The Advantage of Practice

One of the things that I always encourage photographers to do is to experiment with new techniques and practice the things that they’ve learned.  You’ll see experiments and exercises scattered throughout this blog, and there’s a very good reason for that– doing something and seeing the results will always give you a better understanding of something than just reading about it.  When you practice, the techniques sink into your brain and they’ll be available in the future if you ever need them.

The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”  As far as I’m concerned, Seneca speaks the truth.  You never know when some interesting and unusual photographic opportunity will fall into your lap, and if you know what to do you’re more likely to get the shot.

This evening I was at a shoot that I do regularly– it’s dress rehearsal for a friend’s stage show.  I’ve done this shoot every couple of months for the past few years, and I set up the lighting for it myself, so the technicals of the shoot are easy for me.  I know from past experience what works best, so before the action starts I drop the cameras into manual mode (no surprise there), pick an ISO, aperture, and shutter speed that I know works for the situation, and I’m then free to think about more important things.

Tonight, however, the friend threw a spanner into the works.  “During the first set, we’re going to want to kill all of the lights for a couple of minutes and just use the glowsticks that we’ll have on the stage.” I had a brief moment of thinking that he’d lost his mind, but then I thought about it for a moment and realized that it was no problem.

Colors In Motion
You see, I’ve already done a lot of very similar work, like this image. This was done with LED glow poi, but I estimated that they would have a very similar characteristics, but that the poi were probably a little bit brighter. I knew from experience that I could get good but slightly-underexposed results with glow poi at f/4 and ISO 400, and whatever shutter speed was right to get the amount of motion I wanted.  (One of the interesting things about shooting moving lights is that longer shutter speeds don’t make the image brighter, but instead give you a longer motion trail.  Do you see why that is?)

I was shooting most of the show at f/4, ISO 1600, and 1/60 sec.   I estimated that f/4 and ISO 1600 was probably about right for the glowstick shots, and that I’d probably want exposures of about one second.  I also knew that autofocus wouldn’t work very well, and that I should pre-focus and keep the lens in manual focus mode.l

We discussed what the cues would be for cutting the lights, so I knew when it would be happen.  When I saw the first cue I changed the shutter speed to one second, switched to manual focus,  and waited.  We cut the lights, I got a few shots of pretty moving lights, and then we brought the lights back up and continued with the set.  When the lights were back on I changed the camera back to 1/60 and autofocus.

I got one good shot from that segment, which is about what I would have expected.  The exposure I picked was just about spot on, and because I was shooting in raw mode I had the latitude I needed to make final adjustments on the computer.


If I’d never practiced this sort of shot I would have had no idea what to do with the unfamiliar situation.  However, tonight practice and experimentation sereved me well– when an unusual opportunity arose, I could make my own luck and get the shot.

Now it’s your turn– go find an unfamiliar situation and play with it, so that the next time you run into something similar you know what to do.  What are you waiting for?


Filed under Discussion

DPI: When you DO care

In my last entry, I said that you usually don’t care about DPI.  You should definitely read that and understand it before you dive into this entry.

Now that I’ve told you why you don’t care about DPI, I’ll tell you the one time that you do– when you’re printing an image.  That’s the one time that DPI comes into play, and when you get to it you’ll really care.

For print resolution, there are really two things you care about– dots and inches.  Dots are easy– that’s the number of pixels you have in each direction of your image.  If your file starts out with a resolution of 3600×2400, you have 3600 pixels/dots on the long side, and 2400 pixels/dots on the short side.  That’s pretty obvious, right?

The second number is inches.  If you’re going to print your photo at 8×12, there are 12 inches on the long side and 8 inches on the short side.  I know, I know, but I’d really rather state the obvious and get it over with rather than having some poor guy in the back scratching his head.  Besides, if you’re not American you probably grew up with the metric system, and you think an inch is something that should be scratched.

Ahem, OK.

We were talking about DPI.  Right.  As I said earlier, DPI stands for Dots Per Inch, and it’s a measurement of how much to stretch the image out when it goes on a piece of paper.   Working with DPI requires some really simple math.  Duck, because I’m going to hit you with a formula.  Ready?

Pixels / DPI = Inches

That wasn’t so bad, was it?  That’s really the core of what you need to know about DPI.  Let’s walk through it.

Remember our 3600×2400 image?  Let’s figure out what happens if we print it at 300DPI.  For the long side, we have 3600 pixels.  If we divide that by 300DPI, our printed image will be 12 inches.  For the short side, 2400 pixels divied by 300DPI will be 8 inches.   See?  That wasn’t so hard.

Now, try it yourself.  What happens if you print it at 200DPI?  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Here’s a pretty picture… you can think of it as the equivalent of on-hold music.


You’re done?  Did you figure out that it would be 18×12 inches?  If so, give yourself a gold star.  You did the math correctly.  If not, let’s walk through it.  3600 pixels divied by 200DPI = 18 inches.  2400 pixels divided by 200DPI = 12 inches.

Most printers will have some native resolution that they want you to send them files in, often 240DPI or 300DPI, but check the doicumentation for the device you’re printing on.  If you just send the image to the printer at that resolution, you now know how to figure out how big the print will be.

Often, however, you want to go tthe other way– you have an image, and you want to print it out at a fixed size.  In order to do that, you just swap the equation around a little bit:

Pixels / Inches = DPI

It’s the same equation as before, only we’ve rearranged the terms ala Algebra 101.  You do remember Algebra 101, right?  If not, just trust me.

What this means is that if you have a 2400×3600 image and you want to print it out at 4×6, you can do a little bit more basic math.  In particular, 3600 pixels / 6 inches = 600DPI.  Since DPI is essentially always the same horizontally and vertically, it works out well that 2400 pixels / 4 inches = 600DPI.

(Note:  Everything I’m writing today assumes that the aspect ratio of your image is the same as the one that you want to print at.  If you have a rectangular photo and you want a square print, you’ll need to start by cropping or padding the iamge to the right aspect ratio.  That’s not a topic I want to cover today.)

So what happens if you have a 2400×3600 file, you want a 4×6 inch print, and your printer really insists that you send it 300DPI files?  In that case, you have to resize your image.

The mechanisms for doing this will vary greatly depending upon what image manipulation software you’re using, and resampling is an art unto itself.   One way to do this is to do the math yourself and figure out how many pixels you need (in this case, 6 inches * 300 DPI = 1800 pixels on the long side, and 4 inches * 300 DPI = 1200 pixels on the short) and then resize the image to those pixel dimensions.  In Photoshop you cantake the easy way out and let Photoshop do the math– resize the image, set the DPI and the inches on each side, and let it figure out how many pixels the resulting image has to be.  Other image manipulation software is probably similar, but I’m not familiar with the exact mechanisms.

Most consumer-grade printers have drivers that are pretty smart about resizing images on their own.  My Epson R1800 will let me send any size image to it, and I can change one setting to tell it to fit the image on whatever size paper I’ve chosen.  That’s simple!  You still want to understand the basics, though, so that you know if your image will turn out OK. The lower the DPI, the fuzzier your image will look when it’s printed.  200DPI or more should certainly give you acceptable images, and for very large prints you can go lower– people stand farther away from big prints, so they won’t notice if the print isn’t completely crisp and perfect.

If you’re resampling the image, you can generally make it smaller without losing a lot of image quality.  There’s a limit to how much you can make it bigger, though.  When you make an image bigger (called upsampling, among other things) the software has to guess at what information it should fill in.  Newer programs are pretty good at this, but they’ll never produce anything as good as if you’d captured more pixels to start with.

Does this all make sense?  I hope I’ve left you with a better understanding of DPI.

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DPI: Why You (Probably) Don’t Care

I see this question, or some variation on it, over and over again:

“I just got a new camera, and it shoots at 72DPI by default.  How do I change it?  Won’t 300DPI give me higher-quality images?”

It’s a common question, and a very common misunderstanding about DPI.

First, let’s start with the camera.  Your camera’s sensor has some native size, some fixed number of recording points (remember the sensor gnomes?) on its sensor.  Each recording point records one pixel of the image.  Every image that’s shot with the camera has that size no matter what.  Using the Canon Digital Rebel XTi as an example, the sensor is 3888 pixels wide and 2592 pixels tall.  If you multiply those numbers together you get 10,077,696, which is why it’s called a ten megapixel (ten million pixel) camera.

Remember that.  As long as you shoot at the XTi’s maximum resolution (and by that I don’t mean DPI, I mean L or L+RAW) you’ll get an image that is 3888 pixels wide and 2592 pixels tall.  Some cameras let you shoot smaller images, by changing the size from L to M or S.  If you do that, you’re shooting at whatever size that particular setting gives you, but it’s still independent of DPI.

72DPIFlower So what’s DPI?  It stands for Dots Per Inch. For our purposese, a dot is the same as a pixel, so it would be pixels per inch. (There is a technical difference between dots per inch and pixels per inch, but for purposes of this discussion we’ll treat one pixel as being the same as one dot– it’s one unique spot of data in our digital image)  DPI is not really a part of the image itself, and doesn’t change anything within the image.  Rather, it’s a number that’s stuck onto the side that tells a printer how big it should print out the image– imagine someone handing the file off to be printed, and sticking a post-it note on the file so that the printer will know how big to make the image.  If the image is 72DPI, the printer will print out 72 dots in every linear inch.  At 300DPI, the printer will print 300 dots in every linear  inch.

If you’re working with an image on the computer, and never printing the image, DPI is completely irrelevant.  A 3888×2592 image at 72DPI is exactly the same image as a 3888×2592 image at 300DPI or 1DPI, or a million DPI.  Really.

The thing about DPI is that you can change it arbitrarily, and it won’t affect the image.  As long as it stays 3888 pixels wide and 2592 pixels tall, you can rip off the 72DPI sticky note and change it to any other number, and you still have exactly the same data in your image.  That means that you don’t really care what DPI the camera sticks onto the side when you first take the picture– changing it in-camera won’t change the information that you capture, and it’s easy to change it later if you want to print the image out.  Plus, if you’re printing the image you probably will want to resize it, crop it, or make other adjustments.

And that, in a nutshell, is why you probably don’t care about DPI.  Unless you’re printing the image out, DPI is a completely irrelevant concept, and one you basically just shouldn’t worry about at all.

Next up, I’ll explain how DPI works when you’re printing.


Filed under Discussion, Equipment

Where to go for gear reviews

Did Santa bring you a new camera, and now you’re looking for lenses? Or did you not get what you were hoping for, so now you’re shopping? I have a couple of favorite sites that I rely on for lens and camera rewviews.

The first is Digital Photography Review. They have an absolutely fabulous database of camera reviews, for both digital SLRs and point & shoots. Their reviews are thorough and, in my experience, spot-on. My favorite feature of theirs is the side-by-side comparison of cameras. Want to know the difference between a Canon 30D and 50D? it’s easy. Just load them up in the comparison and run down the list of features. You can compare multiple cameras too.

For lens information, Fred Miranda is my primary source of information. He has an extensive database of lens reviews from serious photographers. Navigation is a little bit awkward, and you’re on your own for comparison shopping, but it’s still a phenomenal source of information. You can browse summaries, or read every single word written by every reviewer– it’s up to you.

Do you have a favorite review site?

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Welcome to Stop Shooting Auto!

Stop Shooting Auto! is a set of photography lessons and associated articles, mostly dealing with getting the correct exposure. The lessons are very friendly to beginners who know very little about photography. If you’re scared to take your camera out of green box mode because you have no idea what the controls do, or you don’t even know what green box mode is, this is the site for you.

If you’re new here, you’ll want to start by going through the Exposure Lessons in Order. These lessons are designed to take you from knowing almost nothing to understanding the fundamentals of exposure. Don’t forget to do the exercises so that you practice what you’ve learned. Practicing and experimenting are the best ways to really understand what you’re doing.

Other interesting articles that don’t specifically deal with exposure lessons can be found in the Index of Entries.

Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments– I like getting reader feedback! If you’ve learned something from the site, let me know. And please spread the word, since more readers make me a happy Patti.


Filed under Introduction

Gifts for the dSLR owner

It’s that time of year– the one where we make lists and give them to Santa Claus so that he can bring us especially wonderful treats. Are you looking for something to add to your list, or are you trying to find a gift for a dSLR owner? I can help!

Here are some of my favorite things for photographers. Most of them are relatively inexpensive, yet quite useful.

The hot shoe bubble level is one of my favorite gadgets. I’m notoriously bad about holding my camera level, and this little gadget helps me do that. It’s inexpensive and unobtrusive, and sometimes it’s extraordinarily useful. Where it really shines for me is when I’m shooting on a tripod, especially if I’m doing panoramic photographs.

The Giottos Rocket Air blaster is the perfect thing for easy dSLR sensor cleaning. While it won’t get stubborn stuck-on dust, it does a fine job of knocking the majority of it loose, and it’s far safer than wet cleaning.

Two of my favorite books are by Bryan Petersen. Understanding Exposure is the grown-up, sophisticated version of this blog, and teaches you more about exposure than I ever could. Learning to See Creatively is less about technical photography, and more about how to find great photos rather than average ones. Both of these books are a must-have for anyone learning photography.

Camera bags are always useful, and it’s often useful to have more than one. I have a large backpack that can hold multiple bodies, lenses, flashes, gizmos, a kitchen sink or two, and my laptop, and when I need all that stuff it’s wonderful. When I just have a camera and a lens or two, it’s overkill. Crumpler camera bags are very highly-rated, and I’m in love with mine.  Plus, how can you not love a company that calls their biggest bag the Brazillion Dollar Home?

GrayClothAn 18% gray card is a useful tool for photographers who understand color temperature of light, or want to get their colors as accurate as possible. Just take a picture of the card under the lighting conditions that you’ll be shooting in, and use it to calibrate the rest of the images. Almost as good, but way cooler, is this 18% gray cleaning cloth. It’s designed to clean the dust off of your gear, but does double-duty as an 18% gray card. Plus, it’s a dirt cheap stocking stuffer.

Most photographers never have enough batteries and memory cards, but make sure you get the right ones for your recipient’s camera.

Happy shooting, and happy holidays!

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Call for interest: Photography Exercises Workshop

I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a hands-on photography workshop, and I’m curious about how much interest there would be.

When athletes study a sport, they don’t just go out and play. They also do drills to improve some technical aspect of their game. Running through tires improves agility. Batting practice improves, well, batting. (If I was the least bit athletic, I would fill this paragraph with a few more examples to support my point and engage your interest. I’m not, so just imagine I did.)

LineupSimilarly, I want to do a workshop of technical photography exercises. This wouldn’t be a class of going to the beach and taking pretty pictures, but rather going somewhere and spending some time working on focused exercises. I make these up for myself and do them, and I find them very helpful in helping me become more technically competent, or in helping me see things in a different way.

Logistics: The workshop would be held on a weekend day somewhere near San Francisco– currently, I’m thinking that either the Alameda Naval Air Station or Treasure Island might be interesting venues, but I’m open to suggestions. My timeframe is sometime in January, 2009. Participants should have some sort of digital camera, for quick review of photos, and a dSLR would be best.  The target audience would be beginning and intermediate photographers, those who have gained basic competence with their camera and want to work on improving their skills.

As this would be an experimental class on my part, the fee would be a small donation to the charity of your choice, and maybe a dollar or two to cover my expenses if I do printed materials to go with it.

Would you be interested? If so, what would you like to get out of such a class? Do you have a suggestion for a location? Is there anything that would make you more or less likely to attend?


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Slightly Off-Topic: Photographers’ Rights

This isn’t really about how to take better pictures, but it’s important enough that I want to share.

Yesterday, while walking through San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood, I spotted a sign in a bookstore window. The sign reminded me of something, so I pulled out my phone and took a picture of it. Just as I finished taking the picture, one of the store’s employees came up to the window and gestured to indicate that I wasn’t allowed to do that.

I didn’t push the issue, but he happened to be dead wrong. In the US, I have every right to photograph the exterior of a commercial building, so long as I am doing so from public property. If I’m on private property, the owners of the property have every right to ask me to refrain from taking photos, and I must do so.

Every photographer should read the following information on photographers’ rights.  It’s even provided as a printable PDF, so that you can keep a copy in your camera bag.  In our current social climate, photographers are being hassled more and more in the name of security, and it’s important to know your rights, responsibilities, and restrictions.


Filed under Discussion

If you’re new here

If you’re new to Stop Shooting Auto!, the best way to explore the site is to click the link on the left for exposure lessons in order.  That’s the gentle introduction to exposure that’s the heart of the site.


Filed under Introduction

“How can I help?”

I got email from a reader this week thanking me for SSA!, and asking what they could do for the site. Thanks for asking! I love getting email like this– it makes me feel like I’m helping people.

First off, I’ll never say no to receiving large stacks of cash. If you have a lot more money than you know what to do with, feel free to come by my loft and leave it in my mailbox. I promise to buy lots of excellent camera gear with it. :-)

Seriously, comments and questions on the entries really contribute a lot to the site. Not only do they help me feel like I’m not shouting into the void, but they also give me excellent feedback. If I know where my explanations have worked and what could be clearer I can do a better job in the future. Suggestions for topics let me know what people are interested in learning about.  Constructive criticism is welcome too, of course.  You can keep the hate mail to yourself, though.

Another great way to help is to spread the word.  Tell your friends!  Link to the site. (It goes without saying, but don’t spam.)   Stop Shooting Auto! is still a young site, and publicity is a good thing.  Getting new readers always makes me happy.

Click the links.  I actually make a very tiny amount of money from the site from Amazon product referral links.  As of this writing, I’ve made less than $50– on an hourly basis, that would make me the envy of third-world sweat shop workers.  Clearly, I’m not doing this to get rich!  However, when you buy something from a product link on the recommendation page or What’s in Patti’s camera bag?, I get a few cents from it.  That won’t make me rich, but it makes me smile.

More than anything, though, keep reading and commenting, and let me know how I’m doing.


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