Most beginners photographic mistakes are easily avoided. Basic familiarity with camera settings and a review of them before shooting will eliminate many of the fundamental errors that are easily made when learning to become a competent photographer. An astute observer will have already noted that it is entirely possible for an amateur to take pictures that are indistinguishable from those of a professional photographer. The main difference between the two comes from the reliability with which a professional can recreate those pictures and settings with accuracy. A large part of this professional ability is familiarity with equipment and practice.
While I do not claim to be a professional photographer, or indeed even a particularly talented amateur, I do usually “know” my camera. That is to say that after a period of familiarization with a new piece of kit, I can usually make it do what I want without having to think about it too much – the process has become subconscious. However, like most photographers I have areas that I know well and am comfortable with and areas that I have little experience of. Portrait photography with flash is one of those areas I know little of.
Push Your Boundaries and Grow as a Photographer
Operating outside our comfort zones is how we grow as photographers. The price we pay for this growth is paid for in mistakes. Ideally we make this payment in private and not while standing in front of a client. This is why we should always practice a technique until it has become automatic to us.
Well, even though I know that practice and familiarity is necessary, there are times when things still go wrong and I recently had one of those times. The reason familiarity with gear and settings is so important is that it enables you to set things up correctly under pressure (real or imagined).
Portrait Photography for Charity
I had been invited to take photographs and assist in setting up a new website for Lama Lhakpa Yeshe. He is a lovely, happy man and I want to do the best job I possibly can in photographing him as he is in daily life. A stiff, formal, portrait just would not be appropriate. As he is a Tibetan monk I thought that it was important to show him in context with how he lives his life. In this case the photograph was taken indoors in front of a domestic Buddhist shrine. I was acutely aware that I was in another persons home and setting up in a sacred space, as such I wanted to nail the exposure quickly and get out of the way as fast as possible. The pressure was entirely mine – lama would probably have allowed me to take all day and smiled at my worrying all the time.
Anyway, I set up and shot some test frames on manual. The initial frames looked OK in the LCD and so I asked lama to join me. Below is the resulting final shot.
In my hurry to set up I had forgotten to properly assess the background. A harsh shadow behind lama and also to the right is clearly visible. This is a typical beginners mistake with flash. The problem is not that the shadow is there, the problem is that the shadow is unintentional and distracting. Once I had viewed the image at home on a larger monitor I decided to ask lama if I could retake the picture. Thankfully he obliged and a return visit was scheduled.
Ignore Pressure and Make Sure to Check Your Settings
The second time in the shrine room I was still setting up when lama walked in and asked if I was ready to go. Not wanting to cause delay I said “Yes” when the answer really was “No” and so committed another amateurs mistake. I fired off a test shot and “chimped” it (looked at the LCD screen). The test shot was perhaps three stops overexposed. How could that be? I was shooting the camera on manual, with manual flashes. The camera and flashes were on the same settings…. (so I thought)
At this point what I should have done was explain that I would need a minute or two and check my camera settings thoroughly, but I was aware that this was already my second attempt. Instead I winged it and reduced the flash power while rationalising that I must have misremembered the previous settings on the flashes.
What had actually happened was that the cameras auto-ISO setting was turned on. I had previously been shooting available light in woodland, where auto ISO is useful. Sadly on a Nikon D7000 when you select manual, auto-ISO remains operational and I was unaware of this fact. The reason I did not know this simply comes from a lack of experience. What I should have done is turn this setting off and select IS0 100 as in the first portrait shot.
As you can see the second shot shows no background shadow behind lama, but is showing pronounced noise as it was taken at ISO 1600. The difference between ISO 100 (normal setting for portraits with flash) and ISO 1600 is four stops. As I tend to expose about a stop under when on manual, this explains nicely why my test shot was three stops overexposed. If I had thoroughly checked my camera and set up this would not have happened. Similarly, if I had more experience of shooting portraiture with flash the mistake would have been obvious and easy to correct.
Of course none of this is critical. No one has died. Some people might like these two shots.
Learn from Your Own Mistakes and Those of Others
So what next? Go with the first picture that I consider flawed as the background shadow is distracting? Take the second picture with no shadow, but high noise as it was taken at ISO1600? Or perhaps embarassingly have to ask for a third shoot in order to get it right?
One thing is certain whatever happens: I will not make this mistake again.
Most likely I will eat some serious humble pie, ask to shoot it a third time and make damn sure I get it right. Failing a client, even a charitable one, is just not an option.
My aim in setting up this site was to help others learn to take better photographs. It is for this reason I post this “howler” from a day in the field. It is my earnest wish that while perhaps giggling at my own mistakes you make fewer of your own, or at least have the courage to tell your client “Hang on please. I need a minute to check my camera settings!”