Photography Tales 4 – Amateur Photography Primer 2

Lynn at Muley Point 2
This is how I like to always imagine myself – out taking pictures.  Taken in 2006 by my son while camped at Muley Point in Utah.

“Buying a Nikon does not make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner.”  – Anonymous

I love it!  I couldn’t resist this quote!  I’ve seen it written many times that it’s not the camera that makes a good photographer.   That seems like common sense, right? A great picture can be taken with any piece of equipment – including a cell phone.  I truly do believe this.  But, as with any tool – understanding how it works and learning how to use it efficiently and effectively –  is definitely to your advantage.

I’ve been without my Nikon for over 3 weeks now.  It’s getting repairs to the shooting mode dial locking mechanism at a Nikon Service Center.  I had noticed last Fall that the dial was no longer locking in place and it caused me to inadvertently shift the dial to a different shooting mode without realizing it.  I had several wildly overexposed photos in the Badlands before I noticed the shift!  Luckily, I had only taken several photos before I realized!  I decided to just live with it until the thin piece of metal that has the shooting mode selections on it happened to fall off my camera several weeks ago.  Luckily, this happened indoors and I heard it hit the floor.  With that critical part now separated from the camera, I decided I needed to just send it away and get both items fixed.

In the meantime, my Canon Rebel T3i has gotten some use.  The only lens I have for this camera at the moment is a 55mm to 250mm telephoto.  My other wider-angle lens for the camera is stored with the trailer in New Hampshire.  I’ve taken to using this telephoto lens for close-up photography, so I’ve been “focusing” on that and playing with my tripod while I wait for my Nikon to be returned.

_MG_6564 lr
I love the way beech leaves tend to persist on the trees in the winter – Marcescence is the scientific term for this phenomenon.  Taken with Canon T3i.

Let’s continue with the “check-list” of settings that you should become familiar with and assess each time you pick up your camera.

ii. Mode Dial

After going through the Absolute Basics from my previous post, the next critical decision that you need to make is what shooting mode to select.   The mode you choose will determine what choices you can make with regard to shutter speed, aperture and ISO – the main components that make up your exposure settings.

Look for the dial on the top of the camera that has settings such as Av, Tv, P, M along with an auto setting (looks like a green rectangle with an “A” in the middle on many cameras).

In addition, there are usually picture icons on this dial for some special shooting situations (or in the case of my Nikon, it has two options – scene or effects – which you select and then a number of special choices appear to choose from).

For many folks, this step is as simple as choosing the “auto” setting.  But, the idea here is to expand your horizons, right?  And move into the modes that give you more flexibility to alter exposure, control depth of field or capture moving targets?

When I first bought my Canon DLSR a few years ago, in addition to using the “auto” mode, I would use the Program mode, and often took advantage of the “special” settings.  Canon’s graphics are fairly intuitive.  The flower for close-up photography, the face for Portraits, etc.  Let me emphasize that these settings do work, and you can take great pictures using the more automatic settings.  It’s okay…if you are out taking pictures, and loving it – whatever works for you is the best thing to do!

In short, the Av, Tv, P, and M modes give you more manual control over your picture and exposure settings.  If you are trying for a specific effect, such as freezing motion or blurring backgrounds for give your subject more focus, then you will want to learn and master these modes.

Shamrock Lake.Twenty Lakes hiking loop
For a typical landscape shot like this, I feel comfortable using Aperture-priority mode – as I’m most concerned with attaining a wide depth of field.  This is Shamrock Lake in the Twenty Lakes basin area of Inyo National Forest in the Eastern Sierras, just outside Yosemite National Park.  An insanely beautiful 10-mile loop hike!

For me personally, I’ve made it a point to work mostly in the Av mode – as my default.   This means that I choose the aperture setting on my camera, and the shutter speed is automatically set using the cameras internal light metering system.  I can also choose the ISO setting in this mode.  For me, with the types of photos I’m taking, controlling depth of field is usually most critical for me.  I can quickly assess what it is I want to be in focus in a picture.

Pelicans flying Padre Island
I took this shot with my Nikon at a shutter speed of 1/1000.  This is when you might switch to a Shutter-priority (Tv or S) or Manual (M) setting in order to choose a fast shutter speed to freeze the flight of the pelicans.  I have a ridiculous fascination with pelicans – love these birds!  Taken at Padre Island National Seashore.

I’m starting to branch out now and spend more time experimenting with the M mode – or totally manual mode.  I set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  The Tv mode allows you to set shutter speed manually with the camera selecting the appropriate aperture for a proper exposure.  In P, the Program mode, the camera sets both shutter speed and aperture while you still have control over the ISO.  ISO can also still be altered by you when in any of the more manual settings – such as Av or Tv.  The Program mode (P) can be helpful if you are uncertain of your subject – and want to be ready to quickly get a shot off in different types of situations.

When you are in the manual modes, you will see in the viewfinder an exposure meter. It looks like a ruler with marks – 0 (zero) in the center and then on either side – negative numbers and positive numbers.  It depends on your camera brand how these are oriented.  Notice in the manual (M) mode that when you alter shutter speed or aperture, it will affect the exposure meter.  The object is to have the arrow/pointer at “0” or in the middle of the meter.  What I’m liking best about the M – Manual mode is actually very useful.  I like that I can quickly under-or-over-expose my picture depending on light.

With the Auto mode, the camera makes all the decisions and does not give you the flexibility to alter any other settings, such as ISO.   You usually have the option also to use Auto with flash disabled.  The programmed specialty modes are also designed to automatically set your exposure with no flexibility to alter just one component.

Play around with the mode dial settings to see how each setting works, and learn what you can control with each option!

iii. Adjusting aperture/shutter speed – in order to experiment with the mode dial settings, you need to know how your camera allows you to adjust the aperture and shutter speed.  In most cases, there is a “main dial” that allows you to adjust aperture or shutter speed.   On my Canon, there is just one main dial, with a button that allow you to toggle between exposure settings.  On my Nikon, there is a main command dial and a sub-command dial.  One adjusts the shutter, the other one adjusts aperture.  That means I have to remember which dial adjusts which exposure setting!  Again, it’s all about practice! Locate these dials on your camera and learn how to use them.


iv. Auto-focus setting – When you depress the shutter-release button on your camera half-way, the camera will initiate auto-focus.  Continuing to depress the button releases the shutter and snaps the picture.  There is usually a manual focus (MF) option that allows you to switch off the auto-focus and manually adjust focus. You will find the switch to toggle between AF and MF on the camera body, on the camera lens you are using, or sometimes both places.  Some camera lenses that have auto-focus and manual selection settings also offer an additional option.  My Nikon 24mm-120mm lens allows me to manually refine focus in the auto-focus mode.  The setting is indicated by an M/A.

Make sure you know how your camera lenses operate.  On my Canon Rebel T3i, there is no auto-focus setting on the camera body, just the lens.  The lens I have does not have a manual override in the AF mode.  Which means, I can damage the auto-focus mechanism if I try to manually adjust focus without switching to MF.

v. Auto-focus Mode and Focal Area Mode – there are a couple more decisions you need to make regarding how your camera reacts while focusing. Different camera brands will name these options in a slightly different way.

My Nikon, for instance, calls the three main focus modes – Auto-servo AF, Single-servo AF or Continuous Serve-AF.  It is recommended that you stick to the Single-servo AF when shooting generally stationary subjects, and move to the Continuous-servo AF for moving subjects.  When choosing which focus mode to use, you will also refine these settings even further by selecting the AF Area Mode.  This determines where the main focus point will be established and you can see this in the viewfinder.  You can set your  focal point to a single spot, so that you can control the point where you want the sharpest focus, or set it to include a wider dynamic range – allowing the focus to shift for moving objects or subjects traveling across your scene.

Canon refers to these auto-focus mode settings as One-shot AF (single), Al Servo AF (continuous) and Al focus AF (auto).  The focus area points are then adjustable in the more manual shooting modes – P, Av, Tv, or M – to refine the scope of your focal area.

I am finding that I take advantage of these refined settings more and more – and so I continuously adjust where my camera is set up once I assess my shooting situation.

Heron flying silhouette
I waited patiently early one morning on the Padre Island beach for this Heron to take off.   Canon Rebel T3i with telephoto lens at 1/1250 shutter speed

We’ve covered a few of the steps in getting your camera set up for a photography outing – let’s review the parts we’ve covered on the outline so far:

Step 1: There’s a setting for that!

i. The Absolute Basics

a. Batteries charged and ready to go

b. File format chosen

c. ISO setting selected

ii. Shooting Mode Dial – select desired mode based on conditions and situation

iii. Know where to quickly adjust aperture and shutter speed for manual shooting modes

iv. Set auto-focus option

v. Select focal mode and focal area points – depending on your subject/situation

True to my word, I’ve already slightly altered the original outline – ha!  I told you I would!  I separated out the focal modes from the metering options – which I will continue with on the next post!

In honor of Chinese New Year – huí tóu jiàn! 

Heron on dune early morning
He’s the guy I was patiently waiting for to decide to take flight!

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