Al's Not Home

Canon cameras have several ways of deciding where to focus (these have to do with the focus spots), and two ways of deciding how to focus.

You call the latter “focus modes”, and there are two: “One Shot” and “AI Servo”.

  • One Shot means that the focus locks (you hear a beep and as long as you keep your finger on the shutter, that distance remains locked.
  • “AI” is A I, as in “Artificial Intelligence”, not “Al” as in “Alan”; and a servo motor is a closely controllled motor with feedback loop. So that mode just means “continuous focus”.

One Shot is for static subjects. AI Servo is for moving subjects,like these:

I shot that yesterday, for the local newspaper. So since the young lady would not stand still, I had set my camera to AI Servo mode.

Spending vs investing

People often ask me “what should I buy?”

Interesting question, and one that occupies all of us.

To answer it, keep in mind that cameras will last for no longer than as little as seven years. Even Chuck Westfall of Canon said the other day:

“…digital cameras are no longer repaired by manufacturers seven years after the end of production”

Keep this in mind when deciding to invest. Realistically, five years is the most you’ll keep a camera. Less, usually: something cooler will become available next year.

Lenses are a different story. Lenses, especially good lenses like Canon’s “L”-range, will last you for decades and will keep much of their value for most of this time.

Buying cameras is spending; buying lenses is investing. Get the fastest (lowest “F”-number) lenses you can get, and enjoy.

Remember: when considering a lens, the lower the f-number, the better. Lower F-numbers (like f/2.8) mean the lens has more glass and lets more light in. In practice a lower f-number means three things:

  1. You can use the lens in lower light
  2. You can get faster shutter speeds
  3. You can blur the background more

So look at your lens.At the front. It says “1:3.5-5.6″, doesn’t it? That’s a kit lens. Ideally, you want a lens that says “2.8″ or maybe “4″, meaning f/2.8 or f/4.Or maybe a fixed 50mmlens — 50mm f/1.8 is very affordable and stunning quality.

Anyway – what you should buy is up to you. I would put “good lenses” first and put useful accessories, like light shapers, flashes, spare batteries, etc high on the list also.


Let there be light.

Please. Light. I dream that one day the newspaper will send me to shoot something where there is actual light.

Tonight, two shoots where no flash was allowed (or possible). I started with a recital. Church. Not possible to move – I had to stay where  I was and not in the best place. And no flash.

So that meant that to get acceptable shutter speeds (1/125th sec on a 200mm IS lens, which ias as low as you can go, really) I had to use 1600 ISO at f/2.8, which is just OK on the 1D MkIII:

Not too bad. Thank God for f/2.8 lenses. Why do I pay $2,000 for my lenses? This is why.

Then it got worse. Rush to get to the next appointment: Tennis. And indoors. And in very low light. To see the ball and to freeze action I needed 3200 ISO – and even then at f/2.8 I was only able to get to 1/320-1/400th second, never faster.

Big time noise. But…  I (and hence the newspaper) got what I went in for.

And tonight I will dream of venues with light.



When you shoot someone on a stage, it’s all dark and stuff, right, so you need to go to, like, 3200 ISO? Dude!

Well, yes and no. It can be dark, but usually that is not the real problem. The person on stage is usually quite well lit. Like professor Richard Dawkins when I shot him recently in Toronto:


As you can see, prof Dawkins himself is well lit. This meant I was able to use my 1Ds MkIII and 50mm lens to shoot at 1/100th second, 400 ISO, and f/2.8. That is not super-fast: 400 ISO, not 1,600. And f/2.8, not f/1.4.

The bigger challenges are:

  • Metering. The dark background might very easily have caused the camera to overexpose prof Dawkins.
  • Consistency. The light can go up and down; or rather, as you swing the camera to include more or less Dawkins and less or more background, the exposure will change, and perhaps drastically so.
  • Focus is tough in low light.

So the solution is to:

  • Spot meter off the person and go up a stop, or meter using the “manual” meter.
  • Use MANUAL mode. After metering and adjusting visually (using LCD and histogram), leave the setting there. As long as the person does not move into different light, you’ll be fine.
  • Focus carefully with one focus point. Test before the presentation starts!
  • Shoot RAW so you can make small adjustments later where needed.

That way, your stage shoots will be just fine.

Great workshop today

Today I attended a workshop for wedding and portrait pros with the excellent duo of Toronto-based Storey Wilkins and Melbourne-based David Williams. I always find these very inspiring, even moving; and I invariably come away energized and with a few good ideas.

There were a few interesting things I noticed today. One, that there is a tremendous need among wedding pros to understand modern flash technologies like e-TTL, i-TTL, CLS, and so on. (And with that, at least, I can help: I am putting on some Advanced Flash workshops for wedding pros in Oakville 10 and 17 December, after I get back from doing the same in Phoenix.)

But the other thought is also very interesting: the consensus seems to be that male photographers are all about gear and technology, and female photographers about feelings.

Is that really true? Is it a binary, black and white issue like that, or more one of slight bias? And even if true, is a generalization like that useful? Do we not all, once we get to a certain level, know the tech bit as well as the feelings bit?

What do you think?