Walking With a Camera:
Part 8: Basic Camera Technique, Part Two
Shooting techniques for larger, SLR type cameras
In my last article I talked about various techniques for getting the best out of small point-and -shoot cameras while walking with a camera. How can you get the best pictures when shooting with a larger, SLR type of camera?
If you are shooting a larger, SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera that has exchangeable lenses, you definitely should be shooting using a stabilizer lens if you plan on doing a lot of hand-holding, which walking with a camera requires.
Stabilized lenses making shooting without a tripod much more successful. They are special lenses that have tiny micro motors inside them that dampen out small camera movements and vibrations and thus let you shoot at much slower speeds than you could normally shoot at. Make sure any new lenses you may buy are stabilized; actually almost all good lens are stabilized these days, just check to be sure that the one you are buying is. Here is an article I wrote with a little more info about using stabilized lenses, if you are interested.
The easiest way to take handheld pictures using these larger cameras is to set the exposure control on your camera to P, which stands for program or automatic. This will ensure that your camera will automatically choose a shutter speed fast enough to not blur the image. The wind can be blowing and you can have the too-much-coffee-jitters or the hangover shakes and you will still get sharp pictures. And you won't even have to use high ISO speeds. This is the upside. The downside is that your pictures won't have much, if any, depth of field. In other words, that great picture of yellow daisies and grasses where you focused right on the flowers will be dead sharp but the Teton Peaks in the background will be quite blurry. This actually isn't too bad though. It can actually look very nice.
This is what happened in the Indian Paintbrush picture below. The up-front flowers are dead sharp, while the yellow flowers in the background are pretty fuzzy. If there had been a far distant background in this pictures it would have even more blurred. I obviously focused right on the paintbrush, and since I was in P mode, the camera choose a fast speed and a pretty wide open lens aperture. In other words, this picture has very little depth of field. In spite of the blurry background, this picture looks just fine though. The blurry background may even make it better as it makes the foreground stand out. It also makes the foreground the single point of interest, which is good. Your eye doesn't jump around all over the picture, it stays pretty much on the red flowers right in front.
The other alternative is not so good. A picture where the foreground is blurred but the background is dead sharp is bad, bad, bad. This happens when you really aren't paying attention and and you just point your camera at the general scene and hope for the best. The focus brackets in your viewfinder usually end up over the background when you shoot, the camera focuses on the background and so that is what ends up being sharp in the picture. Avoid fuzzy foreground and sharp background at all costs. When you are shooting at the P setting, or other automatic settings, pay close attention to where you are focusing and be sure to focus on the close foreground and you will get a decent, if not great, picture. I'll say it again, focus on the one thing that interests you most in the picture and which is closest to the front of the picture.
However, if you want to move up a notch in the photo world and have both the flowers and the peaks sharp, you need to shoot at a smaller f-stop. In this case you need to set your exposure mode on the A mode, not the P mode. A stands for Aperture Priority. (In some cameras this is called Av mode.) Now you can manually choose a small f-stop like f-22 so you will have a large depth of field. Unfortunately you will now be shooting at a very slow shutter speed, which will blur pictures and here is where you will need a fast ISO setting to increase your shutter speed enough so that you don't blur images. If you set your camera on ISO 800 or 1000, this will usually do the trick. If you have a good camera that shoots noiselessly at ISO 1600, this will work even better.
If you need a little review on Depth of field, I have written two articles on this subject. To learn how to use depth of field when shooting with a small point-and-shoot camera, read this article. For using depth of field with larger, more complex SLR cameras with exchangeable lenses, check out this article.
If you have decided to move your exposure mode setting from P to A, you have elected to set your lens aperture manually. For extreme depth of field you will be using f-32 or f-22; for a moderate depth of field you will be shooting at perhaps f-16. When you manually set your camera at these smaller f-stops, and if you are in A mode, it will stay set there until you manually reset it. (You can temporarily set your camera at a higher f-stop even when you are in P mode. And you can take one picture at this higher f-stop, but as soon as this one picture is taken, your camera will revert to P mode again.)
When you are shooting in A mode, and you have chosen to shoot all pictures at the one f-stop you manually set, it means you now need to pay really close attention to what you are doing. Here is a scenario that often results in ruining lots of pictures. You have lots of light, so you choose A mode and manually set f-22 for getting both the flowers and the mountains sharp. But, a few minutes later the sun goes behind a cloud, you consequently lose a lot of light on the scene, and then, without your even noticing, your shutter speed may drop so low that your pictures will be getting very blurry, even if you are using a moderately high ISO.
What shutter speed is too low for a hand-held camera? Probably anything less than 1/125 of a second is too slow for hand-holding, unless you have a stabilization lens on the camera in which case you may be able to drop to as low a 1/25 of a second if you are very, very careful. 1/40 is probably a more realistic limit when using a stabilizing lens.
There are lots of ways you can get into trouble using the A exposure setting. Say that you are shooting a gorgeous clump Indian Paintbrush with a background of the Tetons. You have decided you want both the flowers and the peaks to be in focus. You are out in an open meadow where there is plenty of light. You set your aperture at f-22 so both the flowers and peaks will be sharp, notice that your shutter speed is 1/250 even though your ISO is low, maybe about 100 ISO.
Everything looks great. So you dip down briefly to one knee, focus on the flowers, take the picture and move on. You've probably got a great picture of wildflowers and the Tetons, both of which are in very sharp focus.
Then you walk on a few steps and enter a shady aspen grove and spot some great aspen leaves that will make another great foreground for the Teton range over there on the other side of Jenny Lake. So you get right up close to the shady aspen leaves focus on them, forgetting all about the fact that your aperture is set at f-22. This time things don't work out so well. It is much darker inside the shady aspen grove and your camera needs much more light for a good picture. It can't change the aperture speed since you have manually set it to f-22 and it no longer changes automatically. So what the camera does is slow the shutter speed way down to get the extra light it needs, maybe all the way down to 1/2 second or maybe even one or two seconds. At this exposure speed your hand held pictures will be hopelessly blurry.
I can't tell you how often I have made this simple mistake. It is a very, very easy thing to do when there are a ton of great pictures just waiting to be taken and you are excitedly snapping away. And the sad part about this is that you don't usually ruin just one or two pictures. When you are in the heat of good picture taking, and things are going well and you are stacking up the great compositions one after another it can easily be ten or fifteen minutes before you suddenly think, "Oh my God, it's been a long time since I checked my shutter speed and that big, black cloud came up a long time ago."
And then you do check your speed and your heart falls down to your ankles when you see the last picture was taken at 1/4 of a second and you know that the last thirty pictures are ruined and that they are gone forever. You will never be able to reshoot them as the black cloud is floating away and the rainbow is fading and you begin to think that maybe suicide would be your best option.
So, when you are shooting using aperture priority, don't get too excited, watch your shutter speed if not on every picture, at least every time you begin a new picture sequence in a new location or if you notice the light changing. And don't count too much on what the pictures look like on the on-camera screen; blurry pictures usually look just fine when they are only 2x3 in size. When they get to be 20x30 the motion blur will be all too obvious.
8292, Logan Pass, Early Morning Fog and Pines,
Glacier National Park, Montana
9147, Montana Ranch and Sunset, Along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana
This article is part of a series of articles about "Walking With a Camera". Links to the first six articles are below.