4 pieces of advice photographers should ignore

Manual Mode Graphic

Manual Mode is useful for a limited range of purposes

 

1) You need to use Manual mode all the time.

2) You must always shoot RAW.

3) White balance should always be set manually.

4) Only shoot cities in dawn or dusk rays.

This is the first article on my relaunched Eyewitness photography blog, now focusing mainly on photography and Photoshop. I will be dealing mainly with questions and issues that arise on my photo walks and in my one-to-one photography training sessions.

In this article I’m going to take a look at four popular misconceptions about photography that I frequently encounter, and I would like to set matters straight with information and advice based on my 40+ years experience with photography, 20+ with digital photography.

First piece of advice to be ignored: You must use Manual Mode all the time

We’ll start that much quoted phrase ‘I need to get off Auto’.

Here there’s a misunderstanding about the true meaning of ‘Auto’. What is being referred to here is ‘Full Auto’, the one marked in green on most cameras.

It’s true that people should move away from using just Full Auto, but that doesn’t mean you must always use Manual Mode.

And incidentally it’s not true that professional photographers use Manual Mode all the time. They use the four main modes  -Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual – depending on the type of photographs they are taking.

In Manual Mode the camera’s Auto Exposure is switched off. The scale in the viewfinder functions as a light meter. You have complete complete control over Aperture shutter speed and ISO.

Manual Mode is useful:
A) For learning about photography – My method of ‘Using the camera as a light meter’ is a very useful approach to using Manual and I’ll talk about that in another post.

B) When you need to take a series of shots the same exposure, for instance photos for an eBay shop where the background needs to be the same in every photo.

C) For taking photos in extremely dark conditions, for instance astronomical photography and time exposures of longer than 30 seconds.

D) When you need to choose exactly what Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO you would like to have and have plenty of time to experiment.

E) In a photography studio where you are using studio lighting, either flash or continuous.

Manual on a digital camera is not suited to general photography. For instance if you are at an event or taking lots of photos one after the other, Manual Mode is simply not practical. It is too fiddly and time-consuming to adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO for each shot.

The best general-purpose camera mode is Program Auto with ISO Auto.

I’ll explain this in more detail in another blog post.

As far as Manual Mode is concerned, I know what I’m talking about! My first camera, a film camera, only had Manual Mode and I used it successfully for several years.

Second piece of advice to be ignored: Shoot RAW! Always!

Diagram RAW Sliders

Some people can’t resist the temptation to ‘tweak’ the sliders when opening a RAW file.

 

I get very annoyed when whenever I read advice like this, because it shows that whoever wrote it doesn’t have a full understanding of RAW, nor of the different requirements of the varying lighting conditions.

First of all, what is a RAW file?

RAW is a family of file formats unique to each camera manufacturer. With a RAW file, all the picture information from each shot is stored. That information includes the colour information for each pixel, plus lots of extra data. RAW files are much larger than JPEG files because all the data is kept.

The JPEG format uses the information from the RAW file and compresses it, discarding the information the human eye can’t see. It’s the equivalent to the MP3 file in audio.

Often the finished image taken with a JPEG looks no different from an image taken with a RAW file.

So why do camera manufacturers include the option of saving in RAW? Because the RAW file gives you more scope to carry out adjustments such as changing brightness and contrast.

At this point I would like to highlight an apparent contradiction in the advice we often hear.

A) You must try to get the image right in the camera so you don’t need to carry out adjustments later.

B) You must always shoot raw so that you can carry out adjustments later.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Another issue with RAW is when people become slider happy. When you open a RAW file you are presented with a set of sliders in the vast majority of photos taken in bright conditions they can be left as they are put money photographers can’t resist adjusting them often resulting in a less than satisfactory image.

The JPEG file is set to optimise brightness contrast from us images and underskilled “tweaking “of the raw sliders will result in a possibly worse over-processed image.

Okay so why should we use the raw file?

Those sliders, if skilfully used, can transform an image taken in difficult lighting.

Whilst cameras can make a good job of capturing scenes with a good range of tones, they have great difficulty in handling scenes combining very bright and very dark areas.

Please note there are limits to how much a raw file can be adjusted if the clouds are partially overexposed and you try to darken them by dragging the highlights later to the left you will get pure white patches.

Don’t get into the mentality of  “I have made a mess of the exposure but I can always correct it in RAW”

You can’t always correct it!

So my advice is:  Use the RAW file format whenever you need it and if you don’t need it, don’t use it!

Third piece of advice to ignore: Always set white balance manually!

White Balance Symbols

Auto White Balance – Tungsten – Cloudy – Sun – Shade – Fluorescent

 

All digital cameras have a white balance control and by default it’s set to Auto

But first, why do we need to have White Balance and what exactly is white balance?

White light comes in different shades but I rise are not able to distinguish between the shades for instance sunlight is at the blueish and of wight what is interior lights can often be at the more reddish side of wight are human eyesight adjusts to the different shades of white and the digital camera can do this also so if you taking pictures outside in bright sunshine the camera will adjust to ensure that the white shade of white is exactly right in the artificial lighting in doors the camera is also very well able to adjust to the shade of light to the shade of white of white light whatever the light source whether it’s halogen bulbs or low energy lightbulbs.

Under normal circumstances you do not need to set the white balance manually for these or other lighting conditions.

In some circumstances the white balance can give inaccurate results, for instance if the subject is predominantly of one colour. Here the building is reddish brown in colour but the Auto White Balance has shifted the overall colour towards blue. In this case it is appropriate to switch to White Balance ‘Shade’. This is the setting that best matches the  light in the scene.

My general advice would be to use white balance  manually when there is one predominant colour that may cause the white balance to overcompensate. Or simply check on the LCD and if it doesn’t look quite right, try a manual White Balance setting.

Most of the time, however, it can be left on Auto.

Fourth piece of advice to be ignored:  It’s best to take city photographs in the rich golden light at the end of the day

Kendals / House of Fraser

Kendals, now House of Fraser store on Deansgate Manchester completed 1939

 

As a person who likes to photograph cities, I know that this piece of advice is wrong and for a simple reason: In pre-sunset light,buildings cast long shadows onto other buildings. In architectural photography, shadows on facades are not a good thing.

The other reason why I regard this as  incorrect advice is because in the period before sunset, there is a reddish brown hue to the colour of the sun. This can have an effect on the mood of the picture, it’s not always the best light to take photographs of buildings.

The best time to take photos of cities in sunlight is in the middle of the day when the sun is higher in the sky and there are fewer shadows. The higher position of the sun makes the buildings look better.

Well that’s the end of my first blog post in the reactivated Eyewitness photography blog and I’ll be doing another one soon

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Aidan O'RourkeAidan O'Rourke has been active in photography and online media since 1995. He has documented the development of the local area in his Eyewitness website (1997-2005) and as a contributor to books, publications and the Manchester Evening News. He runs photography walks in Manchester and Liverpool.