Learn To Lie To Your New Camera

daylight flash fill
This was a tricky exposure with skin tones bracketed by dark and light colors. You can see the fill flash in the sunglasses catch lights which also helped with the shadows under the ball cap

Honesty may be the best policy in life, but one of the keys to getting the best pictures is learning to lie to your new camera. Unfortunately, in many ways, your relationship with your new camera will be one based on deceit. But it’s okay, your camera is not going to feel betrayed and you’re going to like the results.

Lie About White Balance

I guess you could classify this as little white lie (ba-dum pah!). Specifically you’re telling the camera the light is really a different color temperature than its electronic sensor is measuring.

Your camera is measuring the temperature of the reflected light reaching the lens and comparing it to daylight. It then uses those calculations to try and determine the type of light source illuminating the subject. These days your camera is really good at making that calculation but there are still good reasons for you to lie about it.

Most cameras balance out full daylight a little on the blue end of the spectrum. Human perception likes skin tones a little on the warmer side, with a slight reddish gold cast. So lie to your camera’s white balance calculation by telling the camera it’s really cloudy outside and not clear. Your camera will shift the color to the red end of the spectrum thinking that it must be overcast outside.

You can also do something called white balance bracketing and just run through all the options and pick the one you like best.

Lie About Exposure

Our trail of deceit next takes us to exposure. On the Auto setting your camera is going to meter several points in the scene and set an average exposure right down the middle for 18 percent gray and try to balance the luminosity. You can lie to your camera and make it underexpose by pointing the lens at a lighter area of the frame and then push the shutter button half-way to lock the exposure, or some cameras have a special exposure lock button. You can go the other way and make it overexpose by pointing at a dark area.

The exposure lock feature on your camera is one of the best pro tips for consistently getting better photos.

Lie About Being Indoors

When taking photos of a person outside, go ahead and lie to your camera and tell it that you’re really inside and that it should use the flash.

On some electronic level it will know there’s really plenty of light, but since you’re the boss it will figure the flash into the equation and give you a nice fill for the subject’s face. It’s one of the great ironies in photography that your camera’s built-in flash is an absolutely dismal light source for pictures, but a fantastic fill light.

While it’s terrible to suggest starting off your relationship with a new camera based on lies, it’s really okay. You’ll get much better pictures while having way more fun and, scout’s honor, I’ll never tell.

What happens in the camera, stays in the camera. Or something like that.

Take Control Of White Balance

white balance changes
Changing the white balance can dramatically alter the look of any photo - by Spiritia

The subject of white balance can generate some resistance because some elements of the topic are quite technical. Instead of talking about the technical details of color temperature and black body radiation, I’m going to give you a few tips to hack your camera’s white balance functions to get more interesting pictures.

Automatic White Balance

When set on automatic, your camera’s computer reads the scene in front of it, takes an approximate reading of the color temperature, then sets the white balance accordingly. Auto white balance is far from an exact science because a scene can have a range of color temperatures and light sources.

In some situations, like outdoors on a sunny day, the automatic white balance does an admirable job. In other situations, like mixed light, it may perform poorly.

In most camera brands, I’ve noticed the auto white balance seems to err on the blue side. That might be more noticeable to me because I prefer a warmer (red or orange) cast with a bit more contrast. Really, the proper white balance is in the eye of the photographer and not all brands are alike and can even vary between camera models within a brand.

Take Control

Almost every camera, from point and shoot models to the highest end DSLRs, has a way to manually select white balance. Your user manual, which you should be reading anyway, will have a section on how to manually adjust white balance.

For some cameras, like the Canon 7D, you’ll have to select a shooting mode other than Auto or Creative Auto, to get access to the white balance controls.

You’ll notice many cameras don’t have a “daylight” or “sunny” setting for white balance. That’s because everything about your camera is optimized for shooting in daylight and everything else is an adjustment.

Once there you have a lot of options for getting different results. Even on a sunny day try selecting the “cloudy” setting and notice that your photos look noticeably warmer. Basically you’re fooling the camera into thinking the light is shifted more to the blue end of the spectrum than it really is.

You can experiment and try the fluorescent setting under tungsten lights, or the tungsten setting in daylight. Mix it up, try different combinations of lighting and white balance settings. You may even discover that you want to leave your camera on the “cloudy” setting all the time.

The great thing about digital photography is if you don’t like the results, you can push a button and start over.

Decoding Histograms For Better Photography

histogram picture
The histogram clearly shows the dark elements dominate this photo - Use a fill flash if you're shooting for optimum exposure

I do a lot of what’s sometimes mockingly referred to as “chimping”, looking down at my camera’s LCD screen after taking a shot. Sometimes I’m looking at the picture, more often I’m looking at the histogram.

The histogram is one of the most powerful yet frequently under-used features of high end cameras. Study them long enough at it gets to be like Neo in The Matrix: You can look at the histogram and know whether the photo is good and have a rough idea what it will look like.

At a basic level the luminosity histogram shows the distribution of luminosity values from darkest to lightest. The vertical spikes in the graph show the distribution of brightness levels in that particular scene.

In the example photos I deliberately selected images that were tricky exposures. A fair subject on a white background, brightly lit background with a foreground subject in shadows, and a balanced exposure in daylight so you can compare the histograms.

histogram light
A fair subject on a white background shifts the luminosity histogram the other way

In my Canon 7D, the histogram is showing a 5 stop dynamic range (different than the displays in the photos). That’s a pretty healthy dynamic range compared to the old days, and yet many photos demand more. To fit a photo into your camera’s dynamic range, you have a few options:

– Use the fill flash on the foreground, essentially moving the darks into your camera’s midtone dynamic range.

– Use HDR techniques to expose for different parts of the photo and merge them digitally.

– Use a Neutral Density filter to crush the highlights and shift the exposure toward dark and middle tones.

– Wait for better light.

histogram balanced
This histogram shows a wide dynamic range but fairly well balanced - If the subject wasn't moving, this would be a candidate for HDR processing

Now you might understand a little better why DSLR video shooters always carry a set of Neutral Density filters around. They’re limited to 1/50 of a second shutter speed, which narrows their options for shifting the dynamic range.

Luminosity is only one component of your histogram. In the future we’ll look at even more ways to hack your histograms for better photography.

Hack Your Camera’s Presets

The Canon Neutral picture style menu - by Canon

One of the more amazingly powerful and least understood features of modern DSLRs are the camera image style presets. I’m speaking specifically about image presets, also called picture styles, not preset shooting modes like aperture priority or shutter priority.

This topic can get a little confusing because of the sometimes fluid nature of photography terms and because some manufactures implement presets that change both the shooting modes and picture style under one setting heading and they all use different terms to describe the same basic processes. That’s why owner’s manuals are your friend. I’ve never been to a professional photography studio where a dog-eared camera manual wasn’t either on the desk or a convenient shelf.

Today I’m focused specifically on image presets. In the Canon line they have names like Standard, Portrait, Faithful, and Landscape. Nikon implements them slightly differently with names like Standard, Vivid and Neutral.

This is another one of those topics where DSLR video and still photography collide and maybe the video guys have a little bit of a lead. In the old days you’d make this selection by choosing a different film type based on the shooting you were doing that day. Today it’s the Picture Styles menu in Canon and Manage Picture Control in Nikon.

If you’re not using styles, you’re missing out on a huge amount of functionality. In Canon you can switch between Standard and Landscape when shooting outdoors which produces more vivid colors in the green and blue range. Switch to the Portrait style when shooting people and your camera shifts the color and saturation settings to those more favorable to skin tones.

You can also create your own custom picture styles by selecting a unique combination of sharpness, contrast, saturation, and color tone and then save them in one of your custom preset menu options.

You can also modify the camera preset by tweaking the settings in the menu options. I don’t really recommend doing that until you have a lot of experience. Better to copy the settings into a custom preset and play around with them there.

The best place to learn the particulars of your camera’s picture styles is the owner’s manual. Read it, understand it, and do some experiments in controlled shooting situations that help you understand what’s happening when you change the image style settings.

Understanding picture styles and presets can make a huge difference in the quality of your photographs. It’s not fun, it’s not sexy, but it’s imperative to becoming a better shooter.

Can’t Miss Landscape Tips

Twin Captains in the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area

Every photographer hears the call of the wild at some point. I used to get up at 4 am to haul a Bush Pressman D model 4×5 out into the wilderness along with a steel tripod that was a handy companion in a bar fight but quite a load to pack around otherwise.

The great thing about shooting landscapes is they’re not moving very fast. It’s easy to keep a bead on them. All the same you keep seeing the same mistakes in shot after shot: The horizon splitting the shot across the middle, no point of interest, bad lighting, and no shot lines for continuity.

Luckily you don’t have to haul a camera the size of microwave oven up a mountain trail in the dark to get good landscape photos. Anyone with a decent camera and a tripod should be able to take postcard quality landscape shots by keeping a few simple rules in mind.

Use A Tripod

Today there are aluminum and carbon fiber tripods that weigh very little, or a Gorilla Pod that will easily fit in your backpack. Take one.

Two reasons for a tripod: One is so you can choose an f-stop to get the maximum depth of field. Unless you’re going for bokeh with a foreground object placement, most of the time you want the smallest aperture (highest f-stop) that you can swing for a landscape to capture the maximum amount of detail.

The other reason for a tripod is for water shots where a slow shutter speed will give the water a foggy, smooth appearance.

Don’t Split The Horizon

Look back on our tips for composition and remember those apply to landscapes as well.

When it comes to the horizon, it’s a rare shot that splits the horizon along the center line and still looks good. Decide whether you want to emphasis the foreground or the sky and align the horizon along the appropriate third.

Horizon line
The horizon line is a little too close to center in this shot

Look For a Foreground Subject

To make mental composition easier look for a foreground with some interesting detail and frame around that.

The biggest offender in this category tend to be beach shots. When the horizon is on the upper third, there’s this huge, featureless expanse of sand in the foreground. Try to find some dunes or beach grasses to break up all that sand.

Converging Lines

One pro tip for taking better landscapes is to start asking yourself what elements are leading the eye of the viewer in your shot.

If you don’t have good foreground lines, start looking around for roads, power lines, tree lines, anything that take a point of reference and lead it toward a subject.

Wait For It

In movie production the hour just on either side of sunset is called the “Golden Hour” for a reason. That’s when the quality of sunlight is at its warmest, with a reddish gold glow that saturates colors and brings out contrast.

That golden moment in lighting is worth waiting for. I try to get setup at least a half-hour early and shoot through the whole range of golden hour. As the light angle shifts you’ll be amazed at the different colors, patterns and shadows that change from one minute to the next. It is really quite a remarkable time of day.