Lost on Planet Earth: Blog https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog en-us (C) Damian R Bere damian@lostonplanetearth.net (Lost on Planet Earth) Fri, 29 Aug 2014 15:53:00 GMT Fri, 29 Aug 2014 15:53:00 GMT https://lostonplanetearth.net/img/s/v-5/u619114921-o850041984-50.jpg Lost on Planet Earth: Blog https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog 85 120 Auto ISO https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog/2012/6/auto-iso We're led to believe anything automatic is for beginners, and hard core pros go manual all the way.  Well, I've news for you - that's just plain nonsense, here's why...

Quick Background: I have been using Auto-ISO heavily for almost a year, having had it turned off for the first year or so, believing it to be an evil curse by some sadistic nikon witch.  Since then, I have really begun to understand and appreciate its benefits, though I still see people calling it nasty names, just like I once did,.. so here are a few thoughts before you make up your mind...

The Belief

So, we're all familiar with the usual Auto, Program, Aperture, Shutter and Manual modes on our cameras, which allow us to decide what we control directly, and what we let the camera decide for us, and also we're no doubt familiar with the Exposure Triangle that these settings essentially influence to correctly expose the image.  

monk in the light at Angkor Wat, Cambodialost in thought

Well, the common supposition is that automatic modes "AUTO" and "P" are for beginners that don't know how to use their camera, and "A" and "S" (or "Tv" for the oddball Canon users :-) are for the amateurs, with "M" being the real pro's choice.  The foundation of this belief seems to be a two parter - firstly, if you're a pro, you want to control everything 'just so' because, well, you're bad ass like that; and secondly, if you're a beginner, you simply can't use the more advanced modes because you don't know how.  Maybe there's an element of truth to that last part, but the former is just nonsense, and a little narrow minded.

Now, as these modes essentially control the aperture size, shutter speed and ISO setting, we consider them one and the same in terms of automation vs. control tradeoffs.  Also, ISO is a real killer for image quality if set too high, so is the least preferable of these to change and becomes something you want to keep low, sometimes trading off a bit of exposure (that can be improved in post) for a lower ISO.  This makes sense from an image quality point of view, but the question is - does this really work in practice?  And why did Nikon increase the functionality around AUTO-ISO in the latest pro body releases - the D800 and D4?  I doubt these are designed for the 'beginner' market.

The Reality

Not everyone shoots the same things, in the same ways, with the same circumstances.  This leads to (as usual with photography) plenty of tradeoffs because of the different requirements. 

If we look at a few factors that influence your choice of these key settings, we can then identify when Auto-ISO actually makes a lot of sense.

  1. Can you use a Tripod?
  2. Do you control the Lighting?
  3. Do you control the Subject?
  4. Can you do a practice shot?
  5. Can you shoot many different angles of the same scene?
  6. Is it dark?
  7. Can you use trial and error to get the right settings?

Clearly there is a theme here - is the scene fixed (completely static, no variation), controlled (some variation, but you can control things), or freeform (you are merely an observer, stuff is happening and you have no control over it).  


Shooting in a fixed environment, like a studio, means you have 100% control of the light, environment and subject - and the subject is likely not moving.  This gives you more options with shutter speed, allowing you to keep ISO at a minimum and adjust aperture for creativity (or vice versa with the Shutter speed).


Shooting in a controlled environment, like a model photo shoot at the beach, means that some things will be moving, changing and whatnot (like the model, waves, daylight), but you can control a bunch of other stuff to counteract that (flash, reflectors, tripods etc), meaning you can again minimise ISO and focus on shutter and aperture for creative effects and balancing the exposure.  


Shooting in a freeform environment, like the street, war zone, protest, whilst travelling, means you have little to no control over the scene, or the subjects, and have to deal with what you get.  This could mean a crappy time of day, dark alleyways turning into bright streets, artificial light changing into natural light and back again within a few metres.  It is also likely that this stuff is happening fast, and you can't ask everyone on the street to stop for a second whilst you workout the right exposure because a dark cloud just covered the sun, or the protesters walked down a dark alley, etc.  

Of course you could argue that a pro can assess light conditions and change settings really quickly, but I have to ask - why would they want to? and that fast, really?  It is more likely that they will check the light meter on the camera to see if the exposure setting would be right anyway.. in which case you may as well just let the camera get to that point automatically then compensate for personal choice.

Real World Situations

I shoot a variety of things, including some studio type stuff, some urbex, some landscapes and some street stuff (especially whilst travelling).

Here are two very different situations to compare when and when not to use AutoISO:

Cambodian Girl sitting in a swing, Tonle Sap Lakeswing little girl For travel photography where the focus is street life, people, culture, etc, then you absolutely should be using Auto ISO - seriously, you are going to miss shots if you're faffing around with that in all the hustle and bustle.   I will also normally use Aperture priority mode for DOF control purposes, but will also flip to Shutter priority when I want some motion (or not).


dark stairway in Pool Parc hospitalshadows of the mind For urbex shots, where you are often photographing fixed objects in low light, you definitely do NOT want auto ISO - you have more time to set-up shots, and usually have a tripod - and quite often are doing HDR, which will punish you mercilessly if you have nasty noisy images - so make sure you turn it off for these types of environments, and in my opinion, these are the circumstances when full manual is the correct mode (99% of the time anyway).

What does Auto ISO do then?

Auto ISO allows you to give the control over ISO to the camera by default, and change it when you feel it is necessary (exposure compensation or directly changing the setting whilst shooting, though that is rare).  This allows you to focus on whichever creative aspect you need (shutter speed or aperture size) to get the correct exposure, whilst doing the many other things whilst composing and executing a shot.  It requires a bit of set-up and forethought though, but once it is set, it can make your shooting a much easier experience.

Setting it up in a Nikon D800

(Sorry, I only know about setting it up on Nikons - the D300s and D90 had more basic implementations, but roughly the same idea; Canons have a similar setting, but sadly it is not as feature rich as the Nikons :-/ )

ISO Sensitivity Settings Menu on Nikon D800

You will need to turn it on in the menus, then set a maximum ISO and minimum shutter setting.  The maximum setting is the highest ISO the camera will use in a given situation (so you can set an 'acceptable' ISO maximum - the highest settings possible tend to be quite noisy), the minimum is the lowest shutter speed (when to start increasing ISO) to avoid motion blur from natural hand shaking etc.  


This means that the camera will change Aperture or Shutter depending on mode until the point it needs more light AND it has hit the minimum shutter speed barrier, then it will increase the ISO up to the maximum you have set.  Great! 

Auto ISO configuration menu in ISO Sensitivity Settings on the Nikon D800

The problem with this, is that when you change lenses or focal lengths, that minimum shutter speed requirement will change (1/focal distance = min shutter speed.. in theory), and even then, sometimes you want it to be higher than this in general, because you're in an environment with lots of vibrations (boats, trains, cars, etc), or have a sensor that will show up the slightest of movements in the detail (D800 36mp...:-)  Well, Nikon have included an "AUTO" minimum setting, with an adjuster for "faster" as well as for "slower" (if you can handhold like a tripod!).  This makes the settings here almost perfect... but sometimes you want an ABSOLUTE minimum shutter setting - when I shoot a 24mm I don't want 1/20th minimum shutter speed, as this will still create motion blur in the details - I want 1/60th as an absolute minimum, for example.


Use it, or Lose It!

OK, so this is not a setting for ALL your photography (what is?), but in those situations where it is important (street and travel photography, photojournalism etc), then NOT using this can lead to you missing a lot of shots - either from poor exposure, or simply missing the moment.  In these situations, you really should use AutoISO, or risk losing that shot...  

Boy standing in the Mekong River, Vietnammekong boy




damian@lostonplanetearth.net (Lost on Planet Earth) technical https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog/2012/6/auto-iso Fri, 22 Jun 2012 20:52:45 GMT
Exploring Decay: Robert Fletcher Paper Mill https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog/2012/4/exploring-decay-paper-mill Rotting away in the North West of England is an industrial site that used to make paper, I take a little tour with some fellow Urbexers to capture some of its majesty before it is either subsumed by nature or replaced by boring box houses.

The History

There are plenty of sites already describing the history of this old paper mill, so I'll give a quick overview and suggest the following links to give you a place to research further.



broken wheel in abandoned paper millsoftly spoken

The site was originally owned by a company called Ralph Crompton and Nephews in the early 1800s, who originally hired Robert Fletcher within the bleaching dept.  

As Robert Fletcher rose in the ranks he soon became a trusted friend of the Crompton family, ultimately taking over the ownership and management of the mill, with his sons and grand sons taking over as the years progressed.  The company flourished into the 1990s, but toward the end of that decade revenues dwindled to the point where shareholders decided to fold the company in July 2001, practically overnight.  And this 'overnight' effect is very apparent in the way the site still exists today, offices strewn with the papers and workers' artefacts left in place from the day before the site was closed.  A site frozen in time, just waiting to be restarted.


The Adventure

Well, the site is not the most secure in the world, and has been accessed many times before by eager urbexers, especially the locals :-)  

But, knowing how disappointing it can be to get so close to photographing the wonderful interiors of these places, only to have some security bod ask you to leave, gets one a little eager to get in as quickly and efficiently as possible (without just smashing a window  or something).  It can take time to find a suitable entry point, though thankfully I'd secured a few tips from previous visitors on where previous access points existed, and they worked out pretty well.. just a slight adjustment here and there (the site entry had been bricked up on one side), and we were in with little fuss or bother.

Big Balls

Now, I have to admit that our first warehouse/room was a complete balls up... 

giant balls for creating the mushy pulp for making paper destroyer of worlds

Well, what I mean to say, is that it was full of these large pulping balls used to mix and mash up small wood shavings into a mushy pulp under pressure.  These were pretty awesome I have to say, looking more like something out of a star wars movie than a boring old paper mill.  One of my fellow urbexers, Ian, fell in love with these things... check out his little love affair on Ian's blog or flickr stream :-)  They are very photogenic though, and our other cohort captured a cool grungy futuristic image of one of these things in his flickr stream.  There is another room above this where they feed material into these things, which we were to discover on our way back from the main manufacturing room.  

Though, in true explorer fashion, despite spending a good couple of hours faffing around in this room capturing all sorts of funky images, we found we needed to move on further to satiate our appetite for more dirt, grunge and pigeon poop.  Or at least the machinery, though the other things kinda come as a package deal :-)  

paper mill loading warehouse water works

We got through a couple of different levels and fairly empty rooms as we progressed down to the main rolling room where the bulk of machinery was used to roll the paper.  It was in here where we lost our rights to be called Men.. hearing a footstep or two in the dim black rooms behind us meant we became uber sensitive to the fact that security might be doing their rounds and all but quivered gripping our tripods and tiptoeing to safety (I may exaggerate a little, but you get the idea).. and then we saw them... first one, then two, then a whole bunch... of other urbexers?  damn it, now I felt daft - nothing more than another group visiting the site :-)  Ah well, on with taking pictures...

The remainder of the warehouse we explored contained the offices, main loading warehouse (see left) and staff rooms (dining hall, locker room,etc).  There is literally so much to photograph here that we could have spent all day and still had more to do.   I think another visit will be in order at some point :-)  

It is worth noting that in the offices most of the floors are now rotting away underneath carpet, so one should be careful where one puts their feet... 

Just around the corner whilst Ian spent a few hours in this little office, I had to fulfil my stairs fetish once again and capture these metal containers and wooden steps leading to the upper floors - just underneath here there is running water, which I suspect is directly linked to the nearby small river.

steps to the upper floor of the paper millpaper grunge

By this time we'd already spent a good 4-5 hours there, so soon started to make our way back out to the original room with big balls, a couple of detours found some nice images of nature reclaiming the industrialised site, which I always find quite poetic:

nature taking over industry at robert fletchers paper millnature will find a way


More photos of Robert Fletchers Paper Mill

The Finish

Well, Robert Fletchers Paper Mill was a great explore - one I would do again, and one I would highly recommend.  But onward and upward as they say, and onto some more beautiful examples of the human influence on nature being reclaimed by time.  Hopefully I'll get more like this:

machinery at robert fletchers paper millghost in the machine

damian@lostonplanetearth.net (Lost on Planet Earth) industrial mill paper urbex https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog/2012/4/exploring-decay-paper-mill Tue, 24 Apr 2012 21:03:41 GMT
Travel Portraits https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog/2012/4/travel-portraits Taking Photos of People can be a daunting, but wholly rewarding activity, and meeting people in different cultures through the simple excuse of wanting to take their picture is surprisingly liberating.  I've become quite fond of taking travel portraits, much to my surprise...


lost in thought

First, a little nostalgia

When I first started photography around 2 years ago, like most people I took photos of things - things that wouldn't object to me sticking my clumsy oafish camera hands right in their face.  It seemed easier this way, the flower, rock or tree didn't have much of an escape route and nor did they hurl abuse at me (except for maybe the odd look) so I could sit there and torture them with my bad photography skills for hours until I learned what I needed to.  Namely that I was rubbish, and this photography thing was going to take a little longer to master learn the basics.  

It may have been the fact that I had just watched a youtube video showing how to do all sorts of fancy things with motion, blurriness and such, or it may be that I was just a little ambitious, but I started off shooting in manual within 15 minutes of unboxing my Nikon D90.  Yeah baby, I felt like a pro.  Except that all my pictures were black.  Maybe I could work that out in post?  I hadn't mastered installed or used photoshop yet, so I guess I would just have to learn what all this exposure nonsense was about.  Either way, it felt safe doing all this in my garden, with only my cats and various creepy crawlies laughing at my noobishness.  I can't imagine having done all that with a real life person, one that had eyes to see me bash my camera lens for not focusing properly, or ears to hear me cursing the menu system designed by Mensa's testing department for confusing my poor brain, or a nose to smell the scent of my defeat as yet another black image popped up on quick view.  

Portraits.  With real people.  Scary.  

But that was going to change. At least a little bit.


People from a distance Man Walking in Back Streets of Aleppo, Syria

Like most people, I eased myself into photographing people by first taking photos of family and friends - much to their despair!  But, it was hard to find someone that would do some real modelling for me, and I was just a little reluctant to go up to people in the street for a quick street portrait.  This was partly because I was still very new at all this, and taking shots with my fancy camera was a little hit and miss - occasionally the camera had a lucky hit, and the rest of the time I missed :-)  But it was also because it feels a bit awkward just going up to some random person on the street and asking if you can take their photo.  What would they think?  Creep with a Camera?  Pervy Photographer? Mugger with a Macro?  And what would they do?  hit me? spit at me? call me nasty names?  run away screaming? I shuddered to even think about it... but was that really true?  how bad could it really be?

Well, it wasn't long before I started to get bored of images that felt 'empty' and in need of a human interest, so I decided to make the effort on an upcoming photography holiday in Syria, and take some photos of people.  

Now, back in 2010, Syria was a peaceful and very welcoming country, with lovely people and a safe feeling atmosphere in the streets of the towns we visited (in particular Alleppo, Palmyra/Tadmur and Damascus), and (friendly) kids were plentiful in the back streets and souks, all keen on being the centre of attention for your camera.  There wasn't too much hassle from street vendors, and most people were genuinely friendly and open to having their photo taken, without too much expectation on the quality of the results.  Thank goodness :-)  I was also fortunate enough to have some good advice from a pro photographer, Fil Gierlinski.

Old Man and Young Boy sitting on Prayer Mat in Mosque in Damascuswaiting for god

But still, despite one or two 'portrait' style shots (which weren't very compelling) and a ton of shots with local giggling children peering into the lens, the majority of the shots I took were more of a candid style, taken from a distance - what I like to call "Sniper Shooting" for obvious reasons...  At the time it felt like an easy way to get shots of people with minimal hassle - yet, I now have more mixed feelings about this approach - is it ethical?...

Sniper Shooting Ethics

One of the key benefits of shooting candid images of people when they are unaware, is the completely natural feel to the situation - it isn't posed or forced, it is a raw capture of the situation in its most natural form.  It tells a wonderful story about the subject(s) and the mood of the situation and environment.  It feels real, because it is real.  Much of that would be lost if you were to ask them for a photo - they would become 'aware' of the camera, and that is usually not a good thing.

On the other hand, this also feels a bit like stealing - not in the literal or spiritual sense, just that the transaction is one way: I take, they give.  They never know about the image, and I never really know them.  Did I really capture the full depth of their personality in that single image?  Is there more to tell about them?  I don't know. I guess that's the problem.  But I do want to dig a bit deeper, both for the integrity of the image, but also because it feels like the right thing to do when visiting people of other cultures, to learn just a little about them, and maybe even spend a little time in their world, from their perspective.

I think it is worth the tradeoff in some situations, as I just don't think you can capture some moments and images any other way.  It would be sensible though to be a little cautious about this and try not to be obtrusive, both for the integrity of the scene, aswell as to avoid getting a slap ;-)

Shooting People from a Distance

So, I think there are a few things I like to keep in mind when shooting people from a distance:

Probably quite obvious, but the real value of these shots is capturing something as it happens without interfering with it, so keeping your long telephoto lens out of the way means more natural shots.  People tend to notice 2 foot of glass and metal being pointed at them :-)

  • Patience and Timing

People walking in front of you, standing in front of your subject, or generally not being quite where you want them - or worse, a tediously boring (or even empty) scene, can really try one's patience - but it is worth it in the end.  When you're about to walk away, sods law something interesting happens :-)

  • Isolate

Sometimes a crowd of faces can be quite interesting, and usually easier to find in busy streets, but I do find it more rewarding (and troublesome) to isolate the subject from the distractions abound.  The photo to the right is an example of picking a single interesting person out of a crowd.  This was taken in front of the busy Astronomical Clock in Prague, and to the left and right of the image are crowds of people and cars - I tracked this guy from about 50 ft down the street before getting a clear shot.

  • Backgrounds

Something I've learned more recently is about finding good backgrounds before I find the subject.  This can make a huge difference to the image - a bad background is horribly distracting and can ruin a photograph.  The image to the right is an example where, although not utterly terrible, could have done with a better background - the building framework cuts across this guys head and distracts from the feature of this image - the scruffy looking smoker with his wild hair and 'trendy' baseball cap: for me it is mostly his head that defines the purpose of the shot, yet the cutting across it limits its impact.  Should have found a better angle or position :-)

  • Long Lens

No brainer really - 200mm+ on the long end, ideally 300-400 if possible.  

  • Move around

People on the street move around a lot, and in busy towns and cities there are plenty of people, so finding different vantage points in which to put them into context with the surroundings is easy enough to do, and can discover all sorts of interesting perspectives and stories for the image.

  • Look up from the Camera

Yeh, more than once I've been so busy with my eye to the viewfinder that I miss what else might be coming into the scene or about to happen elsewhere.

  • Context

Personally, I like these candid shots to include the context of the situation, rather than be very close up and personal

But sometimes it comes down to a bit of sheer luck and all these things come together:

Boy standing in the Mekong Rivermekong boy


People Up Close

Man smoking cigarette in Can Tho Marketlife is good

Photographing people from afar is one thing, but actually interacting with them is another.  It took me quite a while to really get why this would help my portrait photography and travelling experience, but whilst on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia I had the fortunate experience of learning more about this approach (amongst many other things) from another excellent pro photographer, Nathan Horton.  In essence, interacting with the subject can make for a much more intimate portrait, that captures them in a way that you just can't otherwise - the yin to the yang of sniper shooting I guess.  And getting really close means you have to personally interact, which although daunting the first few times (well most times if I'm honest :-) it is great to share a moment, usually amidst smiles and laughter (mostly at me for wanting to take their photo), and make a connection, albeit a small and fleeting one. 

I have to admit that when I first tried this, it felt a little awkward, though mostly on my part - I felt somehow I would be intruding on this person's personal space.  After a few experiences though, it soon became apparent that the large majority (though not all) loved the attention, and it seemed to practically make their day.  I'm pretty sure this will differ from place to place, but I'd expect it's not as bad as you might think.  In fact, on a number of occasions, we were practically 

kids in Phnom Penh, Cambodiaa little bit of happiness invited into people's homes to take photographs of them and their family.  For example the image to the right was taken of a family in the back streets of Phnom Penh, where most people living in the small alleyway came out to see what the fuss was about and were pretty keen on getting in on the action.  Probably not what you would find in a back street in Manchester though :-)



Getting up close did make for some fairly posed photos... at first. When I initially approached the subject for the photo, they would be a little unsure and look a bit stiff and forced, but after the first couple of clicks of my shutter they thought it was all over and relaxed... so, bang! another shot reeled off whilst they are still relaxing from their pose.  This is usually the first shot that I will show them to get them engaged with the experience - showing them a quick view on the back of the camera is quite easy and they more often than not love to see themselves, especially if I've caught them mid laughter or something.  

man in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lankatour for a dollar old man in temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodiai am more than you think old woman at Can Tho market, Vietnamshe smiles from her eyes







After this you can usually take a few more and stretch your subject's modelling skills a bit.. ask (or show) them to look a certain way or smile, etc. Have a little fun for a few minutes, take a few strange angles and importantly, get in close.  I feel for the most part that closer is better for this, as you're really trying to show off who they are behind those eyes.

monk at temple near battambang, Cambodiatime we've lost

But it doesn't have to be really close up.  Sometimes, like in the below (left) picture, the context of the surroundings actually give the image much more depth and meaning.  In the below image of a monk in a floating village temple near Battambang and Tonle Sap Lake in  Cambodia puts him into perspective when you see where essentially he lives day to day, the things that he has around his bed and the simplicity of what he has.  Personally, I really like this image for the message it conveys and for the emotion that seems to eminate from the subject.  


thoughts of tomorrow

Shooting People Up Close

So, I think there are a few things I like to keep in mind when shooting people up close:

  • Smile

A smile goes a long way to getting you engaged with someone on a personal level where they will be happy for you to take their photograph

  • Get Close or find an interesting angle

Close and intimate describes this style most of all in my opinion, so getting in close can amplify the importance of the subject in the image, which is usually the point

  • Spend Time with them

You can't expect to just go up to someone, snap off a couple of shots and walk away - not only is that usually quite rude, but it is unlikely you'll get great shots in those first couple - consider them throw aways

A fast 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 (or f/1.2 if you're lucky enough to own one) or a standard mid range zoom (17-55mm f/2.8 on a crop sensor, or 24-70mm on a full frame).  You don't want to be standing 20 ft back just to get them in because you have a 70-200mm lens on

  • Involve them

Often they are keen to see what the photo looks like, and involving them in the experience by showing them the back of your camera as you go along seems to go a long way in building trust and making for more relaxed photos

  • Pick your subject well

Find the most interesting looking person and ask them for their photograph - it is hard to make a 'normal' looking person extra-ordinary.  Older people photograph well

  • Be polite

The best way to get what you want is to be polite and respect their wishes - if they don't want their photo taken, leave them alone

  • Did I mention Smile? :-)

Most of all though, have fun with it.  They'll enjoy it more if you do.

wisdom's mystery

damian@lostonplanetearth.net (Lost on Planet Earth) cambodia learning people photography portraits syria travel vietnam https://lostonplanetearth.net/blog/2012/4/travel-portraits Mon, 02 Apr 2012 23:22:06 GMT