D7100 and AF-P DX 70-300 VR on an Airshow

Aero India is a biennial air show that takes place on an airfield on the outskirts of Bangalore. As per Wikipedia, it’s the world’s largest air show after the one in Paris. I first came to know of it when a friend of mine armed with a Nikon D70s and a non-VR 70-300 f/4-5.6 came back with some fabulous shots way back in 2007. Ten years later, I got to visit the show with a Nikon D7100 and an AF-P DX 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G VR.

You might already be aware of the fact that AF-P lenses don’t play nice with older cameras like the D7100. I had the choice of mixing and matching between D7100, D3300 bodies and AF-P 70-300 VR or AF-S 55-300 VR. Having tried out all four combinations, I settled for D7100 and AF-P 70-300 VR. Wondering why? Here’s why:

D7100 vs D3300

First off, let’s talk about why I chose the “incompatible” D7100 body instead of the fully compatible D3300. It’s not about IQ. Both have comparable 24MP sensors and I shot 12-bit on D7100 (more on that later). It’s actually about AF.

D3300 has a 9 point AF system whereas D7100 has 51 points. More than the number of AF points, though, it’s the possibility of AF-C with d9 (set point + 8 surrounding points) tracking AF that puts a big gap between the two bodies. I don’t have a 39 pt body like recent D5xxx or a D7000, but both of them offer d9 tracking mode, so I expect them to perform similarly. With a really long lens and high speed action, d9 mode helps in holding focus more reliably.

I did not use d21 or d51 because one, the direction of motion of aircraft is highly predictable, thereby making it less difficult to keep them positioned at the active AF point. The other factor is that the D7xxx line has a really low resolution matrix meter (2016 pixels), which makes it difficult for the camera to know what the subject is. See slides 6 through 8 of this dpreview slideshow to know more.

The other thing missing in D3300 is the ability to enable back-button AF. I normally use the shutter button to trigger AF, but when I’m shooting with telephotos, there’s nothing better than the agility afforded by BBAF. I have saved a custom setting (U1/U2) on the D7100 for BIF (Bird In Flight) shooting that switches to BBAF, among other setting changes.

55-300 VR vs AF-P 70-300 VR

Despite it’s super slow AF speed, I have shot quite a few BIFs with the 55-300 VR.

Eyes on You
Black Kite. D7100 with 55-300mm VR at 300mm

That VR bit is rather useless, though, since at the shutter speeds I use for BIFs, (1/1000s – 1/2000s) it’s more of a hindrance to smooth panning and tracking than a benefit. The inability to disengage VR on the AF-P 70-300 VR with the D7100 was a significant downside making me strongly consider going ahead with 55-300 VR.

What did switch me to AF-P 70-300 VR, though, was its responsiveness in tracking. And it’s quite sharp at the long end compared to 55-300 VR. A couple of days before the airshow, I tested the new zoom’s tracking ability. It yielded some convincing shots, even with the D3300. But that was with VR turned off.

D3300 & AF-P 70-300
Black Kite. D3300 with AF-P DX 70-300 VR at 300mm

The Air Show

I was quite certain of using the D7100 for the air show, but I still had doubts over the lenses, so I carried both. When I reached the venue, I tried a few settings with both the lenses, finally settling for the newer model.

One of the problems that plagued me was that I had to be really conservative with bursts, owing to the limited buffer of the D7100 despite using U1 95MB/s cards. That slowed me down quite a bit but not enough to actually eat up all 24 GB (16+8 GB) of memory I had available, in less than 45 minutes! I switched to a regular Class 10 card to continue capturing the SAAB Gripen that was roaring through the skies. Bursting? No way. Any good shots? Sure, like this one:

SAAB Gripen
SAAB Gripen. D7100 + AF-P 70-300 VR at 285mm

In the few minutes I got between Gripen’s landing and the next show by Suryakirans coming up, I switched from 14-bit raws to 12-bit, formatted both my fast cards and decided to start from scratch as I had another 3 hours of the air show left, with repeat performances from some of the aircraft that I missed.

Once I got settled with the settings and got into a shooting rhythm, it was smooth sailing from there on. I did wish for a few things to be better with the lens, though.

Loss of Focus on Zooming

Possibly the biggest frustration with this lens in the field was loss of focus on zooming. The lens was reasonably fast to acquire focus while the aircraft was at a distance or taking off. It also held focus admiringly well while the aircraft was on approach, even at high speeds like the F-16 Falcon that put out the fastest show with the widest stage of all. However, as the aircraft got close enough to start clipping the frame at 300mm, I tried to zoom out but lost focus in the process.

Rafale | Get a Good Look
Dassault Rafale. D7100 with AF-P 70-300 VR clipping the frame at 300mm

This happened every time I tried. Though it re-acquired focus in a second or two, it seemed like eternity and it was pointless anyway, since I was trying to time the shot precisely as the aircraft was right in front. As a result, I had to shoot at a shorter focal length and crop later.

F-16 Falcon | Approach
F-16 Falcon. D7100 with AF-P 70-300 VR at 250mm, cropped to 500mm FX equiv.

VR Interference

The other problem I faced with the lens was with VR staying on all throughout. While panning in a straight path was less of a hindrance, though it surely was, the bigger issue was with smaller aircraft performing quick direction changes. The VR caused my adjustments to lag, leading to a jarring experience. I could also not get panning shots at slow shutter speeds to get some motion blur in aircraft propellers.

Scandinavian Airshow | Viking
airshow.se Viking. D7100 with 70-300 VR at 300mm. Frozen propellers.

Vignetting & CA

The lens exhibits CA and also vignettes very badly at 300mm, even at f/8 – f/11 apertures that I was using. This is a big problem while shooting against a uniform background such as clear sky. As of this writing there’s no lens correction profile for this lens in DxO Optics Pro (my raw editor of choice) so I had to use manual vignette and CA correction, which too were not satisfactory enough.

Long End Sharpness

I was highly interested in shooting the aircraft at the moment of switching direction while they were the farthest away from the show area. Many such shots were encumbered with heat haze, but of the ones that weren’t I found that there was quite some loss of sharpness at 300mm, compared to the shots at approx. 250mm.

Rafale | Twist
Dassault Rafale. D7100 with AF-P 70-300 VR at 277mm, cropped to 800mm FX equiv.

User Errors

Along with the lens shortcomings, I should also mention that I spoiled some shots out of my own mistakes. The most stupid of these was jerking on the shutter button! Despite many years of shooting experience, I still found myself spoiling some long shots that needed precise timing, due to the nerves. If I had the ability to burst at will, I could have mitigated some of it. Times like these are when one would also wish for a heavier lens, which the AF-P 70-300 VR is not by a long shot.

Conclusion

When out shooting fast action like an airshow, the D7100’s slow buffer and the AF-P DX 70-300mm VR’s niggles leave one wanting for better. However, for anything that allows a bit more breathing space between shots, the 70-300mm VR is a very satisfying lens and should make a very compelling sports combination with a compatible D5xxx body, given the price.

As for me, despite some gear anxiety and in-field fumbling with multiple issues, it was an experience that I enjoyed a lot. For the next time, though, I have committed to an upgrade to 128GB of SD cards, a D7200 and a 70-200mm f/4 VR.

To see more of the interesting aerobatics, please have a look through my Flickr Album.

Aero India 2017

From Shooting RAWs to Shooting JPEGs

To Shoot RAW or JPEG?

I have been shooting photographs regularly for over 7 years now. I spent the first year shooting with a 2 Megapixel phone camera. Since then, however, I’ve almost always had RAW capable cameras and shot RAW compulsively. And why not? I get 16x or 64x more colour depth than JPEGs. I don’t have to bother about setting the right white balance, contrast or sharpness. I don’t have to choose between monochrome and colour at the time of shooting. I can figure all of that out on the computer during RAW conversion and even try out different settings for the same picture at my leisure. Why would I give up all this and shoot JPEG?

Continue reading “From Shooting RAWs to Shooting JPEGs”

My Imaging Tools and Workflow

As my photos get backed up and burnt on to a DVD, I thought I might just do a quick cataloguing of the software I’ve found useful for developing my photographs and what each does. I’d also outline my workflow as I present each software in the order in which it appears in the workflow. Just to set the context, I use Microsoft Windows 7 for my imaging tasks, and my camera is a Nikon D90, so I do use a lot of Nikon software.

File Management and Archival

1. Nikon Transfer (Freeware)

This is the program that detects photos on external media and transfers them to a local disk or other external media. I’ve tried connecting the camera through its own USB interface and through the built-in card reader on my computer, but I find that the San Disk card reader that came with my Extreme III card gives the fastest throughput. Anyway, so Nikon Transfer is launched when the SD card is inserted and the nice thing about this software is that

  1. It allows simultaneously downloading the photos to a secondary location, which in my case happens to be just another disk partition but can also be an external USB drive (I’m contemplating doing the latter, going forward)
  2. It detects which photos have already been transferred from a batch and skips those (configurable)
  3. It allows manually selecting the photos to be transferred. I don’t normally use this option but I’ve needed it once or twice so I thought it might be worth mentioning.

My folder hierarchy for transferring these photos into is like this:

Camera Model/Name > Year > MonthNumber-MonthName or EventName

E.g. D90\2010\09-September, or Vesper\2010\MulaniWedding, etc.

The RAW files get dropped directly into those folders and the converted JPEGs go into a subfolder. I drop the camera-wise separation for permanent archival.

2. Nikon View NX2 (Freeware)

ViewNX 2 is a recent release from Nikon and Nikon Transfer now comes bundled with it. ViewNX 2 allows rating and tagging photos, while also allowing for conversion of RAW files into JPEGs or 8/16-bit TIFFs. It has also started offering the basic photo editing options that are available in Nikon cameras’ retouch menu. I primarily use it to select the photos that I want to develop. The way it allows files to be compared at 100% zoom and the way it can filter the film strip on rating ranges makes it extremely easy to do so. Here’s the rating system that I’ve evolved for myself over the months:

  • 5 Stars: Awesome snap! Convert, retouch and upload to Flickr. Send for a medium/large print too.
  • 4 Stars: Awesome snap! Convert, retouch and upload to Flickr. Send for a small/medium print too.
  • 3 Stars: Good snap. Convert and retouch. Likely upload to Flickr. Maybe send for a small print.
  • 2 Stars: Acceptable snap. Convert, maybe retouch. Unlikely to be uploaded to Flickr or printed.
  • 1 Star: Not that great. Just meant for keeping. May not even be converted to JPEG.
  • 0 Stars: Delete.

Please note that while I ruthlessly delete items based on the star rating assigned as above, I do it only on the primary working copy. The backup copy is always there, just in case I need to revert on my decisions. It doesn’t happen often but on the rare occasion that it does, it’s good to know that you’ve got all the shots with you.

When I’m done with all the processing, etc. for a month or few months, I copy the finished and shortlisted content to a more permanent backup solution (DVDs, in my case).

Image Development

Nikon Capture NX 2.2.4 ($180): This software is all that I use for developing my images. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  1. It’s arguably the best converter for Nikon’s RAW files, giving rich tones, smooth gradations and excellent detail
  2. It recognises all the camera settings used while taking a photograph and applies them as a starting point while developing the image
  3. It has in-built lens correction features like distortion control, CA control and vignetting. Really awesome to have this if you’re shooting with Nikon’s own lenses
  4. It’s got the U-Point controls that make selective retouching really really easy, without requiring you to drop into complex layer masks, etc., which I could never get the hang of
  5. It saves all the development and retouch settings right within the NEF file. The ability to retain the exact settings used to create a JPEG is amazing!
  6. It supports multiple edit-versions of the same file. You want a full colour as well as a monochrome version of the same snap? Sure, your NEF can carry multiple sets of editing steps all in itself
  7. I’ve come to love the very functional interface. Though a lot of people say it’s not as great as Aperture or Lightroom, I disagree. I’ve tried LR3 and I didn’t like it as much as CNX2. Yeah, batch conversion is a pain so if you do a lot of batch conversions, you might have to get something else or use View NX2 if you can live with its glacial speed of conversion and limited retouching support.

Specialised Development

While Capture NX 2 handles development and retouching of single images, some times you need multi-image solutions for panoramas and HDRs. Here are the tools I’ve found useful for these applications:

1. Picturenaut HDR Imaging (Freeware)

Picturenaut HDR is not the best HDR creation software out there, but it gets the job done for me. On the positive side, it’s got a very simple interface and it’s very fast. On the negative side, it doesn’t do image alignment too well (despite the option being present). If you want the super-saturated, artificial-looking, sick HDR shots, just select “Bilateral” tonemapper, set saturation to the max, set contrast to the min and you’re done. I don’t like that, so my workflow is a wee bit more involved.

My HDR workflow is to create 16-bit TIFFs from the bracketed shots and “Neutral” Picture Control setting via View NX2. I then load the TIFFs into Picturenaut and through some juggling with “Adaptive Logarithmic” global tonemapper. Flying by the histogram (I’m now pretty good at interpreting histograms cool), I get the HDR tonemapped as best as I can. The output is saved into another 16-bit TIFF. I load that TIFF into Capture NX2 for local enhacements and, thanks to the 16-bit depth, I get to recover amazing detail and colour from the shadows, if needed.

2. ArcSoft Panorama Maker 5 Pro ($80)

While trying to make this panorama out of 14 images, I spent hours breaking my head with Hugin. Hugin is Free Software, and it’s supposedly highly capable. I would’ve recommended it but unfortunately, it failed to work for me on MS Windows 7 (64-bit). ArcSoft’s Panorama Maker 5 Pro is a nifty little tool. All I had to do was feed it my 16-bit TIFFs and click one button to generate the panorama! Since panorama stitching doesn’t give a perfectly rectangular image, the tool offers a crop suggestion to crop out all the jagged edges and thereafter you can save your panorama.

I saved it as a 16-bit TIFF again, and retouched it in Capture NX2 to remove some issues caused by uneven exposure in the source images. Oh yeah, remember to always lock focus, white-balance, picture control mode and exposure (aperture, ISO, shutter speed) while taking multiple shots to make a panorama. This tool also includes a little tutorial on capturing individual shots for a panorama. Thoughtful.

3. HDR Alignment Tool v2.0 (Freeware)

Since Picturenaut doesn’t do a great job of aligning bracketed shots, I found this neat tool that allows you to put 2 control points on a pair of images and then re-aligns them. If you have a bunch of images, you need to set 2 control points for each pair in the sequence (1-2, 2-3, …) and this tool will finally yield an aligned stack or re-aligned individuals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t to TIFF output.

Honourable Mentions

While the above mentioned software is what I’ve used so far, here are a few honourable mentions to conclude the post:

  1. Flickr Uploadr for Windows/Mac OS X: Excellent tool for managing your Flickr uploads. Never upload a photo without the right title, description or permissions!
  2. UFRaw: Before moving to Capture NX 2 and Windows, I used Ufraw for my NEF conversion. It’s an excellent tool, but the underlying dcraw converter doesn’t do a great job handling colours and noise reduction. If GNU/Linux or F/OSS is your thing, UFraw is highly recommended.
  3. The Gimp: Also for F/OSS buffs, the Gimp is a highly capable image editor. I suppose it’s indispensable for any imaging workflow on Linux that involves non-trivial retouching.

Creating Hand-held HDRs

On my recent vacation, I took a bunch of bracketed exposures to turn into HDRs. Before this trip I only used a tripod for bracketing. This time around, however, I had to deal with hand-held bracketed shots. To make things a bit worse, these shots included foliage, which isn’t always stationary between shots. Picturenaut utterly failed to align these images. I tried Luminance HDR (qtpfsgui) for Windows 7 (64-bit), and it simply kept crashing. Then I tried Hugin, which too failed to do much. Besides, it was extremely confusing since it is a tool for stitching panoramas, with HDR and alignment being a part of the whole.

Finally, I found HDR Alignment Tool — a free Windows utility for aligning multiple images using manually selected control points. Following is a screenshot of what the tool looks like.

HDR Alignment Tool

There’s a selection of input files at the top, and the output preview in the bottom right corner. The “In”, “Out”, “1:1” and “Fit” buttons are zoom settings for either the source images all together, or for the output preview. “CP1” and “CP2” refer to the control points and allow centering on the chosen control point.

The default selection of control point locations and the resulting alignment aren’t great, so just relocate each of them manually and fine-tune the alignment by visually inspecting the sharpness of the output image near the chosen control point. It’s cumbersome, but it works pretty well. The tool also includes some lens correction features but I didn’t use them, instead making Capture NX2 apply lens correction while creating the source JPEGs. Oh, let me now get to the workflow, which is a bit involved since HDR Alignment Tool doesn’t work with TIFF or RAW files.

  1. Load each bracketed exposure in Capture NX2.
  2. Ensure that all exposure parameters (white-balance, etc.) are the same, apply any other pre-processing steps (lens distortion correction, in my case) and create JPEGs.
  3. Open the JPEGs in HDR Alignment Tool, carry out the alignments and save the aligned JPEGs. By default, the tool will append “Aligned” as a suffix to the file name for distinction.
  4. Open the “*Aligned.JPG” files in Picturenaut. Apply the desired Tonemapping. Save the tonemapped output as a 16-bit TIFF.
  5. Load the TIFF back in Capture NX2, apply post-processing (tilt, sharpening, colour adjustments, etc.) and finally save the HDR JPEG.

The following photo is one example of the manually aligned HDR that I created. Creating one HDR took me about 20 minutes, after I got all things sorted out. The bottomline, however, is that its best to avoid these acrobatics and directly shoot with a tripod if you’re intending to create HDRs. You never know when you might want to create an HDR, so the second thing to remember is to always carry a tripod where possible… or get a Sony NEX-5 😉

Terrace & Garden

Capturing Rain

A tutorial on how to shoot rainfall with a digital camera.

With the monsoons doing their usual thing and I having the luxury of a not-too-bad view of the rains, I had been itching to capture a shot of the rain in all its glory. Earlier this year I made a capture that brought out the rainy-ness in the scene but didn’t have any rain as such.

Online research about shooting the rains didn’t bring much enlightenment because there’s no “formula” for making rain shots. It all depends on what you want to portray. For me, that would be about the prominence of the falling streaks of rain. All I knew was that I had to shoot a somewhat low shutter speed for that.

This Sunday, there was a brief spell followed by a longer shower, and I jumped at the opportunity (you don’t keep your camera nicely packed and hidden in your closet, do you?). The only thing I knew was that I had to shoot at 1/60s in Shutter Priority (S) mode. All of the first spell went in experimentation with other settings and by the time I got the hang of it, the rainfall had thinned out. Thankfully, it returned even stronger, so I got a nice shot, but in case you only get a brief opportunity, here are my observations that might help, right after the photograph I got.

It Rains. It Pours

  • Mind Your Background: The streaks of rain are most visible when they capture the light of the sky and there’s a dark background to contrast them against. Foliage works as the best background, both due to its dark colour and because the trees look so different when they’re wet, thereby adding to the “feel” of the photograph. In most cases, if you can see the rain, so can the camera.
  • Don’t Use Cloudy WB: If you’re shooting RAW and you play with WB settings while developing, you’d notice that using Cloudy/Shade WB makes the rain streaks almost disappear. This is because the rain-drops are visible only because they’re reflecting the sky and Cloudy WB tends to flatten the sky colours. If you shoot JPEG, this is the make-or-break setting. I used Daylight/Sunny setting for the above shot.
  • Over-expose and Pull: There is not much dynamic range in a rainfall scene. To get a nicely contrasty and colourful photograph, expose to the right and then pull back the scene while developing (e.g. adjust your black point to the extent that you begin seeing some dark spots in the photo). The above shot was made at +2/3 EV over-exposure. This only works if you’re shooting RAW.
  • Mind the ISO: Some times, the scene may become so dark when it’s raining that the camera may not be able to give a good exposure at 1/60s, even with maximum aperture. Watch out for signs of this (e.g. if the aperture reading in your Nikon’s viewfinder says, “Lo”) and bump up the ISO. The above photo didn’t have this problem but some other shots required ISO-400 at max aperture (~ f/5.6).
  • What Aperture? The above shot is made at f/5.3 but I got decent shots up to f/11. Seems like aperture doesn’t make a huge difference.

So, go ahead and try creating your own rain streaks. If you find any of the above tips helpful or not helpful, do drop a me a comment.

Happy clicking!

Shooting in the Dark

Digital sensors have made a lot of progress on the light efficiency front. The Nikon D3s sensor, currently the most efficient sensor available, offers amazingly clean images at crazy high ISOs. Something that film shooters could only dream of. There is still some time, however, before a D3s calibre sensor makes it to consumer bodies. Meanwhile, it will help knowing the tips and tricks of shooting in the dark for the win.

Gear

Before proceeding further on the topic, I’d like to say that the best thing to do is simply not shoot in low light. Most low light situations can benefit hugely from an off-camera speedlight bounced from the ceiling or walls. This essentially involves placing a large external flash like the SB-600 somewhere out of your field of view (your camera’s hot shoe is also a good candidate) and pointing it toward the ceiling. You can now happily shoot at ISO 200 and enjoy good, clean images with soft pleasant lighting. The following shot of pizza toppings was made at f/5.6, ISO 400, 1/60s in ambient light provided by 2 11-watt CFLs. Without the flash, this shot would have had less tonality, more noise and perhaps motion blur (corresponding flash-less settings would be something like ISO 3200, 1/8s).

Pizzascape

The other very important piece would be a lens that has a large aperture, i.e. at least f/2.8 or larger. The AF 50mm f/1.8 D Nikkor aka Nifty-Fifty is a good, inexpensive purchase. Beware, though, shooting at very wide apertures places a big ask on focus accuracy because the DoF at large apertures might become too thin to be workable. Auto-focus systems also tend to perform poorly in low light. One useful tip for shooting people with wide apertures is to try and focus on the near eye — eyes are easier for AF systems to lock on, and it gives a natural guide for the viewer of the photograph.

Despite having the best gear, you still might end up in situations where you can’t do anything but bump up the ISO and face the lack of light. That’s where some of the following techniques will help.

Taking the Photographs

1. Exposure vs. ISO

The first time I was faced with shooting in low light, the camera metered some terribly low shutter speed like 1/20s at ISO 640, which is tough to shoot with even in low light. I decided to under-expose by a stop at the same ISO to get up to 1/8s because I didn’t want to hit the limit of the ISO range at 1600. Higher ISO = More Noise, right? Yes, provided the exposure is comparable in both. Under-exposure results in even more noisy photos. My shots from the above-mentioned sequence were all wasted. Here’s a noisy, under-exposed shot. Do you want to guess what ISO the following shot was made at?

Electro-forking-daemon

ISO 100! You can see the effect of -5 EV under-exposure on the noise even in this small version. It would print really horrible on 6″x4″ paper. When you have to choose between underexposing and bumping up the ISO to get to a desired shutter speed, always go for higher ISO. An underexposed, low ISO shot is almost always more noisy than a properly exposed high ISO shot. Here’s another shot where I chose to over-expose +2/3 EV even at ISO 1600, to allow good tonality and saturation. The result speaks for itself.

Tandoori Burra Champ

2. Auto-Focus

Another area that suffers badly in low-light is auto-focus. Most AF systems try to lock in on edges that they find under the focus points where the boundaries appear the sharpest. This turns out to be difficult in low light because the difference in light intensity between light and dark parts of an edge are reduced. Having a speedlight like the SB-600 helps here, because it projects a focusing grid on to the field of view (much like the red grid you might see in supermarket barcode readers). If you find your hardware failing, you could try some of these tricks:

  • Zoom-in; Focus; Zoom-out: This works if you have a zoom lens that’s not “varifocal“, i.e. its focus doesn’t change while zooming in and out. The trick is to zoom all the way in, acquire focus — either manually or automatically — and zoom out to the frame you want. Most of the modern SLR zoom lenses are parfocal. I know that the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR Nikkor works.
  • Focus and Recompose: Sometimes, we would like to focus on a subject that’s not contrasty enough for AF or manual focus to work. In this case, it might be helpful to focus on a more edgy object at roughly the same distance and recompose. The results are iffy, though. Also, if you are not able to verify exact focus through the camera view-finder, chances are that your photograph would pass on as fairly in focus, anyway.
  • Live View: Most new DSLRs now support Live View feature. Live View can help you a lot when trying to focus manually. Turn on Live View and zoom all the way in on the view. Since you’re zooming in on the image preview and not on the lens itself, this trick works even with non-parfocal lenses. I made the following shot using the same technique in fading daylight. The AF was being tricked too often by the bushes and rubble, and generally being unable to cope with the fast moving bird.

Li'l Birdie

3. People Shots with Slow Sync Flash

One of the most frustrating experiences in low-light shooting is blurry people shots. When your shutter speeds drop to levels below 1/20s, asking people to stand still also doesn’t help. You end up needing to try something else. You also can’t pop the on-board flash because

  1. it gets into people’s eyes (not a problem with ceiling bounce), and
  2. it doesn’t bring out the ambient light properly, leading to an unpleasant photograph.

Issue #2 can be solved by using the flash in “Slow Sync” mode. In this mode, the flash fires for a short time (1/60s) but the shutter stays open for as long as it would have opened without the flash. You can choose whether the flash fires in the beginning of the exposure (Front Curtain Sync) or toward the end (Rear Curtain Sync). Why would you use slow sync instead of just shooting without flash? Because it de-emphasises motion blur that occurs while the flash is not on and captures a sharp outline when the flash pops.

While shooting people in slow sync mode, Rear curtain sync works better than front curtain for two reasons. One, people don’t notice a snap until the flash goes off. In front curtain, they tend to think that the snap is done when the flash goes off and let go of their pose while the shutter is still open. This leading to blurry shots.

Secondly, rear curtain captures motion in the forward direction. You get to see the final position of a moving object most prominently, which is more natural than seeing the starting position of an object and seeing a blur in its later direction of movement.

While using slow-sync, just always remember to disable pre-flashes by using FV lock to determine exposure. You want your flash to fire exactly once, and toward the end of the exposure, to get people to instinctively comply with the slow shutter. You might also want to use an orange colour gel in front of your flash if you don’t want the people to appear blue while shooting in incandescent light. Here’s a 1/8s full-on action shot of my friend strumming on the guitar, taken using this technique. If you look carefully, you could reveal a lot more motion blur than what is apparent in first glance. That’s the rear sync advantage!

Ambar and the Guitar

4. Camera Stability

One of the easy ways of success in low light is to be able to use slow shutter speed, at least for relatively still subjects. The problem here is that slow speed results in camera shake. It is, therefore, important to learn how to have a stable grip on the camera. I myself, took a very long time getting this right. Part of the reason is that people talk about this aspect very infrequently on forums. Part of it is that you only get the information in bits and pieces. I’d invite you to go through this excellent blog post on how to make a “human tripod”. Supporting the camera: holding with your hands.

One of the techniques I often apply when faced with camera shake is to burst a series of shots. Chances are that one of those shots will be sharp. It frequently happens to be the first in the series and I find bursting for more than 2 seconds to be a waste. The following is a 1/4s shot made using a Canon PowerShot A630 P&S in burst mode.

More Nikon D80 Switches

That’s it for this article. It still talks about shooting at high ISO and it is inevitable that you’ll get noise in such shots. In the next post, I’ll talk about development techniques that would help you reduce the apparent noise, beyond just pushing the NR slider all the way up. Oh yeah, you’re shooting RAW, aren’t you? 😉