Backgrounding. P&S Technique

I will admit to not being nearly as sensitive to background in my wildlife and nature shots as I should be. On the other hand, there are always two ways to become known for your photography. 1) you can work very carefully, and develop great skill in waiting for exactly the right light and working the angles for the perfect background on every shot you take…or 2) you can shoot a lot…all the time…every time you get any kind of chance at all…and then be very selective in what you show to other people 🙂 Either method works…and most honest photographers will tell you that their success rests on a combination of the two. It is important to be able to take an exceptional photograph when the opportunity comes your way…and to be able, within the limits of what nature offers, to create that opportunity when ever you can…but it is just as important to shoot all the time, to shoot a lot, a lot…and to learn to recognize the exceptional shot when you come to process it.

Either way, background has to figure into your calculations. By background I mean whatever is behind your subject…or whatever fills the space in the frame not occupied by the focus of your attention. It if it a picture of a bird, it is everything that is not the bird. If it is a picture of person or an elk, it is everything that is not person or elk. Etc.

Take the two images that lead the post here. It is the same Green Heron, taken from the same boardwalk…Anhinga Trail at the Royal Palm Visitor Center at Everglades National Park…moments apart. The difference is that I re-positioned myself and my camera a few feet down the boardwalk for the second shot in order to get a less cluttered background. I wish I could say it was a conscious choice…but honestly, I was just experimenting with different angles, and noticed the different effect of the background only while processing the images.

And the difference here is not as dramatic as it might have been. There are things I like about both images.

But take this comparison.

Here I am much less ambivalent about which is the better photo. I far prefer the contrasting, uncluttered background of the second shot. The second shot also displays an effect referred to, in photographic circles, as bokeh. Bokeh is the Japanese term that is used to describe the visual structure of the out of focus portions of an image. We say an image has nice bokeh when the out of focus background is pleasing to the eye. Pleasing to the eye, of course, is a judgement call, but there seems to be quite a bit of consistency in the way the term bokeh is used…which leads me to believe that we humans tend to agree, for the most part, on what kind of background is pleasing. An out of focus background that shows some abstract pattern, but not so much as to be distracting, seems to get the most consistent praise.

These are two very similar images taken of the same species of bird miles apart. One is from the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palms, the other is from Shark Valley, both in Everglades National Park. The difference between them is subtle…but it definitely hands on the background.

One more really obvious example, though in this case I could have done nothing about the background in either image. I was shooting from the car for the first image, across the passenger, and the bird was on the ground, so my options were limited. The second bird was simply perfectly posed on a post beside West Road in Shark Valley and sat there while I stopped my bike and got off a short burst of images, before flying away. There was no chance to reframe in either case.

Obviously, if you have a choice, maneuvering for a less cluttered background should be part of your photographic habit. A few steps right or left, or a shift in angle up or down…or both…is often all it takes. This is the same spider at Shark Valley, from just a slightly different angle.

Snowy Egret, Shark Valley, Everglades NP
Snowy Egret, Shark Valley, Everglades NP


Sometimes it is totally the background that makes the shot, as in this image of a Snowy Egret at Shark Valley. Until I pressed the shutter and reviewed the image, I could not see the pattern that the light on the moving water made in the background, and it did not really come up until processing in Lightroom. But I have to tell you I was really happy to see it there!

The background effect is just one more thing to think about while shooting and while processing…but giving it the attention it deserves will improve your images and repay the effort. Eventually someone is going to say “nice bokeh” when you show them a shot (if you have any photo-geeks among your friends at all), and you will be able to say, “Yes…I worked hard to get that!” or, at the very least, “Thank you!”

Florida White, Eco Pond, Everglades NP.
Florida White, Eco Pond, Everglades NP.



BIF with a Point & Shoot!

Three Sanhill Cranes in flight. Bosque del Apache NWR

Birds in flight are such a challenging photographic subject that the category of images has its own internet acronym: BIF. Go to any of the camera forums (like those on and you will see periodic discussion of the challenges and techniques of BIF photography. Mostly the challenges.

Standard BIF rig. Photo from

Until very recently BIF was the sole domain of the long lens, DSLR photographer, generally shooting off a heavy duty tripod with a gimbal head (one of those heads that suspends the lens from above and allows free motion up and down and side to side for panning and following BIFs). Only a pro level DSLR had the focus speed to catch BIFs and most BIF photographers shot with 400-600mm lenses to fill the frame.

And they practiced, almost to the point of specialization, to develop the panning and following skills needed. I see photos of BIFs that just leave me speechless…they are that good, and that amazing.

Of course, that has never stopped me from attempting BIFs with my chosen Point and Shoot super-zoom cameras. Until a generation ago (camera generation…about 2 years) the results were spotty at best. I got an occasional keeper on a day and in a place where there were lots of birds in the air and I had lots of time to practice. Rookeries. National Wildlife Refuges that draw geese, ducks, and cranes. Etc. But it was more by chance and persistence than it was by skill when I came home with anything I wanted to share.

Canon SX50HS in Sports Mode

However, with the advent of the Canon SX50HS and its effective Sports Mode, suddenly BIFs with a Point & Shoot became a lot more possible and a lot more fun. Sports Mode on the SX50HS was programmed to lock focus on a moving subject and then to follow focus on that subject while it was still near the center of the frame. Combined with a 3.4 frames per second continuous shooting mode, Sports Mode made it really possible for the first time to get consistent BIF shots without investing in the full DSLR rig above.

In a place like Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge or along the cliffs of Point Cabrillo in San Diego, where there are Snow Geese and Cranes or Pelicans in the air almost continuously, with practice you could pick up a bird and center it far enough out so you could pan smoothly and follow…half press the shutter release to lock focus…and then fire off a burst when the bird was near filling the frame…continuing to pan with the bird for best effect. You were half-blind once your pressed the shutter, since the viewfinder did not refresh fast enough to really follow the bird…but it could, with practice, be done. 🙂

Pelican off the Tide Pools at Point Cabrillo in San Diego. SX50HS in Sports Mode.

There was a good deal of debate on the forums (not helped by inconsistencies in the Canon documentation) about whether Sports Mode did in fact follow focus once you pressed the shutter release to start your burst. I was, and remain, in the “yes it does” camp, and have results to prove it, at least to me. The doubters have their demonstration sequences as well.

However it works, the Sports mode on the SX50HS (and I assume on the SX60HS as well), makes BIF fairly easy, given the right birds and a bit of patience and persistence.

I have been waiting for my yearly visit to Bosque del Apache NWR to really give the Sony HX400V Sports Mode a fair trial.

The Sony works very much like the Canon. There is a large rectangular focus frame in the center of the view. The Sony auto-focuses on whatever is nearest the center of that frame using continuous auto focus. When you half press the shutter release it locks on the subject, and then follows focus on that subject as it moves within the frame or as you pan with the motion.

The HX400V has two continuous shooting modes, and you can use either in Sports Mode. I have been using high speed burst which is 10 frames per second for 10 frames. It is possible to shoot a shorter burst than 10 frames, but you have to be really light on the shutter release. The finder flashes while shooting the 10 frames, but you get a pretty much continuous look at your subject to aid in panning.

Tandem Snow Geese. Sony HX400V in Sports Mode

In practice, I generally had to zoom the Canon SX50HS out to 600mm equivalent field of view to get consistent BIFs. On the Sony HX400V I can use the full 1200mm reach. It is that much easier to use. 🙂 (But then it is really two generations newer than the SX50HS.)

Three at a time. Sony HX400V

These shots are not perfect. If you blow them up to full resolution on the computer (pixel peeping) you see some artifacts, but at reasonable viewing and printing sizes they are simply very satisfying. And so easy!

Sports Mode on the Sony HX400V completely takes over control of the camera, so if you are not the trusting type, in might not suit you. The only thing you can change is the speed of continuous shooting. However, even in difficult light, Sports Mode on the Sony does the job.

Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese against the sunset.
Landing in the dawn light
Cranes on a burning sky.

Of course, the better the light, the better the results.

Snow Geese against the Mountains to the West of the refuge.
Solo Snow Goose
Cranes at 1200mm equivalent field of view.

Remember: patience and persistence. Take a lot of images. Try, try, and try again. And don’t grieve the close shots…the near misses…the not quite, but close stuff you have to delete from the card. Just keep shooting. Eventually you will get the shots you want.

And don’t try BIFs, at least at first, unless you have a lot of birds to practice on…even if it is only gulls at the local landfill. Even with the aid of the excellent Sports Modes on today’s Point and Shoot super-zooms, it takes practice!

My last image here was submitted to the Canon Print Challenge on Saturday at Bosque del Apache, along with many images from conventional long-lens, DSLR, tripod wielding photographers…and it won! At the end of the competition the Canon folks made me a 13×17 inch exhibition print on art paper…and it looks great! So don’t let anyone tell you you can’t, or should not even try to, shoot BIFs with a Point and Shoot. It can be done. Easier with each generation. 🙂

Puddle Ducks Away! Sony HX400V in Sports Mode.


Point and Shoot Depth of Field

Tricolored Heron and Black-necked Stilts. Edinburg Scenic Wetlands World Birding Center, Edinburg TX

My DSLR, long lens, tripod totting, friend Paul and I spent several days photographing side by side in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. He shoots, much of the time, with his massive 400mm, f2.8 Canon Image Stabilized lens mounted on his 5D full frame DSLR and a heavy-duty carbon fiber tripod. It is a brilliant lens and a very capable camera, and he gets stunning results. However he found a few things to envy in my long zoom Point and Shoot rig (I was shooting with the Sony HX400V, 50x, 20mp camera.)

Of course I was shooting my first images while he was still setting up his tripod, and, of course, I had 4 times the reach he had…with 1200mm equivalent field of view. And of course, as the days wore on it became obvious which of us was carrying 8 pounds of lens…close to 12 pounds total equipment, and which could tuck his whole rig into a small bag at his waist. 🙂

But the thing Paul kept coming back to when we looked at our images later in the day was how much depth of field the small sensor camera gives you when compared to his full sized sensor…and most of the time he was comparing his depth at 400mm and mine at 1200mm. By depth of field, if you are not familiar with the term, I mean how much of the image, from foreground to background, is apparently in focus and sharp. For birds, wildlife, and macro work the depth of field can be critical, especially at the longer focal lengths needed to fill the frame. It is especially critical when shooting a group of birds (or other critters) as in the leading photo here. Paul was not able to get the Tricolored Heron in the foreground in focus at the same time as the Black-necked Stilts in the background, even if he stopped his 400mm lens down to f5.6 or so (reducing the aperture increases depth of field). As you see, even at 1200mm equivalent field of view, the Sony managed to get all the birds in relatively good focus.

For comparison here is one of Paul’s shots with his 400mm plus 1.4x extender for 560mm. He stopped down to f10 to improve depth, and was shooting at less than half the equivalent focal length of the Sony P&S, but still did not manage to get the same group of birds in focus.

Canon 5D with 400mm plus 1.4x telextender. f10
Canon 5D with 400mm plus 1.4x telextender. f10

Here is another example: the Little Blue and the Snowy were separated by about 3-4 feet, yet the Sony managed to get both in focus at 1200mm equivalent and f6.3. Only a Point and Shoot superzoom is able to do that trick 🙂

Little Blue Heron and Snowy Egret

It has to do with sensor size, and the real focal length of Point and Shoot camera lenses. Since the sensor in my Sony is 5.6 times smaller than the sensor in Paul’s Canon 5D, it only takes a 215mm lens to make objects (or subjects) the same size in the image as thew would be with a 1200mm lens on his camera (215×5.6=1200). More practically for comparison, when I set my zoom to 400mm to match Paul’s 400mm Canon lens, my real focal length is only 71mm. He gets the depth of field of a 400mm lens, and, while framing the same group of birds so they look the same size in the image, I get the depth of field of a 71mm lens. That is a dramatic difference. Even at my 1200mm setting (remember 215mm real focal length), I still have twice the depth of field he does with his 400mm lens. That means that even if he crops his image to match mine, I will still have significantly more depth.

Depth of field differences also come into play when shooting close your subject. This shot of a Red Saddlebags Dragonfly from 7 feet at 2400mm equivalent field of view (1200mm optical plus 2x Clear Image zoom on the Sony), would simply not be possible in any single image from a conventional DSLR and lens, unless you shot from a few inches away with a 71mm lens (and even then you would have to crop the image by a factor of 2). And believe me, getting that close to a Red Saddlebag in the field is not easy 🙂

Red Saddlebags 2400mm equivalent from about 7 feet.

Or consider this true macro, taken from about an inch, using the Sony HX400V at about 61mm equivalent field of view. The real focal length of the lens at that zoom is 10.9mm…which on a full frame sensor would be a fish-eye wide angle. I get as much depth of field as I need in any macro setting.

Spider at about 1 inch.

The spider is relatively isolated, but in a macro like the one that follows, depth of field is critical to the effect.

Bee on the Blazing Star

Even when shooting at wild angle, for landscapes, the extra depth of field of the P&S superzoom can be used to good advantage. I enjoy a photograph with a great depth.

Low angle, wide angle, with great depth. 24mm equivalent (real focal length 4.3mm)

It is sometimes argued that the greater depth of field in small sensor Point and Shoots is a disadvantage when you do want to use selective focus…as in some wildlife, some macro, and almost all portrait photography…where you want your subject isolated against an out of focus background for the classic photographic effect.

Portrait at 400mm with a full frame DSLR. Nice separation and excellent bokeh.
Same distance, about 200mm equivalent with P&S

If I had cropped in closer by zooming out to match Paul’s 400mm, the background would have been less sharp, but not as well isolated as the full frame shot. Still, as the macros above demonstrate, subject separation can be achieved even with a P&S.

All in all, I find the extra depth of field of the P&S superzoom to be an advantage for nature photography way more often than it is a disadvantage. It makes both telephotos of wildlife and macros of bugs and flowers easier, and produces great landscape effects. In fact, I am so used to working with generous depth of field that I am pretty sure I would be quite frustrated moving to a full frame system at this point. I love shots like this one of a Common Paraque in the half-light too much. Only a P&S superzoom could produce this result…with so much of the bird in focus at this distance and scale.

Common Paraque. Estero Llano Grande SP World Birding Center, Weslaco TX

So, just one more reason to enjoy Point and Shoot Nature Photography. 🙂

Fear not the darkness…

Yellow=rumped Warbler, Cape May NJ, ISO 1600.
Yellow=rumped Warbler, Cape May NJ, ISO 1600.

When you read the reviews of Point and Shoot cameras, especially the superzooms we favor for bird, wildlife, and nature photography, you are sure to come across comments about their less than stellar low light performance. No digital sensor camera does as well at high ISOs as it does at low ISOs. Digital sensors love light, and the more light, within reason, the better the image quality and the image detail you can expect. And the smaller the sensor, the common wisdom goes, the worse the high ISO, low light, performance you can expect. The tiny senors in the P&S Superzooms can not be expected to equal the performance of APS-C or full frame sensors.

Full sun vs full overcast: ISO 160 ves 1600
Full overcast vs full sun: ISO 1600 ves 160

On the other hand, you will notice that with each new generation of digital sensors, the maximum ISO ratings increase. Full frame cameras will let you set ISO to 5 digits these days…totally unheard of, undrempt of even, ratings back in the days of film. Remember, ISO 800 color slide film (ASA 800 in those days) was revolutionary, and only to be used in emergencies, since its performance…with highly visible grain, limited contrast range, and muted colors…left a lot to be desired. Those were the days when Kodachrome 25 was still the standard for published photos.

Even today’s P&S cameras will reach 3200-6400 ISO, though to listen to the reviewers, anything over ISO 400 on some, and certainly ISO 800 on most, is simply unusable. Same issue: visible noise (the digital equivalent of grain), limited contrast range, and desaturated colors. However, each new generation of P&S cameras also has improved noise reduction built into the jpeg processing engines. Yet the common advice is still to turn it off if you can…or to shoot in RAW (again if you can)…and do any noise reduction in software after the fact. The Image Quality issues (watercolor effects and detail smearing) that are often claimed for P&S superzooms are often attributed to “overly aggressive noise reduction.”

Still, if you shoot wildlife…especially active birds…in anything but full sunlight, you sometimes find yourself making the hard choice between higher ISOs and slower shutter speeds. Nothing will destroy image detail quicker than camera or subject motion, so you pretty much have to keep the shutter speed up, and let the ISO got where it needs to.  I do not like to shoot birds and wildlife at anything under 1/500th of a second, even with today’s excellent optical image stabilization. Even if the camera does not move, the critter is likely too. 🙁

On my latest photo trip to Cape May, New Jersey, for the Autumn Bird Festival, the days ranged from rain and overcast to full sun. If I wanted to shoot birds it was necessary to let the camera do its ISO thing, using the full range available to me. The first two days I still had not figured out how to set the camera so that it was not limited to ISO 1600 in Auto ISO, so that limited me even more. I did eventually figure out how to let the IsO ride all the way up to 3200.

Reflecting on the results, and my efforts around home over the past weeks and since returning from Cape May, I have come to a pretty startling conclusion. At least with the superzoom I am using (Sony HX400V), the high ISO results were not all that bad…in fact…they were very good…especially when you consider that I could not have gotten the images any other way. When choosing between some kind of pretty good okay image and no image at all…well, that is an easy choice for me. 🙂

The first thing I learned is that there is a lot of detail in underexposed images. While the camera was limiting me to ISO 1600, many of my bird and wildlife shots were seriously underexposed…by several stops. Yet, when taken into Lighroom, I was able to bring them up to quite acceptable levels and produce images that were satisfying, if not spectacular…and you might even consider them spectacular if you take into account the conditions they were taken under.

Consider this Red Squirrel from Laudholm Farm…taken before I left for Cape May. It was so dark in the under the apple trees and in the brush that I pushed the shutter speed all the way down to 1/160th at ISO 1600, stretching both the Image Stabilization of the camera, and the good will of the squirrel to the max…and the image was still several stops underexposed.

underexposed at 1/160th @ ISO 1600, processed in Lightroom
underexposed at 1/160th @ ISO 1600, processed in Lightroom

As you see, while not a great image, it is hard to tell the processed result was ever that underexposed. Color is pretty good. Detail is satisfying. Both noise and digital artifacts are visible in the finished result, but only if you view the image at full resolution. At normal screen sizes it looks pretty good okay! And…of course…I could not have done any better with any camera I could have been carrying…a full frame DSLR would have wanted even more light…pushing the ISO higher and the shutter speed lower…and no lens I could have hand-held…no…no lens I could have used even on a tripod…would have equaled the 1200mm reach of the Sony HX400V. I would have had to crop heavily to achieve this image scale. Given that, I am convinced that this image is better than I would have gotten with any other camera. You want more proof…

Deer at 1600 ISO. Well underexposed and brought up in Lightroom.
Deer at 1600 ISO. Well underexposed and brought up in Lightroom.



Common Yellow-throat, again underexposed at ISO 1600.
Common Yellow-throat, again underexposed at ISO 1600.

Again, not great shots, but satisfying, considering any reasonable alternative. 🙂

When I did figure out how to set Auto ISO for the full 3200 range on the HX400V, I was even more surprised by the results! The images, of course, required much less lightening in post-process, and maintained good color saturation, satisfying detail, and very few visible artifacts in the backgrounds (a problem area for any high ISO shot). And this is straight from the camera, with only my standard one click preset Lightroom processing. I did not, at first, even apply any extra noise reduction in Lightroom…though I did find that some slight Luminance NR, with detail emphasis, did produce an even more satisfying result.

It is even possible to crop an ISO 3200 image from the Sony HX400V and get acceptable results…pretty good okay results! This chipper is proof enough for me. In-camera Noise Reduction set to standard. Sharpening to -1. Saturation to +1. My standard one click processing in Lightroom with some added NR.

ISO 3200.
ISO 3200. Cropped.
ISO 3200. Cropped.
ISO 3200. Cropped.

So folks, here is my conclusion. Unless you are looking for magazine quality publication images…if, in other words, your main interest is sharing on the web and the occasional print for the wall or for a gift…you have no reason, with the latest crop of P&S superzooms, to fear the dark. Go boldly. Set your ISO high and bring back satisfying images of the birds and wildlife you encounter in less than ideal light…images you would be very unlikely to get with any other camera.

Do not fear the dark…

The really strong suggestion of thirds…

This image is all about the suggestion of 3rds!
This image is all about the suggestion of 3rds!

I was thinking about this while out catching images this afternoon. I have a little grid in my camera viewfinder that separates the view into thirds both ways: two horizontal lines and two vertical lines which intesect each other at the 1/3 points, and kind of float there in the view.

The rule of 3rds grid in my viewfinder.
The rule of 3rds grid in my viewfinder.

I use them all the time. I use them to decide where to place the horizon (and to keep the horizon straight). I use them to decide where to put the strong verticals in the image. I use them to decide where to put the primary subject…where to put what I want to viewer to notice first and to keep coming back to in the image. I never turn the grid off, though I could. It is there all the time, dividing the view into thirds.

You are going to hear about the rule of thirds sooner or later, so, if you haven’t heard about it already, you might as well hear it from me. (And I will try to make this article worth your while even if you have heard all you think you want to know about the rule of thirds.)

First, let’s get the rule part out of the way. Photography is an art, right, and some people strongly object to the notion that there are, or even can be, any kind of rules that govern an art. Art is about creativity, and creativity, in the minds of some, is most often about breaking the rules.

Horizon and strong vertical element: 3rds!
Horizon and strong vertical element: 3rds!

In the minds of some. Others see creativity as an act that is self-defining…it may obey all the rules you can imagine for its form, but it manages to be something more than the rules could have predicted. In a real sense, truly creative acts define the rules without being defined by them…they give, by their creative example, whatever rules might exist their true meaning and only reality.

But, just to be on the safe side, let’s say there is no rule of thirds. There still might, however, be a really strong suggestion of thirds.

That little grid in my viewfinder divides the view by the rule of thirds…er…the suggestion of thirds.

What that gives me is 9 quadrants of interest, 4 power points, two horizons, and two strong verticals. Some one must have described all this before, and you can probably find similar stuff in a hundred books on composition, but what I am telling you now I am making up as I go along. All that about quadrants of interest, power points, etc. is just the way I think about the suggestion of thirds, and it provides a frame of reference that, I hope, might help you to think about composition in your images.



The theory behind the suggestion of thirds, as I understand it, is that the eye is naturally drawn to the horizontals and verticals that divide the frame into thirds, and that our minds (spirits?) are comfortable with images that fall into 1/3 and 2/3 spaces. It has to do, some say, with a kind of tension that is introduced by that division, and the fact that the eye can roam over the frame and come back to rest at those dividing lines in a way that satisfies some inner sense of harmony.

That is why you see so many landscapes with the horizon at either the bottom or the top horizontal third line. That is why you see the strongest verticals in the images…whether they are trees, people, flag-poles, cliffs, or building edges…hugging the two vertical third lines.


At the same time, our eyes are drawn first to objects that sit at the power points…the places where the horizontal and vertical lines cross. And our eyes return repeatedly to any object (or subject) that is placed there.

Placing an object or subject at a power point produces a very different effect than placing the same object at the center of the frame. Center placement says “this is an image about this object or subject”…or perhaps even “this is a portrait of this object or subject.” That’s fine.

Placing an object or subject at a power point says “this is an image about the relationship of this object or subject to the rest of the image (and, by extension, the world as a whole). It is not a straight up portrait, but a portrayal of the object or subject in context, in relationship, in tension with its surroundings.

A seemingly insignificant or relatively small object or subject at a power point can dominate the image, drawing the eye back and back, until the mind has to grapple with the “what’s this all about?” question.

Another way of thinking of it is this: placing an object or subject at the power point is like flagging it…it says “look at this”…”notice this”…”whatever else you see here, don’t miss this.”

This image is not about the shells in the foreground, though they add visual interest and is about the two tiny girls standing at the power point and their relationship to the rest of the scene.
This image is not about the shells in the foreground, though they add visual interest and depth…it is about the two tiny girls standing at the power point and their relationship to the rest of the scene.

Each of the nine quadrants of interest, to me, has a different feel to it. Placing an important image element in any of the four outer corner quadrants (1,3,7,9) produces a real tension…gives the image a tilt to that quadrant. It can work for images where you want to challenge the viewer’s perceptions of the relationship of that element to the rest of the image and to the world around it.

Placing an important image element within the the outer center quadrants (4,6) feels to me like an entrance or an exit. If the object or subject is facing into the frame, then it is an entering element and there is a feeling of expectation, and eager feeling, a feeling of things about to happen.

If the object or subject is facing out of the frame, then it is an exiting element. “Just caught on the way out.” There is a feeling rush, a feeling of impatience, a tension that can be uncomfortable or simply challenging.

This entering and exiting elements concept is useful in the four corner quadrants too, of course, as elements placed there can be entering or exiting, and that will effect the way the viewer interprets the challenge of placing the object or subject there.

The center quadrant (5), as above, is, to my eye, for portraits. Everything else in the image falls away behind, is automatically rendered secondary, placed in a supporting role. The center quadrant has “star of the show” status.

And it is exactly because of that dominant feeling that placing the real “star” of the image at a power point is often more effective. No easy assumptions about the relationship of the subject or object to the rest of the frame are possible…you have to figure it out in the moment…and that creates a visual interest that we find appealing.


Star of the show…vs…an element in tension

Placing matched, or symmetrical image elements in the outer quadrants, one on each side of center, is the classic framing technique. It can give a feeling of intimacy to what might otherwise impress as a distant landscape, or it can focus the eye powerfully on the subject of the portrait.


Classic framing technique
Classic framing technique

Of course, I don’t think about all of this while I am catching images…or I wouldn’t if I didn’t have my little grid on. Seeing that grid there reminds me that I have options…I have decisions to make…and that my decisions will effect how the viewer sees the image I catch. I can, most of the time, move around and reframe to place different image elements in different quadrants of interest. I can easily make sure there is something of interest occupying at least one of the power points…and that it is the right object or subject…the one I want there. I can easily check to see where my horizon is (and if it is straight). I may not put it right on either horizontal line, but when I don’t, that is a decision I am making about the impact of the image. If there is a tree in the foreground of the view, I can decide whether I want it at the strong vertical line so people notice it (and generally accept it) or if it is entering or exiting from an outer quadrant, or if I need to balance it with something in on the other side of the image to create a frame. That decision will, again, effect how viewers see the image I catch, the impact it has on them.

There are those, of course, who see all these decisions as too studied an approach. They suggest forgetting about formal composition and just shooting from the gut. My little suggestion of thirds grid in the viewfinder would drive them crazy and they would immediately shut it off…and they would see my having it on as somehow diminishing the immediacy and power of my gut reactions to the scene before me. To them that would be a bad thing.

Of course, I beg to differ. I see the suggestion of thirds and the composition grid as a way of more effectively capturing the gut feeling that drew me to the scene…to the photo op…in the first place. Not only that, but the suggestion of thirds continuously challenges me to attempt new visions of the scene…to catch different versions of the same scene…to try out the effects of altering the composition to see which works best. To me this is a good thing.

As an exercise, go through a photo magazine or a book of prints of the great masters (photographers or painters) and see how their images define the suggestion of thirds.

Now, you might not have a built in suggestion of thirds grid in your camera…most don’t…but that does not mean that you can’t project such a mental grid on your viewfinder while you are catching images. It is a bit more effort, and you have to remember to do it (rather than being reminded by the installed grid), but it can be done.

(Of course, to a certain extent, you can exercise the suggestion of thirds after the fact, while post-processing, through creative cropping too.)

Play with the concepts of the suggestion of thirds as I have outlined them here. I’d love to hear what you think. I’d love to see examples of the work you produce.

It’s not a rule, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a really good idea.



DIY: Bird and Wildlife Mode

When shots like this present themselves, you need to be ready, and so does your camera. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a Bird and Wildlife Mode that would take care of all the settings for you…leaving you free to frame the shot and shoot?

The Nikon P600 actually has a Birding Mode as one of its scene settings, and other cameras may have a Pet mode that is similar, but reviewers have pointed out that these generally are not actually the ideal combination of settings for birds and wildlife. On all other Point & Shoot superzooms, you can fairly easily create a Bird and Wildlife Mode and save it to one of you Custom or Memory settings. This is not for the faint hearted. It will require some digging around in menus and even your manual if you are going to succeed…but the rewards are worth the effort.

Canon SX50HS and Sony HX400V in Bird and Wildlife Mode
Canon SX50HS and Sony HX400V in Bird and Wildlife Mode

This I show I set up my cameras for birds and wildlife.

The base mode for birds and wildlife, since you will be using the top half of the zoom, and the full zoom most of the time, will be Shutter Preferred (labeled “T” on many control dials, “S” on others). Begin by setting your camera to T or S.

Either using the control wheel or the left/right rocker switches on the 5 way control on the back of the camera (rarely the up/down rocker switches) set your shutter speed to the lowest speed experience has shown your image stabilization will handle at full zoom. More telephoto shots are lost due to subject and camera motion blur than to any other cause. Even with the best IS, a high shutter speed will increase your chances of success. I use 1/640th and that is more risky than some would prefer. 1/1000th is probably safe. That means that when you switch to your saved Bird and Wildlife Mode, the shutter speed will be automatically set to no lower than your number…1/640th in my case. Once in Bird and Wildlife Mode in the field, if the light is good, and ISO at a reasonable value, you can easily bump the shutter speed up using the same control you used to set it.

Leave ISO on Auto (or set it to Auto if it is not there). You will need free ranging ISO to compensate for the higher shutter speeds, especially because the the typical superzoom only goes to f6.3-6.5 at the long end. You are going to be shooting wide open, at the lowest possible f-number, 99% of the time.

Set shooting to continuous. I prefer normal continuous to any high speed burst mode that might be available. I find that high speed burst too often gives me 10 identical images. 2-5 frames per second is fast enough, in my opinion, for most bird and wildlife action. If you have a choice, choose the continuous mode that uses auto-focus between frames. Both birds and wildlife are active, and you need all the help you can get keeping them in focus.

If you have control of the size of the focus square (check your menus and manual), set it to spot focus and the smallest area possible. Matrix or wide area focus, where the camera picks the focus point, will not work well, especially shooting birds or wildlife in deep cover. Also set Auto Focus to continuous to eliminate any lag while the camera finds focus.

Likewise, if you have control over the size and positioning of the exposure metering, set it to spot and the center of the field. You are more interested in getting the bird or animal correctly exposed than you are in the foreground or background.

Set image stabilization to full time, and the most intelligent mode your camera provides. This might be called active IS, or adaptive IS, or just super IS. Again, check the menus and manual.

A very difficult shot without manual over-ride.
A very difficult shot without manual over-ride.

If your camera has a manual focus over-ride on Auto Focus, and if it is easy to use, set it to active. Many superzooms provide the feature, but then make it so hard to use, involving rockers on the back of the camera, etc. that it is really useless. One of the best things about the Sony HX400V is the focus collar around the lens that can be used to fine-tune auto focus…or, more often, to quickly get the focus system in the right range so auto focus can lock without a lot of seeking.

If there is some kind of intelligent digital telephoto extender built in to your camera…most have some kind or other…make sure it is set so you have quick access to it. I am not talking about digital zoom. Most superzooms today have a mode that applies extra processing up to 2X beyond the optical zoom setting to produce very satisfying images at great magnifications. If yours works well, you will find yourself using it on occasion, even if you have over 1200mm optical equivalent to work with…especially on birds, butterflies, and dragonflies.

Sony HX400V at 2400mm equivalent
Sony HX400V at 2400mm equivalent

The final setting is zoom position. I keep mine set to full zoom.

Last, and most important, navigate to the menu area that allows you to memorize the the whole set of settings you just made. It might be called save settings, or custom mode, or something similar. Some cameras will allow you to save one set of settings, some will allow for two or more. Save your settings.

Now, rotate the control dial to P or A. Zoom all the way back in to wide angle. When you move the control dial to M1, or C2 or whatever the memory setting is called on your camera, just like magic, all of the Bird and Wildlife Mode settings will be restored…you will be in shutter preferred, continuous shooting, spot focus and metering, etc…and the zoom will automatically extend to full zoom. Within a second or less, you will be ready for birds and wildlife. 🙂

Depending on the features and capabilities of you particular P&S superzoom, you will want to fine tune my formula as you gain experience…or add features that I have not mentioned. For instance, Sony provides adjustable Creative Styles to control the way the image is processed from RAW to Jpeg in the camera. I have a custom designed Creative Style for birds and wildlife that is also programmed into my Birds and Wildlife mode. (It is Memory 1 on my dial, of course! 🙂

By the way, using a similar technique, I set my Memory 2 to the HDR settings I prefer, and I have my P set up (it automatically remembers the last set of settings you used, with the possible exception of zoom length) for normal and macro shooting. With Sports set as my Scene Mode, I than spend 90% of my time at one of 4 settings on the control dial. And that is worth the effort with menus and manuals.

Flame Skimmer: wildlife certainly includes dragonflies!
Flame Skimmer: wildlife certainly includes dragonflies!



Sweep Panorama

Approaching an 180 degree sweep. Wells National Estuarine Research Center at Laudholm Farm. Sony HX400V.
Approaching an 180 degree sweep. Wells National Estuarine Research Center at Laudholm Farm. Sony HX400V.

Sometimes, when faced with a grand landscape, wide-angle, no matter how wide the wide end of your zoom is, is simply not wide enough. Most of the recent P&S superzooms reach 24mm equivalent field of view…and a few reach 21mm. Both will embrace a generous expanse of land and sky, as you see in this conventional wide angle shot.

24mm equivalent field of view of the same scene.
24mm equivalent field of view of the same scene.

But is that enough? When faced with a landscape and sky like this one, I am always tempted to try a panorama shot.

There were, back in film days, specialized panorama cameras that featured rotating lenses that painted a panorama on a long strip of film on a curved film-plain. In the digital era, panoramas were created by taking several overlapping frames and stitching them together in software after the fact. The software started out as single purpose, stand-alone programs that you used before or after whatever photo editing program you used. The challenge was to match the edges of the frames perfectly and then blend the exposures at the edges to create a seamless image. Not easy, even with the help of a computer. Eventually the math behind the problem became well enough established so that main-steam photo editing software, even inexpensive software like Photoshop Elements, had a panorama function built in. They did a decent job, as long as your exposures were relatively consistent, and you did not use a lens with too much distortion at the edge of the field where the images had to blend. And, if the perspective of the three shots worked. Shooting from a tripod might keep the images aligned, but, ideally, rather than rotating about a fixed point, the camera should sweep through an arch so that the lens, essentially, rotates as it did in a dedicated panorama camera to embrace the scene. Specialized tripod heads were developed to accomplish that, but panoramas were still not easy to do. Which is why we saw so few.

A sweep-panorama with buildings. Note that the perspective remains relatively accurate.
A sweep-panorama with buildings. Note that the perspective remains relatively accurate.

I seem to remember that Sweep-panorama was first introduced in phone cameras. The tiny fast CMOS sensors in phones were able to essentially paint the image to a file one narrow band at a time as the phone was swept across the extent of the landscape, almost as though you were panning a video camera. Nice trick. And, since you were framing the image on the LCD of the phone, it was natural to hold the camera out from your face and sweep it in an arch by rotating your whole body. Ideal! Suddenly panoramas were a lot more common.

I believe it was Sony who first introduced sweep-panorama to the P&S world, along about the time the first fast back-illuminated CMOS sensors found their way into P&Ss. The other makers lagged somewhat…building in conventional multiple scene stitch together assist panorama assist…but with this last generation of P&S superzooms, I am pretty sure they all feature sweep-panorama.

Keys to success:

1) Meter off the area of the scene you want to be best exposed. Do no simply point at one edge and press the shutter. Pick the area of the scene with the average brightness, or the area, as above, that is most important to you, point at it, half press the shutter to lock exposure (that works on most cameras, some may have a separate exposure lock button), rotate back to one edge of the scene and fully press the shutter button to start exposure.

2) as above, hold the camera out in front of you several inches to a foot and sweep it across the scene in an arch, rotating your body if necessary. There should be a straight line from the horizon through the camera lens to the center of your body at all times. It is easier to do than it is to describe. 🙂

3) if your camera has guide-lines that can be turned on for framing the scene on the LCD, turn them on and use them to keep the horizon level and placed correctly as you sweep.

4) keep the speed of the sweep uniform. Your camera will generally alert you and the panorama will fail if you go too fast or too slow. A little practice makes perfect.


Don’t limit yourself to long narrow horizontal panoramas. Most cameras will allow you to set the direction of the sweep. Try some horizontal sweep-panoramas with the camera held in portrait orientation (vertically). This will produce a pano that is wide, but also taller than normal, for some very interesting (and more natural looking) effects. Compare this to the long panorama of the same scene at the head of the post.

Tall/wide panorama with the camera held vertically and swept horizontally.
Tall/wide panorama with the camera held vertically and swept horizontally.

And don’t limit yourself to horizontal panoramas at all. A vertical sweep pano can capture the sky effects better than almost any other technique.

Finally, try shooting panos, especially vertical panos of things that are not, on first glance, pano subjects. Vertical panoramas of trees, for instance, can show the tree in a way you rarely see it presented…whether you are after the massive scale of forest giants, or the intimate detail of an interesting trunk.


So sweep away…but don’t get swept away. Panoramas are fun, but as you might have observed here, they are hard to display on any kind of screen or monitor. Still there are times when the landscape or the subject simply demands that you break the bounds of the conventional wide angle frame. And sweep-panorama in today’s P&S superzooms will do the trick. Give it a try.

Dramatic Landscapes: HDR

Perhaps the most difficult exposure problem is a scene with a high dynamic range like this. You need detail in the shadows, and yet you do not want the highlights of sun on water to burn out. In-camera HDR to the rescue.
Perhaps the most difficult exposure problem is a scene with a high dynamic range like this. You need detail in the shadows, and yet you do not want the highlights of sun on water to burn out. In-camera HDR to the rescue.

It is hard to resist a colorful landscape with big white clouds against a bright blue sky. Might be, those clouds are casting a pattern of moving shadows on the land that only adds interest. Or maybe your eye is caught by the tumbling water of a stream in deep forest, with sun breaking through, bringing out the peat brown highlights in the water. Or are you in a ferny glade under the tall canopy of maples or redwoods, reaching for that cathedral quiet and calm. Or you are out at sunset, confronted by the wonder of red and orange over the darkening (but not yet dark) landscape.

Too bad! Each of these represents one of the primary challenges that has faced the photographer since the beginning of the craft: the inability of any photo-sensitive material to capture the full range of light and dark…all the subtle shades of color…that the human eye can see.

Drama in the sky and in the foreground. Again, in-camera HDR, with further processing in Lightroom.
Drama in the sky and in the foreground. Again, in-camera HDR, with further processing in Lightroom.

If your landscapes have a sky that is way too pale and clouds that are simply white blobs without detail; or they have wonderful skies, full of drama, but the land and foreground are full of unnatural inky black shadows and dark dull colors…if your stream in the forest has blinding white highlights where the sun struck it, and little detail in the shadow and that lovely peaty water is simply dirty dishrag brown…if the cathedral forest is a dark den haunted by bright specters where a sun shaft came through…if your sunset hangs above a landscape from a horror movie, all dark threatening shapes; or the reds and oranges are not the living flame you remember, but a dull wash across a grey sky…

…well then you have experienced first hand just how bad even the most modern senors are at catching what the eye sees…just how much trouble photo-sensitive materials have with the wide range of light and dark.

Yes, but we have all seen photographs, other people’s photographs, that do capture what we remember we saw, that scene that caught our eye in the first place. Like a painting. Like these images here. You have to wonder how it is done.

The cathedral forest effect. Another candidate for HDR.
The cathedral forest effect. Another candidate for HDR.

The only way to do it is to somehow compress the full range of light and shadow…the full range of color…so that it fits in the limited range of the photo-sensitive material, or rather, to be accurate, in the limited range of whatever material is used to display the image…print paper, ink in the page of a magazine, the monitor on your computer or LCD screen on your laptop or tablet…but to do it so effectively that the eye is fooled into thinking it really sees that full range in the resulting image. It is a trick. It is always a trick, no matter how it is done.

Once upon a time, in the bad old days of film and wet processing, photographers put graduated filters in front of their landscape lenses that artificially darkened the sky so that landscape could be properly exposed. They would then, during processing, doge and burn sections of the print to bring up detail in the dark areas and subdue highlights in the bright areas. (I can remember putting my bare hands into the developer tray to hand rub shadows to bring them up.) If shooting slide film, where post-processing options were limited. they would intentionally underexpose the film and then push-process it in the darkroom, using a combination of higher temperatures and non-standard time to bring up the shadows. It was an art. It was a trick.

The first digital sensors where even worse at capturing the range of light and color than film. If you could go back and look at images from the digital cameras of 10 years ago, especially the P&Ss, you would immediately see how cartoony they look…how poster-like. It was one of the factors that convinced many dedicated film photographers that digital would never displace film.

In-camera HDR is not only for scenes that scream High Dynamic can bring out subtle detail in fog shots and on dull days.
In-camera HDR is not only for scenes that scream High Dynamic Range…it can bring out subtle detail in fog shots and on dull days.

Of course, with each new generation of digital sensors, and each new generation of on-board (in-camera) image processing software and hardware, the tonal range of digital images increased. We call that range, the range of light and dark and color that a sensor can capture: Dynamic Range. The Dynamic Range of digital sensors, especially the most modern back-illuminated CMOS sensors, surpassed the Dynamic Range of conventional film several years ago.

In addition, with the advent of digital post-processing, and the ever increasing sophistication of digital editing software, it has become possible to enhance the dynamic range of images. Photographers can take the RAW file that the sensor captures, and digitally manipulate shadows and highlights to produce the illusion of an extended range. Or they can take 3-6 separate exposures, each exposed for a different shadow/highlight balance, and them combine them in software so that something resembling the full range of light and shadow are displayed in the final image. Deep trickery! If done well, these techniques can produce a very natural looking dramatic landscape. (If done, in my opinion, badly, they can produce the kind of surreal, over-baked, hard images that give HDR a bad name among many landscape and nature photographers)

Three exposure HDR is about the only way to get a sunset with a natural looking foreground.
Three exposure HDR is about the only way to get a sunset with a natural looking foreground.

Unless you have access to those kinds of post-processing tricks, you probably continue to be disappointed in your attempts to capture the most dramatic scenes that confront you.

Or not.

If you are a Point and Shoot photographer and using Smart Auto (or Intelligent Auto, or Superior Auto, or whatever your camera maker calls it), then you are seeing just how good the modern on-board digital image processing software and hardware are at maximizing the Dynamic Range of today’s back-illuminated CMOS sensors. During jpeg conversion, today’s P&S superzooms apply the same trickery that photographers developed to deal with Dynamic Range in post-processing…automatically, before you ever see the image. Almost all recent P&Ss have some kind of Dynamic Range Compensation, or Dynamic Range Enhancement, built in, and Auto is the default mode in any of the Auto/Smart Auto programs. Some of the most recent P&Ss even allow you to control the degree of DRC when you use the Program Mode.

Sweep panorama mode uses Auto Dynamic Range Optimization on the Sony HX400V. Further processing in Lightroom yields a very natural looking image.
Sweep panorama mode uses Auto Dynamic Range Optimization on the Sony HX400V. Further processing in Lightroom yields a very natural looking image.

My experiments with DRC on superzooms has shown that the best implementations are very good indeed…providing a noticeable and useful increase in apparent Dynamic Range without producing an unnatural looking image. They keep the drama in dramatic landscapes without overdoing, or over-cooking, it. For general photography, keeping DRC on Auto works very well. And on those cameras that give you control of the feature, you can produce good results in even the most challenging situations (as in the stream in deep forest, or the cathedral in the pines).

What is more, camera makes started to build in on-board automated three exposure HDR a generation of cameras back. The first attempts were not very successful. Sensors and processing engines were not fast enough. The three exposures took a few seconds so a tripod was required, and they were separated in time by long enough so that any motion in the scene destroyed the illusion…and often the camera failed to get the three images lined up perfectly, leaving ghosts around even stationary objects. Or, worse in my opinion, the resulting image was overly flat, with so little variation in tone that it looked like an etching on metal. Not very satisfying at all.

Then came, as I mentioned, the back-illuminated CMOS sensors and truly fast image processing engines. The best of today’s P&S superzooms will do automatic in-camera, three exposure, HDR without a tripod. Some will let you control the exposure steps between the exposures to fine tune for different scenes. Almost all will produce a fairly natural looking image…an image that with just a little bit of work in any editing program, can make a very satisfying dramatic landscape, even in the most difficult situations.

Auto Dynamic Range Optimization in a macro shot, plus tweaking in Lighrtoom is quite successful here.
Auto Dynamic Range Optimization in a macro shot, plus tweaking in Lighrtoom is quite successful here.

It is impossible for me to tell you exactly how to use these features on you particular camera, since every maker implements them differently. It is safe to say though, that if your camera is less than a year old, it has both Dynamic Range Compensation (whatever your maker calls it) and in-camera automatic three exposure HDR built in. Dig into the manual and the menus. Once you find it, experiment.

I keep 3 exposure HDR set up as one of my Custom Modes, so I can shift to it by simply turning the Mode Dial. I use it a lot…because I love dramatic landscape, and because it really does produce files that are easy to manipulate into very satisfying images.

In lieu of detailed instructions, I will simply outline how I use the features on my Sony HX400V superzoom.

I keep Dynamic Range Compensation (which Sony calls Dynamic Range Optimization) on Auto for Program mode, which covers my wildlife telephoto shots and macros. It is the default mode in Sweep Panorama and Sports mode, so I am covered for panos and flight shots.

High drama landscape! In-camera HDR is set on one of my Custom modes.
High drama landscape! In-camera HDR is set on one of my Custom modes.

I have a Custom mode set to Auto HDR with exposures separated by a total of 6EV, and Exposure Compensation set to -7EV (to protect those white clouds in dramatic skies and the bright highlights in the forest). Because the exposures are so fast and so close together I do not use a tripod, but I am careful to steady the camera as much as is possible. I know better (from experience) than to to try HDR with close foreground elements in motion, as in a high wind…or sea shots with heavy surf where the water detail matters. On the other hand, the three exposures produce a satisfying blur, similar to the silky long exposure blur that is the current fashion in water shots, in rapidly moving water of streams.

Finally, all my HDR work (all my work for that matter) receives post-processing in Lightoom (or, when using an Android tablet, in Snapseed). My processing for 3 exposure HDR shots is essentially the same as it is for normal shots, but I find that shots taken with Auto Dynamic Range Optimization require a bit of extra work…some extra shadow and highlight control, etc…to produce the best results.

So there it is. Dynamic Range Compensation and auto HDR are powerful tools in today’s P&S superzooms. Give them a try. You will not regret it.

Natural without being over-cooked. That is my personal goal.
Natural without being over-cooked. That is my personal goal.



Program: beyond Smart (Auto :)

On a complex macro shot like this, having control of where the camera focuses, where exposure is determined, and depth of field can be critical. Program mode to the rescue.

As good as Smart Auto is on most modern P&S superzooms, there are a few things it does not do that the aspiring nature photographer will, eventually, want to do. I still recommend that the beginning P&S nature photographer start with Smart Auto, and, if your main interest is landscape, you can probably get satisfying results 99% of the time with Smart Auto pretty much forever.

However, if you shoot wildlife or macro, or even high dynamic range landscapes, you will want to temper exposure slightly to protect the whites and hot-highlights in your images from burning out (losing all detail and going pure white or pure red, or pure green, etc.).  And that is easier if you control the way the automation determines exposure…which areas of the image it is reading. You will also, from time to time, even if you shoot only landscapes, want to control depth of field…or how much of the image is in focus, front to back. Finally you will definitely want to be able to control what the auto-focus system locks on to when it determines focus.

A few of the more sophisticated Smart Auto systems now allow you to tweak the brightness of the image. Recent Sony cameras have Smart Auto controls for brightness, color, and vividness that allow you to override the auto settings. However I know of no Smart Auto system that allows you to control how the scene is metered to determine exposure, or to bias the exposure for depth of field, or to determine the focus point. By default, Smart Auto uses Multi-pattern metering for the scene and multi-point auto focus…that means it looks at a up to a dozen points in the scene and decides what you are most likely to be interested in. The system is very good at analyzing the scene for the content…but it generally fails when the subject of the image is small in relationship to the whole frame…as it is likely to be if it is a bird, beast, or wildflower.

If you put the camera in Program (generally the P on the control dial), you gain control over all these factors…plus the ability to bias the exposure for greater depth of field or faster shutter speeds.

This shot from a few years, and a few generations of P&S superzooms, ago demonstrates the limits of dynamic range. Note the loss of detail in the brightest whites in the clouds, even though the exposure was clearly biased for the sky at the expense of the land in the foreground.
You see the same burn-out here in the brightest whites, even though there have been advances in dynamic range compensation and this was taken at -1/3 EV Exposure Compensation.

To tame the highlights in the image, you use the Exposure Compensation settings. There is generally a button on the camera that gives you direct control of this setting. Most often it is one of the buttons on the 5 way Control Wheel on the back of the camera (center button surrounded by four buttons: top, bottom, and sides. On some cameras (Canon) there is also a wheel that rotates on the outside of all these buttons.). It will be marked with a +/- symbol, and sometimes with the letters EV. It might be an isolated button further up and to the right as well. Pressing it will bring up a scale on the LCD or in the viewfinder, which generally runs from -2 to +2 in 1/3 EV steps (EV is Exposure Value and it is a standardized scale that defines how much lighter or darker a scene will be than the measured value). When you first press the button, a pointer should be centered on the scale. Pressing the control wheel button that corresponds to the minus side (generally the button on the left, closest to the LCD) or rotating the outer wheel or the separate control wheel counter-clockwise, will move the pointer 1/3 of the way toward -1. Press again,or turn again, to move it further, etc.)

Most P&S superzooms that I have used require a setting of -1/3 or -2/3s EV to protect the highlights in the scene from burning out. If you go much more negative than that, the blacks and dark colors in the scene will block up...which is the equivalent term and the opposite effect to the highlights burning out…you lose all detail in the dark areas of the scene.

If you set the Exposure Compensation, the camera will remember it until you reset it, so, once you have determined how much -EV your camera and sensor (and your eye) likes you can just leave it set that way.

This shot of an American Avocet uses Auto Dynamic Range Compensation and -1/3 EV Exposure Compensation to hold the whites within range and maintain detail.

There may be times when you want to change it. For instance, if you have a bird or beast silhouetted against a bright background (sky, etc.) it might be helpful to set the Exposure Compensation to the plus side, so that you get more detail in the shadowed subject. In my experience this rarely works…and always leaves the background completely burnt out or way too bright. But you can try. 🙂 Generally I get better results through shadow processing in software after the fact.

Here is a case where you might be tempted to use plus EV exposure compensation. It rarely works. Images like this, with the bird backlighted against a bright sky are unlikely to be satisfying whatever you do.

Of course -1/3EV might be ideal for birds and wildlife, and even macros, where the subject is smaller than the frame, but you may find that more or less compensation is needed for landscapes…particularly landscapes with bright clouds in the sky. Today’s P&S automation systems all have some kind of Dynamic Range compensation built in…the image processing computer attempts to adjust for wide variations in the brightness in the scene in the processing of the jpeg image in the camera…but in my experience they still can’t handle the brightest whites in sun-lit clouds. For high Dynamic Range images I use the built in Dynamic Range compensation, special techniques like HDR (more in a future article on that) and even so, generally dial to the Exposure Compensation down to at least -2/3s EV.

Most cameras will allow you to create custom setting sets, so that you can create a wildlife and macro Custom set, and a Landscape custom set. More on that in another article as well.

For birds, wildlife, and macro, you will want to set the metering pattern to either Center (sometimes called Center-weighted) or Spot. This will be a menu setting and you will have to dig through the menu system (or the manual 🙂 to find it. (On Sony Cameras and Canon cameras, at least, it is also accessible in Program mode by pressing the Function button). Your choices are generally Mulit-pattern, Center, or Movable Spot.

As mentioned above, Multi-pattern reads a number of areas in the image, and creates a balanced exposure for the whole scene (or in Smart Auto it uses the multiple points to analyze the scene for the correct Smart Mode to apply). This works fine for landscapes and most of the subjects the engineers anticipated you would be taking photos of. However when you are photographing a bird or a bear or a bug from any distance, you want the bird etc. to be correctly exposed and you don’t care much about the surrounding foliage or landscape. Likewise when shooting macro, you want the flower or the insect correctly exposed, not the background. Multi-pattern metering may or may not get it right.

Center metering limits the area measured to a rough rectangle in the center of the viewfinder or LCD, while Movable Spot limits the area to the a very small circle or square that must be carefully placed over the exact object or subject you want to expose for. Generally in Spot, you can move the spot around the frame using the up/down/left/right buttons on the Control Wheel. This is handy for when you have the camera mounted on a tripod and need to meter off something that is not in the center of the frame…but generally too slow for anything but macro photography for the nature photographer. It is easier for the nature photographer, working without a tripod, to center on the subject, half press the shutter release to lock the exposure, and then move the camera to put the subject where you want it in the frame.

I generally use Center metering, as a good compromise, and one that I do not constantly have to think about.

Center metering was used here to make sure the fruit, which is the subject, is correctly exposed.
Center metering was used here to make sure the fruit, which is the subject, is correctly exposed.

A final exposure tweak possible in Program is Program Shift. The the camera is programmed to respond to different light levels by choosing what the engineers feel is the best compromise between aperture (the size of the hole that passes light to the sensor) and shutter speed (which controls how long light falls on the sensor). Most P&S zooms are optimized for optical performance at wider (larger) apertures, so that the exposure system can keep the shutter speed high enough to avoid unnecessary camera shake fuzziness or blur from moving subjects. However, there are times…landscapes with a lot of depth and busy foregrounds, and almost all macro work…where you want greater depth of field than a wide aperture can provide. (Depth of field varies directly with the the size of the aperture…larger equals shallow depth…smaller equals greater depth. It is just physics. 🙂 Therefore you might want to shift the Program to a smaller aperture and a slower shutter speed…which is still reasonable given the excellent image stabilization in most P&S superzooms.

Traditionally the way to do that is to shift out of Program altogether and use Aperture Preferred metering…where you pick the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed…but if your camera has Program Shift, and it is easy to access, there is no need to do that. Program shift gives you a range of choices for the correct exposure…balancing smaller apertures by automatically decreasing shutter speed, and vice versa, as you turn a control wheel (either the one surrounding the 5 way rocker Control on the back of the camera or a second dedicated wheel) or press the direction buttons on the 5 way rocker.  On Sony cameras it is really easy as the Program Shift control wheel falls right under your right thumb. On Canons it involves pressing two buttons at once to being up the control, and then using the wheel surrounding the 5 way control. Not so easy, but doable when you need it.

For a deep landscape like this, I use Program Shift for a smaller aperture and greater depth of field than the camera would give me on standard program. The same technique was used for the macro that heads up this article.

Last but not least, we come to focus placement. In Auto or Smart Auto, as I mentioned above, the camera checks focus on several areas of the scene. It either picks the most likely spot for focus, or picks a spot between what it judges to be the most important elements of the scene. It does tell you what it is doing. When you half press the shutter release, you get green (generally) boxes around the areas that it is planning to put into focus. You do have the option of letting off on the shutter release and giving it another chance to focus…or moving the frame slightly and trying again. All multi-pattern auto focus is biased toward the closest object to the camera.

A better way for the nature and wildlife photographer, as in exposure metering, is to switch the focus to a smaller area…either center focus or movable spot focus. Both work for focus the same way as they do for metering…directing the focus to objects and subjects near the center of the frame, or exactly under the spot. This is especially critical for telephoto work, where your depth of field is restricted by the focal length, and where the camera’s bias toward the closest subject is very likely to put focus on something in the foreground (grasses, leaves, twigs, etc.) instead of on the bird or beast you are attempting to photograph. In macro work, especially on a camera without a dedicated Macro mode, the focus is likely to fall on background objects instead of what you want…especially if you are a little too close to the subject for the camera to focus comfortably.

Again you will have to dig into the menu system to change the focus area…or, in Program, use the Function button on Canon or Sony cameras.

Center or spot focus allows you to place the focus where you want it for complex shots like this one of Cedar Waxwing in a field of Goldenrod.
Center or spot focus is also handy in macro work where you want to carefully control what is in focus. This shot uses both center focus and program shift, to achieve the desired effect.

I do about 60% of my shooting in Program mode, using one of my Custom setting memories. The rest of the time I use one of the specialized Modes…Sports, Macro, or In-camera HDR, depending on what I am shooting (once more, more on specialized modes in a future article). All of my birds and wildlife are shot in Program, except for birds in flight. All my Macro on the Sony cameras, and most of it on the Canon superzooms, is shot in Program.

Once you have graduated from Smart Auto (if and when you do :), Program is your smart choice. 🙂

Program does it!



Let (within reason) the camera do the work!

getting the most out of automation, part 1

A very tricky exposure problem, handled with the Sony HX400V's built in auto HDR program.
A very tricky exposure problem, handled with the Sony HX400V’s built in auto HDR program.

When reading reviews of new cameras, the reviewers generally take the availability of manual settings, or, failing that, the degree to which the user can control otherwise automated functions as an indication of how suited the camera is for advanced or even professional use. The assumption seems to be that any serious photographer is going to want, at least from time to time, to take direct control over the photographic process: kind of like the pilot of a 747 taking the plane off auto-pilot in the middle of a storm, or for a tricky landing, or in any situation where he doubts the ability of the automation to handle the unusual demands of the situation.

People are sometimes shocked when I tell them that I never take the camera off automatic (well, to be honest I keep it on program all the time…which is slightly different than auto…read on). I don’t even use aperture preferred or shutter preferred. I seldom use any of the scene-specific modes, unless the camera has an excellent macro or sports mode. I use the custom modes, or memory options if available, but I have them set to the program modes I most often use. I am not sure I could find the white balance controls on the camera I’m using now. I haven’t taken any digital camera I have ever owned off auto-focus, ever (though I do use manual focus assist if the camera offers it).

I am, pretty much, a point and shoot guy all the way. In fact, in the time since I have been using P&S digital cameras, the makers have built more and more effective automation into the cameras. I used to adjust exposure for difficult scenes..scenes with both deep shadow and bright areas (high dynamic range scenes)…using Exposure Compensation and careful selective metering of the scene. Today, with high dynamic range processing available on most sophisticated P&Ss (and even in-camera, multiple exposure HDR), I set the basic hdr program to auto and it handles 95% of even the most difficult exposure challenges without any intervention on my part. For scenes where I want extra drama, I use the auto three exposure HDR.

I shoot exclusively in jpeg. Most of the advanced automation is only available in jpeg mode, and I see no real advantage to shooting in raw and having to do what the camera does in software after the fact.

Does that make me a bad photographer? Does that make me less of a real photographer than the guy or girl who is always fussing with the settings, who shoots only raw, and who considers auto as the resort of the weak minded, the lazy, and the totally clueless?

It is not like I don’t understand how to use the manual settings. I have paid my dues. I am a card carrying member of the do-it-the-hard-way photography guild, because, when I was learning photography, the hard-way was the only way to do anything. I cut my teeth on the sunny 16 rule and carried a hand-held exposure meter…two meters in fact…one standard reflective/incidence and a spot meter. I studied Ansel Adam’s Zone system. My first SLRs had match-needle metering. When auto-focus came out, I was among the many serious photographers who swore it would never do for real work…passing fad! no future!

So, what am I doing these days, extolling the virtues of P&S?

Perhaps it is because I do understand the advantages (and the limits) of manual control of the photographic process that I have become such a staunch convert to automation. The fact is, twelve years of working with digital cameras…twelve years of looking at the results, of studying the images these cameras produce…has convinced me that, in 95% of situations, when it comes to exposure, the camera is smarter than I am. More…in something close to 90% of the remaining situations where manual control might have produced a better image, five minutes in Photoshop or Lightroom will do the same thing. That doesn’t leave much room for me to better the exposure automation.

I can still remember my very first day of using a digital camera. I was teaching at the time and it happened that the day the camera arrived we were going on a field trip to a local college. While there I took pictures of the kids in all kinds of situations…including inside the athletic complex. The pool was housed in a large open well in the building, two stories high, with a balcony around the second story and a huge skylight for a ceiling. Under the balcony there were florescent lights, and they had incandescent spots on the pool itself. The kids were on the balcony. I happily snapped away, knowing that I probably wasn’t getting anything good. I mean, three different light sources, bright light over pool and the kids semi-shadowed by the balcony overhang…what chance?

When I got home and put the images up on the computer I was simply amazed. The camera had balanced all those light sources perfectly, read the lights and shadows better than I could, and produced very good images…from a technical standpoint, excellent images. That made an impression on me that has not faded, and that has been confirmed again and again in the field, and has been reinforced as each new generation of sensors and processing engines has expanded and refined the automated abilities of these amazing digital cameras.

Which brings us to the difference between Auto and Program. Almost all P&S cameras have both an Auto and a Program setting. Some today have more than one Auto mode…it might be Auto, Superior Auto, and Intelligent Auto. Auto is really what it says. The camera does everything. It analyzes the scene and decides which program mode best fits the exposure challenge. It sets the exposure. It selects the focus mode. It decides what you are most likely to want to focus on. It sets the focus. I can only assume it is also selecting white-balance and sharpening and color space and all the other things that can be set on a digital camera. It does not tell you what it is doing. It just does it. And 95% of the time it will get it right, or close enough to not matter. Honestly, today you could put your camera on Intelligent Auto and come back with 95% acceptably exposed images.

As a wildlife and nature photographer though the one thing I need control over is where the camera will focus. I do not want the camera to decide what I am most likely to be focused on. I need control of that.

Here we want focus on the owl, and on its eyes in particular. Multi-point focus would likely have focused on the branch in front of the owl.
Here we want focus on the owl, and on its eyes in particular. Multi-point focus would likely have focused on the branch in front of the owl.

Program is Auto with control. First off, it allows me to set the focus point to the center of the field or even a movable spot focus. My most recent P&S have allowed me to override the selected focus point with a manual control…for those situations where you are focusing through brush, without taking the camera off auto focus.

Many cameras will allow you to shift the program…that is, to change the balance between shutter speed and aperture…while still maintaining the selected exposure. this is useful for controlling depth of field on the one hand, and stopping motion for action shots on the other.

Many cameras will allow you to choose between wide-area, multi-spot exposure metering (sometimes called average metering), center weighted metering (average metering with more consideration given to the center of the frame where the subject is likely to be), and spot metering (which meters only on a spot in the center of the frame…sometimes you can even move the spot around in the frame.

All P&Ss allow you to change the ISO setting in Program mode, which is another way of controlling both shutter speed and aperture.

Most allow you to override the selected exposure by a factor of 2 in either direction (over or under exposure) using the EV control. I have yet to use a digital P&S that did not overexpose the highlights of the scene in auto or program. A touch of negative EV compensation will cure that.

And all of this without leaving Program mode. All of this while still letting the camera do the hard work of determining correct exposure and focus. You might call Program controlled automation. Combine it with some old tricks of framing from the do-it-the-hard-way days, and you are well on your way to getting the most out of automation, by letting the camera do the work. Within reason.

You do have to pay attention. It does you no good to know what the camera is doing and to have the options to change the choices the program makes unless…unless you are paying attention! Automation does not mean that you let the camera make all the decisions…just that you let the camera make all the adjustments.

So, use Program mode and pay attention. In Part Two of this article I will detail the things you want to pay attention to, and the ways you can control them in program mode on most cameras. Read on, and you will be well on your way to technically correct exposure and focus on the vast majority of your shots.

And that is the bottom line. That is the reason for this article. I have limited time to pursue photography. While I am in the field, I want my creative self completely engaged in imagining every possible composition in any given setting, in seeing every image that might be there. I don’t want to have to deal with exposure and focus, except as elements of the possible images. Therefore I let the camera do everything it is able to do for me. I am confident it can, withing reason, if I am paying attention, do an excellent job of computing the correct exposure…better than I could using manual controls. I am confident that it can quickly and easily, if I am paying attention, establish correct focus…just as fast or faster than I could manually.

Let the camera do the work…

And that brings us to Part 2…