Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Shooting/Exposure Modes – Final Word

Auto exposure mode works extremely well in many situations and in fact for quick grab shots it may be your best bet. But if you want more control to be more creative, spend some time experimenting with Program, Aperture Priority and Manual modes. I promise that you won't regret it!

And, don't forget to read your camera's manual, read it again, and take it with you when you shoot. (After all, my "real" job, is as a technical writer.)

For more information, I highly recommend Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure”.

Happy shooting!

Shooting/Exposure Modes – Scene Modes

Landscape, Night, Portrait, Flower, and other scene modes are great (and vary a lot depending on your camera) when you don’t have the time or interest to fiddle with your exposure settings. They choose the “best” exposure options based on the situation.

For example, Landscape typically chooses a mid-range aperture (11 to 20) because everything is usually about the same distance away, and a safe shutter speed (60 to 125) to make sure there is enough light. For ISO, it assumes there’s sufficient available light, so probably doesn’t have to boost the ISO beyond 100 or 200. Night mode on the other hand, assumes there is very little light, so chooses a high ISO and a safe, possibly slowish, shutter speed, and doesn’t really care about the aperture, so chooses something (4.5 and up) that will produce a “good” exposure.

I must confess that I haven’t used these too much, so I’m probably off the mark on how they work. In any event, I suggest that you use them when you need to, but recognize that they are taking a best guess.

Shooting/Exposure Modes – Manual

Sometimes shown as just “M”, Manual mode lets you choose both the shutter speed and aperture, giving you full control of the exposure. However, you will also need to learn to use the light meter. This is no big deal and actually gives you even more control. Typically the light meter appears in the viewfinder (or LCD panel) as something like “+ . . 0 . . - ”. Note that in some cases the display is reversed, i.e., the “+” is on the right and the “-” is on the left. You may even be able to control how this is displayed using your custom settings.

If the image is overexposed (i.e., too much light is entering the camera), it will look something like “+ ||| 0 . . - ”, in which case you need to adjust the exposure to use one or more of a slower shutter speed, smaller aperture, or lower ISO to ensure a “good” exposure.

If the image is underexposed, it will look something like “+. . 0 ||| -”, in which case you need adjust the exposure to use one or more of a faster shutter speed, larger aperture, or higher ISO to ensure a “good” exposure.

Shooting/Exposure Modes – Priority Modes

Aperture Priority (sometimes shown as just “A”)
This is my fav because I’m usually not shooting moving subjects and want to control depth of field. In this mode you choose the aperture (again using one of the command dials) and the camera chooses the shutter speed that will produce a “good” exposure.

Shutter Speed Priority (sometimes shown as just “S”)
In this mode you choose the shutter speed (again using one of the command dials) and the camera chooses the aperture that will produce a “good” exposure.

Shooting/Exposure Modes - Program

Sometimes identified as just “P”, Program mode is a great way to experiment with various shutter speed and aperture combinations. Each combination produces what the camera calculates to be a “correct” exposure based on the available light and other factors.

Once you select Program mode, you use one of the command dials to scroll through the combinations and then select the one that will best capture what you are trying to achieve. For example, if you want to freeze the action, select a combination with a fast shutter speed (i.e., high number, e.g., 500) and the camera will choose the aperture.

Similarly, if you want a shallow depth of field to make the subject stand out from the background, select a combination with a wide aperture (i.e., small number, e.g., 3.5) and let the camera choose a shutter speed that will produce a good exposure.

Note that you may also need to select your ISO setting (assuming your camera enables this for this mode) based on the available light, e.g., 100-200 if you’re outdoors on a sunny day, or 400 and up if it’s cloudy, or even higher in low-light situations.

Program mode is particularly useful when you want to easily capture a number of different types of exposures - some where the shutter speed is most important, and others where you want to control depth of field. I use it when I'm wandering around without knowing exactly what I'm looking for :).

Shooting/Exposure Modes – Auto

This is the obvious choice for people just starting out, especially those with a new camera. It does everything for you! That means that it selects the shutter speed, aperture and ISO (and probably some other stuff), so it’s making an educated guess about the exposure.

For a brief explanation of these settings, see my Exposure Basics.

Auto is perfect if you need a “grab shot”, or if you are in a situation where you don’t have time to fiddle with your camera settings. On the other hand, it not may achieve the result you are looking for.

Don’t get me wrong – there have been plenty of situations where I thought I could be smarter than the camera’s Auto settings, but was sorely disappointed at the results, especially indoor shots in low light. I have learned to take a shot in Auto first to see what the camera thinks is best, and then use that as a guide when I switch to Aperture Priority or Manual.

Exposure Basics - ISO

ISO determines the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to the light entering the camera through the lens. The higher the number, e.g., 100, 200, etc, the more sensitive the sensor will be to the light entering the camera. The advantage of higher ISOs is that you can use slower (lower) shutter speeds and smaller apertures (higher numbers) given the same amount of available light. The disadvantage of higher settings is the potential for “noise”, which is that grainy effect in which you start to see the individual pixels.

In the old days of film cameras, when ISO was known as ASA, 400 was considered “fast”, meaning that it could be used in low-light situations. Nowadays, settings of 2000 or even higher on some cameras can be used without generating a lot of noise. (That’s one of the main reasons I splurged on my Nikon D7000.)

With lower ISO settings, you will need one or more of, greater available light, slower shutter speeds, and wider apertures, but you will get less noise. The bottom line – don’t boost the ISO unless you really need to.

Exposure Basics - Aperture

Aperture, measured in F-stops, determines the size of the opening in the lens. Obviously the size of the opening affects how much light enters the camera, but more what is important from a practical standpoint, is that it determines how much of the image will be in focus - AKA depth of field (DOF).

Understanding which aperture settings to use can be confusing because of the fact that the higher the number, the smaller the aperture, but the greater portion of the image that will be in focus. Just remember that higher aperture numbers mean more of your image will be in focus. And of course, lower numbers mean that less will be in focus (shallow depth of field), which may be what you want when you are taking a portrait, or a flower that you want to stand out from the background.

F/7.1 - Not that low (wide) but I was close to the grass

To help remember how aperture affects DOF, I like to use the analogy of squinting versus opening your eyes wide. If you squint at something, more of your field of vision is in focus, but it’s all slightly blurry. If you open your eyes wide, what you are looking at directly is in focus, but objects in the periphery aren’t. So too with aperture – smaller apertures (high numbers) mean it’s all in focus, whereas, wider apertures (smaller numbers) mean that only what you are looking at directly is in focus. Well, it works for me…

Exposure Basics - Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is simply how long the shutter remains open during the exposure, i.e., how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to the light entering the camera through the lens. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of seconds. A value of 60 (1/60) means that the shutter is open for one 60th of a second. Similarly, 1 means that it will be open for a full second, and 250 (1/250) means just one 250th of a second.

The higher the number, the less light enters the camera, but the more likely you are to freeze the action in the image you are capturing. If you’re shooting a moving subject, a higher shutter speed is probably appropriate.

1/125 second

The lower the number, the more light enters the camera and the less likely that the entire image will be in focus. Unless you are using a tripod or your camera or lens has built-in vibration reduction, you probably don’t want to use shutter speeds much lower than 60, otherwise you risk a blurry image. However, longer exposures of say ½ a second or longer (again, using a tripod) can produce some very cool effects.

/10 second

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW – Final Word

(Updated May 3, 2014)

RAW files are exactly what the term implies – the actual bits captured by your camera in its native format. Nothing is lost in the in-camera conversion to JPEG.

Even if you aren’t interested in messing with RAW files right now, you may well be later.

Here's a JPEG produced from an unedited RAW file.

And here's a JPEG produced from the same RAW file edited in Lightroom.

Sure, there is an overhead in terms of capturing and storing RAW files, but if you do any sort of post-processing of your JPEGs already, you might be amazed at how much better your results are when you work with RAW.

Happy shooting!

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW – Part 5

JPEG files are probably as good as RAW anyway
For an excellent technical explanation of why I believe you should always include RAW in your image quality settings (probably along with JPEG), check out Thom Hogan’s FAQ page where he addresses the question “Do I really need to shoot NEF? Isn't JPEG good enough?”.

Here's another take on the pros and cons of shooting RAW from Wikipedia:
If you plan not to do much post-processing, then JPEG is probably as good as RAW. If you do however, you'll be able to take full advantage of what you shot in the first place.

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW - Final Word.

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW – Part 4

RAW files would complicate my post-processing workflow
If you're already converting your JPEGs to TIFs during the editing process, chances are you are converting them back to JPEGs at the end of the process. Starting with RAW and ending with JPEG actually removes one file conversion. And the non-destructive editing with Capture NX2 (and Lightroom), means that you wouldn't need to save the intermediary TIF created from the JPEG.

To be honest, I often convert edited RAW files to TIFs to perform special tasks that I can do only with Photoshop or occasionally with ACDSee Pro. But that's just how I work.

Working with RAW does mean learning new software or at least additional features of your current software. However, once you’re comfortable editing RAW images, I’m pretty sure that you’ll feel that the effort was worth it.

That’s not to say that you will always need to process the RAW files. In cases where you are planning just to post certain images to Facebook or email them, then making leveling and other relatively minor corrections directly to the JPEGs (accepting some loss in quality), makes perfect sense. However, if you are trying to “recover” an image that wasn’t exposed correctly (or the way you wanted), I believe that you are far more likely to be successful if you work with the RAW file.

Here's a JPEG produced from an unedited RAW file.

And here's a JPEG produced from an edited version of the same RAW file with some D-lighting, added saturation and few other minor adjustments.

Workflow is really all about personal preferences, so I'll have to say the jury is out on this one...

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW - Part 5.

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW – Part 3

Software supporting RAW files is too expensive
I should point out that my current camera is a Nikon D7000 and before that, my first DSLR was a Nikon D80. So, I can really only speak to processing what Nikon calls NEF files when referring to RAW files.

Nikon ViewNX 2
For Nikon users like me, there is the free ViewNX 2, which lets you view, organize, print, and email image files. It also lets you edit images, including RAW images, by adjusting:
  • brightness
  • contrast
  • D-lighting
  • exposure compensation
  • picture control
  • sharpness
  • white balance
ViewNX 2 also includes features for cropping and straightening images, plus adjustments for highlight protection, shadow protection and a color booster.

Here’s the link to the ViewNX 2 download.

Nikon Capture NX2
A step up from ViewNX 2 is Capture NX2 (I don’t get why these two products use different naming conventions). Capture NX2 offers tons more functionality than ViewNX 2, including:
  • batch tools for applying adjustments made on one image to others, renaming and converting files to other formats
  • color control points which enable you to modify color, saturation, brightness and other attributes to selected areas of the image
  • D-lighting (including a better quality option)
  • distortion control
  • levels and curves and auto levels
  • noise reduction (including a faster and a better quality option)
  • unsharp mask and other focus corrections
Capture NX2 also integrates nicely with ViewNX 2, which I still use to browse and categorize image files. After test driving it for over a month, I picked up Capture NX2 at Henry’s in the summer for $225 all in.

Okay, it’s not cheap, and admittedly not as feature-packed as Adobe’s Lightroom (LR), which from November 23-29 is on sale for US$199. But in many ways I prefer it over LR which, like many of Adobe’s products, requires you to import your images before you can work with them. I personally find that to be a pain. Of course you can also test drive LR as I did a couple of times. When I looked the other day, the web site doesn’t actually indicate how long the trial period is, but probably 30 days.

Here's a link to the free 60-day Capture NX2 trial.

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW - Part 4.

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW – Part 2

Hard drives are too expensive
This past August I picked up a Hitachi 2TB internal drive for about $110 at TigerDirect. In doing some research for this post I discovered that hard drive prices have gone way up since then.

When I looked further, I found an article on TMC Net quoting blogger Marc Bevand whose recent post is titled “1TB Hard Drive Prices up 180% in a Month”. The culprit? - flooding in Thailand, where a large percentage of the hard drives produced in the world are made.

Okay, I have to concede that hard drives, for now at least, are fairly expensive, but I still don't think this is a show stopper long term.

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW - Part 3.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW – Part 1

Years ago when my friend Mark told me that he always shoots RAW and recommended that I do the same, I just didn’t get it. My objections/excuses were:
  1. Memory cards with enough capacity to store RAW files are too expensive.
  2. Hard drives with enough capacity to store RAW files are too expensive.
  3. Software required to process RAW files is too expensive.
  4. RAW files would complicate my post-processing workflow.
  5. JPEG files are probably as good as RAW anyway.
Here's how I respond to those same objections today:

Excuse #1 - Memory cards are too expensive
Before our trip to New York in April of this year, Adorama (which I’ve always wanted to visit) had Sandisk Extreme Pro 16GB SDHC UHS-1 45MB/s cards for sale for $69 USD. At the time, Vistek and Henry’s in Toronto either didn’t have them, or were selling them for a lot more money. I bought two at Adorama for under $150 CAD.

Yesterday I saw that both Henry’s and Vistek are selling what I believe is the same card for $79.99. My 16.2MP D7000 has two card slots, so with two of these cards installed, I can store over 600 images saved in both RAW and JPEG Fine formats!

Of course you can get away with less expensive cards (I wanted the class 10 cards recommended for the HD video on the D7000).

Top 5 Reasons People Don't Shoot RAW – Part 2