Progressing my photography

I spent a day with David Taylor on the North East coast near Craster and Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. Here are my notes from the day, and David’s comments (in italics). They’re mainly for me, but might be of interest to others.

David explained the Live view setting ON and his use of Creative Style as a means of improving what you saw on the monitor and viewfinder as these displays can only represent the image as a JPEG. He explained why he used Neutral Creative Style (rather than Standard) with the two settings of Exposure and Saturation wound down to -3 so that the highlights would not be blown on the display. Really useful tips.

I use the Neutral Creative Style – with colour and saturation set to -3 – as a guide to the range of tones that will likely be present in the resulting Raw file. Using a high-contrast setting like Vivid is more likely to show highlight or shadow clipping and so lead to unnecessary tweaking of the exposure. That said, Standard isn’t too contrasty so it’s a good fallback (and doesn’t make the viewfinder display – when Live view setting is ON – look grey and flat.)

We talked about Auto ISO – we came to the conclusion that it might be useful when just walking about, or when shooting handheld, but definitely should not be used when shooting on a Tripod.

Auto ISO. Yes! Leave well alone and stick to a fixed ISO setting when using a tripod. Only use it when handholding, particularly when light level may fluctuate. (Such as moving between inside and outside.)

Similarly, using Auto White Balance might not necessarily be a sound strategy. He suggested using a setting such as Daylight because that way you know what the base-level (ie Kelvin degrees) White Balance is that you’re working from. AWB would always vary. I’d never thought of that. Really useful tip, working from a known base-level is a very sensible strategy.

AWB works most of the time. However, it isn’t a constant and can be fooled if a scene is dominated by one or colours. A lot of green – in woodland for instance – can fool AWB into adding magenta for example. I suspect AWB will get more and more sophisticated in years to come, but it’s not there quite yet. I use Daylight as it’s a ‘known’ quantity that I can work from in post-production.

We looked at using Manual Focus and finding a way of ensuring that you have sharp focus front to back using peeking levels on the camera (Sony term). Set f-stop wide open. Focus on near foreground – check distant view for sharpness. Then do the Background. The result as you switch between the two will probably end-up about one-third of the way in. This is why when using Auto-focus one-third into the scene is often quoted as the best place to point the camera.

I typically want to use a mid-range aperture – f/8 or f/11 – if I can. Smaller apertures can start to cause diffraction, which – although you get more depth of field – actually causes the image to look soft. To maximise the depth of field at a given aperture I first select that aperture. I then switch to MF and magnify the image at the bottom of the screen – which should be the foreground – and focus there. I then magnify image at the furthest point – typically the horizon – and check sharpness there. If it’s sharp then all is good and the photo can be taken. If not, I tweak the focusing until it is sharp and then check the foreground sharpness again. I repeat this until I’ve maximised the amount of DOF. This is easier with wide angle lenses as you get more DOF at a given aperture than with a longer lens. You may find with a +50mm lens that you either have to stop down further, or it’s impossible to have complete foreground-to-background sharpness and you need to compromise. (Typically in this instance I’d make sure that what I want sharp is sharp and worry less about the background.)

He suggested I use flexible spot with Auto Focus and the touch pad on monitor. I have yet to really get into doing this – but then again, there’s so much of the A7r III that I’ve really not yet got into!!!

Flexible spot (S) is the simplest way to ensure that focus is precise in AF mode. It’s not one I’d use when shooting moving subjects though – I’d then switch to Zone or Wide.

He suggested setting up My Menu with some of the Common Menu Settings you need to change and access regularly, eg Format Memory Card. Again, I haven’t done that yet – I really must. Having an easy way to go between back-button and shutter Auto Focus would be really useful.

Assigning commonly-used menu options to the My Menu screen is a big time saver. I’ve got Format and Sensor clean (amongst others) set on my A6400, and wish I could do the same on my A7R II.

His advice to stitch panoramas in portrait mode and overlap by a third every time is really good. I’ve done this now a couple of times and the results are really impressive. Doing it this way leaves more space top and bottom to crop image. You should also use Manual mode for panoramas as that way you can ensure correct exposure levels that will remain constant through shots that you’re going to stitch. I’ve now bought an L-Bracket which more easily allows you to mount your camera in portrait mode on a tripod. Really neat idea!

Panorama shooting. Perfect! That’s exactly how I do it.

We discussed the use of the two card slots in the camera and came to the conclusion that doing a back-up simultaneously was a good idea, and not to use RAW+JPEG, just Uncompressed RAW. Also discussed D-Range Optimiser – only of value for JPEG, so ignore and switch-off. Both of these I’ve done!!! Cunning plan!!

Back-ups are always good! D-Range optimiser is very definitely only for JPEGs so yes, ignore.

We discussed and now I understand why setting Zebras to a higher level means that you don’t apply Exposure Compensation so much as Highlights don’t get shown so much. Cunning plan!!

Zebras. Using a higher value – 90-100% means that the Zebra pattern is only shown when highlights are in danger of clipping. Lower values can fool you into underexposing as the warning is activated for darker tones such as skin.

I was shown, and then realised that you can use the DISP button with the eyepiece to cycle through to see histogram. Duh! You can’t have enough tuition, especially with someone who has the same camera to you.

Use the DISP button both in playback and shooting – LCD and viewfinder – to display different levels of shooting information.

We talked about Back Button Focus – I decided that I was going to give it another go. There may be a case for only using it on a tripod; perhaps not for “walking around” and handheld when you need rapid access to the shot. This I’ve done and the combination of flexible spot and back button is working well for me currently, but I do need a quick way of moving from one mode to the other.

Back button focusing is one of those things you either use all the time or not at all. It’s too easy to get things wrong if you use it for one type of shooting but not another. I’ve done that before… I leave it activated for however I use my camera. However, it’s very much a personal choice.

As an aside, as we chatted and we talked about gear, David mentioned that he uses Meike extension tubes to take Macro photographs when on a photo shoot, rather than a specialist macro photography mission. Great idea, I’ve just had some delivered!

Meike extension tubes are a very cheap way to add close focusing to the 55mm lens and macro capabilities to lenses shorter than 35mm. The build quality isn’t great, but it’s far cheaper than buying a dedicated macro lens.

Great day; I learnt a lot. I hope to spend more time with David when I’m next in the North East.