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
Ausfahrt

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.

VHBsign

Guide to buying a digital point and shoot camera

Or, how I bought a great camera and how you can too!

There are way too many p&s cameras out there in the market and almost everybody seems to portray their products as more worthy a buy than another. But how much can we bend before we break?

I faced the same problem when I was contemplating on which camera to buy, and after a few weeks’ repeated consideration which required quite a lot of endurance, I finally ordered one. But I learned an extensive lot in the process: terms I never new existed, stuff I never knew mattered and more stuff I never knew meant nothing. And most importantly, what one’s itinerary ought to be on the map of confusion that is the market of cameras. So this is my two cents on what you ought to consider when you buy the next digital camera. Rest assured I have covered everything there is in this brief, yet informative, guide filled with all you need to know. Plus my own experience from a few days ago!

Is what I have now not good enough?

Perhaps the first question one needs to ask themselves is whether they need  a digital camera at all. A few good reasons you can convince yourself is because the images are output digitally, which means they are easier to handle and you do not have to wait for an entire reel of film to run out before you develop it (if you really like to hold it physically.)
That said, and if you already have a digital camera or a mode of shooting digitally  (I had my smartphone) do you need a new one? Again, a few good reasons might be that you need better picture quality than your lousy phone can give you, or maybe you want to pursue photography as a mainstream hobby and cannot afford (or do not want) a dSLR, so a p&s is a better option. Or maybe you have got better with photography and want to explore a world where your camera allows a tad more of those envious manual settings than can make or break an image—and only you are to blame. But it is fun nonetheless.

The main advantage of a digital camera is that it is handy and cuts out all that acutance jargon most people do not understand (and if you did not know, acutance is what the layman calls sharpness.) Even more of a reason would be those preset modes. But these are misleading, as we will later see.

What my camera would need, as opposed to what it would want

So the two main questions before us would be, what are those elements my camera absolutely cannot do without (in other words, would be a waste of an investment.) And those that will not really matter to me.

Megapixels

For new entrants into the camera market, MPs are everything. But the fact of the matter is that they mean nothing unless coupled with a golden leaf. (I will come to that leaf later.)

Megapixels, roughly translating, tells you how big a picture you can get out of a shot you have just taken. Would it be over 4000 pixels by length and height? (About 14MP.) Or just over 1200 either way? (About 5MP, maxed out.) Or, to take it further, will you be able to print out a three foot by four foot framed photograph without losing detail, introducing noise or (to put it loosely) compromising on quality?

[For the curious mind, MegaPixels really means million. Mega is a prefix used in physics, for instance MegaHertz for frequency, Megametre for a million metres or a thousand kilometers and so on. It is one followed by six zeroes and so 6MP really means your image can have up to 6,000,000 pixels—although cameras always have an option to click a picture in any lower pixel density, such as 5 or 4MP, in the settings menu.]

But even these megapixels mean nothing without our golden leaf

Image Sensors

So the image you have before you is not all fitting the LCD Live View screen? Or are those 30MPs seeming like large pixelated tiles while the guy over at the camera store told you it should be smooth as silk, like pictures from an issue of NatGeo? Blame your image sensor.

These little devices have odd looking measurement styles. If you looked at the specifications of any camera, you would find Image Sensors listed as something like 1/6” or 1/5” or moving to dSLRs, 1/1.2” and so on.

While this seems to make perfect sense to any student of photography or physics, the layman might get lost here. The idea is that the larger the Image Sensor, the better the processing is. Take graphics cards, for example: the larger their memory, the better their output. But in case of the Sensors, when we speak of large, we mean it literally.

Take 1/6” and 1/5” for instance: dividing 1 by 6, we get 0.166”; and dividing 1 by 5 we get 0.2”. Clearly, the second one (two tenths of an inch) is larger than the first. Therefore the second Image Sensor is better.

The further gameplan is this: a very small image sensor, like 1/6”, given an elephantine lot of pixels, like 14MP, will be unjust. The tiny thing will not be able to do a good job and the end result will be a noisy photograph. On the other hand, a 1/5” sensor coupled with a 3MP camera is meaningless because the input image itself is not sufficiently sharp. The right combination of these two is therefore extremely necessary.

My Canon PowerShot has a 14.1MP with a 1/2.3” sensor (about 0.45”) which is a good standard. You can perhaps use that to get an idea as to what MP goes with what sensor.

But why do manufacturers still put in such large MPs into cameras? I think it is a marketing gimmick. More than three-fourths of the consumers out there go by MegaPixels and hardly any of them have even heard of Image Sensors. But now you know.

[For those of you who have at some point of time studied electronics and circuitry, the Image Sensors that are of the Charged Couple Device type are generally better. Others might want to look for the CCD marking like ‘1/4” CCD Image Sensor’ on the device specs.]

And the others

You will be surprised to know these are the only things you absolutely must bother about when buying a digital camera. But there are a few optional things which might be interesting to consider should two or three cameras in your budget end in a tie when comparing their MPs and ISs!

Basically, the two points above are a requirement for all; but those hereafter are either optional or are for people with specific requirements. I have them below in the order of preference:

Image Stability: Nobody keeps their camera perfectly still while shooting (although there are a few tricks I, myself, follow to increase stability manually) so a digital (or preferably, optical) electronic image stabilisation feature is an excellent addition for your money.

Optical zoom: If you plan to click pictures from afar, the optical zoom feature is a must. My PowerShot has a 4x zoom in its Canon Zoom (full of awesomeness) lens and I find it sufficient for my needs. However, manufacturers add a digital zoom feature to lure innocent consumers. Find the option that lets you throw it out of the window. Digital zoom merely crops, enlarges and wrecks a part of your photograph so much that you would not even want to take credit for it any day.

Battery type: Often the option in cameras is between two battery types: AA dry cells (NiMH) or rechargable Li-ion. (when I say option, I mean cameras come with either; you cannot choose it yourself!)

The advantage with AA batteries is that there is no headache of charging. Most Nikon p&s cameras adhere to this trend. But, from experience I can assure you that if you do not get the rechargeable AA batteries, you will run out of juice soon. And even if you do, they will not last as long as Li-ion built-in batteries. Moreover, recharging makes no difference with the Li-ion batteries!

The Li-ion batteries are similar to phone batteries and nowadays come with the option of charging them in-camera as opposed to using a second charger to charge them. They also have a USB-charging feature that works best with USB 3.0+ and is considerably fast with lower versions.

Flash: Best if placed on the left of the lens (right, if you view the camera from the front.) This allows for free handling of your right hand which operates the shutter button and prevents your fingers obstructing the flash. Also use Through The Lens flash (or TTL for short) sparingly. Of better use would be the fill flash option if your camera has it, because it uses surrounding environment light as a reflector/intensifier to give you a better picture without clumsy flashes and red-eyes.

[As a side note, remember those guys in the middle of the football stadium, flashing away on their cameras? Well, they were wasting their batteries. Flash is useless beyond a maximum of eight to ten feet. Beyond that, it just consumes your battery and makes no difference to the picture. The advice therefore is, learn when not to use your flash. Parenthetically, make sure your camera has the option to turn off flash when it is not required, just like it has an option to get rid of digital zoom.]

Aperture Priority (Av): This is an indispensable semi-manual mode of shooting. If your camera has this and the Shutter Priority mode (we will come to that soon) then it is a one up. In this, one has the option to manually set the aperture size (like f/5, f/2 and so on—my personal favourite is f/8 which I find perfectly suitable to most situations.) This creates, most commonly, a depth of field. I have yet to put up photographs with varying depths of field on my photography website, and I plan to pick up a few of my older shoots and do so soon.

Depth of field is really the amount of your picture in focus (based on relative distances from the lens.) Now follow this closely: a large aperture number means a small aperture opening; a small aperture opening means the amount of light entering your camera is restricted; less light entry implies a greater depth of field where a large number of objects in the scene are in clear focus. This is best for landscapes.

Now doing just the opposite (small aperture number and so on as I explained above) gives us a small depth of field, or all the objects in the scene are not in focus. To be precise, the nearest one (most often the subject) is in focus. This is particularly helpful in macro (shooting up close) or when the viewers’ attention has to be directed to something in particular, regardless of the background (which almost always gets thoroughly blurred.)

I call this a semi-manual mode (actually, quite a few people do) because, while we control the aperture, the remaining details—most interestingly the shutter speed—which we have to set manually in dSLR cameras, is set by the camera itself. In general the formula, quite understandably, is to go in for a slow shutter speed for larger depths of field.

Shutter Priority (Tv): The other important semi-manual mode where you set the shutter speed manually. This is most useful when photographing moving things, like water, over a split second because this gives a surreal effect most commonly found coupled in HDR photographs (High Dynamic Range imaging: those almost artificial looking vivid coloured photographs some people still think are digitally created.)

Automatic mode: I do not have to put this here, because without this, the concept of a digital camera breaks down. If I still have to explain it, it is that evergreen mode some fellows refuse to switch from where the camera does all the work except clicking the shutter button.

Programme mode: This is actually a non-standard semi-manual mode one finds in select cameras which often lets the user make considerable adjustments in hue, tone, saturation, white balance, contrast, brightness, exposure, ISO and so on. (ISO is the International Organisation for Standardisation which used to set the standards for reel films; but the term has remained in use even for digital cameras and simply suggest what reel quality/standard the particular shot is going to be equivalent to if you were using a film-camera in its place.

I call this a non-standard mode because there is no single definition for this mode in the marketplace. There are even manufacturers who merge this with the automatic mode, disregard it or call the Auto mode as the Programme mode.

Internal and expandable memory: The standard internal memory for a camera nowadays is around 30 to 50 MB. Sufficient for a couple of good quality pictures, insufficient for videos. Anything lesser is bad value for money, although not a prime concern because, whether we wish to or not, buying a digital camera always means buying a memory card along with it!

Make sure you get good option to expand the memory of up to at least 4GB. This optimum amount makes sure your older photos do not get buried if you do not have the habit of regularly formatting your card and clicking tonnes of pictures and experimenting. While this is unanimous industrial standard, some cameras sway away from this rule. And you need to stay out of their path.

Panorama and Movie modes: Useful to most, and an added up to some, these give you the option of shooting films (often up to half an hour) and taking a series of pictures spanning 360 degrees. While some cameras allow you to stitch the panorama in-camera, others require a provided software package.

Pre-set modes and effects: If all the three we saw above were semi-manual modes, these pre-set modes are fully automatic. Examples include landscape, portrait, face-priority, smile/wink detection, night, fireshow, discrete, copy and a number of others. These need not all be in all cameras, but it would be a good criteria to look into before buying a camera merely as good value for your money.

Along with this are effects, such as sepia, black&white, vivid colour, red-eye reduction and so on. And additional features such as locking select pictures, cropping them and so on.

Good luck buying a camera!

Tat is quite all I have to say at the moment! Bookmark this and do keep coming back to this post because I might just keep making additions and changes (which I will clearly mark as and ‘update.’)  And if you have questions, do get in touch with me and I will do as much as I can to help.

Good luck buying that envious new camera!

Majestic

A view that captured me on my way to Munnar. Majestic is the one word I could associate with this. Part of the Munnar ranges in Kerala, this is actually the foothills of the set of mountains that rise over halfway through the height of Mt Everest. You can read more about my trip to Munnar and the proposed INO site here.

View other Shutter: photographs here.

Buoyant

A ship anchored near the coast of GoaThis is a ship I happened to spot anchored a walkable distance (if you could walk on water) from the last sand in the Goan coast in India. It was a silt remover which was to be decommissioned soon, we learned from the captain. The picture really does not do justice to its size. How large was it? Try to figure it out yourself: the length of the vessel from the blue chimney you see to the extreme left end is the length of an average Indian main road. Not the breadth, but length. Is its sheer size alone not mind-blowing?

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