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Which Features should I Use? – Part II

Pete's Lake Sunrise Hiawatha NF, Michigan UP Copyright Andy Richards  2012

Pete’s Lake Sunrise
Hiawatha NF, Michigan UP
Copyright Andy Richards 2012

In last week’s blog, I opined that most of the “gee-whiz” features on modern compact and DSLR digital cameras were occasionally useful, but not essential.  Obviously, there are some “features” on all equipment that are essential.  A digital capture device must have a sensor, a lens of some description, and a way to capture, save and transfer the digitally captured “image.” I don’t want to dwell on age, but when I started down my photographic road, the only truly  “automatic” feature on a camera was the ability to automatically “stop down” the lens to the selected aperture when the shutter was triggered. Having a built-in light-metering system was a convenience, but not really essential and certainly not automatic. And before my time, some of the most talented photographers in history–Adams and Stieglitz come to mind—had even less “features” on their cameras. Yet somehow, they were able to make historically great photographic images. I also opined that the most important piece of equipment a photographer “owns” is the thing that sits on top of her shoulders.

The most important piece of equipment a photographer owns is that thing that sits on top of his or her shoulders

But having said all of those things, it is difficult not to acknowledge in wonderment, where we have come technologically. Lenses that “auto-focus” just continue to get better and better. “Image Stabilization” technology constantly improves. “Matrix” metering technology makes relying on the in-camera meter’s “judgment” of exposure more and more effective (and now with digital imagery’s immediate capture, the on-camera histogram display gives us immediate “confirmation” of exposure). Again, these are all tools—nothing more or less. They measure with increasing accuracy, but they are machines, tools and are far from perfection. Moreover, a blind reliance on them robs creativity! Recently, I came to the realization that my too frequent reliance on my camera’s “aperture-priority” (A or AP) setting was hindering my ability to obtain truly accurate exposure. But it was “easy” and I had become lazy. And it really made no sense. I work from a tripod 90% of the time and in those instances there is rarely a time when it makes sense not to make my own judgments about correct exposure. These “shooting modes”  (Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed Priority, for example) are very useful tools. But they are just that:  “tools”.  They are designed to allow us to take our knowledge of (for example) exposure theory and use them to make settings easier to maintain.  Modern technology has given us some pretty amazing “help” tools.  But it is still the photographer’s responsibility to make judgments about which tool is correct for the job at hand.

It is difficult not to acknowledge in wonderment where we have come technologically

Understanding this, there are a number of features I regularly use.

Rear Focus Button

The “higher end” DSLRs often have a button on the rear of the body designated “AF” (or something similar).  On my Nikon bodies, its default setting activates the camera’s auto focus.  At first glance, this may seem redundant.  After all, a half press of the shutter release button already does this.   When I learned the utility of this button some years back from a  John Gerlach book, I almost literally smacked my own forehead. :-).  I assume that most major branded camera bodies have similar conventions. I shoot Nikon and have for 30 years, so it is my only experience. Your own mileage may vary, depending on whose tools you have in hand. But my Nikon bodies allow me to program the trigger for auto-focus (AF). Conventionally, most cameras start the AF mechanism by a partial or 1/2 press of the shutter button. For some hand-held shooting and for most “action” shooting, I like this. But in other cases, it is a hindrance. There are times when you want to set the camera’s point of focus independently of other settings. On the tripod, I may preset my exposure solution and may have metered off a part of the scene that I do not want the camera to attempt to focus on. But as soon as I activate the shutter release, it tries to focus again. Turning off the shutter releases control of AF is a way to correct this issue. My “landscape” shooting setting on my camera has this turned off by default. The only way to trigger the AF mechanism is to depress the dedicated AF button on the back of the camera body. It is a very useful function.  Using the rear focus button allowed me to set my focus independently of the shot in the Pete’s Lake sunrise shot.  I was able to meter off the blue sky, set my focus and then trip the shutter with my remote release, knowing nothing would change.

Not my best “grace-under-pressure” moment

The newer bodies generally  incorporate “shooting banks,” allowing you to program different features for different situations and then switch between these banks.  I have a “Landscape” bank and an “Action” bank.  I leave the conventional shutter release in the action bank.  If you do program this feature, remember you did it :-).  I had an embarrassing reminder of this a few years ago.  My wife’s former boss and our good friend had been appointed to a very important and prestigious position.  She asked me to bring my gear and ensure that we got some “keeper” photographs.  I had recently “discovered” the rear-button-focus “trick.”  My then D200 did not have the separate shooter banks.  I had not shot for a couple months since fiddling with, and changing the settings.  When I arrived at the location a bit early I got the camera out and was going to make a series of test shots to get the lighting, and lay of the room, etc.  My camera would not AF!  I tried everything I could think of (battery pull, on and off several times).  I was dumbfounded.  I guessed I was going to have to send the body in to Nikon for service (something — knock on wood — I have never had to do with a Nikon body).  Thankfully, the manufactures haven’t take MF away from us (yet – Congress may act on it soon 🙂 ).  It weighed on my mind.  It wasn’t until I was home, later that night that I again, almost literally slapped my own forehead as I realized what had happened.  I had turned off the AF activation on the shutter button.  AF was working all the time (and yeah, all I had to do was press the rear AF button).  Not my best “grace-under-pressure moment!” :-).

Irwin Lake; Hiawatha NFCopyright  2012  Andy Richards

Irwin Lake; Hiawatha NF
Copyright 2012 Andy Richards

One would think these gridlines would follow the conventional “rule of thirds,” but they often do not

Focus Screen Gridlines

Many of the higher end DSLR bodies have a feature allowing you to turn on a grid.  I always turn them on as part of my initial setup.  I have them turned on on both my D800 and my new Nex-6 (review to come soon).  I suppose there are any number of shooters out there who prefer to keep their screen free of clutter.  But for me, these grid lines help with alignment, and theoretically with composition. Be very careful here, however. I am not sure what the rationale is for this, but many of these screen grids are not set at the conventional “artistic” intervals. One would think that these gridlines would follow the conventional “rule of thirds,” but they often do not.  NIKON, are you listening? (Yeah — I am sure they read my blog regularly 🙂 ).  Nevertheless, gridlines do give you some guidance about placement of elements of composition within the screen.  I have found that relying on the horizontal gridlines for leveling the image is hit or miss.  The spirit level on the hot shoe is a more foolproof solution for that.

LCD Review

On most DSLR cameras, you can turn this feature on or off. I like an immediate review, so I can watch the histogram as I am shooting. It uses more battery life, but I carry a couple extras, so it has never been an issue for me.  One thing to note.  Exposure measurement tools (see my “discourse” on tools above) are not uniformly accurate.  We can take 3 same brand cameras; same model, same batch of manufacture, and meter on the same grey card in the same light and get 3 different measurements.  For sure, they vary less today than they would have 30 years ago, but they vary.  Likewise, the histogram feature will vary from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer.  And, if you shoot raw (and you should be thinking about that), there is another challenge.  Since the raw file hasn’t been “converted” to a recognized format (a bit of an oversimplification, but useful for us here), the camera really cannot display a histogram of the raw capture.  Instead, it does an in-camera conversion to a jpeg and displays the histogram based on that jpeg thumbnail image on your camera’s LCD.  In practice, it can vary a great deal from the actual capture results (my own experience with several Nikon body/sensor combinations tells me I can push the envelope on the highlights side a bit)).  It is worth testing this by comparing the camera histogram with your post-processing software histogram.  Remember, these are measurement tools and good craft means you will do some experimenting and your own calibration.

Spot Metering Capability

Most modern bodies now have the ability to meter using spot, matrix (a/k/a honeycomb or “evaluative”) or center-weighted methods.  Many bodies being sold at market do not have Spot Metering capability.  Most of the “prosumer” and “pro” bodies on the market today do.  Some of the “enthusiast” compact cameras now do, also (i.e., the Sony Nex and Fuji X1 model lines which carry the same “APS” size sensors as are found in many DSLRS; the “micro” 4/3 top line models like Olympus’ OM5 , the Nikon 1 and  new Coolpix A).  Spot metering is a “must have” feature, in my view, for critical exposure decisions. Even better (and even more expensive) is a hand-held spot meter.  Particularly in Landscape situations and Studio shooting, where you typically have time to plan your exposure, spot metering can be the best method of determining overall correct exposure for a given image.  For those who may not know, spot metering “points” the meter measurement at a much smaller (radius) area of the image.  Using the longest lens or longest zoom, you can center the spot on the brightest, darkest and a neutral area of the image with at least some confidence that it is measuring only those areas of reflectance.  Knowing those parameters, you can judge which areas of the image you want to be properly exposed.  This is particularly useful in an image that has a lot of contrast between the darkest and lightest area.

Mirror Lock Up

I admit that I have not done much empirical testing on my own on this feature. My seat of the pants judgment ( I did some comparison shots of some macro images shot with my film-based Nikon F2A on slide film some years back, with and without lockup at several shutter speeds) was that I couldn’t see any real difference.  There has always been some controversy over whether this is real or legend.  I know there are those who argue that its utility is overstated. But it seems that the majority who weigh in on it believe strongly that it is a significant factor in image quality. I know several photographers who I have great admiration and respect for who swear by its use. After observing their images for several years, I began using it.  It is one of those things that you can say, probably helps, and certainly cannot hurt, your imagery.   One little nitpick I have with Nikon is that if you are using their wireless remote shutter release, you cannot use their mirror-up feature. What is up with that, Nikon?


Mirror Lockup, in the appropriate circumstances, probably helps and certainly cannot hurt, your imagery

Aperture Priority/Shutter Speed Priority Settings

As I mentioned above, there is a danger in over-reliance on something that works sometimes.  This is one of those areas. This feature sets up the camera computer and light meter linkage to make its best guess (and yes, it is a guess) at the proper exposure for a given aperture or shutter speed setting. In Aperture priority, you set a constant aperture, and the camera varies the shutter speed in order to achieve correct exposure for the conditions. If you are concerned about sharp focus within a range (depth of field), this is a setting that can in many instances, be useful. I will now most often use it when hand-holding shots, especially if things are moving fast, in order not to have to think about too many settings. I never use the “program” settings on any DSLR for any reason!

Neither of these settings are a substitute for thinking

Blue AngelsFleet Week Air ShowSan Francisco, CACopyright 2011  Andy Richards

Blue Angels
Fleet Week Air Show
San Francisco, CA
Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

Shutter speed priority is just the opposite. You set a constant shutter speed, and the camera makes its best guess at the appropriate aperture setting for the conditions. I use this rarely, but sometimes when action shooting. In the handheld shot of the Blue Angel Jet, I had shutter speed priority set the whole afternoon. The conditions were relatively bright and I wasn’t concerned too much about too large settings; or even about depth of field, for that matter.

Neither of these settings are a substitute for thinking, and I am afraid they sometimes become that, due to over-reliance on what are some pretty darn good results from today’s modern computers (ah……I mean cameras).

DOF Preview

This is a feature that has been resident on camera bodies for many years. When I was looking for a body, I typically “specced’ this feature. This preview button “stops down” the lens to its actual aperture when the shutter is tripped. On modern SLR/DSLR body/lens combinations (modern in this case meaning from the early 60’s on) the lens is always open to its widest aperture setting while focusing and looking through the viewfinder. Only when the shutter is tripped does it “stop down” to your selected aperture. This means that what you see through the lens in terms of focus and depth of field is what would be rendered at the lens’ widest aperture. Among other things affecting depth of field, the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. Conversely, the smaller the aperture, the more depth of field exists. Essentially this means more of the image from front to back is in acceptable focus as the aperture gets smaller. Lots of people pressed that DOF button on the camera and saw that everything got dark and wondered what the heck good that did? What it is doing is mechanically stopping down the lens, so you can see the effect of the selected aperture on depth of field. As for the darkening, stop it down and wait a while. Your eyes will adjust and you will see the effect on depth of field of changing the aperture. When depth of field is critical in an image, this is an invaluable tool.   In the Blue Flag Iris image, I wanted to keep the central part the blossom in sharp focus while letting the some of the edges and the entire background go softly out of focus.  I used a telephoto lens to achieve this effect, and the DOF preview function was critical to “seeing”  what the end result would be.

Blue Flag Iris

Blue Flag Iris
Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge
Copyright Andy Richards

In Camera Noise Reduction

This is an in-camera computer setting. It tells the camera that when an exposure exceeds a certain amount of time (the shutter is open), to take a second frame with the shutter closed (resulting, theoretically, in a pure black exposure) and then to “merge” parts of the image. This is ingenious and does an admirable job of noise reduction, by “replacing” noisy parts of the image. I generally have this set for night time images.  The night image of a hotel in downtown Austin, Texas, was one of the very first images captured on my D700, which I purchased specifically because of its reputed image quality and particularly its noise handling characteristics.  The noise reduction utility is pretty impressive.

Austin, Texas DowntownCopyright 2010  Andy Richards

Austin, Texas Downtown
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Image Stabilization/Vibration Reduction

This is a function mostly built into lenses, although some manufacturers have ingeniously built it into the camera body itself. For those manufacturers who have built it into the body, bravo! (I don’t pretend to completely understand the science and engineering involved here, but I have found myself wondering, year after year, why all manufacturers haven’t offered this feature in the camera body rather than the lens? Obviously, part of the answer lies in the question: whether one works better than the other). For the rest of us, it becomes a decision to make when selecting and buying a lens. I read a comment recently that made some sense to me. The writer (a good friend of mine and talented photographer) said he shoots mostly from a tripod and almost exclusively landscape and does not see the need for the additional expense, nor the additional weight. Personally, I would lean toward getting it if possible. And this, even though I keep it switched off 90% of the time. But I would like to have it available for the other 10%. My 70-200 has it. My 24-70 does not.

Yukon; Skagway, AlaskaWhite Pass RailroadCopyright 2010  Andy Richards

Yukon; Skagway, Alaska
White Pass Railroad
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Again, this is a tool that can be overused and falsely relied upon. Vibration reduction is not a substitute for good technique. Nor will it “fix” an otherwise bad image. And, like any tool, you have to understand what it does, and more importantly, what it doesn’t do. It can give you some “defense” against camera shake (in handholding situations), assisting as much as 2 stops. You cannot “freeze” a moving target with vibration reduction. I use it where warranted and turn it off where I don’t need it. I always turn it off when my camera is mounted to a tripod on solid ground. What I will say about it is that—in the case of Nikon’s “Vibration Reduction,” it works. It most definitely helps “stabilize” the camera in hand-held situations. The image of the Alaskan Yukon was taken from a moving train using a VR 300 mm lens.


2 Responses

  1. Andy, I’m surprised you didn’t say anything about “live-view”. I don’t use it often but sometimes it is a great feature. When using it, the mirror locks up, so that is an important feature. Another time it can be particularly useful is when doing time lapse photography. Since mirror lockup requires the user to press the shutter button twice, I prefer to use live view. I insert a video plug into the camera to make the camera think the output is being sent to a computer. That way I save the battery because the live view image isn’t being displayed on the LCD and I get the advantage of mirror lockup when using my wireless remote. With long time lapse shots, saving the battery is really important.

    • Hi Al: What I probably should have ended with is the question, what features do you find essential? I am sure we all have certain features we use, depending on how and what we shoot, and what our equipment does or doesn’t offer. I haven’t found any real use for live view in my own shooting situations. I use the camera’s mirror lock up feature whenever I have my camera mounted on a tripod and don’t have “action” going on. When my camera is on the tripod, my tethered cable release is always attached. It took a while for me to get used to having to press twice, but eventually, it becomes second nature. I like the “less is more” simplicity of the tethered cable and no other electronics plugged in or doors open. For whatever reason, the Nikon wireless remote setup has to be “turned on” and to the best of my knowledge, at the exclusion of the mirror lockup feature. There are other reasons I don’t particularly care for the wireless remote, but those are for another day :-).

      Thanks for the comment. I hope others will weigh in on this subject.

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