January 25, 2013

Playing with Cameras --- Panning

If you're bored with your photography or feel like you're stuck in a rut, try breaking some of the photographic rules you usually follow. You will certainly get different results and might discover a whole new way to approach your favorite subjects.

Let's start with one of the most basic rules: keeping the camera steady during the exposure for a sharp shot. What if you did the opposite? Intentionally moving the camera during a long exposure can create all sorts of interesting effects.

Panning is a traditional way to play with motion. Using a slow shutter speed in your camera, follow a moving subject while looking through the viewfinder (or at the LCD). Doing so has two effects. First, the background, which is not moving, is transformed into streaks of color. Second, if your timing is good, your main subject appears sharp, or nearly so. The result is a more pronounced impression of the speed your subject is moving.

Panning 1/30 second, f/22, ISO 100

Follow these tips for panning:
  • Select the lowest ISO setting (100 or 200)
  • Use Shutter Priority and pick a slow shutter speed (1/8 second, 1/15 second, 1/30 second)
  • Or use Aperture Priority and choose the biggest aperture number (f/22 or f/32)
  • Turn on continuous shooting (burst) mode 
  • Follow the subject while looking through the viewfinder
  • Keep moving after pressing the shutter button for the picture 
After you try a few shots, review the results on the LCD screen. You may want to try a faster or slow shutter speed to see what happens.

Panning 1/40 second, f/14, ISO 100
Image Copyright Ursula Carpenter

If your camera doesn't have Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode, try the Landscape scene setting or Portrait scene mode and turn off the flash. Some compact cameras have a "slow shutter" setting that would work for this technique.

Super slow shutter speeds can create interesting blur in your subject, too.

Panning 1/15 second, f/22, ISO 125

Working in dim lighting conditions makes using slow shutter speeds easier. Indoors, at night, under overcast light, in the shade or when the sun is below the horizon all have reduced amounts of light, helping you produce this effect. If you are shooting in bright sun, block light by using a polarizing or neutral density filter over your lens.

Panning 1/8 second, f/5.6, ISO 100
Panning 1/10 second, f/3.5, ISO 800
Image Copyright Noel Lindquist Photography

Panning 1/25 second, f/10, ISO 200
Image Copyright Karrie Montgomery

If you'd like to learn more about panning and other creative ways to break the rules, join me for my Playing with Cameras workshop at the Kanuga Photo Retreat in North Carolina April 21-26.

January 19, 2013

Updating Your Digital SLR's Firmware

Recently I updated the firmware for my Canon 7D. Completing this simple process in effect gave me a new and improved camera by adding features to the menus, improving the continuous shooting rate and other changes. So what is firmware and why do you need to update it?

Firmware is the software inside your digital camera that makes it work. You can think of it as the operating system for your camera. Just as Microsoft and Apple send out updates for your computer's operating system, so digital camera manufacturers make updates available for their cameras. Sometimes these updates repair problems with the camera's operation. Other times updates add bonus features. Firmware updates are free and easy to install.

First, find out if there are any firmware updates for your camera. Visit the manufacturer's web site and look up your specific camera model. Use the site's search function to locate any firmware updates for your camera.

Canon 7D Firmware Download Page
Next, check your camera's menu to see what version of firmware it is running. This is usually under the setup menu. If the firmware version for your camera matches the newest one on the web site, your camera is up to date. If the web site lists a higher number, then you want to download and install this latest version.

If there have been several updates released since you got your camera, you may need to install more than one update in the order they were released. Check the instructions for each update before beginning.

You also need to specify which operating system you use before downloading the file. In the screen shot above, I've chosen Windows 7 64-bit.
Nikon D800 Firmware Download Page

The file that you download is usually compressed (zipped), so you must uncompress (extract) the file before you can use it. The compressed file contains both the actual firmware file itself along with instructors on how to install it. Read through the instructions BEFORE you begin the process.

To complete the process you need:
  • A fully charged battery
  • An empty memory card newly formatted in your camera
While the firmware update process is different for different camera models, usually you use a memory card reader to copy the firmware file from the computer to the empty memory card. Then you place the card in the camera with its fully charged battery and follow the camera's instructions for updating to the new version.

It is very important that your camera have a fully charged battery and that you do not turn off the camera or press any buttons during the firmware installation. Otherwise, you may render your camera unusable and have to send it to the manufacturer to have the firmware installed properly.

Check for firmware updates for your camera periodically, perhaps two or three times a year. Some cameras never have updates, others have several. Usually the older your camera, the less likely the manufacturer will issue a firmware update.

So do a little research on your camera's firmware. If there is an update, you can enhance your camera's functions for free!

January 4, 2013

Focusing Tips for Digital SLR Cameras

Automatic focus on digital SLR cameras is a separate function from automatic exposure. Automatic or manual focus is typically a control on the lens itself but sometimes a control on the camera body. Usually there is a switch labeled “AF” for automatic focus and ”MF” for manual focus.

If you set the switch to AF, auto focus, you press the shutter button halfway down to ask the camera to focus. When it achieves focus, one or more of the squares in the viewfinder light up to indicate where in the scene the camera chose to focus. You also see a confirmation light, usually a solid green dot, inside the viewfinder along the bottom to indicate the camera is able to achieve focus. Then you can press the shutter button the rest of the way to take the photo.

Single vs. Continuous Auto Focus
Some cameras have multiple styles of auto focus. Single or one-shot auto focus sets the focus distance when you press the shutter button halfway. This distance doesn't change, even if the subject moves closer or farther from the camera. This type of auto focus is best for stationary subjects like landscapes or flowers.

Using single or one-shot auto focus can create blurry photos of moving subjects. Instead try your camera's continuous or servo auto focus choice. This can be a button near where the lens attaches to the camera or a menu choice. (Consult the camera manual for directions.)

Continuous auto focus locks focus when you press the shutter button halfway. If the subject moves, the auto focus tracks the movement, constantly updating or "predicting" the distance the subject will be from the camera when you press the shutter button all the way to take the picture. This type of auto focus works best for subjects moving toward or away from the camera, such as a child on a swing photographed from the front.

Using continuous autofocus

Some SLR cameras now provide Face Detection auto focus and Live View focusing. Check your camera manual for information on these styles of focus.

Changing the Active Auto Focus Point
Automatic focus is often programmed to focus on the object closest to the camera. There are several focus points or areas (little squares or brackets visible in the viewfinder) that the camera checks to determine where in the scene the closest object is. The camera may select a different object than the one on which you want it to focus. If you are trying to control where the camera focuses, this can be frustrating.

You can change the way the camera uses the auto focus points or areas. Instead of leaving all the focus points active, you can change the camera setting so that it uses only the center auto focus point or area (square). (Refer to your camera manual for instructions.) This way you can be sure the camera is focusing on the object you select instead of one the camera chooses.

After setting only one auto focus point or area to be active, you can reposition the active point to the right, left, top or bottom of the viewfinder instead of the center. This allows you to auto focus on a subject off to one side without having to change your composition.

When Auto Focus Doesn't Work
Automatic focus does not work in all situations. If you point the camera at a blank wall or a plain sky, the lens may go in and out as it seeks for something to focus on. Because there is not enough detail, the camera can’t focus. The confirmation dot in the viewfinder blinks and the camera may not let you take a picture.

To solve this problem, point the camera at something the same distance away that does have detail, for example, a break or corner in the wall or the edge of a cloud or the horizon. Press the shutter button halfway down to set the focus. Keeping your finger on the button, shift the camera back to your original scene and press the button the rest of the way. This technique is called focus lock.

Automatic focus may also choose to focus on something other than what you intended. This happens most frequently when there are objects between the camera and your subject, for instance, the bars or fence of a cage instead of the animal behind it, nearby grass or twigs instead of the animal or horizon, or glass instead of what you see through it. In this situation, you may need to change to manual focus in order to be able to focus where you want.

Using Manual Focus
To use manual focus, first set the focus switch to MF, manual focus, and then turn the focus ring on the lens. The focus ring has a different style of ribbing and is a separate ring from the zoom ring. As you turn the focus ring, hold down the shutter button halfway and check the focus visually through the viewfinder. When you see the focus confirmation dot appear, your subject is in focus and you can make the shot.

Give these focus techniques a try with your camera and see how you can improve the number of sharp pictures you take!