The Magic Of ISO

What is ISO and should I set my camera on auto-ISO or set it manually?

Back in the days of film it came in different speeds.Kodachromes Demise

The slower the speed, the finer the grain and the “better” the print would look.

Problem was film originally had film speeds called ASA of 10 for the original Kodachrome. Such a low ASA meant the photographer was limited to shooting almost exclusively in bright sunshine if they didn’t want to use a tripod. That BTW is the reason photographers of 100 years ago shot exclusively using tripods. Until manufacturers figured out how to produce film with a sufficiently high ASA rating every shot was taken with the camera on a tripod.

ISO is the digital equivalent of film’s ASA. In a digital camera ISO is a measurement of the sensitivity of the camera’s sensor. And here’s where the magic comes in. You can adjust the sensitivity of the camera sensor via the camera’s software controls.

New full-frame DSLR cameras are capable of producing excellent, virtually noiseless (what we called grain in the film days) images at ISOs way above ISO 1600 (which was the practical limit of film’s ASA range). Smaller sensors in point-and-shoot cameras can’t hit these astronomical heights but even their tiny sensors can use ISO settings as high as 800 ISO and still produce perfectly useable images.

Now what about auto-ISO?images-1

This setting in the camera’s menus allows the camera to vary the ISO according to how much light is hitting the sensor. The ISO can be set to rise to compensate for lower light. So a shot that would be taken at ISO 100 (which in theory should produce a noiseless shot) could see the camera raising the ISO automatically if the light changed and the scene was darker. In most cameras you can set the ISO-auto controls to change to a predetermined limits.

But the big issue with auto-ISO is you have no idea what the camera is actually doing if you’re shooting in a hurry. Now that can be an advantage if you’re shooting sports and high-speed shooting is your first concern. But, when it comes to low-light photography you may not want the auto-ISO raising the sensitivity of the sensor as this will introduce more noise into the image. Again, some editing software such as Lightroom have excellent noise controls but it’s still important to shoot the best shot possible in camera as software has its limits too.

I almost never use auto-ISO for all the reasons above. When I’m shooting outdoors I set my ISO to 200. Works great. If it’s an overcast day I’ll set it to ISO 400.

Going up from ISO 200 to 400 allows me to shoot at one shutter speed higher or to close the aperture by one stop. The term stop comes from the past when lenses on manual box cameras had manual apertures that clicked from one setting (or stop) to the next.

The ability to click from one stop to the next allowed the photographer to set the aperture without actually looking at it. And where was the photographer looking if not at the controls? Back in the old days he or she was looking at a frosted glass plate in the back of the camera with a black sheet over their heads.


MASP And What It Means

I’m on a massive email reflector (think it’s got 16K members) for photographers participating in Jasmine Star’s ReStart program.images

Participants range from shooting pros to absolute newcomers. One of the most recent discussions came from a newcomer who asked what mode most people used when shooting weddings. Almost all of the discussion was about modes of shooting other than AUTOMATIC which is usually shown as a green square on the MODE dial and no professional would ever shoot on automatic. (Many do but nobody would admit to it online LOL.)

The basic nature of the question tells you that the writer was really, really new but we all had to start somewhere so lots of folks waded in with their opinions. Most of the commentary was pretty good but I think most writers missed  a couple of important points.

So let’s look at MASP which stands for MANUAL, APERTURE, SHUTTER and PROGRAM modes. (Canon cameras show TV and AV for time value and aperture value. it’s a Japanese thing.)

First surprise is M, A, S and P all can yield an identical image when it comes to exposure. It all depends on how you want to get from here to there.

For example most wedding photographers (and a lot of pros shooting other things than just weddings) shoot in A (Av) mode as it allows the photographer to set the size of the lens aperture (and thus control the amount of depth of field which is the amount of the image that is in focus). You’ve seen tons of shots taken in aperture mode. The typical shot is one where the bride or bride and groom are in sharp focus and the background is not. This differentiation between what’s in focus and what isn’t is what makes the bridal couple seem to pop out of the photo background.

To get the correct exposure the camera tries to find a shutter speed that based on the aperture set by the photographer will result in a properly exposed image. Works pretty well most of the time.

When it comes to shutter priority mode, this is the mode that is favoured by sports photographers. In S mode the photographer determines what shutter speed to use. For example action sports photographers will want a high shutter speed to stop or freeze the action. But if the photographer is shooting a chess game, they might wish to use a low shutter speed to allow the camera to automatically adjust the aperture to keep everything in the image in focus. If you’re shooting your kids, you might want to be shooting in S mode.

Back in the old days, there were a bunch of New York photographers known as the f/22 group. They only shot at f/22 using box cameras with film. Shooting at f/22 even in daylight with slow film meant every shot had to be taken with the camera on a tripod (to prevent camera shake showing up and blurring the image) and long time exposures were the norm. As you can image the f/22 group didn’t shoot sports but mainly architecture as the buildings didn’t move during the 20 or 30 seconds needed for a time exposure.

But what about P (program) mode? Isn’t is just like automatic?

Well, yes and no. In P mode the camera does set both the aperture and the shutter speed in an attempt to find settings that will yield a properly exposed image.  In P mode unlike automatic, the flash will not fire automatically and you have to tell the camera whether or not to add the flash to the shot. One advantage of P mode is you can vary the aperture/shutter speed combinations as there is no one correct exposure when it comes to setting you camera controls.Lens_aperture_side

Let’s pretend the camera in P mode has set the aperture to f/8 and the shutter speed to 1/125 of a second. That is the equivalent to f/5.6 and 1/250 of a second. You’d also get the same exposure if your set the controls to f/4 at 1/500 of a second or f/2.8 at 1/1000. Notice I said you’d get the same exposure. In other words the brightness of the images would be the same but the depth of field would change in every image and so would your ability to stop action or allow it to blur.

Some photographers only shoot in manual mode. Why? Because they can individually control the aperture of the lens and the shutter speed of the camera.

They still have to set the controls to the right settings to get a properly exposed image and they don’t allow the camera to make any adjustments whatsoever when in manual mode. Some even use external hand-held light meters for precise setting control.

Why not always shoot in one of the automatic modes and let the camera help out?

For most shooting, this isn’t a bad idea. Letting the camera automatically set either the shutter speed (in aperture mode) or the aperture (in shutter speed mode) or both (in program mode) can be very helpful and speed up getting the right exposure for the scene you’re shooting but the automatic modes aren’t necessarily foolproof. (BTW Joe Buissink, the wedding photographer to the stars shoots almost exclusively in P mode!)

For example, if you’re in any of the automatic modes and your bridge and groom are standing in front of a large window your camera, on an automatic mode, is likely going to expose for the bright light coming through the window thus badly underexposing your couple. This is not a good thing and the exposure is likely to be so off so much that even Lightroom or Photoshop can’t save the shot.

In any of the auto modes you could add flash and that would be a good idea especially if you were bouncing the flash off a back or side wall or off the ceiling. Joe does this a

But there’s another solution.

In the photo to the right there’s a circle drawn around the exposure compensation button.

The exposure compensation button overrides the automatic setting the camera is producing and allows you to modify the setting.

In other words you can make the image brighter (which would help with our backlit wedding couple) or darker (which you might want to do if you’re shooting a sunset) and thus save the shot.

One issue with exposure compensation is you must remember to turn it off after you’ve used it as it will continue to apply the compensation to all future shots.

This is one of the reasons some photographers only shoot in manual. The exposure compensation button doesn’t work in manual mode. Manual is manual and what you set is what you get and the camera can’t do anything to your setting. So for very tricky lighting situations where the lighting maybe varying a great deal (I’m thinking of a rock and roll stage show for example.) manual may well be the best mode. Lots of photographers who use flash on and off camera shoot in manual mode for that same level of total control.00OrKB-42405584

Back in the days when I was a young man shooting for a newspaper, there weren’t any automatic professional cameras. The little point and shoots like the Kodak Brownie had fixed aperture and shutter speed settings and that’s why every box of film had an exposure guide printed on the side. Worked pretty good and was a lot simpler.

Wedding Photography Workshop Online Today

Joe Buissink, the wedding photographer to the “stars” shot a wedding live yesterday on Starting today and going through tomorrow at noon EDT Creativelive is going to be broadcasting a free wedding photography workshop featuring Joe and the shots he took on Sunday.picture-217940

I’ve been in a real live workshop with Joe when he was here in Toronto and not only is he one of the best wedding photographers working today, he’s also a generous and passionate teacher of photography. I loved the workshop.

If you’ve got the time, this two-day workshop is likely going to be terrific.

BTW the workshop is free for the viewing and the download videos can be purchased for $99 ($149 after Tuesday) from Creativelive. I’ve bought several workshops from Creativelive and can highly recommend them.

HDR Done Right

Most the HDR which stands for high-dynamic range is atrocious. Overly bright, no content worth watching, HDR photography too often calls attention to itself and not the image.

So where to go it you want to see HDR done right?xBurning-Man-Day-1,P20,P281006,P20of,P201210,P29-X3.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AsYbT53j2a

Trey Ratcliff is Mr. HDR. He’s been training people online and in person on how to shoot three to five frames on manual or aperture priority (so the shutter speed changes in each image and not the depth of field) using a tripod (You can do hand held in daylight.) to create fabulous images.

How fabulous? (That’s a Trey Radcliff image on right. Isn’t it great?)

The image shown here is one of Trey’s from his most recent slideshow from Burning Man 2013. (See the SmugMug site which has a full-scale slide show tab to get the full effect.)

This is Trey’s four time at the annual collection (50,000 people showed up this year) of artists and creative types in the Nevada Desert.

You might be surprised to learn that Trey shot the whole slide show with a Sony NEX-7! I point this out because most folks who read this column will be shooting with a DSLR and wonder if the mirrorless Sony could do the job.xi-4VCZhph-S.jpg.pagespeed.ic.zV-4DLgLx4

For the most part, any camera that will allow HDR autobracketing or has a manual control and a tripod socket can be coached into doing HDR shots. However, when it comes to B-I-G prints in HDR nothing works better than lots of megapixels but lots of megapixels often means lots of camera.

The NEX-7 bangs out lots of megapixels in a hand-holdable (almost pocketable) small camera body. This is one of the reasons I went to Olympus Pens for my travel camera system after hiking my Nikon across Brazil. Won’t do that again!

BTW Trey has a newsletter which is very good. Here’s a link. Try shooting HDR. I think you’ll love it.

BTW I use NIK’s HDR Pro for my post processing.



Why Print?

We’re seeing way too many images via our computer screens IMHO.

Computer screen images aren’t anywhere near photographic print quality.

Rather than believe me, here’s a link to Ming Thein who is a very good photographer and photo blogger.

Read his short post and see if you don’t agree.

Think I’ll fire up the Epson 3800 and do few big prints of my own work.

How Good Is Lightroom 5?

It’s fabulous!images

How fabulous? Well you can do very high-end professional digital editing of raw files by cropping and clicking two buttons! (auto exposure and auto white balance) or you can use any number of free presets that are floating around online.

This thanks to Jack Davis who recently taught a great course at on Lightroom 5, my Lightroom 5 image processing is super fast and super good.

Lightroom 5 is a stand-alone $150 (cheap) professional photo editor and database. For pro-level photographers or advanced amateurs who are shooting raw images LR5 is ideal.

Unlike Photoshop (used to sell for $800) which you can get now only on a monthly subscription from Adobe (which at $50 for all Adobe products is a steal if you’re running a pro-level photo company) LR 5 has no additional expenses.

No additional expenses that is unless you want to add external editing software such as NIK’s complete set (which I own) or OnOne’s software or Alien Skin. There’s others as well but you don’t absolutely must have them but these external editors sure can create some amazing images (Silver Efex Pro and HDR Pro from NIK I’d still consider essentials no matter what.)

Anyway I highly recommend LR 5 and now I’ll get back to my editing a special event I shot over the weekend 🙂