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Start From Scratch

January 5, 2010

I’m perfect, and I realize that you are too.  We don’t make mistakes.  We remember everything and forget nothing.  We walk on water, at least until the ice breaks.  But somewhere out there in internet land is a lost soul who isn’t perfect and who might occasionally make a mistake.  This tip is for them.

Have you ever pulled out your camera to capture a decisive moment, fired off a few frames before that moment ends and then, while chimping, you realize that the once-in-a-lifetime sunset you just witnessed was also recorded on your digital sensor at ISO 12,800?  I haven’t but I know this guy…

Here’s what I do to prevent such a catastrophe – I start from scratch every time I put my camera away.  A few years ago I decided to establish baseline settings at which my camera would always be set each and every time I stop using it.  Yes, this applies even if I’m only putting it away for a couple of minutes as I drive from one overlook to another.  Getting in this habit is virtually guaranteed to help you become the successful, world traveling nature photographer you deserve to be.

Here’s what I do:

  • Turn off Image Stabilization, if lens is so equipped. This is because lenses that make use of image stabilization, vibration reduction, etc. are designed to minimize movement introduced while handholding the camera.  I don’t know about your tripod but mine doesn’t get the shakes, except when used along the San Andreas Fault.  When your camera is mounted on a tripod it’s pretty rock solid.  The gyro inside IS or VR lenses actually creates vibrations in a tripod mounted camera and images made while that little motor is active may not be sharp.  There are lenses that automatically deactivate the gyro when the camera is on a tripod but they are few and far between, and they usually cost more than my truck.  Why take the chance?  Just turn off IS!
  • Remove filters from your lens. This doesn’t apply if you leave a UV filter mounted to your lens to protect the front element.  I don’t, which is my my lenses always end up with scratches on the glass.  Except the lens I’m selling to you which is in better than new condition.
  • Make sure the lens is set to Auto Focus, not Manual Focus. Do I really need to explain this one?  Nope.
  • Set your ISO to whatever level you are most likely to use. I always set mine to ISO 100.  Low noise, good for landscapes.  Not great for gazelles.  Adjust accordingly.
  • Set your aperture to whatever f/stop you are most likely to use. I use f/16.  Why?  I shoot mostly landscapes.  An aperture of f/16 means that if for some unknown, cosmic reason I whip out my camera, set it up on the tripod and capture the final seconds of the world’s most epic sunset behind Mt. Everest with a Yeti standing in the foreground the whole damn scene will be razor sharp.
  • Disable mirror lock-up. It is true that mirror-lock up, when used on a tripod mounted camera, can produce sharper images.  You press the shutter and the mirror locks in the “up” position.  You press the shutter again and the film/sensor is exposed.  But, what if that Yeti in our previous example is on the run?  You press the shutter, the mirror locks up and…nothing.  The Yeti is gone and you are left with a steaming load of nothing.  Remember this: a blurry Yeti is better than no Yeti at all.  The same is true of Elvis, Jim Morrison and the Burger King King.
  • Check the mode dial. I think I might have mentioned that I shoot landscapes.  Hence, my camera spends most of it’s time set to Av, or aperture value.  Av is right next to M (manual) and Tv (shutter value).  If I accidentally bump the mode dial and it moves into the M or Tv position I may well curse loudly the next time I use the camera only to discover that somethin’ just ain’t right after the decisive moment is no longer decisive.
  • Return exposure compensation to “0”. You may not want the next frame you fire off to be over-exposed by 2 stops.
  • Reset the focus point to the center. This doesn’t apply to you if your camera doesn’t have manually selectable focus points or if you just don’t use them.  I use mine.  I paid for them and by God, I’m going to get my money’s worth.
  • If you don’t shoot in RAW, check your white balance. I leave mine at Auto-White Balance (AWB) because in RAW it really doesn’t matter.  You can change it later in post-processing and nobody will ever know.
  • You don’t shoot in RAW? What the heck is wrong with you!?  Call or email me immediately – we need to talk.
  • Not as critical but not a bad idea, either: battery level, memory card capacity, drive function (i.e. one shot, high speed advance, etc.), meter mode, miscellaneous stuff on the front lens element (i.e. dust, water spots, a burly strand of Yeti hair).

Make it a habit to perform these checks regularly and you’ll never miss another photo opportunity because of a bonehead mistake that could have been avoided with a little extra effort.  You’ll thank me later.  Actually, you probably won’t and I’m okay with that.

Tell us all your deepest thoughts (on this article): Did I leave out something important?  Was this useful, worthless or somewhere in between?  Do you perform any rituals related to photography that are legal, not creepy and potentially helpful to your fellow photographer?  Please, leave a comment.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. January 5, 2010 8:31 am

    This is a great tip! And not one you see or hear about very often.

  2. January 5, 2010 8:38 am

    A good list of tips Bret.

    It just takes one or two of these to happen and you won’t forget your list at all. I had the ISO issue happen once in Hawaii and it actually helped one image in the overall look, but hurt a few later in the morning.

  3. January 5, 2010 9:21 am

    I love it Bret. These are all so true, and they have (almost) all happened to me. Thanks for the great checklist; its one I’ll make sure to have tattooed to my forearm.


  4. January 5, 2010 9:23 am

    Hi Bret, this is a very complete “post-flight” check list. Just to cover my bases, I try to “pre-flight” my gear…especially prior to any major shoot. Although I also shoot predominantly RAW, I still tend to use a custom white balance, even in daylight, as this is just one less step I need to worry about in post-processing. It also tends to bring out the true primary colors better. One other thing I check is the battery level – both before and after a shoot. With todays batteries, you can often go for several shoots on a single charge…but when the charge starts to drop off, look out!

  5. January 5, 2010 10:01 am

    Bret, I haven’t made even half of those mistakes….since yesterday! Seriously I was out in the blowing snow in the dark and forgot to turn back to auto focus, forgot what ISO I was on, and forgot to turn my mirror lock-up back on. Good list. Can we get it in audio format to play on the headphones while out in the field? 😀

  6. January 5, 2010 10:05 am

    Thank you for the comments, folks.

    Greg: The tattoo is a brilliant idea! I probably wouldn’t think it through and would end up with it tattooed on my back. Would it be awkward to pull up my shirt and ask the photog standing next to me to read the checklist out loud?

    Ken: Excellent suggestion to always do a “pre-flight” check as well. Checking the battery level is a great idea. I’ve been almost snagged by that one a couple of times.

    Erik: I think in your case I should have also added this little tidbit, “Always double check the seals on your waterproof camera housing.” 😉

  7. January 5, 2010 1:31 pm

    I have composed a similar post in my head numerous times, but never got around to putting it to text – good stuff!

    I take a different approach – I always want to be ready for the unexpected wildlife sighting, so I make sure IS is on, and that the aperture is wide open. Maybe the difference of living in Moab vs. Alaska.

  8. January 5, 2010 2:56 pm

    Ron: Really good point! I’m sure if I thought I might run into a grizzly bear somewhere out here in the desert I’d keep my camera in “ready to shoot” mode, too. I’m lucky to see a rabbit amongst the brush out here!

  9. January 5, 2010 3:11 pm

    Nice write up Bret. I have a similar post. The biggest change I made to reduce the number setting accidents is routinely set my camera back to a base setting: ISO 200, f/8 in Aperture priority mode. Depending on where you live and your subjects the ISO value can vary. I myself keep IS on by default, but disable it when using a tripod.

  10. January 5, 2010 3:49 pm

    Great advice, Jim. Bottom line: Find settings that work for your type of photography and the area you photograph and use them as your baseline.

  11. Jack Garrett permalink
    January 5, 2010 3:58 pm

    Nice Blog Bret! I pretty much do the things you suggested before putting the camera away except a couple times I forgot the mirror lockup thing….not good when you want to take a quick image and all the sudden the screen goes black. I have a printed check list I use whenever I’m ready to shoot, just to make sure I’ve covered all the bases.

  12. Dan (D J) Kuklinski permalink
    January 5, 2010 4:26 pm

    Excellent article! I can relate to many of the things you have mentioned such as forgetting to reset the ISO, the mode dial, and focusing.

  13. January 5, 2010 4:50 pm

    Great list Bret. I try to do most all these things, but without a list I’ll forget something just about every time. The ISO is the one I forget most of the time.

    I would add format the memory card in the camera to the check list. I’ve started out and found the card full after very few shots. At that point, it’s too late to format and you’ve used up a card. I’ve had to delete shots one at a time on the camera before. What a pain!!! You’d think I’d learn.

  14. January 5, 2010 10:01 pm

    One thing you didn’t mention is that many newer cameras now have custom mode settings available on the mode dial (some have as many as three) which can help for many (but not all) of these settings. I always reserve one custom mode for my baseline landscape settings and another for my baseline wildlife settings. Thus, if my main priority for an outing is landscape photography, I leave the camera set on that mode and every time I shut off and turn on (or re-awaken) the camera, I’m at my baseline setting. Additionally, if I do get surprised by an unexpected wildlife encounter, all I have to do is flip over to my other custom setting and I can fire away. Pretty slick!

    • January 5, 2010 10:03 pm

      Genius idea, Guy. I hadn’t thought about using those custom mode settings in that way. I think I’ll start, though. Awesome tip!

  15. January 5, 2010 10:06 pm

    Great ideas.
    I do all of those and, in addition, I set each of my modes to the settings I prefer. Shutter priority to 1/125, Aperture to f8, Manuel to both, and then leave it on Program mode. Why? So that if I need to just grab the camera and shoot it’s ready. That way I don’t miss the shot trying to fool around with the settings.

    Again, great post.


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