Camera Presets and exposure

The Garden

My current camera is a Panasonic GH1. Having used a range of SLR and finally an Olympus E500 the Gh1 had a range of features such as HD video, swivel screen, 10x zoom and more, which the ‘normal’ DSLR did not have. One feature of the GH1 is its iA (intelligent auto). This is not something that the ‘serious’ camera user would use and so did not influence me one way or the other when deciding to acquire a Gh1. This feature, apparently, requires a lot of processing power and although the camera is relatively very small the space for this processor was found by not having the prism/mirror optical system found on other DSLRs. How it works is by analysing the scene and deciding which set of presets it will apply to take a good photo. And mighty good it is. For example, if I have a landscape framed in the viewfinder, the optimal settings for landscape are automatically set. If a person walks into the scene the settings change to ‘portrait in landscape’ and the appropriate changes occur in a fraction of a second. In this instance it finds the face and changes the focus to the face. Exposure, colour balance, sharpness and a host of other items are changed to facilitate the ‘portrait in landscape’. Likewise pointing the camera at a close object changes the camera to ‘macro’ with all the settings you would need to take a good close up shot. The only manual over-ride is the exposure and this leads me to the point of this post.

I learned photography in the era the ‘film camera’. There were no previews. You discovered if your photos were OK when you had the film processed and the prints made. Furthermore, there were a very limited number of shots on a film roll so you had little scope for extra ‘safety’ shots. Although the technology has changed and become very sophisticated the basic problems are the same.

Of all the auto-settings on the camera which needs to be altered the most, its exposure. You zoom to frame the shot, the focus happens automatically telling you what the camera has decided you need sharp, which is usually correct, the exposure is decided by taking the average of lights and darks and you are ready to release the shutter. You can decide beforehand if the calculations are based on the entire area or a particular part of the screen but the final ‘correct’ exposure is an averaging process. This is the problem.

Learn how to over-ride the assigned exposure settings or manually adjust the settings to achieve the effect you are looking for. In the photo above I underexposed the photo by 1 stop which created an underexposed foreground but correctly exposed the sunshine on the grass showing the shadows from the trees. Without making this adjustment the bright green grass would be ‘burnt out’ and the less important foreground correctly exposed.

You decide what is ‘correct exposure’ based on the information supplied by the exposure meter in the camera. Look at the presets, an example is the setting for ‘snow and beach scenes’. Snow, because of its brightness, will trick the camera into deciding the scene is very well lit so it will reduce exposure, darkening the colour of the snow to a mid grey. If you use the preset, the meter measures the exposure and then over-exposes by about 2 stops to produce white snow. This was an issue this winter as we, unusually, had an extended period of snow. When comparing photos I was asked how was my snow so bright compared to those of my fellow photographers. I over exposed the photos! The preset would have achieved the same effect but many of the ‘digital generation’ of photographers were not even aware that this could be done ‘in camera’ and not afterwards in the computer. There is only so much you can do in an application like Photoshop. ‘Burnt out’ or deep shadow areas of the picture have no details and really cannot be recovered.

This advice is aimed at the amateur casual photographers out there recording as JPGs and will probably seem daft to the experts recording in the RAW format.

I hope you derived some benefit from this little rant.


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