Getting it right, every time : F-QMAASS

I shoot in manual mode, and the only thing I ever float is my ISO.  However, sometimes while shooting, I diverge and start changing settings to accommodate for the conditions of the scene. Now, as an extreme hobbyist nature photographer.  I say ‘extreme’ because I make a small amount of money doing this, but mostly I do it as an altruistic pursuit, a vocation.  Ok, enough about me….sometimes when I am shooting I forget to check my settings and then I blow an entire set or even an entire location.

I developed QMAASS as a way for me to always do a sanity check whenever I am shooting. I run through this checklist every time I change “sets”.  A “set” is a group of photos from a locational scene. So, when I am in a particular location, and am shooting a particular scene, I may take three or four sets. When I change scenes, the set needs to be checked, and that is where QMAASS comes into play.

By “set”, I mean settings, which has everything to do with how I have my camera configured. It’s a paradigm that I use to help me make sure that my camera is properly configured for the scene I am shooting, which includes considerations for the lens I am using, for the lighting, the subject matter, and whatever effect I am trying to achieve.

I shoot in manual mode almost always, and sometimes, between scenes, some time passes. As a nature photographer, I shoot in some very diverse conditions, and so my sets are wildly divergent at times.

Camera settings during a particular grouping of photos  of a particular subject matter applied to a different set can destroy my photos.

For example, last weekend I was shooting a Great Horned Owl sitting on her nest. I was shooting through lots of twigs and had the camera in manual focus mode.  I left the scene, and as we were driving into a new scene, a Harrier was playing around not 50 feet from us. I stopped my car, jumped out, started shooting, and blew the entire set except for one shot – I was in manual focus, and a coincidence of distance focused one shot out of the whole set. I learned that I need to have the camera in a neutral QMAASS, which is a balance of settings that will work in most situations. While I was shooting the Harrier, I was able to run through QMAASS and get the shutter speed up, but QMAASS has no “F” for focus.

So now I’ve added the F, and it is F-QMAASS. below, I list what each setting is, and what I use for each when I am between sets. So, every set I ever do will start with these settings, which may ( will ) change during the set.

  • F- = focus mode and drive (this include manual/auto, AI servo/single drive, and the auto focus points.)  — AI servo
  • Q = quality (jpg, raw. Etc)  — RAW (captures far more information than jpg and can be used to recover massively under or overexposed photos
  • M = mode (manual, Tv, Av, Custom. My camera goes not not have an Auto mode ). –Manual
  • A = Aperture –8 – 11 for birds. 8 for birds far away, up to 14 for close ones and if you have enough light.
  • A = Auto ISO –Auto, though sometimes I set it to 1000 to force the camera to a different exposure. For example, shooting the moon is best at 200 ISO
  • SS = Shutter Speed – 1/f  or 1/(f – 1) if the subject matter is relatively stable, 1/(f – n)  if the subject is absolutely still and I am on a tripod.  1/(f + n) for stop motion, adding n until stop motion is achieved or I am at my fastest shutter speed. f = focal length of my lens, so for example, if I am shooting at 800mm I would not want to drop my shutter speed slower than 1/800 unless I am confident I can hand hold it steady or if I am tracking on a moving subject.

F-QMAASS needs to be checked twice. First: before a set starts. Second: when a set finishes. Why both before and after? Well, for me, when I am walking around with my camera dangling at my side, there is no end to the number of buttons I can accidentally hit. Sometimes, I even bump the AE lock button. I don’t have a letter for that in my acronym because it’s an icon in my viewer and it has high visibility, so I can just kill it when I see it.

So, that’s the story behind F-QMAASS. I needed a way to make certain that I could quickly check, and reset as needed, all of the settings that may he changed intentionally during a set, and accidental between sets.

Let me know if you have any questions, and I am always happy to answer any questions you may have in the future.

You can read tips on composition and lighting there:

How to Improve Your Canon SLR Performance

What does this mean? Isn’t a camera just a camera?  Is there anything that can be done to make it work better?  Well, it depends.  If it is  real crappy camera, then “no.”  But it you have a halfway decent DSLR, then “Yes.”  Whenever you take a picture, your camera image sensor gets hit by a bunch of photons, the photons get converted to electrons, which get converted to 0’s and 1’s in the camera’s RAM disk, or buffer.  Then, the camera takes the data in the buffer, converts it into an image format, and then loads it onto the camera’s memory card. Or something like that, anyway. the Digic processors may convert it to an image before dumping it in the buffer, or maybe it goes into the buffer, or some sort of L2 cache, and juggles things around…anyway….

Here’s the problem: Images can, typically, load from the sensor to the buffer faster than they can load from the buffer to the flash memory.  Now, you can’t do anything about the sensor-to-buffer speed, but you can do something about the buffer-to-memory speed:  buy  a better card.

I’ve been shooting digital for a long time, and used to swear by the SANdisk cards.  Then, one day, I picked up a Hoodman RAW CF card.  I don’t even remember where I was.  But, it was a great card.  I could shoot more photos, faster, and recover more quickly then ever before from long bursts. SO, i bought a couple of Hoodman STEEL 1000X compact flash (CF) for my Canon 1DX. ANd then I made this stupid video.

I don’t show it in this video, but in large JPG, I can pretty much shoot continuously.  I don’t recommend doing that – it is possible to overheat the camera (So I’ve read).  It’s a good idea to not do the mean things to your camera that you see me doing to mine 🙂  At any rate, higher X numbers mean BETTER performance.  Never buy CF from the brick and mortar retailers- they simply DO NOT carry the good cards – they just don’t (I went all over the place one day, looking!).  It’s not even close.  You’ll pay twice as much for half the card that you’ll get for the price of ONE Hoodman 16 GB 1000X .

I actually found cards out there, for sale on websites, for $200 that are note even half as good as the Hoodman cards.  Anyway, this is not a paid endorsement, I speak my mind.  I have a 675X RAW from hoodman that I have had for a few months, and its been great, so I thought I would post a video about Camera flash memory card performance, to help people understand where the bottlenecks are. One final note – in this video, when I first shoot about 50 images using the crappy card, the camera was shooting in JPG, not raw.  The card still sucks – but the 1DX buffer is so huge it just takes 50 shots before you notice.  Once the buffer is full, you wait. And wait.  And wait!

Take a look.  I apologize for all the annoying interruptions.  I hope you can tolerate sitting through this video….

How to Enable and Disable the Self-cleaning Sensor on a Canon 1D X

The Canon’s 1DX self-cleaning sensor unit is actually attached to the  low pass filter mounted over the image sensor.  It is rigged to vibrate and shake dust off.  Typically, dust enters the SLR mirror and sensor chamber when lenses are removed and attached, but a certain amount of dust can be expected from normal wear.  Additionally, oil from internal components can become dislodged from internal components and stick to the sensor.  This is supposedly rare. I sure hope it is…. However, if for some reason the dust doesn’t shake off, remaining dust spots can be dealt with programmatically until such time as you can get it cleaned.  Which will of course means that you have to go without your camera for a few days.

When the self-cleaning sensor is enabled, it will engage every time you turn the camera off, or turn it on.  I got to thinking that I really only needed it to work every now and then, so I disabled it.  Then I went down the rabbit hole.  I began to wonder why the feature would be there if it wasn’t useful. Naturally,  I then wanted to turn it back on, but I had forgotten how to do it.  As I do with all things I think I will forget, I decided to make this little video here that will remind me how to do it.

After watching this video, you may now find yourself wondering about my earlier statement, “remaining dust spots can be dealt with programatically until such time as you can get it cleaned.”  I haven’t tried this out yet, but apparently you can, using a single, white card or placard or anything pure white, take a  photo and then use the dust in the photo to automatically auto-correct the dust in post. This process is called “Auto Append Dust Delete Data.”  Well, a better title would have been “Auto Append Dust Data” because you can’t really delete dust 😉

To do this, (and this is something you may want to do before every important shoot)(I know! All you need is more crap to do, right?) mount the camera to a tripod, make some nice uniform lighting (hey, use spot metering on the camera to check!) on a big card of white paper.  Set the tripod mounted camera about 1 foot (30 cm) away from the card. Then:

  1. go into manual mode.
  2. use a 50mm or longer lens
  3. focus to infinity and beyond
  4. Shoo Buzz Lightyear out of your picture
  5. Depress the Menu button
  6. Then, under the third context menu under the camera icon, select “Dust Delete Data” and hit (SET)
  7. This will touch off a sensor cleaning.
  8. Now, you need to take a picture.  Press the shutter button. the picture is not saved, but the information is collected at f/22.
Once it finishes collecting the data, a success or failure message will appear. If it failed, try  starting from the beginning.

Once this information has been collected, it will be appended as metadata to all RAW and JPG files. Digital Photo Professional can make use of this data to remove dust. And don’t worry, according to the manual, the amount of data actually attached to the files is trivial, and you won’t notice a significant increase in size.

My camera is new, so I don’t have any dust to report yet.  As soon as it does, though, I will come back and try this out, and I will post a How To on using Digital Photo Professional to leverage the Delete Dust Data. Hopefully this works better than making AF microadjustments to my every faithful 2.8 L 24-70mm lens. To be fair to Canon, I did that completely wrong, but more on that, later.


How to Shoot a Halfway Decent Photo

There are volumes and volumes of books on how to take pictures.  The best one I ever read can be summed up to a few basic rules, plus a couple of extra that I have picked up along the way.

First off, you are right! (you always are!) The photos above in the blog today don’t look as good as they should (as good as they do when I view them in photoshop).  I suggest you right click, and then view the header on your local PC in a different software program.  Web browsers…they clip the color depth and gamut of photos, and I didn’t optimize these for web; hey, I will do it later, OK? 🙂

Now, here are the rules,  There are only nine. But first, READ this definition:

Definition “Nonant”: One of the nine pieces of an area that is divided into nine sections is called a “nonant.”

These are the rules I follow. I like to think it makes my photography consistent, and knowable. Use these 3 sets of 3 rules as a guideline for creating your own set of rules.

I. Super basic stuff:
  1. It needs to tell a story that is interesting
  2. It needs to be clear, and focused
  3. It needs to be well composed and simple. It should have clean lines, be free of distractions, and should have appeal.
II. Composition:
  1. Objects of interest should be placed on one of the intersections of thirds, and the perceived motion of any objects should be along the diagonal(s) of the photo or of the nonant(s). If there are people and objects in the background that are not part of the story; remove them or circle your prey until the distractions are eliminated or can at least be easily removed in Photoshop.
  2. If the Rule of Thirds can’t be followed , and following them just seems like following them for the sake of following them, and it ruins the story, then consider balancing the weight and size of the interplay of movement, direction, and objects so that they play, or pivot, about and around the interstices.  Literally, think of a set of scales, with an intersection as the fulcrum. Bigger objects should be closer to the fulcrum, smaller objects further. Motion gives items more force and weight than static items.
  3. Love your subject matter. Be passionate about it. If you don’t love it, and aren’t interested in it, don’t shoot it.  If it can’t captivate you, then why would it captivate anyone else?
III. More on Rules of Three:
  1. The rule of thirds can be broken down even further: Within a single nonant, so too should the subject matter fall into thirds, and so on, infinitely (or to pixel resolution), or for as long as each point of interest anchors into its master nonant. This is the closest approximation we have to nature’s golden mean. It’s everywhere. It pervades down into the very structure of many things in nature;  you either see it when it happens and you take the shot, or you need more practice framing.  When you see something visually appealing, it is because it has structure. If you’ve spent a great deal of time drawing and studying geometry and mathematics, this may come completely naturally to you.
  2. Depth: the rule of thirds as it applies to depth of field is non-linear. It is subject matter dependent, too. In other words, a photo of three people at 3 ft, 9 ft, and 12 feet will not appear to be separated by thirds.  The conversion factor of 3 dimensional light to 2 dimensional light will flatten everything and bring more lines and objects to the forefront of a scene.  This ruins most photos.  Bear this in mind in composition and in focusing your depth of field.  If you can’t control depth of field with your camera, use the smart blur tool in Photoshop and feather, a lot! Here is a little tip on how to set the auto-focus (AF) on your camera.  Your camera will be different, but this at least gives you a starting point:
  3. There should only be three, dominant, dynamic ranges. You should be able to pick them out by eye.  This may mean three colors, three light levels, three subjects, three things happening, etc. Color photos that don’t accomplish this are great candidates for black and white. For example, if you have a horrible orange cone in the background of a perfect, three toned photo, get rid of it by getting rid of color.
One final note:  Lighting is easy. As in, it can very easily destroy a photo.  But, it also creates lines and shape and gives dimension to your photo.  In the photography toolbox, lighting is both a precision laser scalpel AND a chainsaw. I was gonna say nuke, there….So, while the photo on the left half in my header graphic may look OK, to me it looks horrible. Lighting is the chainsaw in that photo.  I shot it in full on, noon sun.  I took the shot on the right 2 seconds later with a sun screen.
On that same day, at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, I saw a professional photographer taking wedding party pictures in full blast sun.  I felt sorry for the bride.  A good photographer would have either assisted in planning the time of the wedding party shoot, the time of the wedding, or picked a better location, or refused the job. Note the below photo of my friend taking a picture of a Mallard duck.  This location, where the light was fantastic, would have been a perfect place for a bride and groom shot. Yet, the “professional” blew right past it. To her credit, she probably had a nagging bride insisting on controlling the shoot…if you are a bride, don’t do that. That’s bad.

Photo: “Woman Shooting a Mallard Duck”

Well, that is all I have on shooting halfway decent pictures.  Let me know if you have any questions? You are the best! It is your friends about whom I worry.  Please direct them to this article so that they will stop posting those horrible pictures of you on facebook!
These 9 rules are deliberately broken into groups of three because they relate to one another. All 9 work together, like the nonants, and all may also be further broken down into thirds, ad infinitum. Finally, don’t ever forget that people read from left to right.  Exit, stage left…