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.

Bracketing In The Digital Age

photo of exposure bracketing - by SmialSmial
Bracketing still has value, even in the digital age -

Bracketing started back in the days of film photography because film was cheaper than trying to find new clients. The only way to make sure you got a tricky shot was to take five or six shots, constantly bumping either the shutter speed or aperture, sometimes both, to make sure you had at least one good shot. After that you sent the film to the lab and crossed your fingers.

Bracketing in the digital age takes on a different context and technique. When working with RAW images there’s no incentive to bracket white balance. White balance is a notation in the headers of a RAW file and you can change it at your leisure, along with sharpness, contrast, and other color settings determined by the compression algorithm.

If you’re not working with RAW or your camera doesn’t support it, then think about bracketing white balance. You can get some interesting effects deliberately using the wrong white balance for the scene.

I still bracket on exposure, partly out of habit, partly because in these days of digital photo manipulation, you might like the sky better at one exposure and the subject at another. You don’t always have to go full HDR, but that’s another good reason to bracket.

Along with that, exposure by itself can do a lot to change the mood of a shot. The optimum exposure is not always the best for the scene and, in my experience, the closer to perfect coming out the camera, the better the photo will look in the end.

Another time I still use bracketing is when I’m shooting with a flash. I don’t completely trust the LCD screen, even with the histogram. It’s really pretty easy to go a half-stop on either side when shooting with a flash and the difference can be hard to see in the LCD. But that half-stop can make quite a lot of difference in post.

While you may not need to bracket as much in the digital age, there are still good reasons to do so. Besides, it’s not like you’re spending a lot extra on film. Some of you have cameras that have automatic bracketing. Take advantage of it. If nothing else it will help you determine what exposures look best to you.

And, for us old dogs, maybe old habits are just hard to break.