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How a Professional Photographer Uses His Camera

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Related course: Photography for Beginners

I hear a lot of people speak proudly about how they only ever shoot in manual. That inspired me to write this post because, quite frankly, I think it’s a load of rubbish.
Here, I’ll guide you through the way I like to shoot and the different modes I use.
It’s important to remember that whatever works for you and your photography is great. So long as you’re getting the results you want.

Shooting Mode

I should start by saying that I use Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority and Manual modes an equal amount, all for different things. Each has its advantage at different times of day and in different lighting situations.
When I have plenty of available light, I use Aperture Priority.
This allows me to set my aperture where I know it will be sharpest and usually the best depth of field. That’s usually around f/8-f/11, a couple stops larger than the smallest aperture.
Shooting in this mode means that the shutter speed will change accordingly. At longer focal lengths where a faster shutter speed is required to prevent motion blur, this may be a problem. If I have to, I can always widen the aperture.
When there’s less light, I find that it’s best to use Shutter Speed Priority.
This mode allows you to fix an under exposed photo in post production but there’s nothing you can do about a blurry one.
If I’m shooting on a 35mm lens, I like the shutter speed to be around 1/50 of a second but I can hold it still for 1/25 if I need to.
Again, even if the camera’s flashing a warning because there’s not enough light, the aperture will sort itself out and it will still take the photo.
Shooting in low light in manual, your camera tells you that the aperture isn’t wide enough. You need to widen it or slow down the shutter speed. In changing this, you are essentially doing what Shutter Speed Priority was doing for you in the first place.
Manual mode comes out in my camera when I’m in unfamiliar conditions. And, more often than not, when I’m using my flash in the dark or when I’m in controlled conditions.
Here’s an example:
Last night I was shooting with a model. I had my shutter speed set to 1/10, aperture of f/2.8, ISO 640 and my flash compensation boosted by 2ev. I know that, because of the speed at which my flash fires, any motion from the model or any camera shake from holding it unsteadily will be frozen in the image and become insignificant.
This being said, I would suggest that everyone learn on manual mode. It’s like learning to drive a car in manual – the more you learn, the more knowledge you’ll have to help you in the future.
A portrait of a brown-haired girl

ISO

I’ve had mixed feelings about ISO in the past but we seem to be getting along well now.
When I first started out, I knew that high ISO’s make photos grainy, reducing the quality. Back then, that was all I needed to know to not want to go near it.
Now, I’ve come around to the idea of a higher ISO as I work to produce interesting backgrounds in my photography.
I use a low ISO where possible. But, when shooting at night with a flash, I hate having a dark, dull background just because I’m busy relying on my flash to illuminate the subject. Raising your ISO will fill in much more background detail and, in the right conditions, this doesn’t appear too grainy at all.
In low light conditions without a flash, you’ll want to lower your shutter speed, raise your ISO and widen your aperture to produce the most light possible. In my photo below, I shot at f/1.4, for 1/25 of a second at ISO 800 without a flash.
A portrait of a man in a checked shirt lighting a cigarette in the evening

Metering

This is part of the reason that shooting in a priority mode isn’t a problem for me; I pay strict attention to the metering mode that I’m using.
I’ve written a whole tutorial on metering modes but I can tell you now, I only ever use two of them: Evaluative and Spot.
Before I go into detail as to why I use those modes, let’s have a look at the other two modes that I don’t use (Partial and Center – Weighted Average). Partial is basically a larger version of spot metering, which seems a little pointless to me. Center – Weighted Average is like a less intelligent Evaluative metering mode.
Evaluative is the most complex and modern way of metering that your camera will be capable of.
It collects data from across the whole frame and even gives priority to the area that you’re focusing on. The camera will look at a scene and see a really bright area, like the sun, and take that into account when trying to work out the best exposure – this reduces the amount of contrast and silhouettes.
Different names are used by different manufacturers and software but they all do basically the same thing.

A picture of a river at night with a bridge and treed on its left shore
Spot metering is similar to Partial metering, only the dot in the center is smaller: roughly 5% of the frame.
This is good for smaller subjects and I personally use it over partial because I know that any light surrounding the subject won’t be a problem.
It’s a more advanced way of working out the exposure for your camera because it’s metering for such a small area. The rest of the scene may not be correct, leaving it up to you to work that out on your own.
I use this when I only want to meter a small portion of the frame, like when I’m shooting into the sun and don’t want the camera to consider lens flare or sunlight.
A portrait of a red-haired girl half naked in a field of yellow flowers

White Balance

It’s certainly worth mentioning that I only ever shoot in RAW these days. I don’t tend to worry about my white balance too much. This is because I can fix it in post with very little work.
I leave my camera on AWB (auto white balance) to capture the majority of situations. Then I fix whatever needs fixing later.
On occasion, I will switch to Shade or Cloudy but I find that the presets aren’t often accurate enough, or the weather changes too quickly for it to be worth it.
The only other mode that I use on a regular basis is Tungsten; I spend a lot of time using my camera inside in the evening, such as down the pub.
In these sorts of conditions, you’ll typically find that the only light source present is a tungsten light. It’s nice to deal with that then so that you have less work to do in post.
The WB that I use massively depends on the lighting so this may be different for you, I just very rarely find myself working with fluorescent light.
When I’m shooting in RAW working with A model, I carry a grey card around my neck and get my model to hold it up to the camera every time the lighting changes.
My post production software allows me to use the colour picker to choose it as my neutral grey. This is a lot easier and less time consuming than doing it manually.
If you don’t understand much of what I’m writing about here, I strongly suggest going back to read the WB post which has been linked across this page.
A portrait of a brown-haired girl at night on the beach near a port

Flash

First things first, I have not used a pop up flash in years.
Don’t touch it.
Just stay away from it.
Replace your flash with an external unit – the difference is clear. I go into this in much more detail here if you’re interested.
Looking past that, I use my external unit in three main ways: fill light, off camera to produce depth, and to light up a room or subject.
I almost always try to diffuse the light or bounce it off of something where possible. This makes the lighting appear a lot more natural.
I speak in detail about fill flash in my posts on shooting into the sun and fill flash.
It’s basically a really good way of fighting with digital camera’s relatively poor dynamic range. You get to fill in the light where it’s needed. This works even better when you take your flash off your camera.
Off camera flash is another topic I’ve written in depth about recently. I use it when I can as it creates a much more realistic look adding depth to the photo.
It can be a little tricky balancing my camera and lens in one hand, whilst trying to position the flash with the other but I make it work where possible.
If I’m out on a shoot with a model, it’s a lot easier. I bring two flashes with me, set up on tripods to make the photos look better.
A portrait of a brown-haired girl sitting on wooden steps with two white umbrellas on either side of her
Lastly, I use the flash to illuminate my subject. Or I use it to bounce the light about a room so that the subject is well lit. Where possible, I try to bounce the light but it’s not always that simple.
I took the photo below with the flash bounced off the ceiling. This provided enough light to set my aperture to f/4.5.
A group picture of six women posing and smiling into the camera

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5 comments
  1. Hello…your photos are simply amazing…I’m a jewelry designer that is fascinated with photography…I primarily take photos of my pieces but I do take the odd one of something that catches my attention! My problem is I don’t know how to use my camera properly…it is basically a point and shoot but I can do some adjustments just don’t know how and at the moment don’t seem to have the time to learn…
    Hopefully your work will inspire me?
    Enjoy the day…
    Cheers

  2. You’ve nailed it on the Modes discussion. If you have technology at your disposal, the best thing to do is learn to utilize it properly. On a leisure day with snaps I’m all about the Program mode with not much thinking. When I shoot with strobes, it’s almost all Manual. Tricky lighting will like hard sunlight situations will often take me to Manual as well.
    For beginning food shooters, one great way to ruin many photos is to rely strictly on autofocus. Get over it, override the Auto and learn to turn the focus ring in Manual focus mode. It’s not that hard, and gives you more control over your composition.

  3. great stuff josh, those photos are amazing,this blog will definitely become bigger than you even expected, its so professional.I’d like to know what theme you use and where you get those photos. please reply men or send me an email, thanx.

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