FAQ No.2 - What camera mode do you shoot in..?

Probably the second most FAQ I get is this one.... and the answer is not that simple... because as with all things it depends on the what and when of the subject you are shooting...

In the “old days” the choice was fairly simple.. you had a manual camera.. so you shot in manual mode.. questions of exposure came down to knowing your film stock as much as knowing your exposures.. you learned, for example that Fuji Velvia.. though rated at 50 ISO produced much better results when rated at 40.. you took your manual light readings, made your exposures and then processed normally and the results were cracking...

The learning curve was long and difficult and expensive.. a lot of film was burned to learn lessons..! Technology has progressed a little since those days and I for one am grateful for it because it means that the camera can now do a lot of the work allowing me to concentrate on composing the image I want... don’t get me wrong.. you still need a strong foundation in the mechanics of photography and understanding of light in order to get your desired results... and this is important because despite our clever cameras we still need to be able to manipulate the camera’s automation to achieve the effect we desire.. 

Having said all of that.. for Landscapes.. I still shoot in full manual mode. If you have an image in your mind’s eye.. the best way to achieve it is through manually controlling your exposure.. and the beauty with landscapes is that you have the time to do it... it’s not the 100m final at the Olympics where you only have 10 seconds to get your shot. So having the luxury of time should allow us to take all that we need to achieve the result we desire.. we can select our ISO... select our aperture and balance the shutter speed to get the exposure we’re after...

Flamingos on Lake Kerkini during one of our winter landscape and wildlife photography workshops and tours of Lake Kerkini

Flamingos on Lake Kerkini during one of our winter landscape and wildlife photography workshops and tours of Lake Kerkini

WIth wildlife.. the story changes slightly.. because it also depends on how you will be shooting... as a very general rule.. if you are shooting from a static position such as a hide with a fairly limited arc of view your exposures will remain fairly constant (sun coming in and out from behind clouds not withstanding)... so again you can select to expose manually to get the exact exposure of that kingfisher perched on a branch overhanging the little river that you’ve staked out... things change though if you are shooting wildlife in stalking mode... in following a bird in flight through a 180 degree arc you could encounter a large shift in exposures from shooting with the light behind you to shooting into the light.. trying to set a manual exposure in this situation could mean you miss the shot entirely either by under or over exposing or by trying to shift exposures whilst trying to pan the camera to track the bird with a monster 400mm lens attached.. it’s not going to happen... so what to do..? My personal preference in these situations is to shoot in Aperture Priority... you set your ISO according to the light conditions... select your aperture of choice... and let the camera worry about setting the shutter speed.. there are a couple of things you should note though... you are not going to let the camera have entirely its own say in the matter... firstly you want to make sure the ISO you select is going to give you fast enough shutter speeds throughout the entire spectrum of possible shooting conditions in front of you so that your camera is not suddenly trying to shoot that bird in flight at 30th/sec.. again you will miss the shot... in addition when turning through your arc of fire.. if you should turn into the light.. the chances are you will get silhouetted shots with no detail in your subjects feathers and most importantly their eyes will be lost in shadow... unless of course that is the desired effect... the opposite is also true too if the bird you are tracking should fly into shadow.. the easiest way to control this without having to lift your eye from the viewfinder and whilst still tracking the bird in flight is to use exposure compensation, quickly shifting the control dial as you pan to adjust exposure up or down... I have mine set to increments of 1/3's...

Dalmatian Pelicans in flight photographed during one of our winter "purely pelicans" wildlife photography weekend workshops at Lake Kerkini

Dalmatian Pelicans in flight photographed during one of our winter "purely pelicans" wildlife photography weekend workshops at Lake Kerkini

...and that’s about as automated as I personally get when shooting... I never use full auto mode and rarely use Shutter Priority. The point I wish to make is that whatever mode you personally like to shoot in... don’t relinquish all control to the camera.. something you can do via exposure compensation.. and your results will vastly improve.

A brief note on aperture selection but I will go into more detail in a following post... when shooting birds or any other wildlife through a long telephoto.. just because your lens can go down to f2.8 doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what you should be shooting at.. the main reason being that for birds, and in fact any wildlife, you should be looking to get beak, eyes and breast in sharp focus.. telephoto lenses have exceptionally short depth of field so at f2.8 on a 400mm.. though you might get the eye pin sharp.. the chances are the tip of the beak and the breast will be out... so you need to be selecting an ISO that will allow you to set your aperture at around f8 whilst still giving you a decent shutter speed so that your subject is not blurred either... all the while balancing your ISO so it’s not too high that you should lose image quality... lots to think about..!

Happy shooting..!