Four Quick Tips
January 5, 2012
In December I did a sunset shoot from the summit of 14,060-foot Mt. Bierstadt and had an opportunity to experiment with some tweaks to my time-tested field procedures. I am indebted for several of these suggestions to John and Barbara Gerlach's excellent book Digital Landscape Photography, published by Focal Press. Although I had been aware of these ideas, I had never been persuaded to try them until reading their book, which I highly recommend. Here's what I learned.
Old habits die hard, and for decades I've set up my cameras so pressing the shutter release halfway down started both the metering system and auto-focus. If I needed to lock focus and recompose, I pressed the AF-On button on the back of the camera with my thumb. Contrary to its name, I'd programmed that button to lock focus. I learned on Mt. Bierstadt that a better solution, at least in many situations, is to re-program the AF-On button to start auto-focus, while leaving the meter-on function attached to the shutter release. This makes it easier when shooting landscapes to focus on that point in the scene which will give you maximum depth of field and then not worry about accidentally changing focus when you press the shutter release halfway to get a meter reading. This approach is particularly valuable for people like me who wear progressive lenses, since auto-focus is faster and more accurate than manual focusing, even with a focus-confirmation light as an aid. I also find it easier with gloves on to hit the AF-On button than to try to precisely rotate a focus ring without also touching the zoom ring. You'll have to go into your menus to see if your camera offers this option.
I'd known for years that light entering the eyepiece could affect the meter reading if you were using any automatic metering mode and weren't blocking stray light by putting your eye up to the eyepiece. That happens most often, of course, if your camera is on a tripod and you aren't looking through the camera at the moment of exposure. I hadn't fully understood the magnitude of the problem, however. John and Barbara's book finally persuaded me to test this with my own camera. To my surprise, in a worst-case situation I found a two-stop difference between the correct exposure and the exposure actually used by the camera when a bright light was shining directly into the eyepiece. One solution is to always use the camera's eyepiece shutter, if it has one, or to shade the eyepiece with your hand or hat. A better solution in many situations is to switch to manual exposure, set the correct exposure while looking through the camera, then blaze away. The major pitfall in relying on manual exposure is in subtly changing light, such as when shooting flowers on a partially overcast day with clouds of varying density moving across the sky. You have to wait for the wind to stop, of course, but also to wait for exactly the right degree of contrast. Juggling two variables is bad enough; you'll drive yourself crazy if you have to keep changing the shutter speed as well to get the correct exposure. In that situation, I switch to aperture priority and close the eyepiece shutter or shade the eyepiece with my hand or hat.
Using a cable release helps you make sharper pictures because you don't need to touch the camera to make an exposure. But cable releases are also a pain. They blow around in the wind, get tangled in the tripod legs, snag on brush when you're moving your tripod with the camera attached and can get stuck in the "bulb" position, which can make your camera appear to go berserk. At least with my camera, I have to remove my gloves to attach and detach the cable release. If nothing is moving in the scene, a better solution is to use the self-timer with a two-second delay. With my Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, I can set the mirror to lock up when I press the shutter release. Two seconds later, when all vibration has stopped, the shutter fires, either once or multiple times if I've set auto-bracketing. If, however, I need to release the shutter at a precise moment, such as when the wind finally stops and some wildflowers hold still for just an instant, then I still use a cable release.
My camera gives me a choice of 2, 3, 5, or 7 frames when doing auto-bracketing. Many cameras, however, only offer a three-frame bracket set. Here's a tip for efficiently shooting a five-frame bracket with a camera that will only do a three-frame bracket at one time:
* Set bracketing to three frames with a one-stop bracket interval.
* Set exposure compensation to +1.
* Shoot three frames, which will give you the series 0 exposure compensation, +1 and +2.
* Now set the exposure compensation to -1 and shoot three frames.
That will give you the sequence -2, -1 and 0 (again). You'll have one duplicate frame (the metered exposure, 0 exposure compensation). Discard the duplicate and you've got a five-frame bracket set with a one-stop bracket interval. Why would you want this set of exposures? In brief, because this approach is a "universal exposure strategy" if nothing in the frame is moving. With all that data in hand, you can adopt any one of several processing strategies to get the best possible image. You can read more about that idea in my article for Outdoor Photographer titled The Universal Exposure Strategy. If you'd like to study the subject in depth, please consider taking my course Mastering Dramatic Light through the Perfect Picture School of Photography.
Want to know when new blog posts are released? Please join my mailing list!