A series of columns on outdoor photography
The f-Stops Here
When I meet people in the outdoors, the first question I am usually asked is, "Why are you carrying two cameras?" or, "Why are you taking so many pictures?"
by Sharon Watson
Some of my answers:
"In case one quits."
"They're siamese twins."
One May in Baja California, Mexico, a woman asked me, "How come when I look through my sunglasses the world is so much prettier?" Answer: High quality sunglasses often give various tints to the world -- individual forms of "rosy-colored," (though they come in rose, yellow, blue, or brown tones.) One of the most striking changes in view is through the polarized lens (or through the polarized filter for a camera lens).
One spring on Cascade Reservoir in central Idaho, a woman was pretty blunt with her question. Rolling her eyes at the sky, she said, "I don't know why you're taking pictures of ugly old squawfish when we have beautiful trout in here!" My laugh was the only answer she got. I had an assignment from Western Outdoors magazine to do an article on Idaho's squawfish.
Once they decide I'm a "real" photographer, people begin asking about photographic technique and personal puzzlements. These questions make me realize how hard it is to figure out this stuff from scratch! Some recent, useful questions I've been asked are:
Why are my pictures fuzzy when I have 8x10's made?
Blow-ups reveal the true sharpness of a photo. There are all kinds of reasons for fuzzy photos: faint camera movement from "punching" the shutter release, poor quality lenses, grainy, high-speed film (200 ISO and higher, especially in slide film), and getting too close with fixed-focus cameras. Very often, photographers simply don't take the time to focus tack-sharp -- it's tougher than it looks. Even modern autofocus cameras sometimes don't focus fast enough to get a moving shot, or the focus will be sharp, but not on your real subject. Read the instructions for your cameras. And, if you're past age 45, consider having your eyes checked.
Another common focusing error is thinking that a wide-angle lens or a small f-stop (both of which produce great depth-of-field) will make up for sloppy focusing. Avoid shooting at slow speeds with any lens over 50mm. With hand-held cameras, shutter speed should not drop below lens size, for example: 1/125 of a second with a 100mm lens; and shoot at 1/250 - 1/500 of a second with a 300mm lens, etc.)
Using zoom lenses without checking shutter speeds can produce totally fuzzed-out shots. A setting of 1/125 is great for 70mm, but zoom to 210mm and you'd better up your speed!
"Why are my photos less colorful than some of my friends'?"
Different brands of film produce varying degrees of "color saturation." Even within specific brands, faster film speeds (ISO's) reduce color saturation (besides being more grainy). If color is what you want, shoot colorful, slow film. If capturing action is primary, sacrifice color for a higher ISO (film speed).
Why doesn't my camera "compensation dial" make any difference in my photos?
(On some cameras, there is a "plus/minus" dial of some sort which allows you to override the camera's automatic settings. If you have bright sky behind a deer hunter, for example, many cameras' metering systems are not sophisticated enough to "read" the photo right. So, it shuts down the f-stop (lens opening) because of the harsh background light. The final result is your hunter is a black blob. The "Compensation Dial" or button allows you to shoot your subject according to your subject's need for lighting. The Compensation Dial changes the lighting by one to four stops. It's a guessing game, still, but it's fairly easy for you to realize how much more or less light you're going to need. Trial and Error will teach you.)
If using the compensation system on your camera produces no apparent difference in your photos, it is usually because you are shooting print (not slide) film. Commercial processors are often fast and crude in their settings for development. They may inadvertently "correct" your correction. If you suspect this, try having the roll re-developed by a custom processor who emphasizes quality more.
Speedy processors can also "correct" what you tried to do with filters. If you decided to enhance an Idaho sunset with a deep red filter, their quick judgement might be that it looks too red, and so they'll put the picture on a different development setting.
Processors in general are pretty knowledgeable about these matters, and often actually save your photos by developing with compensation for your mistakes!
It isn't until you start shooting slides that you realize how vital filters and compensation systems are. Slides can't be corrected. What you shoot is what you get!