Monday, January 28, 2008

Winter Musings: January. From Camera to Computer. Part One

I thought some readers would be interested in learning about the technical details behind how I work. Some things were taught to me and others learned; nothing you read here is a secret per se but it is a result of experience. Originally planned as a single entry I decided to split it up due to length. So this month I will be describing my camera set up and rationale while next month I will discuss my preview and editing tools, and how it all comes together in my workflow.

I value consistency and process, Henry Ford would be proud. I am not as much a seat-of-the-pants photographer as others and believe my best results are achieved when I take more responsibility for how an image is exposed and processed. My own skills and experience are trusted over the exposure programs offered by the DSLR. This methodology helps streamline my RAW file workflow. Do you see of my engineering background peeking through? Yes, I like control!

My two Canon 5D DSLR's are configured identically and are fitted with aftermarket Haoda horizontal split prism focusing screens (SO missed these from my 1 series Canon's). I photograph using:
  • manual exposure - always
  • center focusing point - almost always
  • spot metering - almost always
  • evaluative metering when using ETTLII on the 580EX flash
  • "back button focusing" - almost always
  • normal focusing when dark and using 580EX flash's IR assist
  • RAW format - always
  • with lens hoods - always
I prefer manual exposure because it produces consistent results. I do not want my shutter speed or aperture to change just because I am pointed at a slightly different area of the scene. The light illuminating the scene has not changed. If I photograph a series, each exposure will be identical which makes post processing much simpler - assembly line is a good analogy. Tweaking each image to create a consistent looking result requires way too much effort. Manual exposure permits me to batch process exposure adjustments with a predictable outcome.

The center focusing point is used by many focus-and-recompose photographers like me. Letting the camera decide can be frustrating. Also, experience has shown that autofocus is great but the split prism is best for critical shooting when depth of field is at a premium. Just be careful when you are very close to the subject and shooting wide open. A slight recomposition may change the focal plane and something you thought was in focus will actually not be. Occasionally I will switch points when I want a particular framing. Despite how good the camera is at auto-selecting focusing points, I still like the control when manually selecting the point.

Spot metering gives the photographer control over highlights and shadows - here's that word again - consistency. I move the spot over areas of the frame and decide what I want to show; set the exposure (manually) and fire away. You will get rich and saturated images out of the camera without post processing. Weddings are easy because you generally contend with faces and dresses. I can always spot meter on the dress to prevent blown highlights. Something to think about: if you are going to use spot metering for backlit subjects, you might as well just use it all the time.

The one time I will not spot meter is when using flash. If you read about ETTL flash you will see why. Among other things, flash power algorithms are tied to exposure readings around the focus point.
When I focus and recompose, the focus point may not be on my subject when I am ready to shoot which will lead to errant exposure readings and flash output. Result? Annoying over and under exposures. I employ evaluative metering when using flash which averages over the entire scene. It is a much safer setting in this instance.

Ooooo, the legendary back button focus - a religion for some photographers, including me. This is when you set a "Custom Function" allowing you to use a button on the back of the camera to trigger auto focus. The shutter release is then decoupled from AF and serves one less function. There are a bevy of reasons to use this especially for manual-exposure-spot-metering-focus-and-recompose junkies!

First, you now get instant shutter release, on-demand. Before you would have to wait for the AF system to deliver a focus confirmation. The benefit is a reduced risk of missing your shot.

Second, this allows you to prefocus, meter, and recompose before firing.
This is commonly employed for predictably moving subjects. You focus on a spot then snap the photograph as they pass it. Higher probability of a sharp image. Before, the AF was triggered every time you press the shutter release thus changing what was in focus.

Third, you can use the full time manual (FT-M) feature of most pro lenses without flipping the AF/MF switch.
This is very convenient when shooting macro details. Before, the AF would always override what you manually set when you pressed the shutter release down. It works for moving subjects too when you choose not to use the AI-Servo mode.

Fourth, you decouple metering and focusing. You can focus on a subject and then move your spot meter over another area of the image to examine your exposure by pressing the shutter release down half way. Move the camera back to the subject and fire without ever changing what was in focus.

I disable back button focusing when I'm in a dark room. The flash's IR assist will make sure what I am pointing at is in focus and release the shutter at that instant. Not all images will be in focus but it is better than prefocusing and the split prism is useless when you can't really see your subject. This is used mostly at the end of the night when the dancing starts and the fairy godmother turns my camera into an expensive point and shoot.

I always shoot RAW. One dark church was all that was necessary to convert me. Aside from the 12-bit mathematical benefits over an 8-bit JPEG, it is a great time saver on many levels. Color correction is much simpler in Lightroom, under and over exposures are more recoverable, it appeals to my engineering nature, and it saves interim hard drive space for my workflow. That's right, you read it correctly. Stay tuned next month for the reason why.

There is a reason why your expensive $1100+ lens came with a hood. It wasn't an upsell. Hoods restrict incident light to whatever you are pointing at. This prevents flare at the extreme, but also improves the color saturation by controlling unwanted reflections and light pollution. One other benefit is that it protects your expensive glass from fingers and pointy things as you move around.

OMG, this is way too long already. Tune in next month for Part Two.

Winter Musings are monthly posts between November and February. They cover a range of topics related to wedding photography with couples and photographers in mind. I hope you will tune in next month. Comments and requests are appreciated!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Jeannie and Hyung's Wedding. Mountain View

Ceremony at New Community Baptist Church in Mountain View and reception at Ming's in Palo Alto.

It is Friday, January 4, 2008. The National Weather Service has a severe storm warning posted and is forecasting hurricane-force winds for the Bay Area. The Sierras around Lake Tahoe is forecasting blizzard conditions (extremely rare). We are going to have 3 straight days of chilly inclement weather. I just completed another scouting trip to Stanford and it doesn't look good. The wind is blowing rain everywhere, good luck finding a dry spot. Even I am worried at this point - but I did call Jeannie and joke that I was going skiing on Saturday instead of photographing her wedding because of the epic snowfall ;)

Saturday morning was clear enough for the groomsmen to gather outside while preparing for the seemingly universal Asian tradition of gift offerings, tests, bribes, and begging before being allowed inside the home of the bride's family. Several of the tests were... entertaining (one involved some ladies underwear). Shortly after entering Jeannie and Hyung served tea to Jeannie's relatives. Gifts and blessings were exchanged. After a mid morning snack and a quick change of outfits we were off to the Four Seasons - our backup bad weather indoor location - for bridal party pictures. The hotel was very accommodating!

It is starting to rain heavily again. It has rained so much up to this point that half the church's parking lot is underwater when we arrive. Jeannie is still all smiles though as they exchange vows and perform another tea ceremony. Korean this time. A unique aspect of this tea tradition is the throwing of figs and chestnuts. The more the couple the can catch, the more children they will have. Another wonderful thing is how each nationality has such different and colorful clothing.

At Ming's everyone is looking much more relaxed and we've all but forgotten about the rain. It seems the bridal party may have gotten their shoes wet because they changed to sneakers, hahaha. There was an abundance of food, a touch of emotion, lots of Karaoke, and tons of music. One thing worth mentioning was the DJ/MC - he was pretty entertaining if you prefer highly interactive DJ's.

Floral Arrangements: Nicole Ha
Cake: Napoleon Super Bakery
DJ: Macala Entertainment