Don’t Be An Auto-weenie; Shoot Like A Pro

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(Front View)

Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera (plus Battery Grip) with EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens

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(Top View)

Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera with EF 50mm f/1.2L USM prime lens

Photographer’s note:  This is my current primary ‘Pro’ shooter with battery grip.  The Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR, full frame sensor, 21.1 MP camera body.  I would love to have the new & improved Mark III  with its increased shooting rate (more fps), improved autofocus, improved auto ISO and dual memory card capability, but at almost $3,500 (body only) retail price I can’t really justify the purchase—my Mark II still serves me well, and I’ve learned to work around the very few limitations it has.  Current lenses include:  EF 35mm f/1.4L USM prime wide angle; EF 17-40mm f/4L USM zoom wide angle; EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM zoom wide angle/telephoto (*); EF 70-200mm f/4L USM zoom telephoto (*); EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM prime and EF 400mm f/4L USM super telephoto (*) along with Speedlite 430EX II external flash.  (*) = Lenses I use most often for my Travel, Wildlife and Nature Photography. 

Don’t be an ‘Auto-weenie’ start shooting like a pro with your digital SLR.  Okay, you’ve had and used your DSLR for quite some time now—and it’s finally time to spread your wings.  I know that you’re probably addicted to the automatic modes your camera offers (and their factory installed algorithms), but it’s time to explore Manual mode (and a couple of other things).  Don’t be afraid, it’s going to be fun.  I promise.  I’m lucky in that I learned photography in the day of fully manual cameras and film.  You remember film don’t you? But it’s really not rocket-science.  I would like to offer you three suggestions that will immediately improve your photography.  All three suggestions revolve around Exposure (and not like indecent exposure).

If you are going to master photography, and produce some great results, then you need to: Consistently achieve great exposure; produce tack-sharp focus and create interesting, eye-pleasing compositions.  Today’s cameras will do most of it for you; the downside is you give up creative control.  Also, the in-camera (factory installed) algorithms can get confused and not understand what you’re trying to accomplish creatively.

Now let me digress, for just one brief moment, for a personal rant.  I am getting really fed-up with photography snobs who say:  “I only do straight photography and never edit my work (in Photoshop).”  That is just a bunch of misinformed CRAP!  Your photography is ALWAYS edited, the choice is:  Do it yourself with post-edit software (Photoshop), or let the camera do it automatically with its internal algorithms.  And these same self-proclaimed experts are quick to throw Ansel Adams in your face as an example of so-called straight photography.  Wrong again.  Ansel Adams was a consummate innovator, and developed many of the techniques we now take for granted in Photoshop (only he did it in a ‘wet’ chemical darkroom, as opposed to a ‘dry’ digital virtual darkroom).  Each of his prints are unique, because there were so many variables involved in developing and printing the old fashion way, whereas we can replicate our procedures time-after-time with brutal consistency.  Ansel Adams would have loved Photoshop.  Rant over.

Suggestion #1:  Start shooting in CameraRAW as opposed to JPEG.  The amount of digital information you collect within each image is amazing, and it really does enhance your final output.  It took me a long time to make the switch, but my fellow professional photographer friends (thanks especially to Tim) finally convinced me.  My personal workflow in RAW conversion is very basic and simple.  I adjust (or fine tune) the WB (White Balance); I recover as much image detail as I can in any clipped highlights/shadows using the convenient sliders (the lost information is typically highlighted in red or blue, and you just move the sliders until the  red or blue disappears).  Finally I adjust the exposure (my personal preference is to underexpose a tad in RAW conversion to saturate the colors a mite).  I then upload to my Photoshop Elements 11 workspace, and complete and refine the rest of my edits there.  Note:  RAW images are bland, because the camera has NOT applied any of those factory-installed algorithms I was talking about.  You will be applying your own adjustments in Photoshop (or its equivalent).  And that’s where the creativity and fun (and satisfaction) comes in.

Suggestion #2:  Shoot in “M” Manual mode whenever possible.  If the ambient light is static (unchanging) it is very simple and quick to adjust for a correct exposure in “M” mode. I usually determine and set the ISO (film/sensor sensitivity) speed first (keeping the ISO as low as possible to obtain the desired results).  Static subjects in good light can use low ISO’s as a general rule, whereas lowlight or fast action usually requires a higher ISO.  Then I will adjust the Aperture (AV) and/or the Shutter (TV) until the small light meter scale indicates “0” — this is not a tutorial, so refer to your camera’s handbook to learn more about how “M” mode works in your camera.  I still use AV-Aperture Priority and TV-Shutter Priority modes when the light is rapidly changing, or I’m photographing fast-paced action where time is of the essence.  I rarely (meaning never) use P mode or the ‘Green Box’ fully automatic mode.

Suggestion #3:  Use Spot Metering more often (the choice of the pros).  I rarely use Evaluative metering (the default setting for most cameras) except for full frame scenics.  I more typically use Center Weighted Average and Spot metering for a more precise measurement.  Light subject against a dark background?  Spot metering.  Dark subject against a light background?  Spot metering.  Backlit subjects?  Spot metering.  Again, refer to your camera’s handbook for more details, or simply Google spot metering.

I have ‘intentionally’ not gone into a great deal of detail on implementing and using these three suggestions.  As stated before, this is not a tutorial but rather a few simple suggestions to improve your photographic output.  If you’re interested there is a ton of information in your camera’s handbook and also on the internet.  I have learned, however, that to be creative in any endeavor you must first master the basics.  If you are willing to take the time to do that, you will immediately set yourself apart from the multitude that can’t be bothered.  If you’re happy shooting snapshots (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then buy a cheap digital point & shoot and let the camera do the thinking for you.  If, on the other hand, you want to be a PHOTOGRAPHER, then buy yourself a Digital SLR and learn how to use it—and YOU do the thinking.  I will leave you with this final thought from Bryan Larson (Photographer):

“You are smarter than your camera [or at least you should be].” 

(I added the brackets – S. Dennstedt)

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