An auto-focusing modes primer

Autofocus is such a wonder-tool in our cameras that I'm sure quite a few of us have no idea how we ever managed to take tack-sharp photos without it. But how many of us actually use it to its full potential? There's a bit more to auto-focus than the single or one shot default. Without further ado, here's a quick primer into the different auto-focusing modes you're likely to find on your camera, and when best to make use of them.

One or Single shot

This is probably what you think of as 'auto-focus'. You point your camera at your subject, you line up your auto-focusing points over it, you half-depress the shutter button, and the camera attempts to focus on the subject. When it finds focus, it 'locks' onto it until you complete the depression of the shutter button or release it and re-focus your shot. This mode is great for most subjects that don’t move a lot.

The apples weren't going anywhere; one shot was just fine

Canon calls this mode 'One shot'; you'll see it marked as 'AF-S' on Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony cameras; Olympus refers to it as S-AF and Pentax as AF.S.

Continuous or Servo mode

When you're shooting fast-moving subjects and want to keep them in focus, try using continuous or servo mode. While you half-depress the shutter release button, the camera will repeat the auto-focusing operation in order to keep your subject sharp as it moves across the frame.

Tracking something fast moving? Try AI Servo or AF-C mode.

Canon reckons its servo mode can track subjects approaching or receding at upto 50 kilometres per hour, making it good for capturing plenty of sports.

Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony refer to this mode as AF-C; it's marked as AI Servo on Canon cameras; on a Pentax you'll see it as AF.C; and it's C-AF on an Olympus camera.

Intelligent or Automatic auto-focus

'Intelligent' focus is a half-way house between single shot and continuous auto-focus. When you half-depress the shutter button, the camera is set to recognise movement in the subject. For subjects that don't move, the camera will use one shot auto-focusing. Should it detect movement from the subject, it will automatically switch to continuous auto-focus and start to track the subject.

Animals (and children) often favour AF-A mode

While this mode might seem like the best of both worlds, and it can be very handy particularly if you're photographing children or animals, it can sometimes be a bit of a let-down and isn't quite fast enough to deliver the results you want.

Canon calls this mode AI Focus AF. It's AF-A on Nikon and Sony cameras, while Pentax refers to it as AF.A.

Manual focus

It was learning to align the focusing markers in an SLR that first got me hooked on photography, almost 30 years ago. Back in the early 80s, auto-focus was only just beginning to make its way into cameras. Now we often wonder how we cope without it. But still, there are times when auto-focus simply won't do and you need to switch to manual focus, maybe for macro shots or some landscapes. If there's no obvious manual focus option on your camera, try looking on your lens: there's likely a switch to be flicked there.

Macro shots can benefit from manual focus (Image by Haje)

Often, but not always, your camera will help you by beeping or flashing when it thinks that you might have achieved focus on your subject. If you're using live view rather than through the lens, try using the manual focus assist option that lots of cameras have now. Rather than displaying the full frame, it zooms in on the area where you've focused, making it easier to hone in with precision on your subject. It's a useful tool to demonstrate just how big a difference a small adjustment can make to your focusing, too.

Exploiting your camera's capabilities

Your camera is gifted with heaps of different tools to help you get the shots that you envisage; there's more to it than exposure and metering. Don't forget to make use of them - that's why they're there!

Dare to stray into bulb mode

When setting your shutter speed, have you ever wound the adjustment wheel so far into long exposure that you've gone past seconds and found 'B' or 'Bulb' on your screen? Or maybe you've noticed that you have a 'B' option on your mode wheel, somewhere between Manual and Custom settings? This is bulb mode, and it allows you to control the duration of the exposure for precisely as long as you would like. It's perfect for exposures in excess of the 30 seconds that most cameras have as their longest shutter speed, or for when you need to be in control, for example if you're practising high-speed photography. First, a quick word on why it's known as 'bulb' mode. Haje has a much more thorough explanation here, but it doesn't have anything to do with light bulbs. It's from back in the day when you could control your shutter speed using an air bulb connected to your camera.

'B'? What the hell does that do? (Picture thanks to Triggertrap.)

When your camera is in bulb mode, you open the shutter by depressing the shutter release button; as soon as you raise your finger off of the button, the shutter will close. Seeing as it isn't terribly convenient to stand with your finger on your shutter release button for minutes or even hours on end—and it's not fabulous for camera-shake, either—most people use bulb mode in conjunction with a remote shutter release. And a tripod, but that's probably quite obvious.

Plenty of remote shutter releases come with a locking mechanism, so that you don't need to hold your finger down there, either. However, if you go for something such as our much-beloved Triggertrap, you can select from a variety of different modes to control your super-long exposure, including a timed release that lets you set the duration of your exposure down to fractions of a second, a star-trails setting, and even a bulb-ramping option to fine-tune exposure during very long time-lapse recordings.

Late night in East London

Even if you're shooting at night, your camera's sensor will be able to detect far more light than you think it can, especially with a very long exposure. Consequently, using a small aperture is recommended. If you're photographing during the day, you might benefit from a neutral density filter to prevent unavoidably over-exposing your images, too.

It is worth bearing in mind that using bulb mode can drain your battery enormously. Don't set off to capture star trails with a less-than-fully-charged battery. Take a spare if you have one, too. It's a complete waste to maroon yourself in the middle of nowhere with limited light pollution only for your camera to keel over halfway into the exposure.

Waterfalls, shot using bulb mode. (Picture thanks to Triggertrap.)

Now that you know what bulb is, what can you do with it? Perhaps you'd like to try some long exposures of landscapes? Or maybe capture some smooth, milky-looking water tumbling from a fall. You might want to try your hand at a star trail, or have a go at light painting. You could even grab a flash adapter and have a crack at some high-speed photography and burst some water balloons. So many options presented to you with so much time from bulb mode!

Snapseed says hello to Android

Snapseed editing awesomeness now available for Android

When Google snapped up Snapseed, which is undoubtedly my favourite editing app for mobile photography, earlier this year there was a lot of groaning and sighing around the Intergoogles. There's been a nasty tendancy to acquire successful companies for their talent, but shutter the product itself. Snapseed, however, might have been a trend-bucker. When Google bought out Nik Software, Snapseed's owners, it was an iOS-only app. But not from today. Now it's all hunky-dory and Android-ified.

Phones and tablets that are running Ice Cream Sandwich or later are able to make use of Snapseed's comprehensive and intuitive editing package. Sure you can do fun things with your photos using Snapseed, for example adding grunge effects or a vintage look, but it offers you the ability to adjust and control the fundamentals–such as the white balance, the contrast, and the sharpening–and make selective adjustments easily, too. Snapseed lets you edit 'properly'; it isn't just about fun filters.

It's this solid base that's made Snapseed so popular, and allowed Dan Chung to live blog from Olympics with his iPhone

Snapseed, whether on iOS or Android supports nine different languages, and as of today is now free, too.

You can download Snapseed from the App Store or Google Play.

Seasonal gifts and goodies

It might not take pictures, but it looks the part. £5

If you're looking for a little-ish gift for a photographically inclined loved one, these are eight favourite suggestions coming in at £25 or under (so that's around $40). Some are quirky, some are practical, but with luck, any of them should bring a smile to someone's face. Better yet, they are all available online so you don't need to brave the thronging hordes on the high street.

Camera necklace

In-keeping with my search for a piece of camera-oriented jewellery, this year I went in search of necklaces. I've found a heap of them. Who knew that they'd be so popular? But here are two of my favourites:

Antique-looking silver for $15

Or chunky acrylic for £5


When I road-tested tiltpods for mobile and compact cameras earlier this year, I said that I thought they'd make great presents, but I wouldn't necessarily buy one for myself. Seeing as this is the season to be giving gifts...

Tiltpods for mobile or compact camera are $14.95

Cookie Cutters

Cookie dough + camera-shaped cookie cutter = An edible Nikon D800. What's not to love?

All of $17.95

Bokeh Masters kit

More than anything I think that adding cute shaped bokeh to the background of your pictures is good fun. This kit gives you 25 pre-cut shapes to play with and an opportunity to craft eight of your own.

$25 from DIY Photography

Triggertrap mobile

Wirelessly control your SLR from your mobile phone (Android or iOS) to make time-lapses or distance-lapses; trigger the shutter using sound, vibration, or facial recognition; chase stars, and generally have far too much fun with a camera.

The app costs $4.99 from Apple or Google Play, the all-important dongle is $29.99


Having a multi-tool stashed in your kit-bag can be Very Useful Indeed. You never know when you might need a screw driver or a pair of scissors. There are hundreds to choose from, but right now this Leatherman is great value.

$35 on Amazon US

Or £36 on Amazon UK


If someone were to ask me which photography book I'd most like this year, it would be one that's beautiful and inspires me. So I'm going to suggest National Geographic's Life in Color.

$40 from the National Geographic store

Fracture gift certificate

The wonderful people at Fracture sponsor our monthly photo contest here and supply the winner with a gorgeous 12" Fracture. They also offer gift certificates so your beloved photographer can turn their own images into stunning glass prints.

As much as you want to spend

Of course, last year's suggestions are just as valid this year. So do take a look at that list, which includes practical cleaning kits and grey cards as well as adorable camera-shaped rubber stamps.

Biography Buzzword Bingo!

Earlier this week I had the terrible misfortune to follow a link on Twitter that took me through to a photography-oriented q&a column. Someone posed a question and the readers chimed in with answers in the comments section. Of course, a q&a column in and of itself isn't a gruesome thing, and in fact neither was the question. A young photographer was querying the importance of a biography and an artist's statement; she'd never written one before, she didn't know exactly how significant they were, and because she didn't really write she wasn't sure how to approach it. That's pretty straightforward, but Eurynome on a unicycle, the answers left me gagging.

The adage that you should never read the bottom half of the Intergoogles held good here–and given that the article was entirely incomplete without the bottom half, was somewhat unfortunate–because it would seem that there's a shutter of photographers out there who take themselves far too seriously. No, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't take a bio or an artist's statement seriously; they're how your audience or your potential clients connect to you as an individual. What it means is that they need to be honest, approachable, and a reflection of who you are.

Your biography shouldn't be so vomit-inducing or cringe-worthy that people can't make it past the first sentence, or so esoteric or unbelievable that people have no idea what you're going on about or think that you're off your rocker. You're a photographer, you take photos; it is highly unlikely that you're capable of changing the world through the medium of your art. If you truly are one those handful of photographers who is able to influence the way that the global community sees the world, the chances are you don't have time to write about it in your bio. And what the hell are are doing reading this?

After I'd restrained the urge to scratch out my eyeballs as a result of the sheer vulgarity of what I'd read, I showed it to Gareth. Thankfully, he had a slightly different reaction: he fell about laughing. When he'd regained his composure (it took a while) he came up with some far superior advice for the young photographer struggling to construct her biography. Here, then, speaks the voice of experience.

Gareth Dutton (Bsc, MA, Ph.D, RGB, ABS, NBA, NBC, HBO, ROFL, LMAO, OMGWTFBBQ) is a hyper-dynamic, dangerously powerful photo-leopard and the proud owner of the title Impossibly Powerful Light Lord of the Entire Photoverse, which is a prestigious title given only to those who undertake a seven day course where you are assigned to photograph a graveyard to learn about black and white conversion: a course run by the prestigious Dr. FraudGob McUntrustworthy-Smyth.

Gareth doesn't just create photographs, though; he visually transcribes the art waves that he detects and accumulates in his emotional core to create powerful, tear-inducing art-tographs. The “Dutton Experience” is one that his clients talk about long after they leave the studio, when returning to their imaginary homes, whilst wearing their imaginary clothes that cover their imaginary bodies.

Seriously, you expect anyone to believe that hurtling ball of imaginary nonsense? Does it say anything at all about the photographer? Does it distinguish his work from any other photographer's? And this is where far too many photographers get it wrong: it's the difference between a bio written by a photographer and bio written by a salesperson.

For a long time, I had no bio on my website, because I just couldn't think of something that didn't sound awful. I had a go at one, looked at it a week later and cringed so hard I burst the blood vessels in my forehead and inadvertently pierced both my ears with my shoulder blades. A few rewrites later and I felt much better, massive haemorrhaging notwithstanding. So why is it so hard to write a bio? The problem lies in avoiding the buzzword trap.

Think about it; how many times have you read these lines?

  • 'I love to capture a moment in time before it is lost forever.' That translates as 'I love to take photos.'
  • 'Gareth's timeless images push the boundaries / are at the cutting edge of photography / display his completely innovative style'. Really? Unless you really are that influential, writing this makes you look silly.
  • 'Clients come away knowing that they've experienced a Gareth Dutton shoot.'  Oh please! Nobody is going to walk away from a photoshoot going 'I really feel like I've just experienced a Gareth Dutton shoot.' Admittedly, this does sometimes happen with me, but that feeling they have is a sense of terrible unease and creeping dread.

Essentially, you want to avoid making your bio sound like a press release: a procession of vague half-lies, presented in the form of sterilised, buzzword-heavy non-sentences. As a result, I was wracking my brain, wondering what I could write about myself that wasn't clichéd and embarrassing. Eventually, I realised I should probably just be honest and show a little personality. I just wrote about what I do, the type of photography I undertake and added the tiniest sprinkling of humour, or 'humour', depending on your standpoint.

It's a bit like taking a self-portrait: you can set up some studio lights, get your face all chiaroscuro'd up, look moody and interesting and then clone out all those blackheads in Photoshop, but is it a portrait of you anymore? Step away from the word processor, forget about writing a bio, and just say something out loud about yourself, to yourself. Don't worry, no one else can hear you, so you don't sound like a prize prat.

Now write it down.

Tiresome ramblings aside, the important thing is to write honestly. Why do you take photographs? What do you like about photography (apart from 'capturing a moment forever')? Anyone you admire specifically? Is there an area of photography you specialise in, or undertake more frequently than others? What are your hobbies? What gets you going creatively, emotionally, aside from photography? These are all good starting points for a more interesting, more personalised bio.

In my opinion, the golden rule is to read a sentence out loud and then imagine yourself saying it to another human being in a bar. If this imaginary scene ends with the human being in question quietly downing their drink, placing the glass down on the bar and saying 'Excuse me, but I need to go and talk to... well, someone who isn't you,' then it's probably a sentence you should edit or remove.

It's that time again, my elegant photo-beasts and beastettes – homework time. Your homework is to have a look at your bio and remove anything that sounds like it belongs in an intro for the Managing Director of a Global Logistics Solutions company (whatever one of those is) and rewrite it.

Then, when you've rewritten your bio so that you don't sound as if you've been processed by a Z-list celebrity agent, we've a treat for you: Bio Buzzword Bingo! You can download your very own word search and seek out the collection of marketing-tastic words that really shouldn't be anywhere else than hidden away in a grid of otherwise incomprehensible letters.


Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to find out whether 'synergy' can still be used in a sentence or if it's been ruined forever.

The gorgeous illustration, by the way, was drawn by the highly talented James Park of Sweetmeats Illustration.

This is photography; there's no beta

People 11 - oh my!

‘Getting something done, anything, which can then be iterated on is more important to me than hitting an intended vision.’ So said one of my friends in a conversation with me over the weekend. He’s a software developer and he subscribes to the ideal of ‘release early and release often’. For him, it’s better to get his project out there in a functional but imperfect state, and then work on refining it. I laughed and replied that that philosophy is utterly contrary to how I work, both as a photographer and a writer.

Whatever I do, I have to do it the very best of my capabilities every time, because once the shutter has clicked or the book has gone to print, there’s no going back. Whilst I’m convinced that I’ll never take the perfect photograph, it is what I strive for whenever I pick up my camera. I don’t think that there’d be any point in practising the craft of photography – or of calling myself a photographer – if I didn’t.

And if photography isn’t about the vision, then please do tell me what it is about, because I’ve been doing wrong for about 25 years.

My friend was astonished by my response. He genuinely believed that you can treat photographs as an iterative project. The specific example that he cited was concert photography. At which point I spluttered into my coffee and decided that I had to take things back a few steps and divide the craft of photography from its outcome.

The craft of photography, yes, that is iterative. But then, just about everything in life is iterative. You do something, you analyse it and identify what you did well and what you could have done better, you learn from it, and you apply what you learned next time. This approach is just as valid for photography as it is for baking a cake, acting a role, or doing the long jump. In striving for that elusive perfect photograph I need to build on my previous successes and failures and attempt to do it better every time.

The outcome, a photograph, is definitely not iterative. A photograph captures a single instant, a fleeting moment, and when it has gone, it’s gone. There is no going back. Try as hard as you might to recreate it, the light will be different, the atmosphere will have changed, the look will have passed. You have one shot, and it has to be the best you can make it. There’s no possibility of the release of an updated version that you can debug, patch holes, and clean up. It is definitely about hitting an intended vision.

And despite my friend’s beliefs, this is every bit as true for concert photography as for any other type of photography. You’ve three songs to condense the atmosphere, the energy, the look, into an image. All of what you can see, feel, and hear needs to be translated into a photograph. Then it’s done. Over. Finished. And the next concert that you go to will have a completely different feel, a different look, a different sense of presence, so you will have to do your very best all over again to encapsulate it in a picture.

No, there’s no beta in photography. You’ve one shot; it has to be the best that you can manage. Every time.

(Yeah, we probably all know this. But I needed to get this off of my chest.)

Taking 'shooting self portraits' to a new level.

Today, aged 88, Ria van Dijk still makes her pilgrimage to the Shooting Gallery.

In almost every picture #7 tells the story of a Dutch woman whose life is seen from the point of view of a fairground shooting gallery.

The chronological series begins in 1936, when a 16-year-old girl from Tilburg in Holland picks up a rifle and shoots at the target in a shooting gallery.

Today, aged 88, Ria van Dijk still makes her pilgrimage to the Shooting Gallery.

Every time she hits the target, it triggers the shutter of a camera.

The prize? The girl firing the gun gets a copy of the photo.

And so, a life-long love affair with the shooting gallery begins.

This series documents almost every year of the woman’s life (apart from a not-too-difficult-to-understand six-year hiatus between 1939 and 1945) up until present times.

In almost every picture #7 is a biography of one woman’s life from an unusual perspective.

The series enables us to witness the times she lived in, as well as acting as a revealing look at the changing face of photography through the decades.

If you’re interested, you can buy the book here, or take a look at a selection of the photos over on their website!

(via Uggclogs)