Photography: Study in Light


Why is it important to learn how to use your camera’s manual controls to shoot photos of your models?

Because when it comes to model photography, digital cameras are dumb as shit.

Your Dumbass Camera

The automatic modes in digital cameras – be they point-and-shoots, DSLRs, or the camera in your smartphone – are programmed for lifestyle photography. Dogs and toddlers and selfies and your food at that restaurant that was overhyped. They’re prepared for that kind of shit, and increasingly, excel at it.

The daughter, courtesy of my Samsung Galaxy S8+

But when we shoot our models against uniform backdrops, these smart-at-the-everyday auto modes lose their shit. The see a great swath of white and they think “OVEREXPOSED!” and so they underexpose. Likewise, they see black and they overexpose.

This leaves you with photos that are either blown out or murky, depending on your backdrop of choice.

To demonstrate this, I took a few photos of the recently-completed X-Wing. Two with manual settings, and two with the camera flipped into aperture priority.

With aperture priority, my aperture and ISO remain constant, but the camera is free to select the shutter speed it thinks is best.

White and Underexposure

In aperture priority, here’s what my Nikon decided to do with a white background.

Aperture priority: ISO 100, f/32, 0.5 second exposure

Murky. Underexposed. Shit.

Now, with the camera flipped back into full manual control, I set the shutter speed to 1.6 seconds. Seems like forever, right? Well keep in mind that I’m shooting with a 60mm lens cranked all the way to f/32 (for greater depth of field for the MiG-23), and at such a small aperture, the camera needs a lot of light.

Full manual: ISO 100, f/32, 1.6 second exposure

That’s more like it. Though the white background isn’t particularly flattering to the X-Wing.

Now, let’s look at black backgrounds.

Black and Overexposure

When a camera in an automatic or semi-auto mode sees the expanse of black backdrop, it thinks everything is too dark, and so it adjusts accordingly.

Aperture priority: ISO 100, f/32, 3.0 second exposure

To overcome what it thought was severe underexposure, the Nikon went with a whopping 3-second exposure, and in so doing, blew out all the drama of the X-Wing.

Now, with manual control and back to the 1.6 second sweet spot:

Full manual: ISO 100, f/32, 1.6 second exposure

That’s more like it. The black backdrop fades out, the highlights on the X-Wing are tamed, and the nuances of the grungy surface emerge.

Shoot in Manual!

When you’re shooting on a backdrop, do yourself a favor and shoot in manual. If you’re stuck with a smartphone, snag the Adobe Lightroom Mobile app and use its camera. You can’t do much with aperture, but you can control ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation. You can also shoot in RAW (well, in DNG, which is Adobe’s RAW format), and if you have Lightroom on your computer, you can set up automatic syncing and all that jazz.

And if you do have a real camera that has real manual controls, once you get them dialed in, you can come back to them over and over again with clean, predictable results.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. ted upcott says:

    I use a simple aim and shoot. The white back ground would turn reddish and the model would also be out register. I switched to black, and got the same over exposure as you did. I’m now using a light blue with much better results. This is with it used as a back drop and no light booth.

  2. Scooter says:

    I seem to remember back in a long ago photo class, unless you were shooting black and white, a light to medium blue background was usually preferred. But that was so long ago you had to know what a 4X5 Speed Graphic was, and how to time the developer fluids-sigh
    Good Post, cute kid, cool model Thanks

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