Archives for category: Camera and lighting tips

Nikon shooters in South Africa…

Did you know that the 50mm f/1.8 G in 2014 costs almost three times the price the D version discontinued around 2012?

And that the 50mm f/1.8 G in 2014 costs about the same as the 50mm f/1.4 D did in 2012.

Or that the 50mm f/1.4G and 85mm f/1.8G lenses cost almost double their D equivalents around 2012?

The D7000 MB-11 battery pack has doubled in price and the D7100 grip is at the same price of R4500. There is a third party D7000 grip for R2400, but that is still a lot – Hahnel HN-D7000.  The D800’s battery pack goes for R7500, which is more than a lot of Nikon bodies.

Do you know about the 85mm f/1.4D which is still available to order, new? It is not the pro level G version and doesn’t have nano-crystal coating, but it costs less than a new 85mm f/1.8G! Or a new 50mm f/1.4G.

Did you know that Nikon doesn’t make a wireless TTL flash close to R3000 like it used to? The cheapest is R5500 and below that is an entry-level flash which stays on camera and does not much. A more appealing for strobist work in studio or at events would be the Sigma EF610 DG ST Flash (Nikon) or Phottix Mitros TTL Flash for Nikon .

Looking at an IR remote for Nikon which only has one button and triggers the camera wirelessly… I bought one a few years ago fro R200 at Orms and now it goes for R299 link and includes an extra switch.  Even more confusingly, the Studio22 version with a different model number but same look goes for R59.

Read more info and prices in my more detailed blogpost here. Has photographic equipment in South Africa become overpriced or is it just me?


Yes, the newer G lenses are supposed to have better optics. But that only makes a difference if you make sure all the other elements of your photo are technically sound including exposure, focus and composition. Including no movement or handshake blur which affect sharpness. And good white balance and contrast treatment. On quality optics – also remember you can use Lightroom or Photoshop lens profiles to automatically correct chromatic abberations, distortion and vignetting. Abberations and vignetting are hardly visible after closing down a few stops and distortion is almost zero on primes.

Yes the newer lenses do let you get AF-S (auto focus servo) function over the older AF (autofocus requiring motors in body). But that only makes a difference if you shoot with an entry-level D3XXX series or one up from that D5XXX series. Which are aimed at enthuiasts and not semi-pros or pros who would look at the D7000, D7100, D300s, D700, D610, etc. I have enjoyed many AF D lenses on a D90 (was about R9000) or D7000 (has remained at R13 000) and D200 (I picked up secondhand for R2000).


I use my main reference, sometimes


I hope with this post I can educate fellow photographers on what a reasonable price should be for lenses, bodies, etc. and how to buy smart lyby looking at alternatives or older versions. It seems to me that prices of most camera equipment have gone up a lot and often doubled, yet with little added value. The only real advantage I can see for the newer AF-S lenses is that they autofocus on bodies cheaper than the Nikon D7000.

As background, I started with a Nikon D90 as first DSLR in 2010 and have bought most of my equipment in 2012 and 2013, such as a D7000, MB-D11 battery grip, SB-900, 85mm f/1.8 AF D, 50mm f/1.8 AF D…. Below are prices of those, similar gear available at the time and details of modern equivalents or upgrades.

LENSES – 50mm f/1.8  

The 50mm is known as the “normal” lens for 35mm film or fullframe DSLRs. It is a great portrait lens for crop-sensor portraits. I do prefer the tighter 85mm, which is mentioned later.

  • Nikon 50mm f/1.8 FX AF in 2012 – R1300. That was the price until it went on end-of-range special and bought it at a price of R900.
  • Nikon 50mm f1.8 AF-S in 2012 – R2300. Available in 2013 as I think. It added AF-S autofocus motors but this didn’t matter for my D90 or D7000 bodies.


  • Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF-S G in 2012 – R3400. Almost three times the price of the orignal 50mm f/1.8 in 2012. And more than a new 50mm f1.4 two years ago (below). It lacks the aperture ring. It does have a ring for fine tuning autofocus but I don’t know if this is useful.

As a side note, Canon’s 50mm f/1.8 sold for around R1000 in 2012 and their replacement 50mm f1.8 II is R1300. Still very reasonable for a beginner.

LENSES – 50mm f/1.4

  • Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF D in 2012 – about R3000. Almost three times the price of the 50mm f1.8 AF D at the time, which was reasonable since it was faster in aperture and was sharper stopped down to f/2 to than the 50mm f/1.8 set to f/2.
  • Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AF-S G 2012 – about R4000. Improved optics and added autofocus motors.


  • 50mm f/1.4 AF-S G in 2012- R7700. Around double the price of the previous f/1.4 lenses, but how much sharper or faster at focusing can it be?


Background info on the 50mm f/1.8 AF D, skip this paragraph if you like… Two reviews I read rated it as Nikon’s sharpest lens ever and as sharp as the 50mm f/1.4 once they are both set to f/4. Edge sharpness of the 50mm f/1.8 was not great at wide apertures, but not a problem bodies with a crop-factor. The design had not changed since 1993 so it still had a manual aperture ring and rotating focus barrel.


LENSES – 85mm

The classic portrait lens.

  • Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF D in 2012 – R4500. This is one of my favourite portrait lenses. The G version was available at the time I bought it, but the reviews said the G was not much of an improvemnt.
  • Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-S G in 2012 – about R5500 to R6000.


  • Nikon 85mm f/1.8 AF-S in 2014 – R8100. or R7500 on special. How did the price go up by R2000 or R3000 from the older f/1.8 versions?

Also for comparison, the Canon 85mm f/1.8 went from R3500 in 2012 to R4600 in 2014, which is reasonable based on upgrades and/or inflation.


  • Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF D in 2014 – R6300. This f/1.4 AF D lens is available new and is over a R1000 cheaper than the latest f1.8 AF-S G version mentioned above. But I don’t think enough people know about it. It is not listed on the Orms online store and is on their pricelist book to order new, but they don’t keep in stock. I discovered this lens only because I saw a secondhand version on their shelf in early 2014 (for R5000) and wanted to see what the new price would be (R6300). I didn’t get it as I didn’t think it would be worth selling my 85mm f/1.8 though. But I recommend this 85mm f/1.4 AF D lens to any Nikon shooter looking for a new 85mm.
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF D in 2012 – R20 000 or so. A pro lens of course. Discontinued.
  • Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-S G N for R28 000. A pro lens with a nano-crystal coating, to reduce glare and other issues.

More alternatives for Nikon shooters

  • Samyang 85mm f/1.4 for Nikon – R5300. Available new from Photohire on De Villiers St in Cape Town. There are chipped and unchipped Nikon fit versions, I don’t know if this gives autofocus or metering abilities. A review I read said the sharpness and image quality was good compared to the Nikon versions, I don’t know how different they are though. Link.
  • Zeiss Planar T* 85mm f/1.4 ZF.2 for Nikon – R17 400. A high end option for pro shooters. Link



  • Nikon D7000 in 2012 – about R12 000 to R13 000


  • Nikon D7000 in 2014 – R13 000. This seems fair compared to two years ago.
  • Nikon D7100 in 2014 – R18 000. Close to the full frame 5DII price of R21 000 two years ago. The D7100 is a price in between the D7000 and the discontinued full frame D700.


D3000, D3100, D3200 and D3300 are very similar. They all have a physically small body, an entry-level button layout (and lack a scrolling dial of the D7000 and up), lack autofocus motors (need AF-S lenses) and lack wireless flash capabilities of the D90, D200 and D7000. They do get progressively higher resolutions and ISO capabilities, but I don’t know if they have the quality sensors or processors to make use of these.

  • Nikon D3100 with 18-55mm in 2014 – R4300. Or R3300 on special in 2014. Plus card and shoulder bag. I think similar in price to the  D3000 around 2012, so reasonable price and great for beginners.
  • Nikon D3200 with 18-55mm in 2014 – R6500. I got to borrow from this someone and saw the limitations no autofocus with my 85mm f/1.8 and not wireless flash with my SB-900.
  • Nikon D3300 with 18-55mm in 2014 – R9600. This latest D3300 is almost 3 times the price of the earlier D3100.

I am not going to go in detail with the D5000 series (one above entry-level but still small bodies). But the latest in that series is the  Nikon D5300 in 2014 at R12 500. ). I guess the D5300 is a replacement to the D7000. The lack of an anti-aliasing filter interests me for portrait, landcapes and macro. But I would not consider it an option to buy because then a lot my lenses would autofocus with it. And I would lose my TTL wireless flash capability, which I need for events and for studio shoots (when I am not using a 300Ws strobe)



  • Canon 5D mk II in 2012- R21 000. A pro full frame body. Now discontinued.
  • Nikon D700 in 2012 – R25 000. A pro full frame body. Now discontinued.

  • Nikon D610 in 2014 – R31 000. Considered an entry level full frame and lacking pro features from what I’ve heard. There was the D600 before but that was abadoned soon due eto issues with oil spots on their sensors.
  • Canon 6D in 2014 – R23 000. An entry-level full frame body, but yet more expensive than the 5D mk II was.
  • Canon 5D mk III in 2014 – R40 000 or R3600 on special. A pro full frame body. A review said that is has better autofocus and video features, otherwise it’s not much of an upgrade on the mk II.



  • Nikon SB-600 in 2011 – R2700. Discontinued now. I bought one which broken while I was using a SB-900 at the same time.
  • Nikon SB-700 in 2014 – R5500 (it was R3300 in 2011 or 2012).


  • Nikon SB-900 in 2012 – R4500. Discontinued.
  • Nikon SB-910 in 2014 – R6900. This has improved functionality to cope with overheating, but I don’t know how good that is or if it worth R2400 more.

The SB-700 and SB-900 did add features over the SB-600 with their improved power (arguably), zoom range and ability to be used as commanders on camera. But the SB-600 still had it’s place as a reasonably-price flash for wireless off-camera use for TTL (through the lens) metering.

I have a SB-900 which I used a single flash for events or studio shoots. To add a second wireless TTL flash to this single flash setup would mean buying a SB-700 (which costs R1000 more than my SB-900 did) or to buy a SB-910 (for about R2400 more than my SB-900). So then I would rather look at a Sigma flash in the R1300 to R2600, some of which include optical flash trigger. But all with manual power settings (on or off camera).



  • D7000 grip in 2012 – R2500



I hope you have learnt something about the equipment you own or are looking at buying, so you can make more informed decisions in future. So you only pay for features you need and get value for money.

If you are a photographer, you only need 8 shades of grey…

Plus black and white, which gets you to 10. That’s called the Zone System and was a technique forumlated for BnW photography by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer.


(Sourced from


Each step is one stop of light, i.e. doubling or halving. Use the scale to ensure that your photo when taken (or processed on a pc) is not only blade midtones greys, but has more contrast.

You can even clip the shadows and highlights deliberately to get more impact. But you will want to preserve detail as well so your whole sky isn’t only zone 10 or your shade isn’t all zone 1.


Read more on Wikipedia’s article on the Zone System.

This a guide on how to use Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual for landscapes. I did a similar lesson for Portraits here.

Landscape A

Landscape A (1/640, f13)

This shot above was taken of Table Mountain in Cape Town, as a background location for SAX Appeal 2013 magazine (we had to get a permit to shoot next to the highway and the models arrived soon after this shot). I went with Program mode on this sunny day, with a low ISO-200 and a Nikon 18-105mm wideangle lens at 18mm. It was bright enough at 3pm for a short shutter speed (1/640 would be good for sport to freeze motion or be steady handheld) while having a narrow aperture (f/13 is small and lets in little light, but means foreground to background will be in focus which is what I wanted). Click pictures for large versions.

Landscape B

Landscape B (1/250, f/13)

This shot of an economics building at the University of Cape Town was taken at 18mm and ISO-200. If I had shot this in Program Mode, I would have got something like 1/500 and f9. But I accepted a slower shutter speed (one stop lighter, halved to 1/250) and a narrower aperture (one stop darker, to f/13) to get everything in focus. Therefore this shot could have been done in Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority for the same effect. But if I expected to walk into the shade next, shutter priority would be safer, since the Aperture could drop to a wider value of f/4. If I did a shade shot in Aperture Priority at f/13, I would have got something like 1/25 or slower, which is blurry handheld. (To get around that ISO should bes increased manually, or set to Auto, or aperture was made wider such as f/4).

Landscape C

Landscape C (1/250, f11)

Landscape C is similar to the previous shot, with an Aperture of f/11 to get everything in focus. If I really wanted to make sure the roof in the background was in focus too, I might use Aperture Priority to set Aperture to a narrower value of f/16 and lose a stop of light. Shutter speed would halve to 1/125, to gain a stop. Overall brightness would remain the constant, provided I keep the exact same composition.

As you can see in Landscape C, there is a high contrast between the bright sky and sunlit areas compared to the shadows. The camera would have been very sensitive to changing exposure (shutter and aperture) settings if I got a bit more of the sky or shadows in the shot, while I changed my composition. I could have changed to another metering mode or compensated EV (Exposure Value), but still not all the shots would look the same. So this was a good situation for choosing Manual mode. I could then check the histogram or clipped highlights on the camera’s LCD for each shot and I can decide if I need more shadow detail with a brighter exposure, or more sky detail with a darker exposure. I could move shutter speed and aperture in 1/3 of a stop increments for control. For example, shutter could go from 1/250 to 1/200 (brighter) or 1/320 (darker). Aperture could be set from f/11 to f/9 (brighter) or f/13 (darker).

Or I could keep an exposure level I am happy with, but use Manual decide to use a brighter shutter speed and darker aperture, or a darker shutter speed set against a brighter aperture. This would be same result as controlling Aperture as in the first paragraph below the Landscape C picture.

Still confused by all the modes? Read my lesson on the four modes and how to use them. Details on Aperture Scale are in explained on my blog as a lesson here.

This lesson explains how to shoot landscapes and portraits using Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority mode on DSLR cameras. For a guide on using modes for Landscapes, see this lesson. For the basics on those modes, see  my previous lesson. All of these photos below could have been shot on either photo for the same effect. The choice between the two modes is more important if you are walking around, the subject is moving or the lighting is changing quickly.

I did a cover shot for University of Cape Town’s rugby fan guide shoot. For this shot, I went for two extremes of large and small Depth of Field. Portrait A and B were shot at with Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 24mm, ISO-200.

Portrait A

Portrait A (1/100, f11)

For Portrait A, I tried 1/50 f/16 which was too blurry, so I went to 1/100 f/11 to get his hands and face sharper. As the slightly slow Shutter speed was important to me and Aperture could be f/4 to f/22 and I wouldn’t mind, therefore Shutter Priority would be a good choice for this situation. The focus was on the modle, but a lot of the background was in focus at f/11 (a narrow aperture value), though this was not intentional, but the shot below has the opposite effect.

Portrait B

Portrait B (1/2500, f/2.8)

Next, I shot Portrait B above with a blurred background for dramatic effect. To achieve this, I shot a wide Aperture value of f/2.8.  The shutter speed was short at 1/2500, but I didn’t mind if the Shutter speed was anywhere from 1/200 to 1/4000, therefore Aperture Priority would be a good mode for this sitation.

Portrait C (1/200, f11)

Portrait C (1/200, f11)

For Portrait C above, I used a Nikon 85mm f/1.8 at ISO-200. I was using flash with a softbox for controlled lighting and sufficent power to use a narrowe aperture. I wanted to have all the details in the photo equally in focus, so I chose a narrow aperture of f/11. Being indoors and with a narrow aperture, the camera probably would have set a slow shutter speed to get in ambient light (1/15 or 1/60). But since I didn’t want window or room lighting interfering, I shot in Manual at 1/200, which is a relatively short shutter speed (and the shortest for the camera in terms of flash sync speed).

Portrait D

Portrait D (1/200, f1.6)

Portrait D was done on a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens at ISO-200, which has a very wide aperture for low light photos and for blurring the background. I wanted to have a dreamy background, so I shot at f/1.6 (a third of a stop up from f/1.4, to achieve higher image quality due to lens design). I decided to shoot in Manual at 1/200 to keep the brightness constant. I could have shot in Aperture Priority (at f/1.6). But the backlit model in shade with shadows and highlights are all over the background might confuse the camera, so I would have to use AE lock or EV compensation get the right brightness.

The 1/200 shutter speed was more than satisfactory for handheld shooting. If there was less light available, I wouldn’t have dropped the shutter speed to 1/100, but I could keep shooting around 1/200 if I raised the ISO manually. Or on Auto ISO, but that is still at risk of confusing lighting situations.

Portrait E

Portrait E (1/250, f2.8)

Portrait E was shot on a Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 62mm,f/2.8 and ISO-100.  I wanted to blur the background with the lens’s widest aperture of f/2.8. Aperture Priority would have been fine for this shot, provided that the difficult situation of backlit subject is controlled by increased EV compensation, or Spot Metering (to light the shadowed models correctly). Shooting at a low ISO for sharpness, I would watch my shutter speed didn’t become blurry for handheld shots.  For example, if my shutter speed was 1/125 (only just usable at 62mm), then I could have doubled my sensitivity from ISO-100 to a brighter ISO-200. Immeditately, the camera would have halved the shutter speed from a slow 1/125 to a fast 1/250. But being in Aperture Priority, the Aperture would remain set at f/2.8 while the ISO is moved around.

If I am not rushed (such an event or sport), I do like to shoot in Manual for more control, then not have use EV or Spot Metering. I have been shooting 3 years currently, so I have a good idea of how to balance Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO at once. What effect they each give at high values. And how much to raise the one if I decrease one or more of the others.

Aperture scale:

The brightest aperture is f/1. That 50mm lens costs about R100 000 or over $10 000. Where the focal length is 50mm,  the lens opening (aperture) at the back of the lens is also about 50mm, giving a ratio of 1:1 or 1/1 (actually f/0.98. When the aperture blades close down to let in half the amount of light, the opening is now 1/1.4. Halving again is 1/2. These increments are 1.4 (square root of two), with the odd steps being multiples of 2.

  • f/1         (base)
  • f/1.4      (1/1.4 of original area)
  • f/2          (1/2 …)
  • f/2.8    …
  • f/4        …
  • f/5.6     …
  • f/8         (1/8th)
  • f/11      …
  • f/16     (1/16th)
  • f/22    …
  • f/32     (1/32, only on a few lenses)
  • f/64     (on large format cameras)
  • f/128   (pinhole cameras use around f/137)

For f/16, the value of 1/16 means a small hole which lets in little light compared to the focal lenght or the original area (f/1 of that one lens, f/4 as a starting value of a lot of lenses).


For sport, I have a 75-300mm lens. At 300mm, the lens is only 20cm long rather than 30cm. This is partly due to front or backfocusing mechanics (the one is for telephotos, other for wide angles) and also the aperture, which happens to be f/5.6 and means the back element of the lens is small. Also the front of the lens is small, maybe 5cm.

But I have also rented a 300mm f/2.8 for a concer, which costs R60 000 new. It gave the same focal length as my other lens, but from f/5.6 to f/4 to f/2.8 it is 4x bright. But it is more like 50cm long and heavy. The opening at the back is large, the front of the lens is huge (probably 20cm).

Both lenses do stop down to f/22, as most lenses do. That is due to the aperture blades.

Here is my guide to camera controls for Digital SLRs. For Nikon, the settings are P for Program, S for Shutter speed priority, A for Aperture priority and M for Manual. Canon uses Tv for Time Value in place of S and uses Av as Aperture Value.

Program mode

This gives little control but is fine for daylight or if you don’t want to choose a shutter speed or aperture setting. If in low light handheld, Progam is still fine is ISO is on Auto – then your shutter speed doesn’t drop too close to 1 second. Auto ISO will have little effect on daylight photos, so it is a good idea to leave it on anyway.

I’ve just checked on my camera and here the settings you will experience in P, from a bright scene to a dark scene.

  • 1/2000 f/22 looking at a bright surface (sand, metal) or at the sun
  • 1/1000 f/16
  • 1/500 f/11 sunny day
  • 1/250 f/8
  • 1/125 f/5.6 cloudy or shady
  • 1/60 f/4
  • 1/30 f/2.8 indoors
  • 1/15 f/2
  • 1/8 f/1.4 night time

You might notice that  as the scene gets darker with each step, the shutter speed is brighter by 1 stop (halfed) and the aperture is brighter by a stop (changed by 1.4 – see Aperture Scale post). Doing either would let in 2x as much light (“one stop”, both together means 4x the amount of light (“two stops”). There are a few in between steps too – between 1/125 and 1/60, you will find 1/100 f/5 and 1/80 f/4.5, with are increments of 2/3 of a stop (1/3 brighter by shutter speed and 1/3 brighter by aperture). If you increase by 2/3 for three increments, you’ve increased by 2 stops.

For each situation, I expect those settings to come up at about ISO-100. As you increase the camera’s sensitivity by increasing ISO value, the shutter speed will get shorter and the aperture will get narrower (letting in less light in an instant).

Shutter priority

By keeping Shutter speed fixed at a daylight speed like 1/320, your aperture will get wider (like f/2.8) in the shade to less in more light and will get narrower (like f/22) in bright sunlight to let in less light.

If you are in low light handheld, you’ll probably shoot around the slowest value which will get sharp pictures. On a cropped-sensor DSLR, the factor is 1.5. At 50mm, you would aim for 1/75 of a second. At 100mm, you should shoot faster than 1/150 (such as 1/160 or 1/200).

For sport you would set a short shutter speed (say 1/1000) and your aperture and ISO could be allowed to change depending on time of day and if the player is running into the shade or sun. At a fixed lowest ISO, your aperture could go from f/8 in sunlight to f/4 in the shade (2 stops of light difference) and probably f/2.8 in the evening. If you set your ISO from 100 to 200, you could shoot at f/4 in the eveing to get more in focus. Or you could shoot at 1/500 f/2.8 ISO-100 if you are willing to accept a few blurred shots.

You would also use S mode for landscapes or nighttime to capture movement of cars, people, water etc. At 1/2 second, your aperture at night might be f/2.8. In the day it could be f/22, but it could jump to f/16 or f/32 if you aimed at something darker or light respectively, or if clouds changed the sunlight.

Aperture priority

I find this setting more useful than the previous mode.

In A or Av, you can shoot portraits at a wide aperture (f/1.4 or f/2 or f/2.8) to blur the background and get a short shutter speed (especially with a long focal length).

Use this mode for landscapes too. If you are shooting in bright light or with a tripod in darker scenes, then set the aperture to get plenty of Depth of Field (to have more foreground and background in focus). I like to use f/11 at 18mm or 24mm, since that gets a lot in focus and is before the limits of diffraction* (see note and end). When I shoot a landscape at f/11 with a tripod, I would use A (instead of S), since I don’t usually care if my shutter speed is 1 second or 1/500 (unless movement of water, people, cars, etc. could be distracting).

If I shoot handheld, I might shoot at f/5.6 knowing that my shutter speed might go from 1/125 to 1/500. I watch in the viewfinder – if it drops to below 1/125, I would consider steadying my feet more, using wide a aperture (like f/4), raising ISO in the shade, or putting my camera on a make-shift tripod like my camera bag, table or rock.

Manual mode

Briefly, this mode gives you total control of shutter speed and aperture value.

Manual mode does give a metering function. The horizontal bar with a minus on one side and plus on the other will help you. If you the line goes to the minus side, you need change your shutter speed and/or your aperture to let in more light. On the plus side, your current settings will give an overexposed photo so you should shorten your shutter speed and/or use a narrower aperture until the meter is back at zero.

Of course, you might want an under- or over-exposed photo for creative purposes. Or if you think the meter is being confused by backlighting. Or if you have bright sky or sun in your photo and there is an object in the shade, a correctly exposed photo will have  the sky close to white and the shade too dark. You could choose to have darker settings to get the blue back in the sky, or use brighter settings to get shade details and the expense of a bright sky (maybe you can crop out the sky or use it creatively or in black and white).

Manual exposure means that if you walk into the shade from the sun, you need to remember to check your meter again. I like to use my intuition and experience, to increase exposure by 2 stops walking into the shade. At the same time for this move, I can choose to use a slower shutter speed, wider aperture or higher ISO or a combination of these to suit the situation. That may sound complicated, but it becomes a quick decision with experience.

The advantage of the settings not changing from scene to scene, is that the camera isn’t overly sensitive to underexposing the ground if you get a bit more sky or sun in the the top of the photo. And the photo won’t suddenly overexpose with a slower shutter speed if you crop the sky and sun out.

Reasons to choose Manual:

Firstly, an understanding of shutter speed and aperture is important for effective use of Manual mode. If you don’t feel capable yet, stick to P, then move to A or S. But also learn to use AE-L to lock the exposure so you can recompose with more or less sky. And also learn to use the Exposuse Value (EV) settings for the 3 modes, to make the scene brighter or darker (if you think the camera’s “correct” calculated exposure setting are confused by the lighting, or you want to be more creative with high key or low key looks).

Program mode gives very little control over shutter speed or aperture, so photos tend to look average. But if you pass your camera to a friend to use, P is probably the best mode (other than the green Auto button).

The downside of Shutter Priority mode:

At say 1/1000 and a fixed ISO-100, the aperture will drop to the widest (say f3.5 on a kit lens) and the viewfinder will indicate Lo (for low or insufficent lighting). The camera will take the photo but will be underexposed. Similarly, in daylight at 1 second in S mode, the aperture will set itself to  f/22 (the narrowest value on most lenses). Yet it will probably give an over-exposed photo and the camera will complain that it can’t choose a narrower aperture, by indicating Hi (higher Aperture needed). If you were in Program mode, you would probably end up with 1/500 f/11 (with lens in focus). If you were in manual, you could set shutter speed to 1 second and aperture to f/22, then decide that you’d be happy to have something like 1/30 shutter at f/22 to get a correct exposure.

The downside of Aperture Priority:

At f/22 if you walk from the sun into the shade, shutter speeds could go from 1/125 to close to 1 second. A fixed low ISO, your shots will be blurry and you might only realise later. At night, your shutter speed might be insufficient at the 30 second maximum, indicating Hi (higher shutter needed) and giving an unexderexposed photo. If you were in Program mode, your aperture would change to something usuable like f/4.

*Diffraction: If you shoot at f/13, f/16, f/22 or f/32 or in between steps, the small opening of the aperture causes diffraction. More of the scene is in focus, but overall the sharpness and picture quality drops (very noticeable if you zoom in 100% on a computer or make large prints).

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This post focuses on portrait shoots, but also has some relevance for concerts. I also discuss my experiences on campus (University of Cape Town) where I take photos between lectures for fun and also for Varsity Newspaper assignments.


I’ve got two tripods now, I intent to leave one indoors and one in the boot of my car, so I can always use one when I need it. I particularly use it for landscape and macro work.

I bought a backback designed for lenses, so I can pack at least 6 in there and maybe a flash or a 2nd camera. Sometimes I can take as much as I want (studio shoot) and it will be safe, sometimes I need to make the bag light enough to carry and sometimes I have to narrow it down to one or two lenses only (such as for party events or journalism events on campus). So here are a few of the typical set ups I use.

Single lens situation

wide angle for landscapes or events. Such as 18-105 VR, or 24-70mm f/2.8 for low light. Maybe a 50mm f/1.8 or 30m f/1.4 in my camera bag, if its not practical to wear a backpack the whole time.

Some variety of lenses

For concerts and portraits, I have a certain approach. I take a long two Nikon DSLR camera bodies to wear around my neck, with one lens eac.h  My favourite primes are the 30mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8 and 85mm f/1.8.  Those three pair up well – I might start the shoot off using a 30mm (slightly wide) and 85mm (telephoto) at the same time. If I am not doing many wide shots for a part of the shoot, I will look into my backpack and swop the 30mm for a 50mm. But if I like the 30mm but I find the 85mm is too narrow for the situation, I’ll change it to a 50mm. I might add a wide-angle (18-105mm, or 24-70mm f/2.8) or longer telephoto (100mm f/2.8, or 135mm f/3.5) to my bag depending on how I predict the location/stage will look and what the lighting will do.

Large range with me

If I am doing a shoot an someone’s house or at a studio where space and weight are not an issue, I will take most of my lenses. Even though the fast apertures of the 30mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses might not be needed, they will give excellent results when stopped down to apertures like f/4 or f/8. Studio lighting or flashes make this practical.

If I don’t know which of the three lenses I will attach, I sometimes start off with the 24-70mm f/2.8 for indoor or outdoor shoots, to go through the zoom range and see what perspective and framing works.

I will take my long primes as well, both the 100mm f/2.8 and 135mm f/3.5 (which are both manual focus and manual aperture rings only). I bought manual focus 200m f/4, which I want to try on a shoot sometime.

Lastly, I’ll take a special effects lens like a fish-eye converter, or my homemade DIY tilt-shift lens.

I also have a 55-200mm VR kit lens, but it’s not that sharp compared to the telephoto primes. So I save it for sport where I need the autofocus and VR.

Walk-about lens

Everyone has their favourite walkabout lens – when travelling or walking around the streets (or me walking around university campus all week), it’s convenient to have a wide-angle with a zoom range. Such as the 18-105mm VR, which I find especially useful with a polariser filter to darken skies. I don’t own an 18-200mm, but it’s popular for this purpose.

Sometimes for a day or for one or two weeks, I’ll force myself to use a limited lens. I wanted to learn how to use my new 85mm f/1.8, so decided to use it exclusively on some days at university. It helped me work on focus, framing and other things which are specific techniques for that focal length and wide aperture.

I like to use the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 (cropped-sensor only) which is a slight wide-angle, but always has beautiful and surprisingly narrow depth of field. It doesn’t work well at long distances, but for short to medium distance focusing, it is amazing. It also has a pleasant natural vignette when shooting wide apertures like f/1.4 (similar issue with the 18-105mm at 18mm or 105mm at wide apertures, but not noticeable on the 50mm or 85mm which are fullframe lenses I use on a cropped-sensor body).

One time I decided to use a manual focus 50mm f/1.4 for 2 weeks straight. It is weird to compose with after using the 18-105mm almost everyday on campus for a year, but I enjoy the 50mm. It helps me find things to emphaise and removes clutter around the edges of the photo. Also  the wide aperture makes it fanstastic for portraits, close-up nature shots, indoors low light. My manual focusing skills also got better, such getting a statue in focus quickly or tracking birds or people moving past (I like the street photography style of crowds walking past on my campus). The lens is manual aperture ring too. On the D90, this meant that I could not shoot in P, A or S modes, only M. I have no lightmeter. I set the aperture phyiscally on the lens, had to try and remember what number I set it too when looking the viewfinder, and set a good shutter speed and ISO value. I used to use Aperture Priority and Program a lot, but having to use Manual helped me understand its advantages better. When I took photos in a dark hall and stepped out into the sun, the camera in A would normally automatically compensate the shutter and ISO for me. But now I had to think, “wait, this appears to be two F-stops brighter than inside”. I would then adjust my ISO, shutter speed and/or aperture depending what look I want, then take a photo and see if I guessed right. The eye sees contrast and lighting zones differently to the camera, so I learnt to figure out how the camera sees. Sometimes I would turn the aperture ring by two turns (two whole-stops) and be spot on. Sometimes I would adjust my shutter speed and be off by a third of a stop, or even way off by a stop.

Sometimes I thought about the difference in light levels deliberately and calculated in my head that I would need and extra stop, so turn the aperture ring by one click or the shutter dial by three clicks.

Sometimes I would go on instinct…  Such as I would move from shade to sun, or sun to indoors… I wouldn’t calculate the number of turns, I would just turn the aperture ring by a certain number of clicks without counting them (or one quick movement so I don’t know how many clicks there were). I wouldn’t look at the number I’ve set, I would just take the photo. And I would often surprise myself with how accurate this method can be for me. I would get a feel of how many turns are needed. This also happened when I shot in manual exposure with other lenses. It would be even stranger with shutter speed accuracy, such as when I would decide I need increase exposure by three stops. Normally I would turn 3 clicks from 1/4000 to 1/2000, then another three to 1/000, then another three clicks to 1/500.  Sometimes I lose count, maybe doing 2 or 4 clicks at time, or getting to in between numbers (1/3200) and losing the neat halving steps. I would be at maybe 1/4000 and turn the dial a couple of times, get lost, then turn a few more until I got to say 1/500, because it “felt” right. Maybe it felt right not be because of the distance to change, but because of the aperture and ISO which have been set and the the brightness of the scene.

I just felt like putting together some tips I came up with.

Rate your shoot back to front

When rating photos from a portrait shoot, I like to start sorting from the last photo and work towards the start giving most things a rating (in Lightroom 3, I use 4-star, 3-star, Pick and Reject a lot). Lightroom allows you to switch the order from A-Z to Z-A to make this easier.

The reason why is that a model relaxes during the shoot, I figure out the best lighting and settings etc. Also it’s hard to see sometimes if a shot is in focus or sharp enough… but if I start with the best photos, I realise just how crisp the sharp images are.when perfectly in focus and with no handheld blur.

An extension of this method, is that I usually sort portait shoots into subfolders. Such as 100 photos of one model, split into 40 shots of outfit 1, 40 of outfit 2 and 20 of outfit 3. The shots at the end of each folder will usually have the best lighting, poses, etc. while the first few shots are just tests. Other methods I split are location (#1 street location, # forest location) or by model (model #1, model #2…) or lens.

Be adaptable with your equipment

Sometimes batteries go flat in one of my two flashes, or I leave a lens at home… I find the best thing to do is improvise. Switch technique and movie batteries to the fancier flash, find an angle and perspective to make a lens look wider than it is, or imagine that the photo will be cropped later if you are missing a long lens. The strange thing is, choosing a technique which is not practical but is essential for the situation, helps me discover new things.

A good example is that I have a set of extension tubes, which I combined with a 50mm f/1.8 to get great macro shots of people’s eyes. I have a good angle of view and depth of field I was happy with. One day, the extension tubes that unscew got jammed together. I physically couldn’t use just two tubes. If I used one, then the 50mm view is too wide. If I use all three, the view is super close up and the depth of field is tiny. I had previously chosen the 50mm for several reasons as “macro” lens. Now I had to choose something else get the same macro view. I had previously disregarded the 85mm f/1.8, for some reasons. I also disregarded the 100mm f/2.8 manual lens, since it had a long focusing distance. I gave the 100mm a second chance. I had used it on object never used it with 3 extension tubes to take photos of an eye. The angle of view seemed to match the original photos I was doing with the 50mm and two tubes. But the 100mm gave some advantages… the minimum focusing distance was further away – which gives a less distorted view, allows more of eye to be in focus I think plus people will be more comfortable having the lens 15cm from their faces instead of the 50mm and 2cm away. I tried the 100mm f/2.8 out of curiousity in a difficult situation, now I consider the problem a blessing because I made a great discovery.

I thought the 30mm lens is too narrow to do landscapes on a cropped sensor, compared to 18mm. But sometimes I force myself to do landscapes with it at say the beach or a forest, knowing that I will have to think more creatively to fit everything in. I find that this lens actually allows me to take clutter out of the photo, such as if there were wires, or rock, or poles, or street signs or whatever on the borders of the photo, now they are cropped out.

Another approach is that I use the 18mm in certain ways to make it appear more like an ultra-wide lens. Such as by lying on the ground underneath some trees, or standing upright and tilting the camera up slightly to make trees or buildings look distorted. This is known as the problem of converging verticals, usually considered a problem for architecture photos, but can be used to great effect.