A Newbie Photography Guide by Another Newbie – How to Focus Properly and Select the Best White Balance
Dec 14th, 2010 by AhYap
More and more people are shooting with SLR today. If you are new to SLR camera, how and what you should learn FIRST?! Photography is a never ending learning process but for beginners, there are things that are more useful to learn first before anything else.
As a newbie myself (owning an SLR since March 2010), I am surprise to find that most teaching materials for beginners are “exposure”. But after what I have gone through, I think the first thing to learn for a new SLR shooter is not exposure but something else.
Exposure is something more technical and dry. Taking pictures are supposed to be fun, so as the learning process. I believe the best way to learn, is to start shooting immediately, come home, get disappointed and upset because your pictures don’t come close to anything seen in the magazine, and while blaming the camera for AF issues and suspect you get a bad copy, you start to admit that it is your own problem…
STEP #1 – LEARN HOW TO NAIL THE FOCUS
Please don’t bother about exposure (yet). Leave your aperture, shutter speed and ISO a side. Just set your camera to Aperture Priority (Av) mode and set it to the smallest number and shoot everything from that setting. I will explain why later.
Now, the first surprise many beginner SLR shooter encounter is that they notice their shots are not as sharp as their snapshots from the cheap point and shoot camera! How the heck it can be. You spend more money on the bigger and heavier SLR and it get lousier pictures than your compact camera?!!!
Point and Shoot camera doesn’t require you to have good focusing skill because no matter what you do (ok, unless you know how lar), you will have everything sharp from the foreground to the background! But for SLR, you have a choice to decide which part of the picture to be sharp and which part to be blur. I think you know that!!! That is the reason why we want an SLR, we want some part of the picture to be blur!!! Which I think you know is called bokeh. I repeat, most of us upgrade to SLR from compact because we want the creamy bokeh!!! [And this is the reason why beginners should shoot everything with the smallest number aperture to get the maximum bokeh to play/enjoy with]. Come on, you are paying for the bokeh man!
So the very first thing to learn is not exposure BUT how to focus so we can decide which part of the picture to be sharp and which part to be blur. When you bought your new camera, it will come with a default setting that assume you are an idiot (which is a good assumption) and so all the settings are meant to be used by idiot (especially the little green box icon). You won’t need to set anything. The camera decide everything for you. How cool!
Depending on what brands and what model, your camera will have different number of focus points for you to use. Most Canon models come with a 9 point auto focus system including the high end 5d Mark II (sob.. sob…).
Now in idiot mode (default factory setting), the camera will decide which points to use. “Usually” it will focus on the nearest subject. For example a girl with very huge breast, the breast is nearer to the camera so it will focus on the breast instead of the face. So the breast is sharper than the face. [Don’t laugh, this is true, just go to any forums with newbie shot on car show models. But some told me it is their intention to focus there and not miss focus...]
This is call something like “multi points selection”. There will be a lot of hit and miss, we want full control of the focusing so we will work another way round.
If you are shooting a crop sensor camera (Canon 7D and below, Nikon D300 and below, all Olympus and Pentax…) and you are using a zoom lens, forget about the extra focus points, you don’t need them, the more is not better here. All you need to do is to change to single point selection and just use the center point for all your shots and use the 1 million year old strategy known as FOCUS and RECOMPOSE.
[Something to ponder: Just because your Ferrari can speed to 300kmh doesn’t mean you have to… Just because you have 49 focus points doesn’t mean you need to use them all…]
Using the center focus point, you point at the subject you want to be sharp (face or breast, your choice) and half press your shutter button to FOCUS. Then you RECOMPOSE your picture by moving your subject to anywhere you want in the frame and fully press the shutter to complete the shot.
I have tried this on a few thousand shots and can nail down the focus 100% of the time [ok lar, 99%]. Why focus and recompose work? Because crop sensor has less “blur” (bokeh) than full frame technically and the best zoom lens has the maximum aperture of 2.8 [most others only 3.5 to 5.6] and so the “blur” is not strong enough to make your shots off focus using this method.
Focus and recompose won’t work when your gears has autofocus issue technically [no method will work other than sending back for service]. Focus and recompose becomes tricky when you are using Full Frame cameras (5d2, d700…) or when shooting with primes with very big aperture like the 50mm f1.8.
But since you are newbie, it doesn’t matter now. Just use the center point and do focus & recompose, focus & recompose, focus & recompose… and start to get impress with your 100% success rate.
STEP #2 – LEARN HOW TO USE WHITE BALANCE
As I said earlier, exposure is not the first thing you need to learn to shoot good picture, it is how to focus so you can decide which part of the picture to be sharp and which part to be blur (bokeh/soft/whatever term).
The second thing to learn is still not exposure yet, it is white balance. White balance (WB) can make a dramatic difference to your picture. But again, if you rely on
Idiot Auto White Balance (AWB) setting to do the job for you, you will scratch your head and wonder why your shots are not as nice as other people.
White Balance is also known as Color Temperature. What you need to know is that YOU as the photographer must decide whether you want the picture to be more ORANGE/YELLOW or BLUE. It is called color “temperature” because it lets you decide if you want your picture to feel more warm [orange/yellow] or more cold [blue].
Camera white balance settings have funny names like shade, cloudy, tungsten, etc… that doesn’t tell you exactly what they do. Disregard of the name, they either do 2 things – add more orange/yellow or add more blue!!!
Shade – Add lots of orange/yellow
Cloudy – Add some orange/yellow
Daylight – Neutral, add nothing
Tungsten – Add lots of blue
Fluorescent – This one weird a bit, it adds something like magenta mix with something else… beginner just forget about this first.
Now here comes the MAGIC for you to shoot great pictures better than your friend who bought the camera together with you!!! In daytime shooting outdoor, do not use AWB but choose either cloudy or shade. It will add a warmer feeling to your picture that will instantly look better than AWB. Human skins look a lot better when they are warmer.
As a photographer, you want to take good pictures, not correct pictures. AWB might give you the correct white balance, but it didn’t give you the good white balance. We as photographers don’t want to fall in the trap of "correct” white balance, we are artist, we want the “creative” white balance, the one that make the picture POPS.
Now, testing your understanding, if you are shooting a sunset, what white balance should you use? Tip: what color do you want to add to your picture? More tips: You can only add 2 colors, Orange or Blue? So which one?
Add ORANGE. I hope you get it right. Which setting give you the most orange to add? SHADE!!! Set your white balance to SHADE and you get beautiful orange sunset!!! If you have shot with AWB, you may be so disappointed that you will want to sell your SLR the next day on lelong.com.
Do you know why all the kung fu movies like Ip Man and Wong Fei Hoong can give us a kind of vintage/retro/back-in-time kind of feeling? Because the movie creator add ORANGE (warm) to the movies. Because old movies has this orange tint, new movies made with this orange tint will immediately “trick” our mind and bring us back in time. Black & white and sepia tone have the same effect. There is no color in old pictures and movies. So they always felt vintage to our mind. Steven Spielberg best Oscar movie Schindler’s list is made in black and white! Why? Trick your mind to feel back in time.
At night under tungsten light, everything appear very orange. Our eyes will tune to it and won’t notice it. But once you put it into a picture, it will be very orange. So if it is very orange what color do we need to add to “balance” it? BLUE! We want to add blue. So we choose the “tungsten” setting.
But due to too many types of tungsten light in the world with totally different type of orange… the best setting when shooting indoor at night, is still using the idiot mode – AUTO WHITE BALANCE. Wakaka. It can get the white balance better than manually selecting tungsten or fluorescent.
Another example of creative white balance in action.
KKTan won the best picture of 2009 in PhotoMalaysia competition which this WOWing picture. Everyone will WOW. If you have shoot this scene with AWB, you won’t get the WOWing effect. So now, tell me, what color do you need to add to the picture? What is the best white balance setting to add that color? TUNGSTEN!!! You need to add a lot of BLUE. You use TUNGSTEN!!!
Good camera will allow you to select the exact color temperature you want in Kelvin, small number means more blue, large number means more orange. If you dial in say 10,000K to it, you will get very orange sunset.
Shade, Cloudy or Tungsten are just labels and they are actually just a Kelvin number. Depending on camera brands, Shade is around 7,000k, Cloudy 6,000k and Tungsten 3,500K. If you manually select your temperature as 7,000k, you get exactly the same result as choosing shade.
Camera makers have labeled them with names on when you should use it, shade when sky is shady, cloudy when sky is cloudy, etc. But it make more sense to understand what they do, as simple as “how much orange or blue do you want to add to your picture?”
And now if you look at your pictures (either on the LCD screen at the back of your camera or your computer) and notice that the picture looks BLUE, you now know you need to add in some ORANGE (warm it). On the other hand, if it appears ORANGE, you need to add in some BLUE (cool it).
All beginners will shoot in JPEG unless you are those geeky one. JPEG still allow you to fine tune your white balance in post processing (with computer software like ACDSee Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, etc). Once you start to shoot more and appreciate the fact that white balance can make a dramatic difference to your picture, you may want to consider shooting RAW because RAW allow you to change your white balance later in post processing, which means you have 1 less thing to worry about when shooting. But still, for beginners, start with JPEG first and move to RAW when you understand why you need it because for everything you get, there is a price you need to pay, same for shooting RAW.
You see, for beginners, exposure doesn’t matter (yet), to let you fall in love in photography more, you need to be able to shoot more beautiful pictures quickly (at least better than your old point and shoot) and to do that, you need to know how to focus properly to get sharp picture (along with some bokeh, keke) and choose the most creative white balance to make your picture pop.
More to come later!!!