February 26, 2013

Off Auto


I have been completely off ‘auto’ mode on my DSLR since November. I’ve gone off auto before, like for the maternity photos, but this is the first time I’ve been consistently off auto. It feels awesome, my photography has improved so much, it’s ridiculous. Of course, I’ve had a lot of practice. Here’s what I’ve learned for getting the most out of my camera:

The camera’s metering light is usually way too dark

If there’s one really simple trick I’ve learned, it’s to typically shoot on the lighter side. You generally get better contrast (especially in the eyes) and photos look all around more professional.

Don’t be afraid of High ISO

I switched cameras about a month after Nicki was born. I was so used to ‘400’ being high and noisy that I stayed away from ISO 400 and above on my new camera. Technology has improved a lot since my first DLSR purchase. I can now get up to ISO 1000 without noticing much noise. (Keyword “much”). If I had realized that sooner, I would have had much more flexibility with my shutter speed and f-stop, and could have gotten much nicer photos initially!

Even if it had been too noisy, a little noise is easier to correct in photoshop than a little blur.

It takes about four sessions before I get the ‘perfect’ shot

Take the baby toes and rings example. Yes, those are perfectly good pictures, but the aperture was slightly too wide, the depth of field slightly too shallow, and the shutter speed slightly too slow. The end result of the first photo session is a very nice photo as a 4 x 6, but I can’t do much else with it even though by pixel count I should be able to get much larger prints.

By the fourth time I had a handle on just how much light I needed, how fast the shutter speed (at least 1/80 if she’s being still, 1/125 or greater if not) and the right aperture (at least f/5) when shooting with my 85mm Macro. I LOVE the last set I took.

I took 3 sets of Nicki and the twinkle lights before I struck gold, 2 Halloween sets, 5 sleeping newborn, a ridiculous number of Santa hat photos… You get the idea.

Nicki is rarely as cooperative with me with each additional shoot

Which is not to say that she’s uncooperative, just that she is usually the most expressive the first time I take a set of photos. It’s interesting and new the first time. She was fascinated with the photo setup for the Halloween photos, and we had so many great facial expressions. But I was using the wrong lens (and the wrong aperture, and shutter speed, etc). The next time around, she was less interested. I’ve discovered this is not atypical. Babies get bored.

It’s not actually a problem if I plan ahead. The best time to try for photos is right after a nap when she’s well rested and not hungry. I get setup during the nap time and test the light using a toy as her standin so we’re ready to go as soon as she wakes up and I can take full advantage of her well rested happy mood.

I can sometimes elicit a smile if I dangle a toy or dance, but my ultimate secret weapon is Dada. If she hasn’t seen Dada in a little while, she will be ear to ear grins. But if she’s overtired? She will not smile, no matter what I do.

Which element is in focus will make or break a photo

I love shallow depth of field, but it is critically important that the right element be in focus. That’s typically the area you want to draw the viewer’s eye. This is especially true if it’s an area of high contrast (baby’s eye, the diamond in a wedding ring, etc).

There are several Photoshop tricks you can do to bring out the eyes but they have to be in focus first! Of course you can have artistic photos where the eyes aren’t in focus, but if you don’t have that artistic image in mind already from the start, you likely won’t stumble upon it by accident. At least I never have.

If I’m exploring with my camera, especially if I’m not sure how deep my field is, I usually make sure the focus area is over Nicki’s closest eye.

Flash isn’t all bad

Every photography article I read says to always use natural light. Flash can wash out the subject, and cast harsh shadows. But sometimes it’s useful. I try and use as much natural light as possible, but our house is dark. Even at high ISO the camera can have difficulties focusing, creating a “soft focus” effect without a flash.

Flash controls light on subject. Shutter speed controls background light. You *can* use them together to light up your subject without washing him or her out. Here’s a good article about it.

Angles matter, even for babies

Okay, so this is totally a matter of personal preference, but I cannot stand the up-the-nose angle. Sure, sometimes it cannot be avoided, and I’ve posted a few here (like this one). But it sticks out and is so distracting to an otherwise beautiful picture. I find this especially true if you’re shooting against a simple light background. Especially, especially if it’s a close up of the baby’s face. Nicki is asleep in this photo, I have no excuse for the angle.

Nowadays if I can avoid the up-the-nose perspective, I will. Every time.

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  1. […] week posted some things I learned going off auto mode on my camera. But what if you’re not neck deep in the camera-setting-obsessed build-a-set-at-home […]

  2. […] did a series of these with a tripod before going off auto. If you look closely, you can see the camera remote in my left hand. Despite being high ISO they […]

  3. […] her in a white onesie that was a bit too much against the white backdrop. It also generally takes a couple iterations before I get the “perfect” shot, so I always like to re-try photos. You never know when a great photo will turn into an perfect […]

  4. […] I like to have at least two or three “sessions” for each “shoot”. (Typically I break the sessions out over different days/weeks to deal with baby sized patience […]

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