Note to Myself: How I Use My Camera

When it comes to photography, I am interested in a wide range of subjects. The ones I'm most passionate about are:

  • Children / Action
  • Street Candid
  • Architecture / Buildings

For the first two type of subjects, conceptually, good shots require a lot of off-site studying of compositional skill and reading of other photograhpers' great images. When out and about, high degree of concentration of the things happening around, almost prompt, sometimes even predictive reaction to interesting subjects/moments are essential. This blog entry notes my most comfortable way for shooting fast moving objects.

Technically,  my control boils down to the mechanics of

  • light-metering 
  • focus, and 
  • shutter release 

I use spot-metering and dedicated buttons for each of these controls. These three buttons are: AE-Lock, AF-On, and the shutter release button.

Why Dedicated Buttons

On most cameras, the default shooting control is:  Press the shutter release button halfway down, the camera does light metering and focusing, press the button further down, shutter released, image shot. However, in some occasions, for example when shooting landscape or interior, the light-metering spot can be very, very far away from where one wants to focus. A concrete example I can think of: Portrait in a candle lit room in an evening. One of the people's eyes is the obvious spot to focus. But if the light is metered at that spot, the candle flame itself and the area near the flame will be hopelessly over exposed. An experienced photographer will choose a spot somewhere off the flame for metering the ambient light. The face will be a bit under exposed, but that fits the mood of candle light portrait, the underexposed face will feel true and right to viewer's eyes and mind. The more exactly the photographer knows about what she wants from a scene, the more often the separation of light-metering and focusing happens.

After light-metering and focusing, I usually recompose. I don't feel confident when keeping my finger half-pressing the shutter release button to lock the focus. My fingers are weak and they cannot hold that half-pressed position for longer than one or two seconds. That's why besides a dedicated AE-Lock button for light-metering, I need another button to lock the focus. On Nikon bodies, that button is AF-On. Very easy to use. For still subjects, I press that button and immediately release to lock the focus.  For fast-moving subjects, I press that button and hold to track the focus in continuous shooting mode.

Buttons in Action  

First thing to do is to disable the metering and focusing functionality of the shutter button. This button's only mission should be releasing the shutter, not more. Here is how I use the buttons when shooting:
  1. Choose a spot where I think the brightness is right for the mood. Press the AE-Lock button, release. The exposure is locked until I press this button again to reset. 
  2. Choose a spot to focus, press the AF-On button. If the subject is still, release the button to lock focus. If the subject is fast moving, hold the button to track the focus.
  3. Recompose.
  4. Press the shutter release button to record the image.
Since moving the lens freely in the air is way faster than dialing the focus point on the camera body, most of the time I only use one focus point on the camera body, the centre one:

point --> lock exposure --> point --> lock focus --> recompose --> release shutter --> done.

Those 51-point or 117-point camera bodies are very useful when doing auto-focus tracking (AF-tracking) though. And I do use AF-tracking a lot when shooting fast moving children. AF capability of the camera body is important to me.

Things NOT to Worry About 

I leave things such as ISO setting and white balance setting to automatic. The reasons:

  • When shooting, the less to worry about, the faster I can react with quint essential technical settings that make my images look right.
  • White balance is deadly easy to correct/adjust during post processing.    
  • The noise of high ISO does not really matter much in my first two favourite subjects. Trust me, content in a good street photograph draws all attention from a reader. Nobody is going to be bothered by the image noise, as long as the content is recognizable and not distracted by overly powerful noise. In addition, modern image processing software does a stellar job at noise reduction.

That said, I do set my maximum ISO value on my camera bodies. On my Nikon D300, it's 3200; On my Sony Alpha 7,  it's 6400. My minimum shutter speed is set to 1/125 second. I usually shoot in aperture priority mode. If I do want motion blur, I switch to speed priority mode. I almost never shoot in fully manual mode.

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