September 19, 2011

Why Camera Settings Don’t Tell the Whole Story.

Poor Amy & Angie. It was not even an hour after we’d met (in “real life”) and were discussing the next day’s Orange County Photography Workshop, that they told me one of the most asked-for workshop components was that we share our camera settings as we shot during the workshop. I replied something to the effect of: “Why? Camera setting information is worthless.” (“Tact” has never been my middle name). I’m thinking that at that moment, Amy & Angie were wondering if it was too late to find a different guest teacher!

Let me explain why I don’t often think camera settings are terribly helpful for the general public: there are just so. very. many. differing pieces of input that go into any given camera settings. What works on my camera may not work on yours. Is the photographer using a film camera, a dslr, a point & shoot? Is the camera full frame or cropped sensor? How near or far is the photographer from the subject? Is the light dim or bright? Shadow or full sun? Backlit, front-lit, side-lit, overhead-lit? Are all parts of the subject on the same focal plane or on different focal planes? How much distance is between the subject and the foreground and background? Can the camera handle high ISO or does the resulting “noise” get too bad? Is my subject moving or still? These are just a few of the parameters that come quickly to my mind that help me determine what settings I’ll use. And each of these determining factors are all hard to “see” when one is just looking at camera setting data.
Ok, that was a lot of words. Let me show you what I mean …

Both these next pictures have the exact same camera settings: 50mm, f/2.2, 1/500 sec, iso 400 … but on different cameras (Canon 5d, Canon Rebel). Of course, the images look entirely different, even though utilizing the exact same settings.

50mm 2.2 5d vs rebel

Same exact settings as above, I just moved a little close to the Legos:

50mm 2.2 rebel vs 5d close-up

I took all the above sets of photographs from the exact same place (neither closer nor further away). The cropped camera (in this case, the Rebel) is always going to seem much closer, more zoomed. And the bigger the zoom of the lens, the greater the difference between the two cameras, despite having the same settings. Observe in the following flower example …
50mm, f/4.5, 1/500 sec, iso 400

105mm 4.5 5d vs rebel

The second flower image almost appears as if photographed by a macro lens.
These next images of my dog are all taken on the same camera (5d) with the same lens with the same exact settings. The only thing that changed was my distance from Dog Dude. And that changed-distance between us radically impacts the resulting depth of focus in each of the images. Compare the quality of focus on the floor, Dog Dude, tennis ball, bone, chairs, & couch. Watch what falls out of focus, depending how close or far from Dog Dude I placed myself.

24mm, f/1.4, 1/100 sec, iso 200

24mm 1.4 comparison

I tried to get Dog Dude to look directly at me, so I could show a truly dramatic drop-off of focus, but he was decidedly uncooperative. So here’s a picture from last year that demonstrates what I’m talking about. Same camera, lens, & aperture:


This picture of Dog Dude’s nose also introduces another subtle factor that isn’t necessarily reflected by mere camera settings. Distance between photographer & subject can create distortion. Observe this next comparison. Same camera, same camera settings, different distances between me and my son: Canon 5d, 24mm, f/1.4, 1/640 sec, iso 400.

24mm 1.4 5d distance comparison

The first image is clearly, and unflatteringly, distorted. In addition, it bothers me that one eye is in focus and one is NOT. Moving back just 18″ produces a much different picture. My son is entirely in focus and just the background gets fuzzed out.
In this last comparison, the settings are exactly the same as above. Since my son is silhouetted to the camera, the focus on him is fine, but he remains unpleasantly distorted in the second image, where I was positioned 24″ closer to him.

24mm 1.4 5d dof comparison

I guess all I’m really trying to show here is that there’s more to the story than just the mere camera settings data. Just studying or copying someone’s settings might not create the image you desire, unless you’re also replicating the other existing factors (light, physical setting, distance, etc.).

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