Auto is your (Smart) friend.

Blackburnian Warbler, Magee Marsh, OH. Canon SX50HS. Program with a slight tweak.

Exposure is the art of controlling the amount of light that reaches the film or sensor in a camera, so that you get a natural looking image of the scene in front of the lens…with a full range of lights and darks, and colors in a pleasing balance. Not too light, with no detail or texture in the washed out whites and bright colors in the scene…and not to dark, with inky black shadows and dingy grays instead of white, and muddy, unsatisfying colors overall.SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES


difficult exposure

It is more difficult that it sounds because no recording medium, neither film in the old days, or the light sensors in today’s digital cameras, can actually capture the full range of light and color that the human eye sees. There is always a compromise…a set of choices that have to be made…so that you can compress the scene before you into, today, a digital file which can then be reconstituted to present an image…whether it is printed, or displayed on an LCD panel…that comes close to what you saw at the time you pressed the shutter.

Tricky business. And, until recently, getting the exposure right was way more than half the art of photography. When I started seriously taking pictures with slide film SLRs, if more than 1/3 of your images were pleasingly exposed, you were doing very well indeed.

It is far different today. Today we expect 90% of our images from any outing to be correctly exposed. Even if we use full Auto!

Back in the day, no serious photographer would have been caught dead using Auto exposure. Auto was a crude thing, a matter of averages and a limited number of brightness steps, that, at its best, only produced an approximation of correct exposure, and that only rarely…maybe one in ten images. Putting your camera on auto all but guaranteed that the number of satisfying images you took would be very limited. After all, what camera meter and electronic circuit could ever hope to match the experience and skill of the human eye and brain? Only rank amateurs…and those too lazy to learn a little photography for pete’s sake…used Auto.

Auto mode on a Samsung Point and Shoot

Those were the days…and, happily, those days are long past. The automated exposure systems in today’s Point & Shoot cameras have gotten so sophisticated that it is a rare instance when any photographer’s personal experience or skill can produce a better exposure than the camera would choose on auto. In fact, today’s auto exposure systems represent a distillation of the experience and skills of hundreds of photographers and photographic engineers mapped onto a computer chip so that it is applied, in real time, instantly, every time you press the shutter. Think of that. Hundred’s of photographers’ and photographic engineers’ experiences and skills are yours to command, right there in the tip of your finger. 🙂

Almost all Point & Shoot cameras today have some sort of smart auto system. Different makes might call it different things, but Smart Auto reads the information from the sensor, does a first level mathematical analysis to see which of up to 20 different scene types it most closely matches, applies the exposure settings from the chosen Smart mode, and then, based on a second analysis of the sensor data which looks for anomalies, fine tunes the exposure for the individual scene.

In essence the camera does automatically, and all but instantly, what the photographer would do if he or she were determining exposure manually. Exposure is more art than science, in that the choices you make, if your are making them yourself, are based on your experience with light and shadow, form and texture…your memory of similar scenes…and your experience of how your particular camera responds to light and shadow. When confronted with a scene, you mentally access your own experiences, and pick the settings that have worked in the past for you in similar scenes, then, based on a closer analysis, generally involving metering or at least consideration of particular tonal problems of this particular scene, you tweak the setting in a way you hope will improve the exposure. 

A full range image using the camera’s Rich Tone (HDR) mode.

Yes, like I said, that is exactly what Smart Auto does in the Point & Shoot camera. Only, instead of drawing on just your experience of light and shadow, form and texture, and your limited experience with how the camera responds, the engineer/artists who design the exposure system draw on a mathematical analysis of of thousands of scenes and direct knowledge of how the camera sensor responds to light.

It is still art, or at least more art than science. The engineers who design the system still have program it to make choices that produce what are, to their eyes, pleasing results when the image is finally displayed as a print or on an LCD screen. Choices. Artistic choices.

And, to be honest, some camera makers, to my eye, are better at this than others. They all manage correctly exposed images 90% of the time…it is just that some cameras consistently produce images that are pleasing to my eye…that approach most closely the way I remember the scene, or the way I want to remember the scene. And some camera makers don’t.

(Full disclosure: I have not used all the makes of digital cameras. I like the way Canon and Samsung render images. I do not like the way Nikon and Fuji render images. The Olympus and Sony cameras I have owned have been between the extremes. I could live with them but they are not my choice. Remember. More art than science. You could have a completely different opinion!)

Anyway. What all this means is that there should be absolutely no shame involved, no matter your level of photographic experience or skill, in putting your Point & Shoot camera on Smart Auto and just going out and taking pictures.

Certainly, as a beginner, that is should be your setting of choice. You will have to take a lot of images before you even begin to learn where Smart Auto is letting you down, and, when you eventually do (and you will)…well that is plenty of time to begin learning what to do about your, or the camera’s, failures. In the meantime, take a lot of pictures. Don’t share the ones that don’t satisfy you, but save them to study when you get to the point where you want to learn a little photography, for pete’s, and your own, sake.


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…

Making Macro with P&S

If you develop the habit of looking closely at nature you will find all kinds of interesting and wonderful photo opportunities…moss, lichen, flowers, mushrooms and other fungi, bugs and even the intricate textures of rock and tree bark.

With a standard full sized  DSLR camera with interchangeable lenses you would need a dedicated macro lens, add-on macro lens/filters, or extension tubes between the camera body and a fixed focal length normal lens to take advantage of the macro world…and, most likely a tripod rigged to get down and close. Many also use a special flash called a ring-flash for close up work. Macro is somewhat of a specialty among serious photographers, requiring special equipment and techniques as well as the eye to see small.

Today’s P&S superzooms almost all have excellent macro ability. Many will focus to 1 to 2 centimeters from the front lens element at wide angle. Some, like the Canon SXxxHS series, will focus on something touching the front element. Many have dedicated Macro Modes, which not only bias the focus system for close focus, but often add some digital trickery to defocus the background to simulate (for better or worse, see below) the effect of a longer focal length macro lens on a full sized DSLR.

Wide angle macro. Sony HX400V.
Wide angle macro. Sony HX400V.

P&S macro does have its disadvantages…so called. Both of the often sited disadvantages have a positive side that you can use to your advantage.

Characteristically P&S superzooms focus closest at their widest angle. This makes the kind of macros that show a close up view of you subject in its environment…with background or surroundings…easy and natural. And because the wide angle on a P&S is, in reality, a very short focal length lens (the actual focal length of a 24mm equivalent lens on a P&S is 4.3mm), and because the shorter the focal length of the lens the greater the depth of field, much of at background or surrounding will be in relatively good focus. This produces an interesting effect of its own, as the image above demonstrates, but it does not produce what most photographers and photo enthusiasts think of, or recognize as, the macro effect.  Because most macro work is done with full sized DSLRs and specialty lenses that have real focal lengths of between 60-100mm, or with add-on lens/filters or extension tubes that restrict the depth of field, we are used to seeing macros with the subject isolated against an out of focus background. In fact, the challenge for folks who shoot with real macro equipment is to get the whole subject in focus at the same time. That is much easier, though some care is still needed, with a P&S macro. Those cameras with a dedicated Macro mode often use special in-camera processing to mimic the full sized DSLR macro effect.

The other disadvantage of P&S macro is that with close focus at the wide angle end of the zoom and focus under 5mm you have to be really close to your subject…often too close for practical work. You get pollen on your lens. You spook the bug. Worse, you get in your own way…the shadow of the camera covers the subject in any kind of sun or strong daylight.

Let me say right here that one of the real advantages of P&S macro is that you almost never need a tripod. The image stabilization on today’s P&S superzooms is amazingly good. If you take a number of shots…or use the continuous shooting mode on your camera…you will get at least one sharp photo in almost any light. It is easy to do, since, with the exception of bugs, most macro subjects will not be moving much if at all.

Both of the disadvantages above can be overcome, at least in part, by using a slightly longer focal length on the zoom. This is not possible with all P&Ss, but it is with the three I am most familiar with.

Conventional macro with a 100mm equivalent macro lens on a APS-C mirror-less compact DSLR. ZEISS Touit 50mm Macro on Sony NEX 3N. Notice the fully out of focus background. Contrast that with the image above, taken a the wide end of a P&S zoom with an equivalent focal length of 24mm and a real focal length of 4.3mm.

The Nikon superzooms have (or had, last time I checked) a Macro Mode that sets the zoom at about 34mm equivalent. This is a good compromise…allowing a more comfortable  working distance, and a bit more separation between subject and background. Nikon emphasizes that separation with special background processing. At the same time, 34mm equivalent still has enough depth of field to make it possible to keep the whole of most macro subjects in focus at the same time.

Canon SXxxHS series cameras will focus, as above, on the front surface of the lens at wide angle…but if you move the zoom off wide angle you loose close focus all together. To overcome that, I always use the digital zoom…on the Canons there is a special processing mode that provides a 1.5 and 2x digital tel-extender that has remarkably good performance, especially with macro subjects where the sensor is flooded with detail. That puts me out at 36 and 48mm for good working distance, and still gives me the depth of field of the 24mm equivalent. Best of both worlds.

On the Sony, closest focus is also at full wide angle, where you can get to 1cm. However, you can zoom out to 50mm, or even 85mm, and still focus under 5cm. Again, that gives you a good working distance, good scale, and, with care, enough depth of field.

Both the Canon and the Sony allow for Program Shift while shooting macros. It is kind of difficult to access on current Canons as it involves simultaneously pushing two buttons, but on the Sony it is dead easy as Program Shift is the default action of the real control wheel under your thumb as you grip the camera. Program Shift on any camera allows you to increase or decrease the depth of field by adjusting the size of the aperture (f-stop) without upsetting the basic exposure (it automatically compensates by adjusting the shutter speed to keep exposure balanced). You don’t really need to understand shutter speeds and f-stops and exposure to use Program Shift for macros. All you need to know for well focused P&S macros is that you want a larger f-stop number (which corresponds to a smaller aperture). Most P&Ss will automatically select a larger aperture over a smaller one, so your basic exposure is going to be something like f3. You want to dial it up to f5.6 or f6.3. That will give you enough depth of field, on a P&S, for most subjects. The shutter speed will go down, making it harder to hold the camera still long enough to get your picture, but between the excellent image stabilization and taking a few shots of every subject, you should still get at least a few sharp images in almost any light.

Sony HX400V at about 80mm equivalent, using program shift for a smaller aperture, comes close to matching the macro effect of the dedicated 50mm macro on the Sony Mirror-less compact DSLR.
Sony HX400V at about 80mm equivalent, using program shift for a smaller aperture, comes close to matching the macro effect of the dedicated 50mm macro on the Sony Mirror-less Compact DSLR.

Lighting on macros, and especially avoiding the shadow of the camera, can be very tricky. All I can say is that if I take the time to try all the angles I can generally find one that works. Sometimes you still get camera shadow in the image, but as along as it does not distract from or obscure the subject it might be okay.

Circling the plant with the bee allowed me to get the camera's shadow out of the frame. Sony HX400V at about 90mm.
Circling the plant with the bee allowed me to get the camera’s shadow out of the frame. Sony HX400V at about 90mm.

Some of the best macros are taken in the indirect light of the forest floor. Again, the superior image stabilization of the P&S superzoom comes into play to allow these kinds of shots hand held.

At the same time there is nothing like the detail of a shot in full sun. I used all the tricks here, with the Sony HX400V.

Finally, don’t ignore the other end of the zoom, or anything in between when shooting macros. Many P&Ss will focus closely enough at the long end for a true macro effect, especially if you use digital zoom or one of the specialized processing modes that give an expanded zoom range. The Canon SXxxHS series focus (based on current models at the time of this writing) to under 5 feet at full telephoto. At 1800mm or 2400mm equivalent field of view (using the digital tel-extender) that can produce stunning macro results.

2400mm on the Canon SX50HS. Bordered Patch at the National Butterfly Center
Flame Skimmer. Tucson Sonoran Desert Museum. Sony HX400V at 2400mm equivalent using Perfect Image Zoom.

So, are you ready to make macro with your P&S superzoom?


The Point and Shoot Naturalist

In addition to being a great creative tool, today’s digital P&S cameras are a great way to learn birds, bugs, wildflowers, etc. In this applicaiton, you become more than a P&S nature photographer…you become a P&S Naturalist. 🙂


I was a photographer before I was a birder. I watched (photographed) wild-flowers, and mushrooms, and the play of light across the landscape before I ever seriously looked at birds. Oh I had tried photographing birds and butterflies, but this was back in the days of film…and photographing anything that moved was 1) expensive, since you had to pay for every missed shot, and 2) frustrating without very expensive equipment. I never had much luck with the film or the gear I could afford.

And then, one day on an unfruitful wild flower trip to southern Arizona (too hot, too dry), I began to look at birds.

I soon invested in good binoculars (which I could just barely afford) and a good field guide. Then I invested several years in learning to bird. It was a lot of fun, and very satisfying. I am, in fact, over 20 years later, still learning 🙂 and it is still both fun and satisfying.

Along the way there, the digital photography revolution happened. I was an early adopter of Point and Shoot digital cameras. I bought my first one when they came down under $500. It was a 2 megapixel Olympus with a 1-3x zoom, and I loved it. I found that I could photograph everything that I had in my film days, when I carried a full SLR kit…2 bodies and an assortment of lenses…with this little, not-quite-but-almost-pocket-able digital camera…and I found that I took way more images, considering that I was not paying for the missed shots! And that 1-3 zoom was light-years ahead of the 1-3x zooms I had owned at the end of my SLR carrier.

Since then, I have steadily upgraded my cameras as the cameras themselves developed…always sticking with Point and Shoots. The DSLRS don’t tempt me. I have become addicted to small, light-weight, and super flexible. Over the past few generations of digital, I have come to appreciate the clever “modes” that have become the norm in Point and Shoots since CMOS sensors have replaced CCDs: everything from dedicated macro to night-shot, to in-camera HDR, and sweep panorama.

And the zoom range has steadily grown. I am using a Point and Shoot with a 50x zoom these days. It has the fields of view of everything from a 24mm wide angle to a 1200mm super telephoto (up to 2400mm with the built in digital tel-converter)…all in one compact camera and lens. It does not fit in my pocket, but it is way lighter and more compact than any DSLR, and there is, in fact, no DSLR lens made that will reach 1200mm, let alone 2400mm. My 50x digital point and shoot also has continuous shooting at 3 frames per second, and a sports mode that makes shots of birds in flight not only possible, but fairly easy. It will shoot macros with the subject touching the lens at wide angle, and focuses to 5 feet even at 2400mm equivalent. It is a truly amazing camera.

About 3 years ago I got seriously interested in dragonflies. I am now learning my odonata. I am not however, like some students, netting them…nor am I studying them through binoculars as I did my birds. The key for me was finding that I could photograph them with my long-zoom point and shoots, and then bring the images home for study and comparison to field guides…and, even better…to the great wealth of odonata resources on the web. (You have not seen a dragonfly image until you have seen one taken at 2400mm equivalent from 5 feet.) I joined a couple of on-line groups of like minded students of odonata, and I draw on the expertise of the whole odonata community as I need it (which is still very often). And I am learning. Most of the bugs I have photographed and identified from images, I can now identify by sight when I see them in the field…many of them even on the wing. I have learned as much about odonata in 3 years, as I did in 10 as a beginning birder.

And leads me to think that, had inexpensive digital point and shoot cameras been available when I started to learn to bird, I might never had bought binoculars. I love books, and I probably would have bought birding field guides just as I have bought odonata guides…but it was years before I had the support network of fellow birders that I already, almost instantly, have for odonata.

The world has changed, and, from my own experience, and my observations in the field over the past few years, I am pretty sure the way people are learning to appreciate nature…birds, bugs, wild flowers, and the play of light across the landscape…is changing too.

And why not? You can now buy a capable camera for much less than capable binoculars. You can now develop a circle of birders, or buggers, or wild flowerers, in a fraction of the time it took a few years ago…and your circle, unlike the location-bound circles of the past, will very likely contain some of the best minds and eyes in the community…even the worldwide community.

No, if I were learning to bird (or bug, or wild flower, or watch wildlife) today, I would probably start with a camera in hand, and the internet on tap. And, when you stop and think about it, this new way of learning to appreciate nature has the potential to attract exactly who we need to attract…if birding, bugging, wild flowering…in fact, if nature itself is to survive beyond the lifetime of our children. It is just techy enough and social enough (in the internet meaning of the term), and maybe even just cool enough to appeal to the gaming and social networking crowd that is coming up behind us old folks. This, I am pretty sure, is a good thing.

And that, folks, is the theory behind the Point & Shoot Naturalist. I intend to explore this possibilities of this new way of leaning, and celebrate the learning here. Oh, we will probably discover the limitations of Point & Shoot Naturalism as well, but my feeling is that, on balance, learning to appreciate nature with a camera in hand is a pretty good idea…and may open nature to a whole new generation of naturalists, and maybe even to some of my own generation who might not other wise have ever taken an interest.

Let the adventure begin.