Photography checklist: 5 things I check every time before pressing the shutter

We have all, at one point or another, missed what we would like to think are award winning photographs. Whether they are or not is secondary; the point is, we missed it — or we messed it. I believe that a lot about your photograph is determined moments before you press the shutter, so making right decisions at that moment is vital.

A few words of introduction

I have never written tutorial-style or how-to articles on photography on this website, and I do not intend to, so please do not consider this as one. This is more of a how I do it description which you might find helpful in your own photography. If you profit by it, share it using the buttons above (or at the end of this article) and let others learn too. If you want to make money out of it (nice idea, whatever it is!) go ahead; and you do not have to credit me in any way.

Now onto my five tips: some people will give you a list of 10 or twenty things to check, and I must say they are pretty thorough. But I do not believe in such lists because they are impractical. Your photo is probably gone by the time you check thing number nine, let along 19. This is why I brought down my list to 5. On the field, it just works.

Of course, your choice of shutter speed and aperture are two things you will check no matter what, so I have ruled them out of this list. What are included here are some other simple settings to get you sorted out.

(Update: A couple of photographs with connected incidents and thorough explanations have been added below. They may be helpful.)

1. ISO

Some people say check your shutter speed and aperture and so on, but I would rather check my ISO first. I have gone on many a photowalk where people set up their camera for one shot and changed the shutters and apertures for the next while completely forgetting about ISO.

The damage ISO can do to your photograph is something even Photoshop cannot correct. Think about it.

2. Metering and compensation

Most cameras meter in up to three ways. Yours may do at least two. For what it’s worth, given that my phone has three metering modes, I do not see why an actual camera should have any less.

Wrong metering is the number one reason for missed exposures. The one-metering-does-it-all attitude will not help your photographs. Is matrix metering the all powerful? Think again.

And now it’s time for…

Photo story #1
Becks, since 1900

Behind the photograph:

I actually came walking from the other direction, i.e. same as the woman on the right, and not in the direction the photograph was taken. So when I turned around and spotted this, I naturally had to think faster than the woman was walking. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I had been shooting my entire trip in full manual mode, so I was free to make decisions.

I had to freeze the two women at work/walk, so 1/800th of a second would do it. I pumped it up to ISO 1000, as high as I go unless I cannot help it. The sky was cloudy, but gloomy, so I had to do something about the possibility of low exposure. I therefore chose to slow down the shutter to 1/400th of a second and shoot.

All this was considering the big-daddy of all decisions that I needed to close up to at least f/8 or f/11 to capture the street scene effectively. It seems like a lot of things to think in a split second, but over time you get the hang of it, so don’t worry!

3. Focus area mode

Once again, I have seen too many people shoot a bird and then shoot a flower with the same focus mode. Sometimes, the job gets done in this order; the reverse hardly ever works! What I mean to say is, if you switched to AF-C to shoot a bird, say, switch back to AF-S to shoot a tree (for example).

This prevents unnecessary focus hunting because your camera is not tricked (ironically, by you) into thinking there is movement it is not detecting. So if you think your camera takes a tad too long to grab focus, perhaps you should check your focus area mode?

4. Focus mode

Perhaps this does not apply under all circumstances, but when you are shooting on and off a tripod, there are two things to remember. Firstly, turn of lens-stabilisation (vibration reduction, image stabilisation, vibration control, whatever you want to call it) because, like focus area modes, the camera gets tricked into detecting, and hence introducing vibrations that were never there in the first place.

Secondly, many photographers forget to turn it back on after releasing their cameras from their tripod. Usually they figure it out too late or never till the end! So the next time you carry a tripod, make this the first thing to check when mounting as well as un-mounting.

Photo story #2

Behind the photograph:

I made this photograph driving on BAB5 towards the Swiss border at Basel, if I recall right.

I had to tell a story with this photograph, and I picked three things to connect here: the car and road as one entity, the exit sign, and the turn indicator light on the car. When you look at this photograph, you know that the car is going to exit the highway — in other words, you know the story.

My first challenge was timing the shutter to match the indicator light. Wait for a few moments until you catch the rhythm of the light blinking and then shoot. But in the meantime, compose the shot weighing the light (not a lot of choices here, since we are at the mercy of the car!) and the fact that the exit sign comes into view in a suitable place on the frame.

Once again, I picked 1/800th of a second — enough to keep up with the car without blocking out too much of my light. I had to reach up to the dreaded ISO 4000 to make up for this. Owing to the use of my lens, realise that the large distance between the car and the exit sign means that to have both in acceptably sharp focus, I had to stretch my camera all the way to f/22.

So it’s not about the camera? Let’s face it, to an extent some of us are thankful our cameras can take the abuse at ISO 4000 and f/22 and 1/800th s and still deliver a practically noise-less photograph like the one above (I only clean my photographs for noise if I shot them at night). So treat your camera well, but without knowing how to force the camera into shooting something you want, everything becomes pointless.

5. Exposure compensation

One of the most important things to watch out for in your viewfinder or live-view is your camera’s built-in light meter (which, among other things, is saving you a lot of money on a separate, bulky light meter to carry around.)

The light meter is usually a number line (remember school maths?) with the exposed towards highlights section on the right and exposed towards shadows section on the left.  When you have taken your camera as far as you would like (maximum ISO, slowest shutter possible and the widest aperture you can afford), your last resort is the exposure compensation button (or remap, depending on your camera model) which will stimulate higher and lower exposures making the sensor record as necessary.

Use this wisely. And then remember to turn it back to zero, or else you will spend the rest of the day shooting at high ISOs not realising you had under-compensated your photographs all along.

And now for our last photo story.

Photo story #3
Skis up
Skis up

Behind the photograph:

You might notice that I’m picking what are considered fast photographs. That is because in ones where you have your own sweet time to shoot, you can think of all five things in this article and read a couple of encyclopedias. When things are fast, that is when the five items I have mentioned on this list really shine.

When I made this photograph, there were two others skiing in the same stretch of water, but none of them exhibited a form and physique as refined as the athlete in this photograph, so my options were already limited: I had to photograph this person in action.

The speed here was intense. Skiiers flew like birds over obstacles, skiied over water with finesse. There was no way I could capture them at under 1/2000th s, so that is where I went first. It was a cloudy day, having rained just the last evening (or maybe afternoon, I can’t say, because the sun was rising at a prompt 6AM(?) while setting at 1AM in the morning, and a snowy winter was just days away, so 18-hour days had my biological clock was wrecked).

Anyway, I reached out to ISO 800 here, but, instead of moving past that to ISO 1000, say, I opted to compensate exposure by +1. Since I had fewer attempts possible, I did not want to risk losing the athlete to blurred regions of a wide aperture. So I narrowed down to f/8, the widest aperture that was not only safe, but (and this is the important part) also helped me get the spray of water droplets into good focus.

I think I took between 600 and 700 photographs that day of just these athletes and have since given up all hopes of editing them in any way. So that’s your second moral: with great many photographs come great many editing responsibilities.

So happy shooting. The next time you pick up your camera, do think of these things and tick off a mental list that will help you make not better photographs, but photographs closer to your visualisation of a scene. But to end it all, I hope these seemingly ordinary, but extremely important tips make way for you to improve your photography and make it better than it already is.

Have a daguerreotype day.