Friday, August 30, 2013

Your Camera’s Automatic Modes…How does one choose?

Indulge me for a moment as we start at the beginning…  Most cameras have the following exposure modes:  aperture priority, shutter priority, fully automatic, and manual.  Your camera may refer to these as A, S (or Tv), P, and M.  In addition to automating the choice of aperture and shutter, many cameras also give you the option of automating ISO, the third “leg” of what’s often referred to as the “exposure triangle”.  Aperture relates to how big the opening is inside of your lens (which lets light in).  Shutter speed describes how long the internal sensor (used to be film) is exposed to that incoming light.  And ISO describes how light-sensitive the sensor will behave (or how light sensitive the emulsion on the film was). 

Optical Effects
No matter what mode you choose, the objective is the same…find a combination of these three parameters that will give you proper exposure and do so in a way that also achieves the optical results you desire for that image.  By optical results, I mean controlling your depth of field, motion blur or freezing, and noise and grain.  Because proper exposure can be achieved by a variety of combinations of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, you will need to understand how each of the cameras settings affect the outcome.  The reason your camera has multiple modes to choose from is to help you zero in quickly on the right combination of settings for the particular image you’re working on capturing. 

Manual Mode
So, first let’s discuss manual mode.  Some professional photographers and advanced enthusiasts will claim they only shoot in manual mode as if it’s somehow a badge of honor (it’s not by the way).  Manual mode forces (allows) you to choose the three legs of the exposure triangle necessary to achieve a proper exposure.  You could say it gives you maximum control.  In contrast, automatic modes will help you by allowing you to choose one of two of the more important legs, and will then automatically choose the third leg necessary to complete the proper exposure.  There might be times or reasons why you would want to shoot in manual mode, but I think those times are so few and far between, I would suggest to you that manual mode be reserved for those rare occasions.

Semi Automatic Modes
Before you decide which automatic mode to use, you typically determine which parameter is most important for you to control yourself.  That is, are you primarily concerned about depths of field, i.e. how much of the subject matter is in focus, or how much subject motion you want to allow.  You generally want the ISO to be as low as possible for image quality, but sometimes this will be the parameter you will want to adjust higher knowing that you’re in low light situations and would want to be able to have higher shutter speeds and/or greater depth of field. 
As I mentioned, you can choose from aperture priority, shutter priority, and fully automatic.  You might be asking yourself, is there a “best” mode to use?  Well, let’s consider that question for a moment and see if you begin to formulate your own conclusion… (hint, the answer is no).

Pros and Cons of each Mode
Let’s start by looking at the downside, or “cons” to having an uncontrolled (automatic) parameter.  If you choose aperture priority (A), shutter speed will be automatically determined by the camera (and not you).  You have control over depth of field (aperture), but the downside then is that you could end up with too slow a shutter speed which would result in your main subject being blurred.  The number one reason most images will be discarded is because of lack of focus or a blurred subject.
If instead, you choose shutter priority (S or Tv), the aperture is automatically determined by the camera (and not you).  In this case you will have properly managed the motion blur, but the depth of field may be very shallow or may be deeper than you wanted.  Although this is a downside, too deep a depth of field can often be dealt with in post processing--too shallow a depth of field though is a greater downside if your subject does not fit within the depth of field (often the case in macro photography).
If the ISO is automatically determined (by the camera, not you), then your image could have a higher amount of noise or grain than you would want, but recognize that the only reason the camera is choosing a higher ISO is because you’re forcing it too when you choose a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture opening in low light situations.  The grain and noise can be a downside, but you just need to be aware of this when shooting in low light (and when you don’t have a tripod that would allow you to use slow shutter speeds).  Also note that software can be used to reduce noise in post processing.

Fully Automatic
The last automatic option, fully automatic (P or Auto) may be your go-to choice if all of this still sounds too complicated.  Although the manual of higher-end DLSR cameras refer to this mode as “point and shoot”, don’t be ashamed to use this mode.  Sometime you will be in situation that is so dynamic and changing that you will want to concentrate more on composition and image capture and less on the nuances of your cameras settings.  In these cases, let your camera do more of the "thinking".  This mode works best in well-lit situations.  Develop the good habit of always noticing your aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder—this will help you ensure that your camera is making choices that are suitable to your situation. 

Summary and Personal Preference
As you are planning your photography, you should consider how best to translate the impact of your observations and feeling to the camera’s sensor.  Knowing that the camera has the three parameters of the exposure triangle, and knowing how each of them affects or influences the final image’s characteristics, will allow you to make the “right” choice of  mode—for you, and for your situation.  Automatic modes are designed to help simplify your camera’s use…which mode you choose will help you get your exposure settings more quickly based on your priorities.
Personally, I like to start by having my ISO set on automatic.  It stays at 100 (or 200 for some cameras) and will only go higher when there is not enough light hitting the sensor based on my choice of aperture and shutter speed.  I can decide to control aperture (aperture priority) or the shutter speed (shutter priority)—and I’ll know when I do that, that two out of the three parameters will be automatically determined for me—giving me greater freedom to be creative and less focused on camera settings. 

Much of the decision making on mode choice is personal, and you may have different ideas on your approach…if that’s the case, I’d love to hear from you.  Email me at

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Street Photography

Paris is widely accepted as the birthplace of street photography.   From as early as the late 1800s, street photography was a way to simply capture and depict ordinary life and the cityscapes in which it took place.  Street photography is a genre of photography that features subjects in candid situations within public places.  Although the subject can even be absent of any people, invariably, there inclusion produces a more interesting result.

Framing and timing are key aspects of the craft, with the aim of creating images at a decisive or poignant moment.   Street photography is definitely not for the faint at heart.  There are generally two types of street photographers—those that engage their subjects, talking to them, learning about their situation or activity, and those that hide behind trees or snap pictures by holding their cameras in obscure positions as if to conceal their intent.  Today I was the latter.

I was in Seal Beach on a shopping trip but knew that the scenery might offer up some great photographic opportunities.  I like to take my camera with me on trips like this because you just never know…  I was rewarded with a number of interesting scenes as well as these two character shots.  (The scenery shots can be viewed at

The key to street photography, beyond framing and timing, is to be aware of your surroundings, and to be prepared with your camera.  You don’t typically have a lot of time to make decisions about shutter speed, depth of field, lens choice, etc… so you need to make as many of these ahead of time as possible.  Then when the moment presents itself, you can frame, focus, and make the image capture.  Sometimes a street photographer will take up a position and wait for the action to develop, but today I was on the move and would have to go to where the action was.

People on the street are generally wary of someone walking around with a big camera, and such was the case with the gentleman in this shot.  He gave me a wary eye as I walked by, and had I had more time, I would have stopped to talk with him because I thought he looked like someone with an interesting story.  I quickly sized up a composition that might work, after walking a short distance further, turned quickly to get the shot I wanted.  The young lady playing the guitar was a simpler shot, but still required a quick reaction.  I didn’t know when I first came upon her that I wanted a shot…I wasn’t seeing a composition that struck me.  But as I was passing by to cross the street I saw it—and had to react quickly.

So whether your genre of choice is landscape, travel, macro, portraiture, etc… dabbling in street photography will keep your senses sharp and will challenge your equipment and technical skills.

If you have comments or feedback, email me at

Friday, August 2, 2013

What are YOUR Blind Spots?

We all know what they are…you’re driving and there could be someone right next to you—but they're be invisible.  It takes extra work when driving to check your blind spots because failure to do so can have catastrophic effects if you’re wrong.

What does this have to do with photography you ask?  Everything!  Photography is an art of expression.  Done right, the photographer conveys to the viewer not just the facts of what was in front of the lens, but conveys an entire emotion of that very moment.  Done right, you will feel nearly the same things that the photographer felt at the time of capture.

So in a photographic sense, what’s a blind spot?  I’ve stumbled onto one of them after following the suggestion of a fellow photographer friend of mine to check out the subject of “contemplative photography”.   Turns out, this subject is well documented, and is the subject of several books.  It’s an aspect of photography that really transcends image capture and punctures the barriers of perception that define for each of us just how much we see.  We all have filters to varying's by contemplating that more of what we're looking at begins to reveal itself.

You know those pictures that you’ve been presented with where you see the old lady, but if you look at the image long enough, or in a slightly different manner, you see a young beautiful woman?  In a way, that’s what I’m talking about.  Both are present at the same time, and yet some people see only one or the other…and it’s only after a bit of contemplation, that both are revealed.

According to Andy Karr, author of “Practicing Contemplative Photography”, this is a method for seeing and photographing the world in fresh ways, that reveals richness and beauty which is normally hidden from view.  There is a mystical and somewhat philosophical quality to this topic that still escapes me, but I’m getting the idea of it by studying Andy's writings on the topic.

I’ve also done some experimentation of my own, following the guidance of de-emphasizing an image's subject matter and instead emphasizing, or trying to notice and perceive the qualities of Color, Texture, Simplicity, Light, and Space.  It’s harder than I thought it would be.  These attributes are present in every single photograph, by definition, but they are not typically noticed unless brought to the forefront by a photographer skilled in seeing them, and then illuminating them in an image capture in such a way that others can see as well. 

For many of use, life is full of blind spots…for photographers, every opportunity for image capture is as well--and it takes extra work to develop the good habits to check blind spots and avoid their pitfalls.

Feel free to share with me any comments you might have by email me: