Photography Tips

Centre weighting, exposure locked with focus

Centre weighting, exposure locked with focus

What exposure setting do you use? Most SLRs offer a choice of at least three – matrix, centre weighting, and spot. Often the matrix setting will give satisfactory results, though if the background is brighter than the subject it can leave the subject over-exposed unless you use fill flash, but fill flash is a different topic. With a bright background I prefer to use centre weighting or spot, and now we have the problem that both of those evaluate on the centre of the scene, and often our subject is not at the centre of the scene.

But just as last week we saw that we can lock the focus on the subject, then reframe before taking the shot, we can also lock the exposure. One way is to point the camera at area that we want optimally exposed and press the exposure lock button. The exposure settings will then remain unchanged until the next time the shutter is released. I generally use this when taking a bird on a branch. The bird will be relatively small in the frame, and seen against the sky, so even with spot exposure it is likely to be under-exposed, so I point at the trunk of the tree, lock the exposure, and reframe to take the bird. Of course, most times the bird will have flown by then, but sometimes you get lucky.

The other way is more useful if your subject is relatively large – a person, for example – and off-centre, as they probably should be. Since you will be using focus lock on the subject, you set your camera to lock the exposure automatically when it locks the focus, so that both are locked on the subject before reframing to take the shot. You may need to use the custom settings in your camera’s menus to tie the aperture lock and focus lock together, but you will be pleased with the results.

Where would the camera focus?

Where would the camera focus?

Modern SLRs are highly-complex technically advanced devices. One of the complex technical bits that we all use but don’t really understand is the auto-focus system. Your typical SLR has an array of 5, 11 or even more points arranged in a grid pattern that it evaluates for focus. Left to itself, in auto-focus mode, it will decide which of the points is aligned with the subject of the photo and will use this point to focus the lens. In effect, you are letting the camera chose the subject, which may not give you your intended result.

You can instead chose to select the focus point that is to be used in the grid. While this is theoretically a better approach, picking out the right one of 11 or 19 or more points while trying to deal with all the other elements that have to be controlled is a daunting task, one that I have never mastered.

I prefer to turn off all but the centre focus point. Now, we all know that it is frequently the case that the subject of the photo should be almost anywhere except at the centre, so what you do is line the centre point of the camera up on the subject – typically on an eye if dealing with a person or animal – and press the shutter release button half-way down. The camera will focus the lens – making a beep sound if you have forgotten to turn off that feature – and will not change the focus as long as you keep the button half-pressed. So now you recompose, moving the camera to get the subject nicely on one of those magic thirds, without releasing the button or changing position, and then finish pressing the button to take the picture.

This week’s tip topic is composition, and one of the standard recommendations is to keep it simple, uncluttered, empty of unnecessary features. For an example, we decided to use Gursky’s picture of almost nothing – grass, some water, some plain sky – that sold a couple of years ago for $4,300,000. We are not including a copy of the picture, for fear of breach of copyright, but you can see it in this Wired article. It is indeed worth taking a look at the photo, and spending some time considering whether, if you had a big win in the lottery, you might spend that much on it. You might not consider it worth $4,300,000 but you have to admit that the composition is simple.

However as you read the Wired article, you will see a second Gursky photo, and while it may be many things, simple is not one of them. Despite its lack of simplicity it sold for only a million dollars less than the other one.

As an exercise, think about a shot of a sandy beach, and imagine it crowded with bathers, beach balls, children, dogs, sunshades and whatever you are having yourself. Now sweep it clear, bring in and out the tide, and imagine it with just a line of footsteps leading to the water’s edge, with maybe a crescent moon just over the horizon. Which do you prefer?

Maybe good composition is simple. After all, $1,000,000 is a big difference.


Dirty Sensor

One of the advantages of the SLR is the great range of lenses that are available. Whether you prefer a fixed focal length (“Prime”) lens or a variable focal length (“Zoom”) lens, your camera manufacturer will have them available in various sizes and qualities, and to complicate your choices, for most of the common brands of camera, there are lenses available from other manufacturers as well. Inevitably, you land up with several different lenses for your camera (many, if you are a lens freak), and before setting out on a shoot you put the most likely one onto your camera body, and one or two alternatives into the camera bag or one of the pockets of your super safari jacket with all the pockets.

And so we come to one of the disadvantages of the SLR – they attract dirt and dust. Between the time you remove one lens and mount the replacement, every dust particle within a 20m radius will have woken up and started charging for the opening of your camera body, and the next time you take a shot the dust particles that made it will take advantage of the raised mirror to settle on the sensor.

What can you do? You can minimise the time in which dust can enter by changing lenses as quickly as possible. You can reduce the attractiveness of your camera for dust by turning it off before removing a lens. And, when changing, you can stand with your back to the wind, so that dust isn’t blown in, and the dust that is attracted has to work harder to get to the camera.


It might happen, a few times a year, that you get to take pictures when the sun is shining. Beware! If your subject is human, and they are facing the sun, they will partially close their eyelids to reduce the glare. And when people look at a photograph, if there are eyes in the photograph they will look at the eyes – it is one of those automatic health and safety responses, you look at the eyes to see if they are going to attack you or eat you or maybe even fancy you. We want the eyes that we capture to be wide open, and ideally looking at the camera, or at least at the photographer.

So, if you are out on a sunny day, and your subject is a person, what can you do? You could turn them around so that their back is to the sun, but then of course the camera is pointing straight into the sun, and you might get lens flare, and more difficult exposure. You could position them a bit to the side, so there is still light on the face but it isn’t dazzling them. Or you could move them to a lightly-shaded place, so that there is still plenty of light on the face but no glare squinting-up the eyes. Or wait for a cloud – it won’t be long.

Enjoying the Show

Enjoying the Show

Do you remember the excitement of your first pantomime, when the baddies were sneaking up behind the cool clean hero, and the audience burst out with shouts of “Look out behind you!”? It is always applicable when out taking photographs, too. There is of course the practical element – there might not be baddies sneaking up on you (though that can happen too) but in your enthusiasm for getting the shot lined up you might have forgotten that you were standing in the cycle path, and cyclists can be very unforgiving. But there is also the fact that, if what you are about to take is something that attracts the crowds – F1 racing, outdoor theatre, Lords of Strut (if you don’t know Lords of Strut, just ask) – very often the more interesting shot will be of the crowds watching the event rather than the event itself.

Even when is no traffic, and no crowds, you should look, if not behind you, at least around you. We all have this tendency to arrive somewhere, gasp at the wonderful scene, and want to start photographing. But we are not just happy snappers, we are photographers, so look around, walk around, ‘cos as well as the fantastic shot where you are, there may be an enormously better one a few metres away.

So, for safer and maybe better photography – look out behind you!


Several of this series of tips will be about things that you should have with you on a photo outing – and since every time you go anywhere your camera should be with you, these are things that should never be left behind. Having them with you won't directly improve your photography, but they will make you a better photographer, as without them you just might not get the shot.

First and foremost is a spare battery. You can get away without one if your camera takes standard batteries and you will be in an area full of spare battery shops, but with so many modern SLRs using proprietary batteries most of us will need a spare. Although proprietary batteries are specific to the make and model of your camera, the spare does not have to be of the same brand, as virtually every proprietary battery has copies available, and usually at only a small fraction of the price. Despite what the camera manufacturer will tell you, the copies can give just as good usage as the originals.

You should have some idea of the number of shots you get from a charge of your battery, so that if you are going to some event where you might exceed that number, you can carry two or more spares. Also, if your destination is very cold, battery life is enormously reduced, and you might need extra spares. A friend shooting the Northern Lights in Norway found that, instead of his normal 400+ shots per charge, his batteries were only giving about 20. In such conditions the spares should be in an inside pocket so that your body heat will keep them warm.

Carefully segregate your used batteries, and as soon as you get back to base recharge them. Charged batteries should be in a case or a cloth pocket to avoid accidental discharge if the exposed contacts touch something metallic.

The shots that you take with all that battery power have to be stored on your memory card, and just as the battery can empty, the memory card can fill, and if it is full you can't take any more pictures, so you should have a spare – or two or three. With the constant growth in card capacities it is possible to get a card that you just can't fill in a single day, but such large capacity cards are better avoided, as putting all your shots on one card is like putting all your eggs in one basket. Having several smaller cards is more reliable. They should be numbered – 1,2,3,4 … – and used in sequence, to minimize the risk of confusing them when changing.

As soon as you get home, transfer the images from the used cards to your computer, then back them up. The cards can then be reformatted, clearing the old images and leaving the cards ready for the next shoot. The formatting is best done in the camera. Do not use your cards for long-term storage, as they are not sufficiently reliable.

In another few hours the face of the building should be sunlit, and the shadows gone from the further building. The low light might even catch the glass of the fountain nicely.

In another few hours the face of the building should be sunlit, and the shadows gone from the further building. The low light might even catch the glass of the fountain nicely.

Cameras capture light, most often daylight from the sun. Throughout the day the sun moves (OK, really the earth moves) so the light from the sun that is illuminating our subject comes from different directions, and it is important to consider the direction of the light before shooting.

With the sun behind it, the subject is in shadow, making it difficult to capture the detail, though used well rear lighting with fill-in flash (topic of a later tip) can give very satisfactory results.

With the sun overhead, the details of the subject (eyebrows on a face, architectural features such as facias and lintels) cast harsh shadows which may not yield a pleasing picture.

Often the sun to one side, or behind the photographer, will give the best results.

But this tip is not just about the direction of the light, important though that is, but about the colour. The light from the sun passes through, and is modified by, the earth’s atmosphere. When the sun is low in the sky the light must traverse a much greater thickness of air than when it is high, and the greater filtering affect of the greater thickness changes the colour of the light from a harsh blue to a warm red. The sun is at its lowest at sunrise and sunset, and the hour either side of these is the time when, for many photographers, the light is at its best.

So, when to shoot depends on the subject and the results you want. For stark, high-shadowed results, use the middle of the day, but for warm results, often with good “modelling” shadows, shoot early or late. Of course, if you can’t change the orientation of the subject, and want the light on it in a particular direction, you may have no choice in the time. And if you want to avoid shadows, you need to consider the weather as well, but that again is for another tip.

laddermanMost people take pictures while standing up. This can lend a certain eye-level sameness to most people's photos. For a bit of variety, try crouching down, particularly if there are children in the shot, as they should almost always be taken at their eye-level. Things can look different too from higher up, so if you can't fit a step-ladder into your camera bag find something to stand on – a wall, a rubbish bin, a friend's shoulders – that will give you the extra inches that can help you take the extra-ordinary.

Avoid, however, taking pictures with the camera at an angle other than vertical or horizontal. That is what novice photographers fresh from school do, to try to give their shots that clever, arty, look, and because so many do it it no longer works.

Picture courtesy of Nelson City Council

clip-art-cameras-445433A tripod is not just for Christmas. Take it with you on your walks.

The main reason for using you tripod is to steady the camera. No matter how well you brace yourself, and control your breathing, and press gently on the shutter button, your camera will move. On a bright, sunny day with a short lens the exposure time will be sufficiently short that the movement might not be captured, but longer lenses, small apertures and dull days conspire to give long exposure times, long enough to slightly blur your picture. Even on a fairly bright day, if you are using your polaroid filter (you probably should be) exposure times can sneak into the don’t-handhold range.

The general guide for hand-holding is to take the lens focal length, add a half if your sensor is APS-C size, and treat it as a fraction of a second. For a 100mm lens adding a half gives 150, so you should only hand-hold if the exposure time is faster than 1/150th of a second. If you are using shake reduction you could do at least two stops better, and so get down to maybe 1/30th.

The tripod should of course be reasonably sturdy, and nice and light for ease of transport. These two mutually-exclusive objectives will require, as in so much else in photography, compromise. And since you are using the tripod to minimise shake, don’t touch the camera or tripod while taking the picture. Use a cable or remote release.

But use of a tripod confers another benefit, time. You have to set up the tripod, check that the camera is horizontal, adjust the height, remember to turn off the shake reduction – things that take time, during which you are more likely to notice if there is something not quite right with the composition, or the viewpoint or the exposure – you have more time to get it right.

The tripod is of course also a great prop for scrambling over the rocks on the annual trip to the Saltee Islands.

Picture from