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Your Camera Might Be Clever, But it is Not Intelligent

Your Camera Might Be Clever, But it is Not Intelligent

by Donald Clark
Courtesy of The Crafts Report

 

The auto-exposure mode setting, found on every camera, from professional digital single-lens reflexes to tiny compact cameras, is the bane of my existence. I hate it, and I'm on a one-man campaign against its use. It is the bugaboo at the heart of the e-mails I get from craftspeople concerning problems with their digital images. I see images of work taken on white backgrounds that look muddy and gray in the photos. The artists complain that they are not getting into shows with these photos. The problem with these photos is that they were made with cameras set to auto-exposure mode.

Crafts photography is all about control. When you shoot in auto with the camera making all the decisions, you forfeit that control.

Crafts photography is all about control. When you shoot in auto with the camera making all the decisions, you forfeit that control. Despite modern digital cameras--and devices like iPhones and iPads--that are marketed as "smart" and have auto settings with names like "Intelligent Exposure" or "Favorite Exposure" (usually with a cute little heart icon), they are not.

Let me quote from the website of the Canon Camera Company, which is perhaps the leading manufacturer of professional digital cameras in the world: "Your camera might be clever, but it is not intelligent. This is especially true of the exposure metering system. All the metering does is measure the brightness of the light that is passing through the lens."

Thank you, Canon. I want to see this written on T-shirts and tattooed on the foreheads of anyone who thinks that buying an expensive camera makes them a photographer. Canon knows that even its magnificent professional cameras are about as smart as ball peen hammers.

The idea that cameras are smart is propagated by marketing and salespeople, but really the whole idea creates a "lazy-cam" for people who simply do not want to think about their picture taking. Sure, you can shoot your artwork in auto with your iPhone, but you do so at your own risk.

Cameras lack awareness and do not know whether they are pointed at a raku pot in a coal bin or a white lace scarf on snow. They simply measure the overall light level and choose an aperture and shutter speed. For good measure, in auto they can be exceedingly annoying, popping up their pop-up flashes and destroying the ambient light.

Taking control of your camera is very simple. On the top of your camera is a big exposure mode dial. It sits on the right-hand side of the top deck, where film cameras once had their shutter speed dials. These dials are large because they are the basic camera control, and manufacturers want to make sure you can find them. On the dial, you will see--auto, P, A, S, and M--the basic exposure modes for photography. In the auto mode, as I said, the auto-exposure system will select both a lens aperture and shutter speed and will change the ISO speed setting if it sees fit. In auto, you, the photographer, relinquish all control and are out of the picture, so to speak.

On this camera, tapping the =/* button brings up a scale on the monitor. The setting is changed by turning the thumbwheel.

On this camera, tapping the =/* button brings up a scale on the monitor. The setting is changed by turning the thumbwheel.

On many cameras, the exposure compensation button is on the toggle array.

On many cameras, the exposure compensation button is on the toggle array.


The "P" stands for the "programmed" setting, which is a lot like auto, except that it lets you change the metering choice of aperture and shutter speed. P is better behaved than auto, as it will use your ISO setting and refrain from incessantly flashing the flash. "A" stands for aperture priority, which means you select the lens aperture, and the metering system selects the shutter speed. "S is for shutter speed priority, and that means that you select the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture. "M" is for manual and, here, the photographer sets both aperture and shutter speed.

There is also an icon on the exposure mode dial that is not an exposure mode at all but the setting for videos. Ironically, it looks like a silent movie film camera. Some mode dials have other icons, too, but most are not really useful, just marketing "features," rather.

For crafts photography, I strongly suggest that you set the exposure mode dial set to A, the aperture priority setting. In this mode, the lens aperture setting will appear on your monitor. To change the setting, you use either the toggle controls on the back of the camera or a thumbwheel somewhere on the body. However it is done, set the aperture control to f/8 or, if you can, f/11 or f/16. Once you have set the lens aperture, the exposure metering system will select the shutter speed to use. With basic crafts lighting, using an ISO of 400 or 800, you will probably find the shutter speed to be a comfortable 1/30 second or faster.

Using a small aperture is critical. It ensures that your work will be completely in focus. In auto mode, the apertures selected are usually "wide open" settings like f/4. At these apertures, there is a shallow "depth of field" or area of sharpness. Photographing three-dimensional objects requires large fields of sharpness. When there is insufficient depth, part of your work can be thrown out of focus. This happens with objects like large ceramic bowls and with tiny earrings, too.

So shoot in A and set a small aperture.

Now we get to my favorite camera control--exposure compensation. Here's how this works: Put a pair of earrings on a white background. Because there is a lot of white space around the earrings, after reading the light and dark areas of the scene, the metering system will end up underexposing the picture. The metering system has no way of "knowing" that it is facing a white background rather than a bright light. And whether you are in auto, P, A, or S, large areas of white or black background will throw the metering off. The result is that the white background goes gray and the more white space there is, the darker gray it will be.

On this exposure mode dial, despite the IA (intelligent auto exposure) being highlighted in red, the A setting for crafts photography and the P for general photography are far better choices.

On this exposure mode dial, despite the IA (intelligent auto exposure) being highlighted in red, the A setting for crafts photography and the P for general photography are far better choices.

On this camera, a Fujifilm X10, the dial below the exposure mode control is the very easy-to-use exposure compensation control.

On this camera, a Fujifilm X10, the dial below the exposure mode control is the very easy-to-use exposure compensation control.


That's where you come in. Paraphrasing Canon, you may not be as clever as your camera, but you are intelligent. In my example, seeing that the white background has gone gray, you use the camera's exposure compensation control, to add exposure to the image.

The location of this important control varies. It can found on the camera body as a button marked +/- or, as on Canons and other high-end cameras, in the camera menu. Using either a thumbwheel or the toggles, you use the setting to override the exposure metering system choices and fine-tune the exposure.

Here's how it works. If the exposure compensation control is set to +1 stop more exposure, in the A mode it will change the shutter speed by a stop, perhaps from 1/60 of a second to 1/30 second. This longer exposure makes the whites whiter. Exposure compensation controls generally make changes in 1/3 stop steps. Experiment with your camera until you get a sense of how it works and how much compensation you need to use.

Remember that this applies to dark backgrounds, too, although now the metering system "sees" not enough light and overexposes the image to "correct" it. This washes out the background and lightens colors. To repair this, set the compensation control to -1 or -2/3 to get the blacks back to black.

Taking control of exposure works for general photography, too. Since the camera doesn't know that snow is white or that a lake is deep blue, it will get the exposure wrong. Remember that your smart device is only as "smart" as the intelligent person using it.


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