The past month had me photographing in a lot of unique situations. There were the epic fireworks at the W.Va. Capitol, that Super-moon, and a less than safe drive down the Highland Scenic Highway.
The overwhelming question I kept getting about these images was: How did you get that? Speculations were made about Photoshop and Lightroom tricks and various filters, none of which were used. In fact these images took very little post processing. It must be the camera you say, nope, I have gotten very similar results with my wife’s Sony NEX5N, which is under $400.
If you are asking yourself, "Why am I not getting what I want?" or "Why don't my photos look like that?" I will try and give you my best two guesses. First and foremost, I use a tripod for the majority of my photos and when I don’t I make sure that there is enough available light to blast at least a stop over and still have a fast enough shutter speed to handhold. It has been my experience that most amateurs don't expose their image with enough light and handhold in situations that they shouldn’t. The former is more often than not an overconfidence in the meter and an underdevelopment in the twelve inches behind the camera. You have to understand the way the meter evaluates the scene. Your scene recognition system has to be more advanced than the cameras.
Let me take you inside my brain if I may. These are some of the questions I ask myself when shooting and they all need to be answered in a millisecond. Is the depth of field of the desired depth? Is the shutter-speed sufficient to give sharpness? What is the subject and background tonality? How will the meter miscalculate subject and background tonality? What adjustment is needed to correct the meters error? Can I bump the iso to fix everything? hint here... Then of course once one correction is made the list has to be re-asked.
Those are just a sampling of the questions I ask myself in a shooting situation and they are just on the exposure side of the list, but lets not stray topic for this post so on to chimping. What is chimping? Chimping is when a photographer checks the shot on the LCD. More questions you say, no, I’ll use the machete for the rest and cleve out my mind-thicket. Chimping is when every shooter normally should admit to themselves, man I suck. It is very rare I look at the back of my camera and say nailed it, but when I do the camera is usually on a tripod, big hint here... The shear volume of bad pictures that I take is clogging up about 95% of my hard-drive space. You have to admit to yourself you suck and move on, simple as that, just keep shooting and adapt or die. Take a look at the photo you just took, admit to yourself all the ways you blew it and try to correct them as best you know how.
Let us fix those exposure problems shall we... First, check that histogram out on the camera back, its the thing that looks like a white mountain you hit by accident the other day and thought your camera was broken because it wouldn't go away. You want that white mountain as far to the right as possible while still having a downslope before the edge. If you see a camel-hump looking mountain then turn off your cameras HDR mode and that explains a lot of the reason you are here. You might have to bump your iso up once you start getting that mountain to the right to keep that shutter speed at an acceptable duration.
A good rule of thumb is to shoot with a faster shutter speed than the focal length of the lens you are using. So if you are using a 50mm then you need at least a 1/50th of a second shutter speed right? ✓ The camera salesman probably told you that the lens has VR and you can handhold a lot more now. Ask the camera salesman if that VR also stops the motion of whatever it is you are shooting, it doesn’t so the old rule applies.
That new camera you bought does have one thing that will help, a low noise high iso ceiling that allows you to bump the iso to an insane level. So crank that iso up for todays ultra high-speed world where that photo you just shared can go from Brazil to Beijing faster than the speed you shot it at. Unless you are planning on print it the size of your flat-screen then let her rip, sharpness is more important than noise now.