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Thinking Prepixel

Think before you shoot

Digital cameras are so technologically advanced that it can be easy to forget that they have limitations which keep us from getting the best photos possible. In order to get the best shots, we need to start thinking prepixel.

Julia Viers
Russell Viers
November 27, 2023
10 minute on Manual

“I can fix that in Photoshop!”

I’m sure you’ve said it. Well, I’ve said it. I’ve heard other people say it. I guess I’m just assuming you’ve said it, as well.

The problem with “I can fix that in Photoshop,” as a lifestyle choice, is that not all photos can, in fact, be fixed in Photoshop. And even if they can, many simple “fixes” take longer than just getting the photo right in the first place and the quality isn’t usually as good as it could be.

If we’re not trained photographers, or we get a new camera and want to dive right in, it’s so easy to just put a camera on AUTO and let it do the work. Point> Shoot> Download> Place> Print. The hardest thing to remember is to keep the battery charged and the card empty.

And as these cameras get more and more advanced, it’s amazing just how much AUTO can give us. Even in low light, nowadays, we can grab a photo that is workable. Sometimes I shake my head in astonishment at what I can capture with such little effort.

But then you go out and photograph your first snowy day…or a sunny day at the beach…or the school play with all of the weird lighting and you realize that AUTO isn’t going to work. 

Other situations where you realize quickly that AUTO is going to let you down includes things like when auto focus chooses something different to keep sharp than what you had in mind, when your camera is choosing exposure based on the sunny parts of the photo instead of the shadows, and things like when the camera chooses to keep everything in the image in focus instead of blurring out the background like you’d hoped.

A lot of these scenarios are fixable in Photoshop…some not. Again, fixable, or not, had you just gotten the shot you wanted when you pressed the shutter, you’d be closer to the finish line. 

Thinking Pre Pixel

So let’s talk about the importance of pre pixel in our newspaper production world. I promise not to get on a pedestal here, as I’ve learned these lessons the hard way. I have hard drives full of really bad photos and I’ve pushed myself to learn how to capture better ones.

And by pre pixel I mean everything you do before pushing the shutter button and the camera grabs the photo and turns it into pixels on the card. 

It’s impossible to give a complete photo training course in this one column, so I’ll just share a few things that have tripped me up when I try to rely on AUTO, instead of learning how to use more of the camera’s controls. 

Auto Focus Control

I just bought a new camera that is KILLING me with the autofocus. I am totally willing to accept that it’s smarter than I am, but it still can’t read my mind. It even has face tracking…for humans and pets, believe it, or not. But when I tested the feature out on my grandson doing gymnastics, the fact that he wears a mask confused it, and it preferred focusing on the girl behind him in line…most of the time. It was also confused when I wanted to shoot photos of him with some of the equipment blurred out in the foreground.

In short, learning the different ways your camera focuses and when to use which feature is huge in getting the most out of your camera. Do you want it to set the focus with a single spot that you can control (my preference), have it look at a wider area, or have it just make the choices for you? Knowing that you have choices, and testing them all out to see what works, is a game changer if you want to use autofocus.

And if you shoot sports, knowing how to change your camera’s focusing mode from a single shot focus scenario to a “moving target” scenario, is massive. On my Canon they call one “One Shot” and the other “AI Servo.” Other brands have different names, but the difference is that with the one shot, once you hold your shutter button down, your camera focuses and it stays that way. With the other (AI Servo on Canon), the camera will continue to focus as the subject being metered gets closer, or further away. We need to use both, for different types of events, so it’s important you master this.

And don’t forget that it’s okay NOT to use auto focus, when you need to.

Understanding ISO

Being able to bump up the ISO on your camera so that it is more sensitive in low light situations, is great…to a point. There’s a price to be paid for that, and that price is noise, or some call it grain.

The lower the ISO, the sharper the photo (assuming you’re not ruining your photo by overcompressing the photo as a jpeg). It’s that simple. And each camera has a different point where the noise gets annoying. Over the years I’ve had several digital cameras and I had to learn what that number was for each, and try to stay below it. Newer cameras do much better, but there is still noise added the higher you set the ISO.

So if you’re scratching your head wondering what I’m talking about, then, perhaps, your ISO is set on auto and it’s just going high without your knowing what’s going on. One thing I like to do with a new camera is try all sorts of lighting scenarios, then, if I see photos that are getting noisy, I look at the file’s camera info in the metadata and see what the camera set the ISO on. If it’s too noisy for my tastes, and the ISO is 2000, I know not to let it go beyond that. And in that scenario, I don’t use auto ISO, anymore…I set it myself.

Yes, noise can be reduced in Photoshop, but then you lose sharpness. You just can’t have it all, it seems.

My new Sony allows me to set the maximum ISO I will allow auto to go to, which is a great feature. I currently have the max set at 20,000, because I’m still testing it. I’ll dial that down one of these days, I’m sure.

Auto Exposure

If you’ve ever shot a soccer game on a sunny day using auto, you probably had a high percentage of shots that were usable straight from the camera, with little, or no, adjustment. I love those days.

But on that same sunny day, if you shot soccer for a game, then shot a baseball game, you probably noticed a huge difference between the two sets of photos when looking at the players’ faces.

Why? Hats!

On those sunny days, if you want to see eyes under the bills of the hats, auto exposure doesn’t really work. The same can happen with any activity where there are high contrasts. Sports like lacrosse and football as well as outdoor activities where people are wearing hats or the photos have a mix of shadows and sun. It can be tricky.

If you’ve felt the pain of downloading lots of photos that had the potential of being great shots, but were ruined because important parts of the image were too dark, or too bright, you’re not alone.

This is one example of where auto exposure won’t work. Others include shooting kids sledding in the snow, or skiing, or a sunny day on the beach or sometimes even activities on concrete. The extreme whites can sometimes have your camera making the subject of the photo, the part you really want to show, too dark.

Learning how to use your camera on the manual settings, so that you control what the aperture, shutter, and ISO are set at for the lighting you’re aiming for, can make all the difference in the world. I suggest you practice that every chance you get.

However, if you’re new enough to photography that setting your camera manually is a bit daunting, may I suggest you learn how to use exposure compensation. In many cases, this simple, little change on your camera can save your photos.

Take shooting in the snow, for example. Your camera wants to set your exposure at X, but you want the photo lighter than that. Instead of just hoping to fix it in Photoshop, open your camera a bit by adjusting the exposure compensation to let more light in than the camera wants to on auto. So you’re on auto, but with a little more control from you. Just remember to set it back to 0 after you’re done with that lighting situation.

Buy the Book

There are a lot of other things we need to learn to help us capture a better photo, instead of hoping to fix it later, but these are the big ones for me. I was so comfortable with my Canons as I’ve learned how to set them over the years, but this new Sony is driving me nuts. There are so many features and settings that either my other cameras didn’t have, or the names were different, so I’m kind of starting from scratch with it.

And the manuals with these cameras aren’t much help, really. I would suggest buying a book on how to use your camera. Not just a general photography book, but one written exactly for the model of camera you’re shooting. And if you’re shooting an older camera, you might find the books you need on eBay for a bargain.

I’ve learned there are two huge benefits from this. One is, they explain how to use the camera in your hands and two, they explain how to use it in the context of taking better photos, not assuming you are an expert.

So if it’s explaining how to set the aperture, for example, they not only show you how to change what F stop you’re shooting at, they explain why and how it can impact your photos.

I just ordered a couple for my new Sony. And I can guarantee you that my next set of shots will be better than the last and, as time goes on, I’ll rely less and less on Photoshop to do my homework for me.

“I can fix that in Photoshop!”

I’m sure you’ve said it. Well, I’ve said it. I’ve heard other people say it. I guess I’m just assuming you’ve said it, as well.

The problem with “I can fix that in Photoshop,” as a lifestyle choice, is that not all photos can, in fact, be fixed in Photoshop. And even if they can, many simple “fixes” take longer than just getting the photo right in the first place and the quality isn’t usually as good as it could be.

If we’re not trained photographers, or we get a new camera and want to dive right in, it’s so easy to just put a camera on AUTO and let it do the work. Point> Shoot> Download> Place> Print. The hardest thing to remember is to keep the battery charged and the card empty.

And as these cameras get more and more advanced, it’s amazing just how much AUTO can give us. Even in low light, nowadays, we can grab a photo that is workable. Sometimes I shake my head in astonishment at what I can capture with such little effort.

But then you go out and photograph your first snowy day…or a sunny day at the beach…or the school play with all of the weird lighting and you realize that AUTO isn’t going to work. 

Other situations where you realize quickly that AUTO is going to let you down includes things like when auto focus chooses something different to keep sharp than what you had in mind, when your camera is choosing exposure based on the sunny parts of the photo instead of the shadows, and things like when the camera chooses to keep everything in the image in focus instead of blurring out the background like you’d hoped.

A lot of these scenarios are fixable in Photoshop…some not. Again, fixable, or not, had you just gotten the shot you wanted when you pressed the shutter, you’d be closer to the finish line. 

Thinking Pre Pixel

So let’s talk about the importance of pre pixel in our newspaper production world. I promise not to get on a pedestal here, as I’ve learned these lessons the hard way. I have hard drives full of really bad photos and I’ve pushed myself to learn how to capture better ones.

And by pre pixel I mean everything you do before pushing the shutter button and the camera grabs the photo and turns it into pixels on the card. 

It’s impossible to give a complete photo training course in this one column, so I’ll just share a few things that have tripped me up when I try to rely on AUTO, instead of learning how to use more of the camera’s controls. 

Auto Focus Control

I just bought a new camera that is KILLING me with the autofocus. I am totally willing to accept that it’s smarter than I am, but it still can’t read my mind. It even has face tracking…for humans and pets, believe it, or not. But when I tested the feature out on my grandson doing gymnastics, the fact that he wears a mask confused it, and it preferred focusing on the girl behind him in line…most of the time. It was also confused when I wanted to shoot photos of him with some of the equipment blurred out in the foreground.

In short, learning the different ways your camera focuses and when to use which feature is huge in getting the most out of your camera. Do you want it to set the focus with a single spot that you can control (my preference), have it look at a wider area, or have it just make the choices for you? Knowing that you have choices, and testing them all out to see what works, is a game changer if you want to use autofocus.

And if you shoot sports, knowing how to change your camera’s focusing mode from a single shot focus scenario to a “moving target” scenario, is massive. On my Canon they call one “One Shot” and the other “AI Servo.” Other brands have different names, but the difference is that with the one shot, once you hold your shutter button down, your camera focuses and it stays that way. With the other (AI Servo on Canon), the camera will continue to focus as the subject being metered gets closer, or further away. We need to use both, for different types of events, so it’s important you master this.

And don’t forget that it’s okay NOT to use auto focus, when you need to.

Understanding ISO

Being able to bump up the ISO on your camera so that it is more sensitive in low light situations, is great…to a point. There’s a price to be paid for that, and that price is noise, or some call it grain.

The lower the ISO, the sharper the photo (assuming you’re not ruining your photo by overcompressing the photo as a jpeg). It’s that simple. And each camera has a different point where the noise gets annoying. Over the years I’ve had several digital cameras and I had to learn what that number was for each, and try to stay below it. Newer cameras do much better, but there is still noise added the higher you set the ISO.

So if you’re scratching your head wondering what I’m talking about, then, perhaps, your ISO is set on auto and it’s just going high without your knowing what’s going on. One thing I like to do with a new camera is try all sorts of lighting scenarios, then, if I see photos that are getting noisy, I look at the file’s camera info in the metadata and see what the camera set the ISO on. If it’s too noisy for my tastes, and the ISO is 2000, I know not to let it go beyond that. And in that scenario, I don’t use auto ISO, anymore…I set it myself.

Yes, noise can be reduced in Photoshop, but then you lose sharpness. You just can’t have it all, it seems.

My new Sony allows me to set the maximum ISO I will allow auto to go to, which is a great feature. I currently have the max set at 20,000, because I’m still testing it. I’ll dial that down one of these days, I’m sure.

Auto Exposure

If you’ve ever shot a soccer game on a sunny day using auto, you probably had a high percentage of shots that were usable straight from the camera, with little, or no, adjustment. I love those days.

But on that same sunny day, if you shot soccer for a game, then shot a baseball game, you probably noticed a huge difference between the two sets of photos when looking at the players’ faces.

Why? Hats!

On those sunny days, if you want to see eyes under the bills of the hats, auto exposure doesn’t really work. The same can happen with any activity where there are high contrasts. Sports like lacrosse and football as well as outdoor activities where people are wearing hats or the photos have a mix of shadows and sun. It can be tricky.

If you’ve felt the pain of downloading lots of photos that had the potential of being great shots, but were ruined because important parts of the image were too dark, or too bright, you’re not alone.

This is one example of where auto exposure won’t work. Others include shooting kids sledding in the snow, or skiing, or a sunny day on the beach or sometimes even activities on concrete. The extreme whites can sometimes have your camera making the subject of the photo, the part you really want to show, too dark.

Learning how to use your camera on the manual settings, so that you control what the aperture, shutter, and ISO are set at for the lighting you’re aiming for, can make all the difference in the world. I suggest you practice that every chance you get.

However, if you’re new enough to photography that setting your camera manually is a bit daunting, may I suggest you learn how to use exposure compensation. In many cases, this simple, little change on your camera can save your photos.

Take shooting in the snow, for example. Your camera wants to set your exposure at X, but you want the photo lighter than that. Instead of just hoping to fix it in Photoshop, open your camera a bit by adjusting the exposure compensation to let more light in than the camera wants to on auto. So you’re on auto, but with a little more control from you. Just remember to set it back to 0 after you’re done with that lighting situation.

Buy the Book

There are a lot of other things we need to learn to help us capture a better photo, instead of hoping to fix it later, but these are the big ones for me. I was so comfortable with my Canons as I’ve learned how to set them over the years, but this new Sony is driving me nuts. There are so many features and settings that either my other cameras didn’t have, or the names were different, so I’m kind of starting from scratch with it.

And the manuals with these cameras aren’t much help, really. I would suggest buying a book on how to use your camera. Not just a general photography book, but one written exactly for the model of camera you’re shooting. And if you’re shooting an older camera, you might find the books you need on eBay for a bargain.

I’ve learned there are two huge benefits from this. One is, they explain how to use the camera in your hands and two, they explain how to use it in the context of taking better photos, not assuming you are an expert.

So if it’s explaining how to set the aperture, for example, they not only show you how to change what F stop you’re shooting at, they explain why and how it can impact your photos.

I just ordered a couple for my new Sony. And I can guarantee you that my next set of shots will be better than the last and, as time goes on, I’ll rely less and less on Photoshop to do my homework for me.

Author

Russell Viers

Third Chair Trumpet

I'm just a guy who was lucky to have made MANY mistakes creating files since 1987...and learning from those mistakes. Always trying to find a better way, I've learned the techniques you see in these videos on real projects over 35 years (plus many more doing paste-up).

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