SPot, Lock & Load

One of the most frequent questions I get asked (in these lockdown days via email) is how do you spot meter to get correct exposure? Now I have to say that lots of photographers shy away from spot metering because they just don’t understand how it works in the field. Unfortunately they stick to what seems to work for them and are a little timid when trying something new. But it’s nothing to be apprehensive about and once you ‘get it’ you’ll find your exposures improve 100%. So how does it work?

It’s a very straightforward process. It just needs a little practice to get to the point where it becomes second nature.

Five basics first: 1. Spot metering covers a very small area ( check your manual), 2.Know how your histogram works, 3. Understand how your meter scale works, 4. Know what a ‘stop’ is, 5.Know how to lock your metered exposure. All this is basic but if unsure just check your manual and/or look it up on line.

If you understand these basics then the rest is a piece of cake. So let’s put it all together:

Example 1. Lets say you want to photograph something that’s predominately white. This is what you do: Set your metering to SPOT, focus on your subject where the white is most predominant, adjust the metering scale until the ‘needle’ is in the middle and LOCK it. Now look at the metering scale again, LOAD in +one stop, refocus and take the shot. The whites will be white and everything else in the frame will be correctly exposed.

Example 2. Lets say you want to photograph something that’s predominately black. This is what you do: Set your metering to SPOT, focus on your subject where the black is most predominant, adjust the metering scale until the ‘needle’ is in the middle and LOCK it. Now look at the metering scale again, LOAD in -one stop, refocus and take the shot. The blacks will be black and everything else in the frame will be correctly exposed.

Simple. It all goes back to the idea that if you place one correctly exposed part of the image in the right place on the histogram then everything else in the image will also be correctly exposed.

It might seem a little complicated but it’s not and once you get used to the process it’ll only take a couple of seconds. And your images will be perfectly exposed.

So, remember: ‘SPOT, LOCK & LOAD’.

May the light be with you

Mindfulness & Photography

About a year ago I saw an advert for a ‘Mindfulness Day of Photography’ and at the time I thought it was just someone trying to cash in on the ‘new thing’ that all the new millennials were banging on about along with their breakfasts of avocado on toast.

However, since lockdown#1 back in March and now with lockdown#2 this November, I’ve been giving this some serious thought. For sure, as the latest season of Autumn Watch hits our TV screens (as I write) there seems much chatter about the value to our mental health of reconnecting with nature: y’know, the walk in the woods, the stroll on the beach, watching the wildlife etc & etc. And many of us ‘togs do just that when we go out and photograph wildlife: And I’ve heard tell that this is a great way to totally be-at-one with nature…or so they say. For me though, it’s never been the case: changing the camera settings, making sure the light is right, checking the Point of View, worrying that I’ve brought all the right gear… etc. And to be frank, there are times when it gets a bit overwhelming when trying to capture that one shot of a life time. Not to mention the frustration when things don’t go to plan.: Not always the greatest thing for my mental health!

So, I had a thought: A light bulb moment you might say.

I’ve always worked to a plan with my photography. I’ve never been an opportunist photographer, at least rarely…it just doesn’t work for me. So I wondered what it would be like if I applied my particular approach to photography in an effort to achieve this so-called state of mindfulness. I’d got nothing to lose, and quite frankly, in these difficult times, everything to gain. So I tried it. And by jingo it works. The Photographer’s Mental Health Restorative I call it, or TPMHR for short. Yea, whatever! Anyway, it worked for me so I thought I’d share it…it might just work for you. But you need a plan and you have to stick to it.

So here it is:

  1. Choose a place that you can pretty much guarantee is going to be quiet with hardly anyone else likely to be there eg. a woodland
  2. Take one camera only together with one lens: a zoom is ideal with minimum focal length of 70mm and no more than 300mm.
  3. Take something to sit on (perhaps a small folding chair) so that you’ll be very comfortable.
  4. Wrap yourself up to keep warm – nothing worse that feeling cold when you’re sitting still.
  5. When you get to your chosen location, choose a good spot that will allow you to have a decent view of what’s around. Don’t try to cover everything, just your line of sight.
  6. Settle down and take a couple of test shots to get exposure right according to the conditions.
  7. Dial your settings into Manual mode.
  8. Have your camera on your lap and just sit and wait.
  9. Give the area around you time to settle by staying still and relaxed.
  10. When something comes along, or you see something worth photographing slowly raise your camera to your eye and take the shot. Don’t check it on the back of the camera. It’ll be OK if your settings were initially correct. Repeat.
  11. Immerse yourself in your surroundings.
  12. Empty your head of all the stress of the everyday.

Tip: A couple of sandwiches and a hot flask may help. But have them to hand so you cause as little disturbance as possible. After all, you are a guest.

I guarantee you will experience mindfulness in your photography.

Bonus: When you post process your images they will remind you of that special time.


Stay Safe

Auto ISO…Why?

Quite recently I was asked whether auto ISO was something I used regularly. And the simple answer is…hardly ever. In fact I really can’t remember the last time I did. So why? Well I guess the the best way I can explain my reasoning is to say that I mainly shoot in Manual Mode.

Because I try to envisage the image that I want before I depress the shutter I dial-in the settings that I need before I take the shot. As photographers we’re all working with a blank canvas and it’s what we want to eventually ‘paint’ that should determine what our settings are…not the other way round. I mean that we should not allow the camera to dictate what the final image will look like. It might be that depth of field is our number one priority or it might be shutter speed etc. but if we rely solely on the camera to make our choices then we relegate ourselves to ‘button pushers’. So let’s suppose I’m shooting in manual mode and I’ve already envisioned the image I want of a bird taking off into the wind. Shutter speed is important because I want to freeze wing movement but, depending on the size of the bird I may not need a very fast speed…especially if it’s a raptor. Depth of field is important if I want front-to-back clarity of the bird, say from wing tip to wing tip. But I’ve already metered for the image I want and the ISO is already determined. So if I need to change any of the variables because of a slight change in light then it’s simply a matter of quickly changing one or more of the settings without taking the my eye from the viewfinder (because I’m totally familiar with the ergonomics of the camera). Therefore, I still maintain the same exposure that I metered for in the first place. If I need to change the shutter speed then I know that I have to change the aperture to maintain the same exposure – equal clicks in opposite directions. If I need the image brightening then I can also change the ISO by equally clicking in the same direction. The exposure will be maintained.

So I saw a presentation given by a fellow photographer who was championing Auto ISO in Manual mode. His reasoning was based on shooting a dappled bird moving in and out of dappled shade. Now you might think that by setting auto ISO any light change is compensated for as the bird moves too and fro. And, sure, it might well do but I have to ask the question, ‘Why would you want to do such a thing?’. This seems crazy to me: either shoot the bird in the light or shoot the bird in the dappled shade…don’t try to do both. To me it’s pointless. I’d rather take a lunch break and wait for the conditions and light that I want because I want total control of the canvas, the brushes and the paints. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t shoot in ‘auto anything’…it’s your choice. But if you choose to shoot in manual then why shoot auto ISO? It doesn’t make sense to me. Take control of everything you can. As photographers we have enough trouble waiting for the light to be as we want it, so why leave ISO in the lap of the gods? Paint the picture you want not what the camera wants.

Lock-down Ramblings & Unnecessary Mind Games.

It’s been quite a while since we started lock-down and for many photographers it’s been a bit of mixed bag of frustration: some made the most of things and started taking photographs on their daily walk whilst others, by the very nature of their chosen genre (studio/wedding/industrial etc), experimented with new ideas. A lot of studio pros use tethering but, of course, that’s not possible outdoors on your walk. So for many it’s back to hand-held work ‘in the field’. And the amount of macro photography that’s hit social media over these past few months is quite staggering. There seems lots to do even during this crisis. I’ve been one of the lucky ones because a lot of my work continues to be published albeit mainly on social media and commercial platforms: the stock-shots are already in my portfolio. Because I’ve contributed quite a lot of ‘stock’ over the last year or so it’s still being used – there’s a bit of hidden advice here: if you get into stock work then make sure that your portfolio is extensive. Same goes for commissions: keep adding to your portfolio and your clients have lots to choose from during lean times like these. And to be frank (and I can assure you that I’m not blowing my own trumpet here) I’ve lost count of the work I’ve had published over the last few months – never-mind the last year. And that’s because I’ve always made sure that I keep my submissions and portfolios full. If I didn’t I know that my clients would look elsewhere. What they want is a stock of images that they can call on at any time. So for me it works – to everyone’s advantage: I’m happy and so are they. But there’s one lesson I learned very early on: if you can’t get into the mind-set of your client then don’t even try. It’ll drive you to distraction. To be sure, if they know exactly what they want then they’ll tell you and they’ll expect matching results. A fellow ‘tog who is part of a members-only photographers’ social media group often asks advice about the shots he’s taken for an agricultural and print based media outlet – ‘Is there any way I could have improved on this shot and made it better for the client?. How could I have used lighting better etc etc?’ And yes, quite a few members offer good constructive critical advice. Brilliant! However, this photographer has regular work coming in, gets paid for it and is often sent on ‘shoots’. The cherry on all this is that he can now call himself a ‘published pro photographer’. So he doesn’t need to get ‘inside the head’ of his client: they obviously like what he does and he does what they want. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink things. If your work gets published consistently then you don’t need to do anything apart from a few tweaks perhaps. I’m just a guilty as the next person and it takes a great deal of resilience not to over-think things. If the client likes what you do then change nothing. They are probably not photographers and therefore don’t need to think like one. Unfortunately this can sometimes be very frustrating for us. To illustrate this I’ll relate the story of a ‘festival’ shoot I did last year. I had to cover quite a lot of ground in photographic terms capturing the essence of the event and the people who attended. The actual photography went well and most folk were very receptive to me being there. I think I ended up with over 1,000 shots during the three day event…a good proportion of which involving getting people to sign model-release forms. I was fortunate to have my wife with me who did a sterling job getting on-the-hoof admin completed. At the end of each day it was back home to sort through and process the images ready for sending to the client. And that’s where the ‘crunch’ lies. Consider this for a moment: Lets suppose I’d dumped over 25% of the images, leaving approx 700 to be processed. Suppose that each image takes on average 5 mins to process (and that’s not long at all). Thus, total processing time is in excess of 58 hours! You’ve got a deadline to meet, ‘Can you send them to me tomorrow please? and copies to so-and-so…? Thanks.’ The client is only interested in the finished product not the blood sweat and tears you went through to get to there. Quite right too! So I suggest that if you haven’t already then start now and get your work-flow organised. Know your preferred software like the back of your hand. And make it work for you. This is no time for experimenting or trying things for the first time. And if you don’t need to then don’t try to get inside mind of your client. It’s a bit like over processing an image…don’t do it! You’ll spend too much time worrying whether it’s good enough. Someone once told me that the mark of a great painter is that they know when to stop. Something we all need to remember I think. Stay safe my friends.

Spotting the Mid-tone

Screenshot (7)

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is along the lines of, ‘You say that if I spot meter and put that on the right place on the histogram then everything else falls into place on the histogram. So if what I want to meter is a long way off how can I spot meter for that?’ Great Question!

In the image on the left several things had to come together to achieve what I wanted. The shot that I envisioned needed to have two primary components: to show the bird in its habitat and to show the effectiveness of its camouflage. The problem was that it had to be a relatively long shot ( I used a 7D Mkii with an EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM +1.4x III at 560mm, 1/640 @ f8, ISO 800) so I had no real chance of spot metering off the bird. Instead I used ‘substitute metering’ off something close by that I knew was a mid tone: the palm of my hand. It could have been anything close by that I knew was a mid tone but I’ve come to realise that the palm of my hand is pretty close to a mid tone. So I metered of that, locked the metering, composed the shot and everything came together in the shot that I had envisioned. In the image below you can see the histogram – I show the image in black and white to identify the tonal range.

Screenshot (4)

You can see that the majority of the tonal values fall around the mid tone range and that the blacks, shadows and highlights are where they should be.

So that’s it, albeit briefly: substitute metering and setting the tonal value where it should be on the histogram. So the next question has to be, ‘How do I recognise a mid tone?’

I’m afraid it’s something that comes with experience – getting out and doing it…and eventually it’ll be almost second nature. There are a couple of other ways you could do it but they won’t teach you to recognise what colours have a mid tone value

  1. Use a ‘grey’ card (you can buy them from most photographic retailers) and meter off that.
  2. Convert your colour shots to black and white and look closely at the mid tones on the histogram and over time, with experience you’ll get to recognise the tonal values of a potential shot.

Over time, and with experience you’ll get to the point where it’ll feel as though you can almost ‘see’ in black and white!

So the short answer to, ‘How do I learn to recognise a mid tone?’, is to get out and do it.


Lock down Task

It’s very frustrating for photographers these days when all we want to do is get out and take some shots. And sure, if we’re taking our daily exercise (Govt Guidelines) then there’s nothing stopping us taking the camera with us and making the most of our ‘time’ outdoors. However, it would be foolish to take all our kit – tripod, rucksack full of gear, spare camera bodies and back-up batteries etc- because if questioned by the local police we’d have a hard job explaining that this was not recreation but just our daily exercise. But, as I say, taking one camera and being opportunistic seems to be within the rules (but don’t quote me on that): You have to decide for yourself whether you think it’s OK or not. But if you decide to strictly abide by govt advice and not carry your camera on your daily exercise route then there’s still a few little jobs we can do at home in readiness for the easing of restrictions. And one that many of us tend to put to one side until the rainy days is cleaning our gear. When was the last time you emptied your gear bag and gave your kit a thorough cleaning and not just the usual cleaning of the lens?!

So empty your bag/rucksack, sit down for a couple of hours and carefully and methodically  clean your gear. Especially if it’s not seen the light of day for a few weeks. Are those batteries fully charged? Is everything working as it should? Are your lenses gathering too much dust? Are all the dials and buttons operating as they should? Is the LCD screen clean? And don’t forget to throw away that half-eaten chocolate bar that’s been sitting at the bottom of your bag since February! A little work done now will give you peace of mind when you eventually get out of lock down. The temptation during this difficult time is to become too relaxed about our valuable kit that we’ve built up over the years. And just like us, it too needs a spruce-up every now and again to make sure everything is working as it should. Stay safe everyone.

The Canon 5DMkiv

Two years ago Canon launched the new 5DMkiv and since then it’s been thoroughly field tested by professionals and amateurs either as a new addition to their gear range or as an upgrade in the EOS 5D series. Before I comment briefly from my own experience of this top-end piece of kit it’s worth quoting a little of what Canon said about their then new flagship model:

‘From the moment light passes through the lens, the EOS 5D Mark IV captures every nuance, every colour, every detail. Once again Canon has brought finer dimensions in detail thanks to a new sensor capable of extraordinary clarity. See your world like never before. The EOS 5D Mark IV features advanced focusing and metering which captures moments and tracks them the instant they happen, even in difficult lighting. A 30.4 Megapixel CMOS sensor delivers images that are packed with detail and low in noise, even in bright highlight and dark shadow areas. A finer resolution means nothing is lost, allowing you the freedom to crop in for the perfect shot and retain the quality. Low light performance is improved at every ISO setting, with much reduced digital noise and a maximum sensitivity of ISO 32,000 (expandable to ISO 102,400). Be confident of superb image quality even when shooting in poor light. At the heart of the EOS 5D Mark IV is a fast DIGIC 6+ processor that controls every aspect of the camera’s behaviour, including turning raw sensor data into high quality image files that are rich in detail and low in noise, with accurate colours and skin tones. A high-resolution 3.2-inch LCD screen with intuitive touch-screen controls makes shooting with the EOS 5D Mark IV a pleasure. Tap to choose menu commands and swipe back and forth when reviewing images. Four colour tone options enable you to clearly use the screen at any time, day or night…’

And so it goes on. But what about the real world? Sure, like everything else in photography, you’ll always find detractors and to be honest it’s very difficult to change your mind-set when handling something new after using your existing gear for years and knowing its limitations and pros and cons. But that’s what we all end up with: knowing what we can do with what we use…especially if we’re used to the kit. Very often we forget any downsides of equipment we use because we’ve just learned so much about it through regular use and, in many cases, learned to adapt because, quite simply, it does what we want, when we want. For me, my EOS 7DMkii will always be the go-to piece of kit for wildlife photography because it does exactly what I want it to do, when I want. And for me that counts for a lot because it means I’m confident in the gear. I know how it ‘works’, what it can do and more importantly what it can’t do. It’s like my old trusty and rusty 60D…it does what i want it to do when I want…and given its limitations it’s a brilliant bit of kit. But it’s not in the same ball park as the high-end pro gear. But nor should it be. Move up to the pro kit and your playing with serious stuff. And so it is with the EOS 5DMkiv: it’s high-end. It’s serious. And it’s beautiful. I’d heard much about its low light level responsiveness and after unboxing I pushed it to its limit in an almost pitch black environment. Even when I had difficulty in ‘seeing’ what I wanted to shoot the 5DMkiv auto focus locked-on and produced a good quality image. Used with the EF200mm f/2.8L II USM lens I was seriously impressed. Overall image quality in all conditions was what I expected from this wee beastie: excellent. Is there a down-side to the 5DMkiv: I’m sure there is… I just haven’t found it. If you don’t own a 5DMkiv (and they’re not cheap) then you might consider giving one a try…I would be surprised if you were disappointed. If you take the plunge and invest in the 5DMKiv then play with it for a few months ’til you get used to everything it can do…and then you won’t waste time in the field playing ‘photo roulette’ spinning the dials.