photomatix to stitch together such images and it’s pretty good at creating images and can even do a good job of removing movement ‘ghosts’ automatically.  Plus it can do some artistic effects as well. http://www.hdrsoft.com/

See these images below that range from under to overexposed and then the results from processing them together using the software. 

Image Underexposed

Image Underexposed

Image overexposed

Image overexposed

Image average exposure

Image average exposure

Image combined from three photos as an HDR using Photomatix Essentials

Image combined from three photos as an HDR using Photomatix Essentials

You can see that the final image has a good balance of light and dark as the merging enables a good ‘dynamic range’ to be achieved.  I have also shown below an example of what effect can be achieved with playing around a bit– in this case choosing  the inbuilt template ‘grunge’ mode.  It’s not for everyone I agree – but can be fun.  The Pro version has Lightroom and Aperture plug ins.  http://www.hdrsoft.com/

Image combined as HDR with added effect -"grunge" using Photomatix Pro

Image combined as HDR with added effect -"grunge" using Photomatix Pro

But perhaps our best option is to ensure that the subject we are really interested in is correctly exposed in the first place, thereby making sure that the camera does its job as well as it can.

See for example the subject in this photo which I took against strong light coming in from a window:

Image backlit

Image backlit

There are two main aspects to trying to get the subject correctly exposed.  The first is to ensure that the camera is understanding the scene correctly. Cameras these days have a comprehensive set of modes to try and get exposure right. There are various adjustment modes on most cameras that you can select to help with exposure and because this is a non-technical blog I won’t go into all that detail. I will however, highlight three modes that many cameras have: Multi, Spot and Average. 

In multi exposure mode, the camera tries to analyse the entire scene and does its best to work things out – this is the default mode.  Here is an example (do you recall the days of film?  If so, this image might bring back nostalgic memories for you!)

Image exposed using 'multi' mode - the camera did its best but didn't pick up that a key subject was the box of film

Image exposed using 'multi' mode - the camera did its best but didn't pick up that a key subject was the box of film

Image exposed using 'spot' metering mode to point to the film box

Image exposed using 'spot' metering mode to point to the film box

Image exposed using 'average' exposure which tends to get the sky correct - but not much else!

Image exposed using 'average' exposure which tends to get the sky correct - but not much else!

You will see in the above examples that the camera has limited intelligence and cannot work out exposure in all circumstances, so you will get better results by either bracketing exposures and taking a series of shots, or working out what metering mode to select for the given shot. There is a final approach which is to manually adjust  or shift the exposre up or down - we'll cover that shortly.  But first:

What about just using the flash?

I’ve talked about the backlighting situation as being difficult – one way the camera tries to help is to suggest to use the flash (often a symbol will appear or the camera itself might determine there is a backlight situation and pop up the flash or turn it on).  The idea of the flash is to push additional light to the subject so that the camera then gets a more balanced exposure.  It can works well – but flash has three big drawbacks.  The first is that it won’t help with objects too distant.  In the case of the example photos, I took them from across the street and flash wouldn’t have helped at all.  The second downside is that flash is intrusive.  A flash going off is pretty awful in scenes where you want to catch people being natural and unaware of the camera.  The third disadvantage is that flash changes the light because it is a very high temperature blue/white light and the effect of that can make subjects look ‘cold’.  

What about raw mode & dynamic range– doesn’t that help with exposure?

You may have heard of ‘raw’ mode.  I won’t cover it in this blog but will do so in a later one.  It means that the camera stores as much of the information from the sensor as it is able.  Raw mode is important to know about in this context of exposure because it is much more forgiving if you underexpose an image.  The software (for example Adobe Lightroom) will enable you to bring out much more detail from shadows and darker areas from Raw than can possibly be rescued from a JPG (which is the standard way the camera stores images).  So if you use Raw mode you have a lot more latitude in how you expose a shot - it particularly gives you the abilty to handle under-exposed images.  That’s why I wanted to mention it.  Fortunately newer cameras allow you to save in Raw+JPG mode so you get the best of both worlds.  JPG is quick and easy to share with other people while the RAW files give you ultimate detail.  More on all this later. (Just a word of warning for iPAD folk who use the camera adapter to bring in images to the iPAD from a camera - the iPAD seems to automatically select the RAW images to transfer to the iPAD and they are HUGE.  You cannot seem to tell the iPAD just to bring over the JPG files as yet in current iOS version 6/7 of iPAD software.  Hopefully APPLE will give us more control soon.)

Here’s what you can do by adjusting the exposure manually – ‘P’ Mode with program shift

On many occasions I have found it’s great to use ‘P’ mode and then shift the exposure up or down manually to try and get the shot you want with the exposure correct on the subject.  Yes, I agree that you may well overexpose the background (and this sort of photo may therefore not satisfy a professional) but the subject will be exposed correctly, and for me this is the main point because you can then crop the subject and you will have a nice photo.

So what the heck is this ‘P’ mode with exposure shifting all about?  The mode stands for Programmed Auto Exposure which doesn’t help a lot, but it happens to be the most versatile mode on your camera.  It enables you to set the camera to take the exposure just how you want it and it will set aperture and shutter speed as needed to help get things right.  Here’s a typical ‘P’ mode setting on the control dial:

The photo shows the ‘P’ mode selection and is also showing the adjustment knob – sometimes this is a rocker switch that you adjust on the back of the camera.

The photo shows the ‘P’ mode selection and is also showing the adjustment knob – sometimes this is a rocker switch that you adjust on the back of the camera. 

The photo shows the ‘P’ mode selection and is also showing the adjustment knob – sometimes this is a rocker switch that you adjust on the back of the camera. 

I find that using the ‘P’ is my standard setting because it’s so useful.  It means the camera is basically semi-automatic: you have the camera doing the heavy lifting but you can tweak the exposure such as in situations where the subject is in front of a source of light like a window – this situation is known as back lighting because the light is coming from the back of the subject.  Taking a photo of a person with the sun behind them is a similar situation.

How to use the ‘P’ Mode.

The ‘P’ mode on cameras enables the camera to automatically select the Aperture and Shutter speed while enabling you to shift (adjust) the exposure up or down.

The Three Steps to Exposure Control

  1. Set the camera to ‘P’ mode
  2. Set how the exposure is going to work on your scene and decide whether to leave the metering in default ‘multi’ mode, or put into ‘spot’ (e.g. for a person shot) or ‘average’ (if you are doing sky/landscape shot)
  3. Then SHIFT the exposure up or down using the knob or rocker button on your camera so that the subject looks to be exposed how you want. You can also shift the aperture and shutter speed using another rocker or dial - and the camera will keep the exposure just how you want it.

There are some quirks to using 'P' mode - at least with Fujifilm cameras.  The main quirk is that you can only shift the aperture/shutter speed combination if you do NOT have Auto ISO and Auto Dynamic range set.  In other words you need to have selected Dynamic range to a fixed value, say 100% and set the ISO to something e.g. 1600.  Then you can shift the aperture/shutter speed combination to values you like.  If you have ISO on Auto or Dynamic range on auto then you simply don't get the option to shift.

I want to share a final very useful tip I learned: by pointing your camera at a subject and lightly pressing the shutter half way down (until you feel a slight resistance) it will both focus AND set exposure for exactly where you are pointing (this is particularly useful if you are in ‘spot’ metering mode).  Then you keep the button held down halfway and you can move the camera view a bit to frame the shot better.  Finally you then press the shutter all the way down.  This approach keeps the exposure and focus locked in as you move the view and enables you to easily get the shot you want.  So for example, suppose you were taking a photo of a bird, you could point to it, get the exposure right and then move slightly to frame up the shot nicely and still have the exposure correct for the bird. There’s also often a mode or button to do this called AE Lock or similar, but I find the half pressed shutter works pretty well.

A final tip which took me a while to uncover: many modern cameras with scene modes have facial recognition enabled so that the camera will focus on a face that the camera can lock onto.  This is usually indicated by a green rectangle over the face – that’s all well and good but the issue is that this may NOT be where you actually want to get the camera to meter the exposure.  In this case all you can do is find a way to turn the facial recognition off.  That’s now my default mode – for simple point and shoot compact cameras it’s fine to leave it on – but the whole point of high quality cameras is to put you in charge so I’d recommend you consider turning it off.

We will cover wide angle, and macro modes next week and dynamic range/raw mode after that. I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Stay tuned…@photofella 2014 

TIP #1 How do I…achieve that nice ‘background out of focus’ effect? by Photo Fella

(or how to get people to “ooh” and “ahh” at your photos)

Getting that lovely out of focus effect – it's about opening ‘wide’ and saying “aahh”

I’m not talking about going to the doctor with a sore throat! I’m talking about the many benefits you will find in a particular way of taking photos.  If you get this effect right, then you and your friends will certainly say “aahh” out of pleasure at the results!

Take a look at this photo from last week– what strikes you most about it?  

Autumn leaves - taken with the Fujifilm XF60mm Prime at F2.8

Autumn leaves - taken with the Fujifilm XF60mm Prime at F2.8

Can you notice that the eye is drawn to the pendulous yellow leaves because the background is nicely out of focus and has a pleasing effect? The key reason is that the background is not intruding on the image and is smoothly blurred out into pleasing circular blobs.  The Japanese so loved this pretty blurring out of the background that they even coined a term for the effect that is now widely used:  bokeh (often pronounced boh kay, or even boh Ka).  Think of it as a bouquet of flowers maybe! Achieving this pretty effect requires a good lens and knowing how to throw the background out of focus - that's what this blog is all about.

Now here’s a counter-example where unfortunately everything is in focus.  I took this one in China a few years ago:

Example from trip to China where the depth of field (focusing depth) is too large

Example from trip to China where the depth of field (focusing depth) is too large

It’s a fairly typical holiday snap – I was aiming to catch the dancer and the little camera I had at the time certainly did do that…but all the background makes the image confusing.  It doesn’t have any bokeh for sure! The eye is a bit confused as to where to look.  How much nicer it would have been if the background was out of focus but the subject IN focus.  With this camera I was very limited in how I could do this – but more to the point I didn’t really know what I was doing. 

But a couple of years later with the Fuji X-PRO1 I took this shot in Myanmar (Burma):

Myanmar girl and father - taken with XF35mm prime at F2.4

Myanmar girl and father - taken with XF35mm prime at F2.4

This picture of the little girl and her very proud father remains a favourite of mine. It was taken at f2.4 (stay with me here – I will explain all in non-technical terms).

So what does all this have to do with opening wide and saying “aahh”?

What enables this effect of blurring out the background?

This effect of keeping the object IN focus and the background OUT of focus is really all about depth of field (DoF).  The depth of field refers to the extent to which the lens focus on objects that are close and far away.  You might think it would be great to have a camera that can focus from really close to infinity, and indeed many small ‘point and shoot’ cameras do focus in this fashion.  However, as I hope I have demonstrated, it is often nice to do the opposite – to deliberately aim for a shallow depth of field.

This is fundamentally an effect based on how ‘wide’ the lens can open (often expressed as how ‘fast’ a lens is) because this is the major determinant in achieving a shallow depth of field. This shallow depth of field is the key to what this effect is all about (shallow because only the object is in focus, not the background or the foreground).

To explain, a lens is a piece of glass that bends light into focus on a detector at the rear of the camera (it used to be film but now is a digital sensor).  If the light is too bright for the sensor then it needs to be reduced – this is the function of something inside the lens called the diaphragm, which opens and closes progressively to control light. When the diaphragm (think of it as a little curtain) is wide open then a maximum amount of light passes through – when the shutter is nearly closed then very little light gets through.  When the curtain is letting in all the light this is called ‘wide open’ and when very little gets through it is called ‘stopped down’.

The physics of the lens plays out here.  A lens that can let in a lot of light is called ‘fast’ and not surprisingly a lens that doesn’t let a lot through is called ‘slow’ (and can be made more cheaply).

It turns out that due to the physics of light, that the wider a lens is opened up (i.e. the “faster” it is), that the more it will be able to focus on the specific point and blur out the background – and even the foreground.  A lens that is stopped down, or ‘slow’ by nature, will tend to keep everything in focus.

So, here is where it gets fun – you can control the depth of field within the physical limits of the camera.  The way to do this is by aperture control and depth of field.  Large depth of field means that objects will be in focus from near to far.  Shallow depth of field means you can keep the object in focus with the foreground and background out of focus.  Cheaper lenses or a stopped down lens will tend to have large depth of field.  Everything will be in focus.  This is sometimes fine: you might want a large depth of field for landscape photography.

(Telephoto lenses can also achieve shallow depth of field when they zoom right in on an object – so that’s another way to achieve this effect – but that tends to need a quite long telephoto lens.  The effect is also quite different, as it tends to foreshorten or flatten the perception of depth.) For this blog I’m going to concentrate on the typical good compact camera with a small zoom ratio and the ability to control the aperture manually.)

Aperture is how wide/fast the lens is and I am NOT going to go into the technical explanation of the term – this is a blog for easy reading.  Check out this reference if you want to learn about aperture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aperture

The measure of the aperture is F-stops which is where the term “stopping down” originates. There's a diagram in the wikipedia reference that shows this. You will see that the smaller the number the larger the aperture  - you do have to get your head around this.  As a rough rule of thumb if the aperture is smaller than around f/5.6 (say f/11) then everything will tend to be in focus whereas if you can set the camera to wider than f/4 (say f/1.4) then you will get a lovely out of focus background effect.  The image of the little girl and the man was taken at f/2.4 and achieved a quite strong effect.

(By the way for those more technical readers, I realise that the f stops need to be compared relative to how they are quoted on a 35mm camera – please forgive me for just keeping this rough rule of thumb a little simpler in this blog.)

Large apertures can even help you ‘see through’ wire mesh!

If your lens can open wide and has a low enough F number then you can even focus “through” objects – check out this image: 

It was taken at Melbourne Zoo and the wire mesh was between the tiger and the camera.

It was taken at Melbourne Zoo and the wire mesh was between the tiger and the camera.

At f/4.8 I was still able to focus ‘through’ the mesh onto the tiger and the camera kindly blurred out the mesh and almost made it invisible.  The darkening around the tiger was my attempt at what is called vignetting – it aims to remove visual distractions.  I overdid that effect here –I will cover vignetting in a later blog – it’s best used a little less than I did here.

Setting the Aperture manually

So back to aperture – how can we take a photo that people later will say “ahhh” with pleasure at it? This is all about setting the camera to the aperture we want.  If you have a little point and shoot then sorry – your options are extremely limited – this is a function of the lens and camera combination.  Most point and shoots will open to about f/5.6 and can’t really do much better.

If you have a decent camera, you can do this.  As an example let’s take the Fuji X20 that a friend of mine has recently purchased (I don’t own that particular camera but it’s a good example of recent high quality small camera that can achieve nice out of focus effects).  How might my friend go about taking a portrait shot of someone where she wants to blur out the background?

First she would put the camera to “A” mode on the dial (stands for aperture) and most cameras will have this function. 

Aperture Mode selected on typical small high quality camera (Fujifilm X20 in this example)

Aperture Mode selected on typical small high quality camera (Fujifilm X20 in this example)

Then she would rotate a dial on the back to get the LCD screen to show the smallest F number possible (widest open aperture). This camera can get as wide as F/2 – and is quite capable of nice effects – see this review which compares it with a couple of other cameras: http://www.cameralabs.com/reviews/Fujifilm_X20/  (The flower example in this link shows the shallow depth of field effect nicely).  You will see that the numbers on the front of the lens indicate how wide/fast it can go:

The numbers 1:2.0 – 2.8 mean that the lens can achieve F2 when fully wide and F2.8 when zoomed in for telephoto effect.  

The numbers 1:2.0 – 2.8 mean that the lens can achieve F2 when fully wide and F2.8 when zoomed in for telephoto effect.  

This is quite respectable and enables this camera to be able to achieve lovely focus effects for sure.

You should know that using a wide aperture (low F-number) will not be possible in bright light.  If the light is too bright, the camera will let in too much light and you will overexpose the image.  (You could use a filter to reduce the light and keep the aperture open to max but that’s getting beyond this blog).

You might also find that the lens will move to a larger F number, (achieving less of an ‘out of focus effect’ as you zoom in – i.e. as you zoom towards an object).  So, in fully zoomed mode, you might find you have a reduced ability to blur out the background.  On smaller cameras this means you might want to go with less zoom and walk more closely towards the person. But be careful of walking in too close or you might find a distortion of faces and objects – we will cover this effect in a later blog.

The Three Steps to keeping the background from intruding

Assuming you have a decent camera and lens combination then:

1.       Set the camera dial to ‘A’ mode (A is for “aahh” remember?)

2.       Choose the lowest f number that your available light and camera and zoom position will permit.  Ideally f 1.4 if you can achieve that.  This is usually set via a dial or rocker switch on the back of the camera but on some larger cameras may be manually set on the lens itself)

3.       Then it’s all about getting the distance to the object – moving in fairly close but not so far that they appear squashed out of shape – then allow the camera to focus on the object you want and have some fun!

One more thing.  Some cameras have a portrait mode (often an icon of a person that can be selected on the dial).  This mode will enable the camera to try  to give you this effect automatically.  But I have found it also tends to soften the image a bit much in an attempt to avoid blemishes.  I have found many cameras overdo this effect so I personally don’t use that mode.

For a final example, here’s a photo I took last year, which was also taken through a wire mesh (I did not use any image processing to remove the mesh because the lens focussed through it and made it invisible, but I did clean up the image a bit in terms of contrast):

Photo was taken through wire mesh and glass at wide aperture

Photo was taken through wire mesh and glass at wide aperture

Final note to acknowledge the more technical folk: I realise many people might say that f stops need to be considered relative to the image sensor size of the camera and also that extreme telephoto lenses can achieve the same shallow depth of field effects – however I wanted to provide the minimum understanding needed to just get some nice people shots without getting too technical.  Feel free to let me know if this level of information proves helpful or if there are better explanations I can offer to fellow enthusiasts.

Next blog will cover off the power and benefits of using "P" mode on your camera.  Stay tuned…@photofella 2014