Autumn tip

A quick tip for those of you who, like me, are in the part of the world where autumn is coming.

If you want beautiful fall colours, you need to keep two things in mind:

  1. Brightness. Expose properly, and when vegetation is concerned that means expose less than your meter wants. Foliage is dark and you need to tell your camera that. So use exposure compensation as needed – minus 1 stop is not uncommon.
  2. Colour. Be sure to set your camera to the correct white balance. This usually means “daylight” or “cloudy”: the default “auto” (AWB) setting may get rid of the beautiful radiant colours.

And the colours are starting. Here, a couple of shots I shot while on my way to Drumbo this past weekend, to shoot the Drumbo Country Fair. Those colours are on their way:

Fall is coming: Drumbo, Ontario, Sep 2010

Fall is coming: Drumbo, Ontario, Sep 2010

Of course I could not possibly have been shooting this handheld while driving: that would not be allowed in Ontario. Right?

Fall is coming: Drumbo, Ontario, Sep 2010

Fall is coming: Drumbo, Ontario, Sep 2010

And here’s a snap from what I was shooting:

Drumbo, Queen of the Furrow

Drumbo, Queen of the Furrow

One more tip: for best fall colours, either shoot late in the day (the “golden hour”), or early in the morning (if you can get up, early morning light is just as beautiful, plus there is little wind). And know where the sun is!


Always carry your camera, even at night.

I just got back from teaching, after an executive portrait shoot this morning.

But I want to talk not about light, but about lack of light. And how when it gets dark, you do not put away your camera. Like I carried mine, just the other night in Montreal:

Montreal, night scene, handheld photo by Michael Willems

Montreal, night scene, handheld (Aug 2010)

Montreal, night scene, handheld photo by Michael Willems

Montreal, Rue Hutchison, Aug 2010

Montreal, "The Shining", handheld photo by Michael Willems

Montreal, "The Shining", handheld

All those were handheld shots.

Tips for those:

  • Hold the camera steady!
  • Use a wide lens, since they are more forgiving of motiong
  • Make it a fast one the fastest you can get (I used a 16-35mm f/2.8 on a full-frame camera);
  • Use a high ISO if handheld (but low if using a tripod);
  • Expose down 1-2 stops (use manual, or use aperture mode and Exposure Compensation “minus”) ;
  • Shoot multiple times to make sure!

If you do it that way, it is easy. And you will be happy with your images.

Black and white

And this time I do not mean “as opposed to colour”. I am repeating myself here, but it is worth doing: a few words about metering light and how your camera does it, and how to fix it when it does a less than stellar job. I get so many questions abut this, it seems worth going over it again.

Let’s analyze this exposure puzzle. It has three elements.

ONE. Your camera’s light meter is a reflective meter. It measures light reflected off your subject. So it does not know how much light is hitting your subject – it only knows how much is reflected. That is one part of the puzzle.

TWO. Your camera also does not know what the subject is. That is the second part of the puzzle.

THREE. Your camera’s job is to:

  1. See how much light there is
  2. Then set aperture, shutter, ISO (or some of those – depending on what exposure mode you are in) to ensure that that observed quantity of light gives you a well-exposed picture: not too bright, not too dark. This is a narrow range of acceptable light on your sensor: a bit too little and it’s underexposed; a tad too much and it’s overexposed. Your camera’s job is to keep the light on your sensor within that range.

That is the third part of the puzzle.

So let’s put them together.

Usually, they go together well and you get a nice picture of whatever you are aiming at. Done.

But when does this not work? When your subject is meant to be dark – because it is. Or when your subject is meant to be bright – because it is.

Exercise. in Program mode “P”), and using no flash, and taking care to fully fill your viewfinder with it, shoot a ski hill. Or a white sheet of paper made to look like one:

Looks grey! Because that is the camera’s job.

Now shoot a coal mine. Or a coat that is as black as one:

What the… that also looks grey!

That is because the camera does not know it is meant to be black. By default, your camera makes everything “in between” in terms of brightness.

Solution. Now find the Exposure Compensation button on your camera. It looks like a “+” and a “-” with a diagonal line separating them. Plus means “turn up the brightness”, minus means “turn down the brightness”. (It does this by varying whatever it is varying of shutter speed, aperture or ISO, but only “more so”). You may have to hold the button while turning a wheel, and you can see what you are doing as a number or as a graph on the top of back of your camera, depending on which camera you have.

Find the control and turn the value up to +2 and re-shoot the ski hill. Now you get:

That’s better. Check the histogram to ensure it is not stuck against the right side (“overexposed”).

Now set the Exposure Compensation to -2 (minus two). Re-shoot the black coat. You get this:

Finally. A black coat!

So now you know:

  • When your picture looks too dark, use +/- set to plus and retake the picture
  • When your picture looks too bright, use +/- set to minus and retake the picture
  • This is most likely to be needed when your subject is very dark (coal mine, black coat, dark night) or very bright (beach, snow, white marble room, piece of paper, person against a white wall).

That is actually quite simple!


  • Do not use flash – that’s a separate subject (and it has a separate adjustment)
  • You can also spot meter to a grey subject to avoid the need for exp comp
  • You can use manual and use the displayed meter in the same way (minus mens darker, plus means brighter).

Try it and you should, from now on, have no problem exposing right.

A rose by any other name

I took this “grab-shot” at the Kodiak Gallery the other day with a Canon 7D and 50mm f/1.4 lens:

Canon 7D, 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4, 1/250th sec, 800 ISO

This shows that with the right lens, you do not need flash. You also do not need a macro lens every time. You can use what you have, if you keep your eyes open.

Also note:

  • The secondary subject blurred in the background
  • I used exposure compensation (+) to ensure the white background showed as white, not gray
  • I am not afraid to go to 800 ISO or beyond to get the right fast shutter speed.
  • I am using off-centre composition, rather than Uncle Fred’s “subject in the middle”

Simple. Just keep your eyes open.

Snow snaps

In preparation for an upcoming two-day Country Photography Workshop I am organizing with a colleague on 3+4 April (ask me about it!), I took a few snaps in the snow yesterday with the 1D Mark IV. Interestingly, it meters more accurately than the 1D Mark III: I needed less exposure compensation since even evaluative metering was biased more towards the selected focus point. (This is odd since focus-point tied spot metering works less often).

Can you tell I like wide angles?

Snow tips:

  • Set exposure carefully for most images, emphasizing background saturation. Use a grey card or spot meter off treees, or off the sky, and adjust starting from that.
  • Bring a spare battery.
  • Careful bringing the camera into the house afterward: use a plastic bag.
  • Meter carefully and use the “highlights” view and the histogram to ensure you are not blowing out the snow – but you are getting close.
  • Use flash to light up close objects (see how I did it?)
  • High-speed flash is needed if the time exceeds 1/250th – it can be left on since the camera will only use it when needed – but it will cut effective flash power by at least 50%.
  • It is very hard to see  your images: bring a Hoodman Hood Loupe and let your eyes acclimatise.

One more snap and it’s back to the order of the day:

Again, flash and careful exposure gives it that nice saturated look.