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How I Shoot: My Favorite Camera Settings

I’m generally a nature and editorial assignment photographer, but like many of you, I enjoy photographing everything. There’s very little that doesn’t interest me. I have found throughout the years that I primarily use the Aperture Priority mode. Why? Often when I’m on assignment, I don’t have time to worry about every single variable, and I’ve found that focusing on the aperture has given me the control I need for 80 percent of my photography. If I want an image to have a shallow depth of field, then I’ll use a large aperture, such as f/2.8; if I’m shooting a landscape and I need a greater depth of field, I’ll use a smaller aperture, such as f/16.

But sometimes Aperture Priority just doesn’t work. Maybe the lighting is tricky or it’s close but not quite right. In those cases I’ll switch over to Manual mode. Almost all the landscape photography that I’ve shot during the golden hours was done in Manual mode because the light changes very quickly. Likewise, when I’m using studio lights, I’m in Manual mode because of the amount of control I have over the entire lighting situation.

Each photographer has a different way of doing things. No single approach is necessarily better than another. In the end, it’s about creating your own system so that you’re consistent. When you’re consistent, you can measure results and then make changes accordingly.

When I first started photographing in Aperture Priority, the biggest mistake I made was shooting with much too slow a shutter speed. I would get blurry pictures and ask myself, “How did this happen? They looked super sharp when I took them.” I would then look at the metadata (image information) and see that I had shot the blurry image at 1/30 of a second, way too slow for handholding a camera. So I learned my lesson and started shooting a little faster, and my results improved immensely. Essentially, I learned to keep an eye not only on my aperture while shooting in Aperture Priority, but on my shutter speed as well.

Doing things consistently and measuring results is a great way to improve your photography. Don’t ignore the metadata; it’s very helpful in understanding why an image looks a certain way and learning how to change your setting the next time to make the image stronger.

Although the other camera modes have their place, I think you will find that most professional photographers use the Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes for most of their shooting.

One big concern that I have when I am setting up my camera is just how low I can keep my ISO. This is always a priority for me, because a low ISO will deliver the cleanest image. I raise the ISO only as a last resort because each increase in sensitivity is an opportunity for more digital noise to enter my image.

To make quick changes while I shoot, I often use the Exposure Compensation feature (covered in Chapter 7) so that I can make small over- and underexposure changes. This is different than changing the aperture or shutter; it is more like fooling the camera meter into thinking the scene is brighter or darker than it actually is. To get to this function quickly, I simply press the Exposure Compensation button, right next to the shutter button, and then dial in the desired amount of compensation using the main Command dial. If you can’t get the exact exposure you want with aperture and speed alone, make little adjustments to the exposure compensation.

One of the reasons some people change their exposure is to make corrections when there are “blinkies” in the rear LCD. Blinkies are the warning signal that part of the image has been overexposed to the point that there is no longer any detail in the highlights. When the highlight alert feature is turned on, the display will flash wherever the potential exists for overexposure. The black-and-white flashing will only appear in areas of your picture that are in danger of overexposure.

Setting up the highlight alert feature

  1. Press the Menu button, and then use the Multi-selector to access the Playback menu.
  2. Once in the Playback menu, move the Multi-selector to Playback Display Options and press OK (A).

  3. Move the Multi-selector down to select the Highlights option. Move the Multi-selector to the right to place a check mark next to the word Highlights (B).

  4. Press OK on the Multi-selector to lock in your change.

Once the highlights warning is turned on, use it to check your images on the back of the LCD after taking a shot. If you see an area that is blinking, try setting exposure compensation to an underexposed setting like –1/3 or –2/3 stops and take another photo, checking the result on the screen. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to get rid of every single blinking area. It is easy enough to add some black back into your photo later using post-processing software, and you don’t want to underexpose the rest of the image because there is one blown-out highlight.

Sometimes, such as when shooting into the sun, the warning will blink no matter how much you adjust the exposure because there is just no detail in the highlight. On the contrary, if you’re shooting a white wedding dress and the entire dress is blinking, then you have no detail in the dress and the bride will not be happy. Use your best judgment to determine if the warning is alerting you to an area where you want to retain highlight detail. If you are not sure what the perfect exposure is and you have to get a good shot, try bracketing your exposure. We will talk more about this in later chapters.

As you work your way through the coming chapters, you will see other tips and tricks to use in your daily photography, but the most important advice I can give is to take the time to understand the features of your camera so that you can leverage the technology in a knowledgeable way. This will pay off in better photographs.

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