Friday, September 19, 2008

An easier way to autofocus

The way most modern cameras is set up is that when you half push the shutter button down the camera automatically focuses and takes an exposure reading at the same time. Then you push the shutter all the way down to take a photo.

This way of doing things is OK for some situations but for others it's very annoying. Take this photo of a sunset of Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya, northern Thailand. There've been a few sunset shots over on the Flickr group so I thought I'd get in and post my own!

Now in a situation like this, where the focus is on the spire of the Wat (temple) in the foreground, we're presented with a problem. The focussing squares of many modern cameras are in the middle of the frame. So if we want to focus on the Wat we have to move the camera to the side, position the focussing square over the spire, half push the shutter button down, and then re-frame the picture. And as soon as we take a photo that focus is lost. To take the same shot again (which you would do because the sun is moving and you might want different variations) we then have the move the camera back and re-focus it on the Wat every time we take a shot. Very annoying.

In the old days what I always used to do was focus once on the Wat and then put the lens on to Manual focus. That way every time I pushed the shutter button I wouldn't have to worry about postitioning the focus square back over the Wat again. The focus was locked.

With my digital camera though I do it differently. In the custom functions of many cameras you can change the button that you use to focus the camera with. One of the options is to change it to the Automatic Exposure Lock button, represented by a * on the Canons and AEL on many other brands. It sits in a very comfortable position right where your right thumb rests naturally, on the top right hand side of your camera just in front of the LCD if you have one. So in order to focus all you do is push down with your thumb. It couldn't be easier.

So now when I'm taking a photo like the one above I use autofocus on the Wat using the * button and then take my finger off the button. As long as I don't push the * button again the focus is locked. So I can re-frame my picture and take lots of photos and the focus won't move.

The advantage of using this method over the 'switch the lens to Manual Focus mode' way of doing things is that if something catches your eye in the foreground and it's moving pretty quick, you don't have to remember to switch your camera back to autofocus. You just point your camera at the new photographic subject and push the * button gain.

Try it, I guarantee that once you get used to it it's an addictive way of focussing your camera. The only down side with it is if you give your camera to somebody to take your picture, they almost never manage to focus the camera! Telling them to push the * button to focus and then the shutter button to take the photo seems to confuse most people and you come away with a whole bunch of blurry photos of yourself. I speak from experience!

Have a great weekend and don't forget to post some shots or ask some questions of the Flickr group.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The thought process behind photography.

The key to any great photograph is the thought process behind it. Conveying what you felt when you saw an image in your head. That's right. In your head. The biggest key to unlocking your true photographic genius is to have a picture of the photograph you want to take in your head before you even get your camera out of the bag.

So in order to run you through how I think through things in my head photographically I thought we'd use this picture here. The reason I chose this image is because it's not a hero shot, just a nice little vignette that any of us could take anywhere in the world pretty much.

This floral display is put out every day by one of the housekeepers at the Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa Resort in far north Queensland. I was there on a photo shoot for Destinasian magazine and the assignment was to photograph the resort for the article. I already had the text, written by writer Claire Scobie, and had to take images to complement the writing.

As soon as I saw this floral display I knew I had to photograph it. It is an important little snapshot of the ambience of the resort. The question was how to photograph it. Here was what I thought before I got the camera out.

Firstly I needed to place the flowers in context. I needed to show that they were in the resort so I needed to have them filling only a small part of the frame with the resort in the background. A close-up only of the flowers could have been taken anywhere.

So now that I've decided to include other elements I need to choose the all-important background and how I'm going to show it. The first thing I did was walk around the bowl. Up, down, behind, in front. I wasn't looking at the bowl at all but the background. What looked nice, which colours would go together with the red of the flowers.

I settled on showing the lovely walkway and stairs in the background because they gave me a feeling of how the rooms are elevated above the ground which was quite an attractive feature. So now that I knew what I wanted my background to be I had to choose which lens to use to bring it out.

That's right. Before I even think about apertures or shutter speeds I always think about the lens first. An extreme wide-angle lens would have let me get nice and close to the flowers but it would have rendered the stair case very small and insignificant in the background. My feeling was to have the staircase as prominent as the flowers.

A long telephoto lens would have rendered the background staircase nice and big and close, but its extremely narrow point of view would have meant that we wouldn't have seen any of that glorious rainforest. So I ended up choosing a mid focal length of about 50mm. This rendered the scene in a natural way pretty much equivalent to what I saw with my eye.

Once I had the angle worked out, with the camera on a tripod to keep the framing I wanted it was now time to choose the aperture. Now the aperture controls what is blurry and what is in focus. The wider the aperture (f2.8, f4 etc) the shallower the depth of field. In other words the bowl would be sharp and everything else would be a big blurry mess. A small aperture (f16, f22 etc) would have rendered everything sharp and in detail.

In this particular case I went for a middle of the road aperture of f5.6. I did this for a couple of reasons. Too shallow a depth of field would have meant that that lovely background I had so carefully chosen would have been too blurry and irrelevant. Too much detail though and the eye wouldn't go straight to the bowl. So I chose an aperture that would still lead the eye straight to the bowl but would still retain enough clearness in the background that the viewer could tell what it was.

In terms of the composition of the image I put the flowers at the bottom of the frame for a couple of reasons. The first was that underneath the bowl (which was resting on a railing) was just a boring old piece of lattice work. It didn't contribute to the image I had in my head and what I wanted to say about the flowers. So I got rid of it. The other reason was that by putting the main subject near the edges of the frame (as opposed to smack bang in the middle) you encourage the viewer to look around the entire frame.

And that's pretty much it in a nutshell. How I think about all my photographs. 1. What I want to say. 2. What angle I'm going to say it from. 3. What lens I'm going to use to bring my vision to life 4. What aperture (or shutter speed) I'm going to use. In that exact order.

And you might be thinking, yeah that's fine for a still-life/landscape but what do you do for action photography. Exactly the same. Before the action starts know the picture you want to take. Work out where you need to be to get a nice background. Figure out which lens is going to give you the effect you want and once you're set up shoot like crazy and hope you get what you envisioned. It all starts with the vision. Without that you're just taking snapshots.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Low light ninjas

A lot of travel photography is documentary in nature. You often have to work with the lighting available to you. On a commercial shoot I often bring my own lights and control everything in minute detail but when you're reliant on somebody else's light it makes things tough.

Take these ninjas here. Now your average ninja doesn't run around in the middle of the day in bright sunlight unfortunately. They wear black and like to stick to the shadows.

In this particular case they were inside a pitch black room, lit only by the occasional flash of simulated lightning and very dark, overhead blue lighting. The first thing I do in a situation like this is bump my ISO up. The general rule for photography is you want to use the lowest ISO you can because the lower the better the quality.

So most of the time I have it set on 100, then if it gets a bit darker I put it up to 200 and so on. In this darkened auditorium I just put it straight up to 800. Even then I was working with pretty slow shutter speeds.

My one chance at a good shot came when the main ninja decided to sit down and meditate. Static subjects are always handy in low light! Then his apprentice decided to light a candle right in front of my face and I finally had a bit of a faster shutter speed. Click, click, click. You can see the apprentice's hand has moved in the bottom left hand corner because of the slow shutter speed.

The camera was on a tripod by the way - no point putting more shake in there than necessary. As soon as the candle was lit the rock music started up again and the fighting began. When this happens (and flash is forbidden) your only hope is to try and shoot as much as possible when there's a slight lull in the action and hope for the best. Sometimes you just have to resign yourself to the fact that you can't photography everything.

This is at a place called Date Jidai Mura which is a theme park on ancient Japan in Hokkaido. It was a great place to photograph ninjas, samurai and geisha and my kids loved it!

If you have any low light photos you're happy with, or even those that you're not and would like some hints, post them up on the Flickr group and I will take a look at them and help you where I can. Or if you have any questions post them in the same place and I will be happy to answer them for you. Remember that I'm here to help you all to enjoy and improve your travel photography as much as possible so come on down to the group and join in.